UNLIMITED: SaGa Original Soundtrack
When I was asked to review the UNLIMITED SaGa Original Soundtrack, I wasn't too sure what I was getting into. I hadn't played the game and had never heard any of the music from it before. It would be a totally new experience for me. However, I also think this gives me an interesting perspective on the album. Having only listened to the full album maybe three times, I'm conscious of the tracks which stand out, and which fade into the background; those with surprisingly upbeat and fun melodies and those with unmemorable chord progressions or uninteresting instrument combinations. So with that in mind, let's plunge into the review.
It seems only fitting to start with the game's main theme, presented to us in "Unlimited SaGa Overture." For an orchestrated piece, this track is quite impressive. However, it isn't great; I've certainly heard better orchestral arrangements on other albums. Traditionally, overture samples many major themes from a composition. Instead, this track offers the same theme in several different variations, which get old quickly. This theme is repeated again in "Seven Travelers," with piano, oboe, and flute accompanied by strings. However again, I find the theme to be annoying. Perhaps it is the repetitive note progressions that hold this theme back from being something truly memorable. Even the instrumentation of this track seems to be repetitive, providing little variation, which causes the theme to lose even more of its strength.
The character themes do much better, in that each theme is different. "Theme for Judy" presents a sad, almost reflective tune, while "Theme for Cash" suggests a hopeful future. Both themes use their instrumentation to capture those kinds of feelings. If I knew the game, I would be able to comment on whether these themes reflect positively or negatively on the characters they are being used with. But since I haven't, the next time you play the game, give it some consideration. One thing that all of the character themes have in common is their repetitiveness. One short theme is given, followed by a variation of it, instead of extending that theme for the full track length. This is disappointing, as the character themes should represent the different personalities and traits of each character. Instead, when listening to the character themes, you don't get much of sense of their individuality. As I said before, this is due to the similarity in the orchestration used for the tracks. One thing that I have noticed is that while Hamauzu uses orchestration in his tracks, he doesn't necessarily take advantage of the wide range of emotions and moods that an orchestra is capable of creating.
The only character theme which gives a bit of personality is "Theme for Armic" with the combination of sharp, staccato notes and long legato phrases. "Theme for Vent" also stands out, because oddly enough, this theme only uses one instrument, which strengthens the track as a whole. When you hear it, you think 'I know who Vent is, because his is the track with the acoustic guitar'. You can then identify the track more quickly when you're playing the game and sometimes this can be a benefit. "Theme for Ruby" sounds a bit more like a traveling theme, which is a bit jarring from the traditional sound for a character theme. "Theme for Laura" similarly doesn't fit as a character theme. It sounds far more like a climactic, dramatic event in the game rather than a character's theme. This can be a bad thing, since when you hear a soundtrack without playing the game, you tend to try and guess what themes go with what types of events in the game: a death, an FMV, or even a celebration. The second half of Laura's theme in particular creates the anticipation that normally is associated with an FMV. If I played the game and found my assumption to be wrong, I would be disappointed, because this is easily my favorite track on the soundtrack.
The battle themes in this game would appear to be numerous. Why this many battle themes is needed, I'll never know. However, one would expect that with this many battle themes, each track would be tailored for a specific purpose within the game, and therefore must be independent of each other, right? We shall see. As far as battle themes go, "Battle Theme I" is horribly boring. It's simply an upbeat version of the game's main overall theme. The instrumentation isn't very diverse either and all around I would get tired of it very quickly when playing the game. "Battle Theme II" does a little better in that it has that suspenseful motion in the lower ranges that gives the impression of a battle theme; in this case I'm guessing a boss theme. Also, the game's main theme does not make an appearance, which is fantastic. "Battle Theme III" is another battle theme which sounds better. At least, until portions of the main theme appear. The instrumentation in this theme is much more electronic sounding, with heavy beats overplayed by a somewhat out-of-place trumpet.
Of the first four battle themes, "Battle Theme IV" is definitely the highlight. The unique beat line formed with percussion (castanets, light drums, and sounds of clapping?) gives a very fresh approach to the battle theme. This track isn't suited for every battle, but having it pop up once and while would be a really great use for it. "Shocking Space" is the last of the Disc One battle themes, but it's also the one that sounds the least like a fighting theme. Again, this is another instance where the track doesn't necessarily fit its usage in the game when compared to its sound. Long legato phrases and large orchestration give the suggestion of an FMV or other climactic scene. The appearance of the game's main theme only enhances this suggestion.
The battle themes on the second disc are very different. Their instrumentation shifts to more electronic, beat driven forms of the previous battle themes. "Battle Theme EX" sounds like a techno version of "Battle Theme I" complete with the game's main theme driving the track. The tracks "BT Ver. 1" through to "BT. Ver. 8" all sound very alike, with their heavy electronic sound and over-used techno beats with only small variations between each theme; very reminiscent of the Phase themes from the .hack games. Consequently, I won't review each one. Instead, I'd like to focus on the last two battle themes. "BT Ver. AG" is one of the battle versions that I really like. It has a funky bass line with the guitars and a heavy, but constant beat. Although the beat does get a little annoying after a while, the soaring guitars in the background counter quite well. "BT 'ultimate'" is similar, in that is has a very different sound to it, while still being a battle theme. The slow beginning leads into a heavy techno synth, but unlike before, the solo trumpet totally fits. The slow section in the middle also creates a great backdrop for a battle theme (which I am assuming is the final boss theme). Some people may find the techno to be a little aggravating and hard to listen to over and over again, but there is enough variation in the track to offer a comfortable balance.
The other type of track which shows up numerous times on the second disc are the "DG..." themes. Of the entire soundtrack, these five themes sound the least like they belong in a video game. For the most part, this is a good thing, but there are some flaws. "DG 'sine'" is actually quite a nice track when you listen to it, but the appearance of the game's main theme done in an odd ghost-sounding techno noise really destroys the track. "DG 'listless'" really provides a nice flowing atmosphere with the synth and I could picture this track being used to convey a wide array of scenes. "DG 'mixture'" does a really good job at combining together a steady beat with flowing synth. The synth strings in particular really are utilized in a strong way to amplify the flowing mood created by the track. "DG 'comfort'" doesn't have a whole lot going for it. A funky bass line and some odd conga beats are backed up by a strange array of piano-esque instruments, but when thrown together, it sounds more random instrumentation rather than instruments chosen to meld and form together to create a cohesive track. "DG 'sadness'" succeeds in bringing in piano as its main instrument and, although it doesn't create a real sense of sadness, the use of the piano in combination with the synth is quite nice and they complement each other well.
I have already mentioned that "Theme for Laura" was one of my favorite tracks on this soundtrack, but now I would like to look at a few other tracks which stood out. "Enigmatic Scheme" does a fantastic job at invoking a real scheming sounding melody. This track is very much like a tango, something that you don't find in video games very often, and in this case, it is done extremely well. The actual theme itself is a bit short, but that can be overlooked because the orchestration is fabulous. This is a perfect example of where the instruments perfectly meld together. "Now Lets Return to the Main Subject" is another track which, oddly enough, sounds like a dance. This time, it's a waltz. Again, fantastic orchestration is put to use to really bring the melody across and to keep that waltz feel throughout the track. You simply do not find tracks like these two as often as one would like on a soundtrack, so finding both on the same soundtrack is very nice indeed.
No review would be complete without a look at the vocal pieces which appear on the album. In this case, we have "Soaring Wings," which is the main theme of the game set to vocals sung by Mio Kashiwabara. I'm going to be blunt. This track is horrible. The instrumentation isn't particularly strong, rarely going beyond the simple drums, violin, bass, and other light percussion. Throw on top of that the absolutely awful opera-esque vocals and the track simply fails. Any respect I had for the main theme of this game goes totally out the window when it gets brutalized in this way. It isn't that Mio's voice is bad, as I'm sure it's very pretty in the right setting, but this certainly isn't one of them. This is mostly because this theme does not invoke an operatic feel for the lyrics. By far, the game's main theme in its traditional instrumentation (found in "FINALE") fits the use of operatic styling so much better; had the vocal theme been presented in that form, I probably would have enjoyed it. Sadly, we have to go with what we're given.
Although my opinion of this soundtrack may appear to be unfavorable, it is in no way a horrible album. But I would have to list it as decent, at best. There are simply too many tracks that sound the same. There was a lot of potential in the orchestration of the tracks, and I feel it was quite underdeveloped. There are a few tracks however that make this album passable, although not as many as I would like. You'll have to decide for yourself whether or not those tracks make it worth the cost of the CD.
Following his work on SaGa Frontier II, Masashi Hamauzu returned to score Unlimited SaGa. The series' most diverse soundtrack to date, it is split into two distinct halves; the first disc represents Hamauzu's emotional and traditional side, akin to a high-quality standard RPG soundtrack with experimental touches, while the second is altogether more eccentric and unprecedented, featuring 12 daring electronic compositions crafted by Hamauzu and synthesizer operator Ryo Yamazaki. Although the soundtrack went out of print some time ago, a reprint is apparently planned and it is also available on the series' box set.
Opening with a overture, fully orchestrated by Shiro Hamaguchi, Unlimited SaGa's unforgettable main theme is introduced in remarkable fashion. Initially fragmented as the charming melody passes through a variety of instruments, soft strings gently meander against thick luscious harmonies to create a serene yet imposing atmosphere. With the entrance of a brash militaristic fanfare, the theme heightens and the main melody is delivered in full form before concluding with a rousing coda. Immediately after, the theme is arranged with "Seven Travelers," where pre-recorded oboe, 'cello, and flute performances enhance an otherwise sequenced piano-led theme. Here, the timbral qualities and human emotions expressed by each instrument complement the lines that Hamauzu has thoughtfully written. A conflict of emotions is evident, with the theme's light and adventurous exterior being contrasted by its inner melancholic wanderings, as a journey of seven united characters begin.
The character themes provide a limited but impressive exploration of Hamauzu's range. "Theme for Judy" is a classically-oriented theme written for piano trio and accordion; impeccably sequenced by Yamazaki, it employs timbral contrasts, chromatic progressions, and subtle integration of the main theme to achieve a melancholic effect. Perhaps the most emotive addition to the soundtrack is "Theme for Laura," which builds from a subtle piano, flute, and strings introduction into a dramatic climax. More subtle are "Theme for Cash," which features an expressive melody against fluid piano accompaniment, and Myth's French-influenced representation, which prominently features the main theme on Hirohumi Mizuno's accordion. "Theme for Ruby" is one of several themes — together with "Enigmatic Scheme," "BT 'ultimate'," and "March in C" — that were written earlier in Hamauzu's career, not initially intended for the score. Though one the least memorable of the character themes, it still has a rich and magical quality.
The other noteworthy tracks on Disc One are orientated towards representing action. The normal battle theme is unforgettable; structured in aa variation of rondo form, its first section comprises of a solo violin interpreting the game's main theme in a bouncy way against bossa nova accompaniment. While it sounds improbable, it works a treat. Also catchy and original is "Battle Theme IV," which assimilates an eclectic array of forces, including castanets and foot stamping, in the style of a flamenco. The other battle themes do an excellent job creating an intense atmosphere through creative means, though aren't as invigorating outside the game. "Invasion," which is very similar to Final Fantasy X's "Attack," and "Shocking Space," which combines all sorts of ominous forces with a light-hearted melody, are both accomplished attempts at creating action through unconventional means. Hamauzu also impresses with the more eccentric "Enigmatic Scheme" and "Perpetual Movements", which should serve as reference points for those who doubt Hamauzu's aability to create memorable melodies.
While many individual tracks are amazing, the first disc is hindered by a multitude of problems. In contrast to SaGa Frontier II, the main theme is utilised inconsistently often as a source of melody rather than as something meaningful. What's more, there appears to be a constant battle between the producer's intentions to have a continually melodic and accessible soundtrack akin to a Uematsu album and Hamauzu's own needs to indulge in random and musically accomplished batches of experimentation. Furthermore, Hamauzu clutters the bulk of the FMV accompaniment tracks, ten in total, at the end of the soundtrack; while most are successful in context, all but "Mystic Flame" are quite boring on a stand-alone basis, hardly as remarkable as the cinematic tracks for Final Fantasy IX, for instance. The first disc has momentous highlights, but overall lacks the reconciliation of awe-inspiring experiments and accessible classics to have internal rationale. In addition, its underwhelming ending means most will switch discs after "Shocking Space," fortunately to bigger and better things... depending on who's listening.
The second disc is filled with inventive and purposeful electronica. Some are battle themes (mostly those referred to with 'BT'), while the rest are very interesting examples of ambient or relaxing music. For instance, in the opening track, Hamauzu portrays the vaariability of time and boundlessness of space through contrasting repetitive elements, such as an ethereal semi-arpeggiated piano line and an ambient electronic bass line, with an ever-changing and luscious sound palette in the foreground. Also fascinating is "DG 'sine'," minimalistic chillout music that employs pure sine waves throughout, to create a sense of warmth and emptiness simultaneously. Several of these tracks really emphasise the power of Ryo Yamazaki. For instance, he created all the sound effects in the dark ambient "DG 'mixture'" independently of Masashi Hamauzu's composition, before assimilating them. He was also jointly responsible for the final cut of the "DG 'listless'," which combines pseudo-improvised piano lines with warm synth pads and eerie percussive elements, to gorgeous but unnerving effect.
The electronic battle themes are a diverse bunch. A few probably won't appeal to the casual listener, for instance "BT Ver.8" with its heavy beats and vocoder samplers, or "BT Ver.4" with its IDM-influenced beat and eerie sound effects. More accessible themes include the Yamazaki-influenced jazz-funk fusion "BT Ver.1," the exciting Latin-electronic fusion "Battle Theme EX", and the saxxy porno rip-off "BT Ver.7". Preceded by the epic tones of the first acoustic theme on Disc Two, "Challenge to the Seven Wonders," the soundtrack reaches its incredible climax with "BT 'ultimate'". With its hard techno beats, epic trumpet melody, chilling sound effects and synth vocals, and, best of all, awesome interlude, it beautifully depicts an image of gliding through space while facing the ultimate foe. After the soothing "Liberation," the game's third full-orchestral track, "Finale," reconciles the score thematically with several welcome reprises. Sadly, the score's vocal theme "Soaring Wings" is largely disappointing; it lacks a particularly memorable melody and seems to blend influences from operatic aria and J-Pop hits somewhat haphazardly.
Appreciation of this album will principally depend on the appeal of the electronic music featured throughout the second disc. Those who enjoy such creations will find the overall album an accomplished piece of experimentation that is also often satisfying on an emotional and melodic level. For the rest, the album will be often wonderful but also hugely inconsistent. To buy the album for its acoustic compositions alone may be unwise, as only around half of them are especially accomplished, but the best of them, e.g. the overture, certain battle themes, "Theme for Judy," "Enigmatic Scheme," and "Finale," are classics. Though not quite a 'love it or hate it' experience, experimental leanings are required to fully enjoy the score, even if it undoubtedly features at least a handful of tracks that will appeal to everybody.
All Music Composed, Arranged & Produced by MASASHI HAMAUZU
Music Programming & Synthesizer : Ryo Yamazaki
Sound Programmer : Minoru Akao
Sound Tool Programmer : Satoshi Akamatsu
Recording & Mixing Engineer : Kazuhiko Handa (SOUND INN Mixer's Crew)
Recording Studio : SOUND INN STUDIOS
Recording Coordinator : Fumio Takano
Mastering Engineer : Masao Nakazato
Mastering Studio : ONKIO HAUS
UNLIMITED : SaGa Overture / March in C / FINALE
Music : Masashi Hamauzu
Orchestration : Shirou Hamaguchi
Conductor : Koji Haishima
Strings : Masatsugu Shinozaki's Group
Flute : Takashi Asahi / Hideyo Takakuwa / Nami Kaneko
Oboe : Masakazu Ishibashi
Clarinet : Tadashi Hoshino
Horn : Hiroshi Matsuzaki / Nagahisa Kasamatsu / Yoshihiko Saito / Takahiro Furusho
Trumpet : Masahiko Sugasaka / Toshio Araki / Hitoshi Yokoyama
Trombone : Masanori Hirohara / Kouichi Nonoshita / Gakutaro Miyauchi
Tuba : Ryosuke Kashiwada
Percussion : Midori Takada / Mari Kotake
Harp : Tomoyuki Asakawa
Piano : Masato Matsuda
Lyric : Akitoshi Kawazu
Music : Masashi Hamauzu
Vocal : Mio Kashiwabara
Music Programming & Synthesizer : Ryo Yamazaki
Violin : Hijiri Kuwano
Cello : Masami Horisawa
Trumpet : Masahiro Makihara
Electric Acoustic Guitar : Toru Tabei
Violin : Hijiri Kuwano (Disc1-07), Ittetsu Gen (Disc1-04, 06, 14, 18, 26, Disc2-03)
Cello : Ayano Kasahara (Disc1-02, 04, 18)
Flute : Hideyo Takakuwa (Disc1-02, 10, 11, 17, 26), Takashi Asahi (Disc1-07, 22, Disc2-19)
Clarinet : Mizuka Motoki (Disc1-11, 17, 26)
Oboe : Masakazu Ishibashi (Disc1-02, 10, 22, Disc2-19)
Trumpet : Masahiro Makihara (Disc1-07, 11, 12, Disc2-10, 18)
Bandneon : Hirohumi Mizuno (Disc1-04, 18, 20, Disc2-03)
Accordion : Hirohumi Mizuno (Disc1-24)
Acoustic Guitar : Toru Tabei (Disc1-06, 08, 23)
Electric Guitar : Satoshi Akamatsu (Disc2-11)
Tracks 1-04 and 1-05 are physically switched in the disc (rather than being incorrectly listed in the tracklist), since the liner notes and the credits point to the correct names.
Unlimited: SaGa Overture
The Seven Travelers
March in C
Anxiety Towards a Wonder
Battle Theme I
Battle Theme II
Battle Theme III
Battle Theme IV
The Hallowed Starry Sky
Room of Surprises
Off to Big Plans
Flame of Mystery
End of the Story