Motoi Sakuraba Live Concert Star Ocean & Valkyrie Profile (Tokyo, July 2003): DVD Report
On July 19, 2003, Motoi Sakuraba commemorated his game music with a live concert at Zepp Tokyo to rave reviews. He carefully selected represented tracks from Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile, and arranged them for his all-time favourite ensemble — synthesizer, electric bass, and drums — in the most supreme way possible. Throughout the two-hour concert, Sakuraba employs the use of no less than 10 different keyboards, combining his trademark pseudo-improvisatory rock organ and piano solos with rich and solid renditions of main melodies. Drummer Toshihiko Nakamura and bassist Atsushi Hasegawa join him, and while their role is often a supportive one, the affinity of these two towards their leader constantly pushes the concert forward and maintains its life. With solid arrangements, awe-inspiring performances, and a phenomenal amount of atmosphere, it is more than clear that this concert is worth reliving. The most economical way to do this is through the DVD release, which is the basis of this review.
With the sound of a single low-pitched piano note, the concert begins, and the concert hall soon resonates with an epic cinematic sound reminiscent of 2001 Space Odyssey. It could only be Star Ocean Till the End of Time's "The Dawn of Wisdom," no longer an orchestral work, convincingly transformed to a progressive rock theme. The giant and small screens light up and the epic opening FMV of Star Ocean Till the End of Time appears with conviction as Sakuraba's epic synth brass fanfares combine with also synthesized backing vocals, Sakuraba elegantly glides between his keyboards, effortlessly building the theme up to the dramatic three bang entrance of Toshihiko Nakamura's drum kit. Suddenly, the lights boom onto full beam lighting up ever inch of the hall, only intensifying with every beat of the drums. The atmosphere is overwhelming, perfectly depicting the vastness of deep space, yet is only boosted by the introduction of some striking overdriven bass guitar riffs from Atsushi Hasegawa a little after the one minute mark. As the theme grows deeper, a change of tempo is witnessed at the 2:37 mark, as the performance moves into a fast-paced section, featuring flawlessly executed polyphonic structures as a result of Hasegawa's rich counterpoint to Sakuraba's rock organ melodies; this shows just how in-tune the three performers are with each other. Nakamura's face lights up with a smile while strutting his skills, performing some neat tricks with his drum sticks, as Hasegawa moves his body to the beat. As the bassist and drummer have the time of their lives, Sakuraba continually concentrates hard on which keyboard he needs to attend to and what keys he needs to press. After all, he is the star of the show and messing up would affect the concert dearly. The theme attains its peak at the 5:15 mark following a surprisingly effectual ritardando, and, as the trio's rich sounds fills the concert hall, the listener is left in awe of the performance and convincing transformation of the original, already immersed by the concert and dying to hear the next theme.
Sakuraba uses the build from the last track to his advantage, as the concert compellingly moves into an energetic rendition of Valkyrie Profile's main battle theme, "Unfinished Battle with God Syndrome." It's completely different to the arranged album and original versions of the theme, as a result of Sakuraba choosing a completely different keyboard setup, which is similar to the arrangements used in his Shining Force arranged albums. It now sounds much more sophisticated, yet still retains the original's raw power, with the unforgettable main melody combining with some excellent rock organ solos, quirky drum breaks, and even more masterful bass guitar counterpoint. Now the camera is always fixated on the composer and his compelling organ and synth, while Hasegawa and Nakamura get very minimum camera shots, though whenever the bassist is shown, he holds his guitar like a weapon, ready to take on the entire world. The theme is constantly driven on, with the trio never relenting with the pace and dynamic level. This feeling is maintained in the concert's third arrangement, Star Ocean Till the End of Time's "Fly Away in the Violet Sky," now more chaotic and unpredictable than ever. The standout feature of this track, however, is not the primary sections, but the newly added solos from the 1:55 mark onwards. The theme suddenly quietens, as Sakuraba takes a much-needed rest, leaving Nakamura to play an elongated drum solo, backed by some gentle overtones from the bass guitar; though not as impressive as some of his later solos, it does exactly what it is needed by creating a great sense of tension and foreboding, only relieved by the entrance of Sakuraba's superbly integrated jazzy and dissonant piano solo over a minute later. This is where the composer goes wild, shaking his head violently while his hands prance up and down the piano with ease. This arrangement not only allows each performer to showcase their technical skills, but gives an entirely new perspective on the piece, which makes the recapitulation of the melody for the conclusion all the more satisfying.
Almost as if telling a story, like many progressive rock albums do, the lights turn down and the concert moves away from its action basis briefly for an interlude featuring Star Ocean Till the End of Time's "Reflected Moon." Its rather different from the original and arranged versions, as it replaces the rich symphonic textures with just a lead synth vocal, some backing synth pads, and atmospheric sound effects; this, in conjunction with the way the melody manages to be pure and beautiful yet distant and illusory, creates a surreal feel overall, giving another taste of the wide range of emotions that Sakuraba's synthesizers can invoke. On screen, not a lot happens. The camera either sways away from the composer or is lurking near him, as the screen turns grey to help put the emotional effect into play. Despite being short and not greatly varied, it creates a profoundly different atmosphere in the 2 minutes it plays, offering a suitable and inspiring break from the hard rock it is sandwiched between. This feeling makes the subsequent track, the sole Star Ocean Blue Sphere arrangement "Hand to Hand," all the more powerful, with the listener simply being knocked backwards by the way it temperamentally flairs up from just a few drum beats into an energetic and full-blown battle theme. Though the arrangement is top-notch, proving to be the best rendition of a previously arranged action theme once more, it's the performance that really shines, proving just why Sakuraba is widely considered to be one of Japan's finest keyboardists in progressive rock music. He plays a seamless array of fast-paced and highly intricate pseudo-improvised solos on a large number of his keyboards. The rest of the trio also prove their worth, with Nakamura's pulsing beats and Hasegawa's carefully integrated overdriven riffs giving a huge amount of momentum behind Sakuraba's complex synth work.
The contrast between "Reflected Moon" and "Hand to Hand" is echoed in an even more stylish way during the arrangement of Valkyrie Profile's "Requiem to a Predicament ~ Falling Under Negative Consciousness ~." The "Requiem to a Predicament" theme initially constitutes the introduction, with a dreamy combination of cleverly manipulated synth celesta motifs and suspended notes from synth vocals putting the listener at ease after the madness before. Soon, however, the arrangement violently erupts into a rendition of "Falling Under Negative Consciousness" as Hasegawa and Nakamura enter, while Sakuraba's rock organ greedily dominates. During this performance, the stage lighting isn't as good compared to other performances. It's just a tad dark, but it does seem to fit the music, despite the flaw. After over three minutes worth of overwhelming action, the theme resolves in a gorgeous way, with the "Requiem to a Predicament" theme being recapitulated, relaxing the listener once more. Though more action is heard from the outset of the arrangement of Star Ocean Till the End of Time's "March for Glory," it actually proves to be a refreshing break in more ways than one. Like the original, it is much more epic and proud in nature than his standard battle themes, and, though this particularly arrangement switches symphonic styles with progressive rock once more, this feeling is still aptly maintained. The arrangement also stands out for the way it demonstrates the chemistry between the trio, which holds the arrangement tight throughout the rendition of the main theme, yet is even more solid during the 'jam session' that follows; here, all three members of the band play substantial solos, with each individual member being shown to be grooving to their instrument, yet are backed solidly by their fellow performers until a few fragments of the original theme are revived to conclude the track. Such magic is heard in even more considerable amounts in the next arrangement and this one is merely a taster of what is to come, as the first in a series of four epics...
Everybody who's heard Jethro Tull's 43-minute "Thick as a Brick" and slightly less extreme counterparts will be aware that progressive rock compositions can be very long. Though the 7:51 playing time of "March for Glory" provided a hint of the 'epic' influence, it's "Theme of RENA..." that really makes this clear, clocking in at nearly 20 minutes. Quite surprisingly, the actual rendition of the melody is brief, though the synth work is gorgeous and the performers capture the atmosphere behind the original piece flawlessly. As the lights shine up, the theme first moves into a lengthy drum solo from Nakamura, which lasts for nearly 7 minutes and constantly intensifies, proving to be a massive crowd pleaser. Though he concentrates hard most of the time, the drummer starts to loosen up and entertain more easily when his solo reaches approximately half way, as well pulling hilarious faces and performing his token trick with the drumsticks. It is topped off superbly by the single crash of a giant gong, which is otherwise unused for the rest of the concert, followed by some audible cheers from the audience, which add to the authenticity of the recording. A stunning testament to his skill, this was Nakamura's first progressive concert, as incredible as it is to believe. Hasegawa's bass guitar solo also has an awe-inspiring effect, intensifying the track as it gradually moves towards becoming a full-blown jam session. With the addition of Nakamura's drums at the 13:45 mark, the track's dynamic changes completely, emphasised further by the eventual entrance of Sakuraba's keyboards at the 15:35 mark before his trademark jazzy and dissonant piano enters in full bloom at 16:34 mark, leading to a breathtaking conclusion to the first half of the concert. Some will say the track diverts too far from its basis or is a pointless show of the performers technical talent, but this isn't the case for the majority who are actually fascinated by the imagination and depth behind such a complex musical work. After the huge effort and talent involved, the slightly shy Sakuraba picks up his microphone and commends his co-partners for their participation and skill, then Hasegawa, using his own microphone, congratulates and praises Sakuraba for his amazing performance. Straight after the theme, a brief interview with Hasegawa about his bass solo occurs, but because of the lack of subtitles, English speakers won't be able to appreciate what is being said.
The second disc maintains the consistent quality of the first, yet also boasts a little more diversity overall, making it even more enjoyable. Sakuraba's decision to open the disc with an arrangement of Star Ocean Till the End of Time's final battle theme "Highbrow," a superbly developed masterpiece, probably seemed dubious to some, as it appears to be impossible to beat it. This is true, but the arrangement still doesn't disappoint. It's once again led by Sakuraba, who excels with his piano performance, which combines frilly runs in the solo sections with an otherwise solid and coherent performance that is jam-packed with musical features. The arrangement, just like the original, continually goes off on tangents, but this isn't a negative feature in this case. Around the 5:00 mark, Hasegawa receives another chance to shine, playing an elongating electric bass guitar solo that develops superbly, though could benefit from some more decorative accompaniment to add interest, perhaps tarnishing an otherwise perfect track. Sakuraba then uses the synthesized electric guitar for the first and only time on his keyboard, which is unsettling at first, but gives an odd chance to relax before going full force into the theme again. The recapitulation of the main theme does not disappoint, with Sakuraba taking the lead on his famous rock organ, and its end just leaves the listener dying for more. It's the definitive arrangement of the theme — being more well-developed than the Radiata Stories and tri-Ace Sound Battle Collection versions, while benefiting from the added aura of a live performance compared to its similar Star Ocean Till the End of Time Director's Cut Soundtrack version — and, while the loss of the original's jazzy sections are disappointing, it is the most suitable rendition for a progressive rock concert and some would probably think that a little more stylistic consistency isn't necessarily a bad feature.
Sakuraba's piano mastery is best exemplified with the 7 minute solo piano rendition of Star Ocean Till the End of Time's "So Alone, Be Sorrow," however, which comes close to being on par with Sakuraba's "Elegy of the Bewildered" as perhaps the best video game piano arrangement available. It is built in a musical arch fashion, a structure Sakuraba often likes to employ, reaching its peak in the middle with some extravagant runs, showy arpeggios, and intense chromatic progressions, all of which are carefully embedded within the theme's heartfelt melody, yet being relatively soft at the beginning and end. It's very Liszt-esque. Some might find it overly showy, but this is likely to be only a superficial conclusion from a casual listener, as there lays a huge amount of musical intricacy and deep emotion beneath the surface. It is a stunning addition, where the performance shines just as much as the arrangement once more.
The large focus on Star Ocean Till the End of Time has made the concert neglect earlier additions to the Star Ocean series, particularly the immensely popular Star Ocean The Second Story, up to now. Fortunately, the arrangement of "Mission to the Deep Space" begins to make up for this, as, despite featuring in many other albums since, it is one of the closest arrangements to The Second Story's original available. The major difference is the sleekly integrated solo section in the middle, which showcases technical skill once more, yet also stands out for working in conjunction with the original track so fittingly, never losing its adventurous sci-fi feel. While nothing overly impressive happens on stage, the arranging is great and that's all that really matters. Some say that the arrangement of Star Ocean Till the End of Time's "Confidence in the Domination" is one of the poorest on the release, being too similar to "Mission..." and quite a few other action tracks. On deeper inspection, however, it is possible to see that it boasts many assets — a solid rock organ melody, an appropriate level of intensity to build the release towards the conclusion, a magical buildup to the conclusion after the 3 minute mark — and it is also a massive improvement in terms of both development and intensity compared to the original. Nakamura proves to be the best performer on the stage in this segment, being both in rhythm and showing a happy face, though Hasegawa also shows off his ability, as cool as ever playing his bass. "Cutting Edge of Notion" concludes this trio of action tracks perfectly, distinguishing itself once more due to its melodic qualities and huge level of intensity, though it's really the tight performance and beaming chemistry between the three performers that makes this such a special addition. The defining aspect of this trio of tracks that proves they're not too much is that they constantly leave the listener wanting more and never grow boring. This is what really matters, despite the theoretical basis of the track listings sounding dubious on first glance. Besides, diversity is often created due to more subtle differences than just genre, instrumentation, and tempo. After the performance has finished, Sakuraba announces the much unwanted ending of the concert after the next track, though this is not audible in the album release.
Motoi Sakuraba ends the concert in just the right way. After all of these action tracks, a gorgeous resolution is provided with Valkyrie Profile's "Doorway to Heaven," the single most distinguished slow-paced theme on the release, which stands out for its melodic beauty, hopeful atmosphere, and heavenly use of instruments. It integrates some faster solo sections towards the end, and, afterwards, a shy Motoi Sakuraba is heard thanking his fans. Of course, the concert couldn't possibly end just there, and the single most diverse arrangement on the release constitutes an encore. It opens with an arrangement of the Star Ocean trademark theme "STAR OCEAN FOREVER," which has carefully evolved since its debut on the Star Ocean The Second Story Original Soundtrack, and its sentimental arranging adds a nostalgic feel and makes it clear that the end is very near. The arrangement impressively undergoes a metamorphosis from this to a fast-paced action track, with Sakuraba's trademark hardcore piano solo at 1:32 particularly giving this track some additional flair. A rendition of another classic theme, "The Incarnation of Devil" follows, complete with rocking melodies, careful articulated interludes, and the concert's final rock organ solo. It features performances to remember, with Hasegawa using his bass as a weapon once more. The last taster of action is provided after the 4:50 mark in a section that incorporates some dramatic chord sequences and a triumphant final rendition of the Devil's main melody. Nothing about this track comes close to the final couple of minutes, however, which features an unexpected recapitulation of "The Dawn of Wisdom," originally heard as the first item on the album. The combination of a dramatic performance, the use of an over-familiar and undeniably beautiful melody, and the immediacy of such an awesome concert coming to an end makes this moment the most heartfelt on the release. There couldn't have been a more appropriate and expertly mastered conclusion.
This concert is the defining Motoi Sakuraba tri-Ace experience, plain and simple, and appears to be practically flawless in terms of both the quality of the arrangement — which consistently proves to be appropriate, expansive, and refined — and, of course, the performance. It should appeal to all those who enjoyed Sakuraba's Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile soundtracks, as all the arrangements succeed in enhancing the originals, not necessarily transforming them, though each arrangement is certainly different in terms of the timbre created due to the use of a live trio.