Kaleidoscope: Sakimoto and Hamauzu Works
Kaleidoscope: Sakimoto and Hamauzu Works
November 23, 2021
Buy at Bandcamp
Kaleidoscope: Sakimoto and Hamauzu Works is the second album of arrangements by Josh Barron performed by the ETHEReal String Orchestra, this time focusing on the works of Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masashi Hamauzu spanning several games. The choice of composers is inspired, as both are fairly unique musical voices in the industry, though with some similarities such as the frequent use of modal harmony. The String Orchestra actually only features two players: Andrew Steffens and Andrew Stern. However, their recordings are layered to create the effect of larger ensembles, at times approaching the sound of a full string orchestra, and at others a small chamber ensemble. Where the last album included a few other additional instruments, here there is only sparing use of piano, performed by guests pianists Benyamin Nuss and Joe Zieja. As this album comes five years after their last full scale project, there are very obvious improvements from the quality of the arrangements to the tightness of the performances and even the album mixing, making it easier to appreciate the artistry behind all these tracks.
The album is split into two halves: the first for Sakimoto, the second for Hamauzu, with two other tracks dividing the halves. Right from the first track, “Companions that Surpassed Their Tribe” from Final Fantasy Tactics Advanced, the album establishes that it has a fairly unique sound among video game music albums. Although it is an arrangement for string orchestra, the close recording of the instruments actually creates a very intimate sound with little reverb, so that there isn’t much sense of an expansive space like with typical orchestra recordings. Combined with the often dispassionate and stringent playing of the strings with minimal vibrato, the recording evokes a flavour of Baroque and Renaissance revival styles. Thus even though the structure and harmony of the arrangement is still close to Sakimoto’s original, the sound evokes a completely different period. And it mostly works; the issue with Sakimoto’s originals often is that the sound libraries he used are now very dated, so that strings especially were very muddled. But here they are very clear and raw in texture, bringing out the colourful harmonies in his composition. There are some drawbacks to the approach, particularly on the larger ensemble tracks like this one, which simply cannot replace the sound of a real orchestra, but the issues are worth bearing for these arrangements.
The tighter sound actually works much better on the subsequent, more intimate tracks, especially the quintet “Archduke Rangdrith’s Family” from Valkyria Chronicles, a gentle waltz that has a lovely Renaissance feel to it. It’s short and sweet, but Barron is still wise to shift the focus to the different registers of strings to mix things up. Next is “The Eastern Front” (with “Theme of E Squad” in its second half) from Valkyria Chronicles IV. Again it is close in structure to the originals, but the initial foreboding atmosphere is a nice change of pace for the album, even if the originals are far from my favourite Sakimoto pieces. Then there is “A Truth Revealed”, a melancholy medley of “Joshua,” “Truth,” and “Recollection” from Vagrant Story. The highlight here is “Truth” which is at times a bit shrill, but makes up for it with modern atmospheric techniques like sliding notes that are neat to hear in this period style. Of the Sakimoto tracks, this medley feels the most different from the originals, and I appreciate the restrained performances. “Alchemy ~ Holy Spirit” from Stella Deus is mostly devoted to the latter vocal theme, which here is very lovely and still moving as an instrumental track. There is a nice balance between smaller and larger ensemble moments, and the added harmonies are welcome. Although many of these Sakimoto tracks might not be familiar except to diehard fans of his, the material is all solid, and Barron’s arranging style makes it all sound unified and fresh.
As a sort of interlude, there are two tracks not by either featured composer. The first is a transformative arrangement of “Warning Call” from Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, originally performed by CHVRCHES. Barron does a great job at rendering the shimmering synths on the strings in a fitting manner for the album, and I like the dramatic buildup of the track. Unfortunately the constraints of the team’s approach do show a bit here, as the difficult syncopations are not so clean. Then there is “Home,” an original track composed by Barron himself, and the first on the album with piano, here played by Joe Zieja. The only other instrument here is violin, and the duo sound beautiful on this warm and calming track, even as it accelerates in the second half. It made me think of something I might hear in Deemo, with the same sort of innocence and playfulness from the piano figures in particular.
From there, the album moves onto compositions by Masashi Hamauzu, beginning with his “Knight of the Goddess ~ Unguarded Future” from Final Fantasy XIII-2. It is still bombastic and energetic like its original, but as with Sakimoto’s work, the rawer feel of the strings here make it easier to appreciate the thick harmonies, and Barron’s added parallels to the melodies augment these. I even slightly prefer it to the original, which now feels too busy in comparison. Then there is “World of Nine Wood Hills” from World of Final Fantasy, another lovely track where the close recording sound works very much in its favour. Barron again does a great job varying the textures and accompaniment figures, since the melody is pretty simple. Then, Benyamin Nuss joins on piano for one of my favourites from the album, the trio for “DG ‘Sadness’” from Unlimited SaGa. With such a mournful and stripped back track, it would have been easy for the violin and cello to milk the emotion, but instead they keep things restrained to stay in line with the rest of the album, which is a wise choice; Hamauzu’s composition supplies more than enough emotion here.
Next is “Erfolg ~ Mißgestalt” from SaGa Frontier II. The “Erfolg” half leans into the folk sound of its melody, but Barron keeps the harmony vague and the textures varied to make it a successful expansion of the original short motif. The “Mißgestalt” plays freely with tempo to add drama as other arrangements have, with Barron adding some of his own ideas to the mix for a fresh take on an exciting fan favourite. “Nocturne” from Legend of Legacy is another beautiful slow track. Where the original focused on piano, here Barron wonderfully conjures a thick atmosphere with slowly drawn and trembling strings, and again nicely augments the underlying harmonies of the original. Next, “Soaring Wings” from Unlimited SaGa too leans into the folk flavour of the original. It loses some of the magic without the original’s vocal, but it is still a solid track. Closing out the album is a trio for “Ignition” from The Alliance Alive, again with Nuss joining for the piano. This piece feels most like a modern piece, from its dazzling and occasionally jazzy piano to its rapid string melodies, and Barron does a good job filling in the parts that were originally driven by percussion. Even if the track doesn’t quite fit with the others, as a closer it feels like a hint of what is to come in the future. I’m certainly interested to see what the team will bring out next.
Kaleidoscope: Sakimoto and Hamauzu Works is a great arrangement album that successfully carves out a niche for itself. Despite a small team, there is considerable artistry on display here, and the style chosen mostly allows the team to showcase this through their size and budget limitations. The focus on Sakimoto and Hamauzu means that the pieces are substantial and stand on their own well, and I appreciate the many deeper cuts present on the album. Josh Barron’s arrangements not only do a good job of translating these pieces to string ensembles, but also have a cohesiveness between them that is amplified by their period approach to recording and playing, even as Barron varies the size of the ensembles. This mixture of Sakimoto’s and Hamauzu’s modern harmonies with earlier classical influences is wonderful, so that fans of the composers should definitely check the album out, though fans of classical chamber music should also find a lot to enjoy here. Many other projects have tried on the video game chamber music front, but Kaleidoscope is one of the few that delivers.
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Posted on December 13, 2021 by Tien Hoang. Last modified on December 13, 2021.