Dragon Quest VI Symphonic Suite
|Album Title||Catalog No.|
|Dragon Quest VI Symphonic Suite (London Philharmonic Orchestra)||SRCL-2737/8|
|Dragon Quest VI Symphonic Suite (London Philharmonic Orchestra Remastered)||SVWC-7066|
|Dragon Quest VI Symphonic Suite (Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra)||SVWC-7369|
Dragon Quest VI: Phantom World features some of the most experimental sound that Sugiyama has written since the series began. In many ways, he ignores the classic, “write a good melody and then simple yet effective harmonies” for something a bit edgier and darker toned. What I often find with people who listen to Dragon Quest music, that they will either absolutely love this suite and defend it, or completely loathe it. In this review, I’ll point out like a good tour guide some of the neat sights (or in this case sounds) along the way, but it’s a bumpy ride so be prepared.
Note that, just over two years ago, Koichi Sugiyama started re-recording all of his music using the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. SVWC-7369 is the latest album release from those efforts. While the pieces are exactly the same compositionally as the London Philharmonic versions, the sound is infinitely better. This review focuses on the latest print, though can be used as a judge of the two earlier prints from the London Phil. for those who need it. Now let us venture forth into the music.
As always, there is the classic “Overture,” which is the standard opening piece for each Dragon Quest game. What else can I say about this piece, as it’s a timeless classic. Immediately following is the castle theme “At the Palace,” featuring just the string section. This time, though, the piece feels much more sombre an affair compared with past castle themes in previous games. A plodding harmony, consisting of nothing more than quarters with a simple chord progression, starts it off. The violins get the larger work carrying the melody throughout the piece with little deviation from that path. It’s a rather unexciting piece until the 1:00 mark where it starts to get a little more dynamic, but the point where the piece ends and then loops back to the beginning transitions badly and the piece feels very incomplete. I’ll make two notes with the town related piece that follows. One, that the brass section in “Happy Humming” is superb with a sound so crisp and sharp you can cut your finger on it. Unfortunately, the same cohesion that occurred with the brass section doesn’t quite carry over to the woodwinds in “Inviting Village”.
“Through the Fields ~ Wandering Through the Silence ~ Another World” consists of one piece played three times. Some consider it boring. I rather like the challenge of trying to make theme and variation interesting. Obviously “Through the Fields” is the base theme; it’s akin to “Adventure” from Dragon Quest III, in that it’s a brassy, big, and bold theme. The first variation features a more stripped down version with the woodwinds taking over the lead early on with a weird harmonic sound coming from muted brass. The second variation changes tone yet again, this time with a F horn lead, but at a much more plodding pace. The biggest and most striking change is from 3:55 onward where the piece changes direction briefly. This is much like “At the Palace” did in its last small section, but it’s a shame that these little flashes of brilliance don’t last for more than a few measures.
I’m going to skip over the unremarkable ship theme and the whimsical flying bed theme, and jump ahead to “Pegasus ~ Saint’s Wreath”. The first piece is the second flying vehicle theme in the game and yet it doesn’t quite feel like it should be the flying theme piece. This is a radical departure from Sugiyama’s usual form for flying themes which usually convey soaring heights or are just plain whimsy. This piece is much more ominous in tone and you get the feeling that something sinister is going on; appropriate given that when it first plays in the game right at the beginning, you are on a cliff that sits before the fortress of one of the early villains. Enough on that, what about the music? It starts off with a very simple rhythmic pattern which carries throughout the early measures with the strings, then the oboe and flute appear carrying the melody and counterpoint above this very low-pitched and dark underlay. I especially love the contrasting section, when the piece repeats. The dynamics take a sharp turn for forte with a much bolder feel, featuring the full orchestra. “Saint’s Wreath,” on the other hand, doesn’t quite feel like a good companion piece to the first. It’s a good piece, it’s just not the right piece.
Now for the other half of the suite, make a note about the first 5 seconds which is known as “Evil World” in track 8. This very simple cue appears in almost every piece that follows. I would call it a motif, but it’s not really fleshed out enough for it to be a proper motif. What it reminds me of is a classic Far Side comic strip where a guy has just walked into a Western saloon and one of the musicians turns to the guy on the piano saying “Bad guy coming in, change to a minor key”. Listen for it; it may not be the exact same pitches, and the keys may be radically different, but it’s there. Even in the main battle theme, “Brave Fight,” uses that cue liberally throughout the piece and yet interweaves it well. Moving on, “Devil’s Tower” is, well, unique. Never before has the composer written a dungeon track using a woodwind ensemble. It’s just very unusual and that’s all I can say.
“Monsters ~ Demon Combat” (as it was known when spliced together on the original Edition) are two of the most inaccessible pieces of music that Sugiyama has written, especially in Super Famicom form. My sister who usually is caught humming Dragon Quest tunes even after I’m not playing the games (yes, they are that catchy) heard the battle themes from Dragon Quest VI and went, “ewww, that’s just awful”. And for a man who writes simple melodies and then layers time tested harmonies upon them with little variation from that theme, here we have something different. “Monsters” consists of chords that aren’t quite describable. The whole thing just sort of highlights “Danger”. Even the melody isn’t really something I’d call a melody, as the whole piece is just about the sound. Watch out for “Demon Combat”; the fortissimo burst of the main “evil motif” at the beginning might blow out your speakers. This piece takes on a call-answer form, with one section playing an anticident phrase then another consequently answering that call. Once again, melody doesn’t appear to be important, just the overwhelming tone of the piece.
Thankfully Sugiyama ends the suite with something a little more accessible than what preceded it. “Eternal Lullaby” has its roots firmly in the Stravinsky category as it’s very similar in style to the ending of Firebird. What is most notable is the anti-climactic ending. The listener expects a big finish, as the orchestra swells with power; instead, you get a full stop and then, in near silence, the orchestra leads the piece to it’s finish. One would think that this is a bad idea, yet it just works.
Alright, the ride is over! Was it a good trip? Should you recommend it to family and friends? If those friends like classical music with a dash of experimental structure, perhaps. For those who are Dragon Quest fans, you’ve already been on the ride; probably more times than you can count (with all those reprints that one must collect). For those who are new to the Dragon Quest world, this is probably not the best suite to start with; I’d recommend Dragon Quest II or V, for that purpose. In the end, this is a worthy suite that shines at just the right moments, particularly with the Tokyo Met’s enhanced performance.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Andrew Oldenkamp. Last modified on January 17, 2016.