KINGDOM HEARTS – III, II.8, Unchained χ & Union χ [Cross] – Original Soundtrack

Album Title:
KINGDOM HEARTS – III, II.8, Unchained χ & Union χ [Cross] – Original Soundtrack
Record Label:
SQUARE ENIX MUSIC, Walt Disney Records
Catalog No.:
SQEX-10794~801
Release Date:
November 11, 2020
Purchase:
Play-Asia

Introduction

Since Kingdom Hearts III came out early in 2019, fans eagerly awaited a soundtrack release of the game’s music.  It took a while, but we eventually got it—a release for a score that is both intimately familiar yet drastically different from any entry before.  This is, as I’ve remarked in other reviews, an ideal approach when composing for a sequel.  Fans will want to hear familiar themes and cherished motifs, but at the same time it’s important to imbue the nostalgic with new ideas and perspectives: to elaborate, explore and transform in creative ways and thus give new life and meaning to the material.

Luckily, Yoko Shimomura is the genius behind Kingdom Hearts’ musical soul.  Although her direct contributions to KHIII appear quantitatively less than in the past, together with her many collaborators on this sizeable album she elevates the soundscape to new heights, while also looking ahead to the franchise’s future.  But there will be time enough throughout this review to rave about how Shimomura and company outdo themselves again and again.  For now, suffice it to say, the wait was worth it.

One last note before diving in, but as will be apparent at a glance, what we have here is not only music from one game, but a small compilation from other fascinatingly titled entries, as well.  Unsurprisingly, this also means that much work from KHIII has been left on the cutting room floor.  Their absence will be disappointing if one has played the game, but the strength of what has been included should still have spirits soaring.
(NOTE: Plot spoilers below)

Disc 1

At the outset returns another familiar name, Kaoru Wada.  In past games, this master composer has contributed a handful of orchestral arrangements, and so he does again.  The first pair of tracks, “Don’t Think Twice -KINGDOM Orchestra Instrumental Version-“ and “Face My Fears -KINGDOM Orchestra Instrumental Version-“ are arrangements of collaborations from Shimomura and singer Utada Hikaru, who returns to the franchise for not one but two new songs.  Wada imbues both with orchestral splendor, the former especially setting up a grand stage for this climactic adventure.  Like its predecessors, it builds from humble beginnings to full symphonic force, the brass near the end beckoning us forward into the thrilling unknown.

In a Square Enix interview from December 2020, Shimomura discussed her approach to the next track, “Dearly Beloved -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“, a theme widely considered to be the overarching motif of Kingdom Hearts.  It always amazes me, each time we hear a new rendition, how Shimomura has been able to reinvent for so long what was originally such a simple piece.  Each time, she adds new layers, new emotions, a fresh perspective.  Nearly two decades in, so she does again.  She says that she wanted to begin the track with a sense of difference before welcoming us back home, and at 0:25 in the track, the warm piano melody does just that.  And yet, though we’ve returned to the familiar, this is still a new journey: around the minute mark, the piece slowly builds in energy, soon after which Shimomura’s piano accompaniment starts going wild in a way that will characterize the best of this score.  It all leads to a grand orchestral climax, still accompanied by these stunning piano runs, which, even as we slow back down towards the finish, join with playful flute to resolve us in calming wonder.  The composer states in the Kingdom Hearts III Ultimania book how her basis for this version was Liszt, and it shows.

The first of the two new Utada songs follows, the Japanese version of “Face My Fears” (although, along with a few other tracks, this depends on which version of the soundtrack you have).  Back when it was announced this song would be a collaboration between Utada and Skrillex, it was certainly surprising.  But it plays well here.  Where previous opening songs have set tones of deep mystery or bright adventure, this one has a touch of sadness.  Utada’s silken vocals and some delicate piano evoke a sense of events moving towards an uncertain climax: an end to the struggle, a fulfillment of the journey, but one not without loss.  This tone emanates even through the funky dubstep beats, and sets the stage impressively for this momentous finale.

Only in Kingdom Hearts could dubstep be followed by dark choral hymns, but that’s exactly what we have with “Dive into the Heart -Destati- Third Inception.”  Fans of the series will recognize the solemn tones and later intensity; not much has changed from previous versions, just slight flourishes or embellishments here and there.  What is more notable about this track is its arranger, Natsumi Kameoka.  As alluded to earlier, Kingdom Hearts III easily has more musical contributors than any game in the series, and the result across the board will be spectacular.

The rest of disc 1 serves the beginning of the story in the traditional Kingdom Hearts manner: Sora and friends traveling to various Disney worlds to meet up with iconic characters and fight the Heartless together.  The first such highlight is “Mount Olympus,” a brand new track for the longtime staple Olympus Coliseum.  An adventurous piece filled with heavy brass, deep vocals, and a sweeping string climactic section, it’s a track that wouldn’t feel out of place in a God of War game (an E-rated one).  Shimomura blends old and new with the world’s battle track “Hero’s Fanfare,” integrating the previous motif with a crescendo of a familiar triumphant figure in brass and choir, crowned by sweeping strings.

More transformation occurs with “The Deep End -Rock Titan’s Rage-“, courtesy of Yoshitaka Suzuki.  Taking one of the series’ oldest boss themes, Suzuki gives it a fresh cinematic vibe through unexpected twists and turns in phrasing, key changes, even grand choral additions.  So vast is the embellishment on display, we don’t even hear a more straightforward rendering of the theme until 2:15.  This is one of the best tracks so far to illustrate the creative approach the team took to the score.

“Sky of Wonder” serves as the melody for the hub, a sea of stars nestling the various locales the heroes will visit.  Like all such tracks in the past, Shimomura creates a magical cosmic mood, as simmering strings support gentle harp runs and occasional chimes evoke streaming astral bodies.  Though the theme is new, the feel will be familiar to long-time listeners.  Fans may also recognize “Heart of Mystery” (the debut of Yuko Komiyama’s arrangements), as motivic material from Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, in the piano and woodwinds pacing over tense, uncertain strings.  Yet even in this briefer tune, we hear new possibilities.  Mysterious and minor though the familiar theme may be, some flute and horn open it up into a warm major conclusion absent in the original.

Our next destination is not a Disney property, but a returning Twilight Town, represented by “The Afternoon Streets -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“.  This is a lovely arrangement of the original, with Kameoka again not straying too far from Shimomura’s composition, but adding plenty of smaller touches to create a fuller-bodied, richly decorated piece.  This is best illustrated by the playful flute around the minute mark, the full string repetition of the theme shortly after, and yet another refrain at 2:17 that creates the feel of a whistling train leaving the station at sunset.  It all makes for a very peaceful setting.  For a location with such a history of existential angst, the music here provides a sense of safety and sanctuary.

Disc 2

Leaving town (and the first disc), a pleasant surprise waits in another version of the main motif.  “Dearly Beloved -Forest Memory-“ makes use of fluttering flute and other woodwinds to paint an arboreal mood: a very classically Disney one in my opinion.  Speaking of classical Disney (or in this case, Pixar), “You’ve Got a Friend in Me -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“ marks the long-awaited arrival of Toy Story to the franchise.  I don’t have much to say about this one, except it’s a solid instrumental take on Randy Newman’s iconic song, perfect for Sora and the gang exploring Andy’s room or a massive toy store with Woody and Buzz.  Shimomura gets more room to flex in the next track, “Toy Box Jam,” which is maybe the catchiest battle tune among the game’s Disney worlds, especially the quick brass and string climax at 0:20.

More highlights await in this Toy Box.  “Shrouding Dark Cloud -Gigas Blast-“, Shotaro Shima’s premiere on the album, is another arrangement of an old boss theme, this time blending the orchestration with an electronic dance beat.  Komiyama returns with a trio of notables: first, “Sora -Orchestra of Toads-“ brings our protagonist’s motif into KHIII with a title that makes sense in context, even if this orchestra and choir sound quite human.  “Tension Rising -Angelic Amber-“ is a take on that Kingdom Hearts II track that delays and then slightly mutes the intensity until it kicks up a notch at 1:10.

“Friendship’s Union” is kind of an odd one.  For the first 30 seconds it seems like it will be a villainous piece, despite the name, as we get some haunting bits of Xehanort’s motif on bassoon.  Honestly, I would have loved if this had developed further, as the motif of the main antagonist is sorely lacking on this soundtrack.  However, it soon switches into very different gear, reciting the theme for “Destiny’s Union” from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.  It evolves into something new around 1:30, with bubbling little harp plucks subtly underlying the main progression, and concludes around 3:00 with a moving resolution that has a somewhat western sound, like you might hear in an Uncharted game.

“Happy Hair Day” brings us to the next world, based on Disney’s Tangled.  Pizzicato strings, rolling marimba, and flitting flautal work help create a beautiful nature scene here: a bright woodland atmosphere in which the strings and touches of a noble-sounding horn end the piece grandly.  Contrast this with the “-Into the Forest Deep-“ variant of the track, which shifts into minor gear as Sora, Rapunzel and friends are drawn beneath the shadows of deeper woods and darker intrigue.  The two variants of the battle theme, “Swingin’ Free,” echo this contrast.  The former has an especially nice melody accompanied by vibrant harp and flute.

In a first for the franchise, the thematic material of the Disney worlds in KHIII is extended beyond the standard world and battle tracks, into all kinds of pieces used throughout the level.  Much of the remainder of disc 2, in fact, sees this Tangled DNA masterfully disseminated and woven across its tracks, as will also be the case in future instances.  Despite the lack of carryover for any of these motifs beyond their individual Disney settings, one which reflects Kingdom Hearts’ sharp divide between Disney and original story, it’s a positive that KHIII takes a step in this direction.  Musical language-isolates though they may be, they are more fleshed out within their boundaries than ever before.

As for other disc 2 highlights, Shima gives us “Rowdy Rumble -The Crazy Carriage-“, which adds some wood percussion to the original, perhaps to emulate the clopping sound of horse hooves as Maximus gallops away.  Shima also gets his turn at another boss theme, “Tension Rising -Reaper’s Revenge-“.  Personally, I enjoy this version the most for its choral background and a mounting intensity throughout.  “Sunshine Dancer” breaks up the drama with a traditional-sounding, fiddling ren-faire jig from Tsuyoshi Sekito.

Disc 3

Discs 3 and 4 are probably the least remarkable of the album—which is not to say they are without gems.  Of the former, the best of the bunch has to be “Monstropolis Now,” the field theme once we reach our next destination, the world of Monsters, Inc.  With its playful, upbeat rhythm and vivacious string chorus, it almost sounds like something out of a Studio Ghibli creationIt feels perfect for parading with Mike and Sully through this Pixar world.  Similar can be said for “Monster Smash!” another Shimomura battle tune that won’t leave your head, especially the tumbling brass flourish at 1:10.  These two tracks also have their more serious alternatives, subtitled “-Code 72-16-“, but they feel a bit too oppressive and droning in comparison.  “Dual Hearts” from Takeharu Ishimoto sees the return of the character Vanitas’ theme in a slower, menacing pace, but repetition does make it drag a little, and the quality of the audio samples is dubious.

Sekito, meanwhile, injects some retro-sounding drum pads and whispery echo effects into the electronic fusion of “Zero Hour -The Chase-“, and it works quite well.  “Little Lovely Moments,” meanwhile, is a sentimental piece with some curious violin phrases that foreshadow a future repetition in a much more dire setting.

Much else on the disc takes the form of returning tracks: extremely solid, like the bopping “Shipmeisters’ Shanty -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“ from Yuki Hirose, or “Winnie-the-Pooh -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“ with its fun, bumbling tuba play, but not much different from previous incarnations.  Its “Bounce-O-Rama -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“ companion does spice this up with a few Irish dance-sounding touches, however.  A handful of returning themes, well arranged by Komiyama, closes the disc.

Disc 4

Disney’s Frozen comes to Kingdom Hearts with “Frozen Wonderland,” which blends the usual wintry mix of sleigh bells and strings with the fuller orchestra to evoke bounding across vast snowfields (interestingly, the main motif for this world echoes the beginning notes of “Let It Go,” which also appears depending on your version of the album).  “Miracle on Ice” delivers more symphonic flurries in a similar way.  “Frozen Wonderland -Eternal Winter-“ takes the usual darker turn we’ve come to expect, trading in bright colors and harmonies for a more oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere only occasionally lightened by airy flute triplets.  It’s a humble debut track for Sachiko Miyano, who will be responsible for some masterpieces later on.  “No Surrender!” is a boss tune in the vein of KHII’s “Desire For All That is Lost,” with similar aggressiveness and sometimes even rhythmic shape.

Leaving Arendelle behind, Sora’s group returns to the high seas of Pirates of the Caribbean.  If I’m honest, this is my least favorite stretch of the entire soundtrack, due to the contributions of Ishimoto.  I have mostly delayed discussion of his work so far because I don’t like to be excessively negative in these reviews.  Unfortunately, the common thread of my Kingdom Hearts music reviews, of being critical where Ishimoto is involved, continues here.  “A Pirate’s Adventure” is a fine, breezy tune, and “Flags of Fury” has some neat choral intensity at the beginning, but that’s the best you can say about them.  Strangely, even to someone like me who is not generally a fan of this composer, his contributions to KHIII seem of even lower quality.  His orchestral samples sound as poor as ever, and these tracks are sorely lacking in melodic or rhythmic variation.  Together with the general harmonic direction, this results in pieces that just feel flat, and bland.  There is little discernible difference among them.  Once you’ve heard the first ten seconds or so of these tracks, you’ve essentially heard it all.

Mercifully, we get a breath of fresh sea breeze thanks to Yoshitaka Suzuki.  His two tracks, “Hearts of Courage” and “The Victorious,” do an admirable job of emulating the musical style Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina created for the world of Jack Sparrow, through their combination of fiddling sea-shanty and epic Hollywood climax.  This pair also sandwiches perhaps the best of the new boss themes, the melodically and rhythmically rich “Eye of the Storm.”

Disc 5

Disc 5 gives Ishimoto a chance at another run, and this time, the futuristic sci-fi aesthetic of Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo plays to his strengths and more suits his style.  Repetition and simplicity befit electronic dance tracks like “AR -Augmented Rhythm-“ and “Robot Overdrive,” while “Heroes’ Gathering” includes a chill guitar line.  There is also Sekito’s “Zero Hour -The Rescue-“, which begins with bells and brass before sliding into a funky piano riff that I just can’t quit.

Yoshiki Nakamura has a few standout tracks in this stretch as well.  “The Encounter -Metal Charge-“ is a return for that epic boss theme, with, as the name implies, a charged up metal sound.  “Hero Upgrade” is a very brief orchestral rendition of another familiar motif, “Hand in Hand.”  And finally, “Baymax Rebooted” offers a sorrowful piano-led take on the “Distant from You” theme, before the orchestra takes up “Link to All” as a victorious march.  These three tracks further the approach of this album, one which continually honors old favorites in new ways.

Although there is no official divide, the second half of this disc marks a transition of sorts into more serious material.  Sora and his friends have finished their sojourn through the worlds of Disney, and dramatic events are about to unfold as the story builds toward the destined Keyblade War.  “Aqua -Dark Dive-“ ushers us onto this path with a beautiful, haunting and grimly determined aria that reflects a heroine’s fall and struggle to rise again.  But conflicted heroes aren’t the only challenge.  The dark agents of Xehanort are on the move, and “Enter the Darkness -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“ brings us back to Vanitas, with a rendition of his synthesized theme that adds uncharacteristic touches of heavy metal guitar riffs; they do a little to lift the track, but the problems of “Dual Hearts” apply equally here.

A brief respite comes before the clouds gather, as friends new and old convene during “Guardians of Light.”  This is a creative, exploratory take on “Dearly Beloved” with hopeful horns and uplifting strings, which gradually segue into a firmer march to portray the heroes’ determination and faith in their path.  Before that can happen, however, Kenichiro Fukui stops by quick to drop off some smooth trance beats in “THERMOSPHERE -KINGDOM HEARTS III Version-“, a bit of an odd interruption at this stage, but I don’t dislike it one bit.

Shimomura returns with the graceful brilliance that is “Stranded Beyond,” one of my favorites of the score.  Sora wakes, after a futile effort, in a strange, ethereal plane, one adorned by a gentle four-note figure that calls to mind “Mystline” by Nujabes.  At 0:23 a resolution to a warm, open C-chord unveils the full splendor of this dual realm of sea and sky, before a cello takes up the main melody – one curiously familiar to a figure from another old theme, “Guardando nel buio.”  Full orchestral accompaniment joins at 1:04, gradually ascending toward an empyrean climax, before horns, flute and cello close out the theme in a more subdued, contemplative fashion.  The whole track is sublime, evoking a sense of tranquility and wonder, but also melancholy.  Shima’s “Dive into the Heart -Destati- Third Revival,” which follows, isn’t vastly different from the standard, aside from a more prominent solo vocalist, creating a dirge-like mood.

Forces of light and dark converge once again on an ancient, Keyblade-strewn plain, and thanks to “Graveyard Labyrinth,” the desolate wastes have never sounded better.  A daunting organ preamble, an emphasis on a new, passionate violin accompaniment (reciting a variation on the earlier “Lovely Little Moments,” although these moments are anything but), and cascading piano runs make this the best version of the theme to date.  “Rise of the Union” follows, Nakamura’s glorious rendition of the “Key of Light” motif that adds exultant brass flourishes to accentuate a new hope joining the battle.

“Forze Del Male -Dark Riku-“ closes the disc, a violent outburst of greatness that creatively approaches what has long been one of my favorite themes in the franchise.  Abbreviated phrases and new embellishments characterize this powerful orchestral take from Suzuki, who even inserts a brand new second half that slowly but menacingly modulates its way back home.

Disc 6

“Organization XIII -Mark of Fate-“ begins with dramatic organ and choir chanting out the main phrase of the black-cloaked cabal’s motif; there have been so many versions of this theme throughout the series, but this one stands as one of the best.  Strings soon join the others in an ominous descent, before weaving motivic phrases together in new ways.  The music is guiding us towards the climax as both sides at last prepare to clash.  And clash they do in “Dawn of Hope,” another excellent boss track from Shimomura, as Aqua and Ventus fight for their friend’s salvation.  More material from the Organization glides along smoothly until a vigorous orchestral arrangement of the “Rage Awakened” theme takes over, the struggle for Terra’s soul highlighted by a new brass refrain at 1:08 and especially poignant string work around 1:40.

String accompaniment similarly proves the highlight of “Chains to Bonds,” a moving reprisal of “Destiny’s Union” used during an interlude of momentous reunions.  “Roxas’s Return” plays the same role, offering a beautiful rendition of this character’s emotional theme, topped with a small but stirring piano and oboe passage for Sora’s motif; but trouble follows as the Organization’s theme blares out again, the villains enacting the next phase of their scheme.

A brilliant crescendo at the end transitions seamlessly into the next track, “Hearts as One.”  Shima hits another home run with this victorious procession of character material, arranged for a crucial battle.  Continuing Roxas fanfare, in its “The Other Promise” variant, gives way to the crowning return of Xion and an incredibly moving passage of her “Vector to the Heavens” theme by piano and choir, an epic cathartic burst to all the pathos these characters have endured.  No longer lost, they emerge stronger, returned to the world to join the fight.  Sora’s theme even gets a moment to shine again through the horns in a 5/4 passage.

Clearly, our composers have been pulling no punches as the epic showdowns proceed, going bigger and bolder for each new climactic moment, incorporating Shimomura’s material in dynamic and brilliant new configurations.  So things stand as we come to “Forza Finale.”

It’s not easy for me to describe how much I love this track.  All I can say is I think this sublime collision of motifs for Ansem, Young Xehanort and Xemnas is the best boss music in the series, perhaps even one of my top three tracks across the whole franchise.  Uniting all three portions of this beast is an aggressive choir chanting throughout, proclaiming the full menace of these three harbingers of Xehanort.  “Forze Del Male” kicks it off, furious background strings also accompanying the melody until the familiar rising climax, which then repeats in raised interval: an epic apotheosis of overwhelming power.  “L’Impeto Oscuro” provides the middle section, with an added emphasis on the vocals compared to its origins, as well as curiously reordered passages.  Not to be outdone, “Darkness of the Unknown” makes its presence known as it switches its usual progression up into a new key.  All three segments are almost beyond my capability to praise, and Yasunori Nishiki, in his sole contribution to the album, shows his own genius in masterfully elevating Shimomura’s material.

We cool down from intensity to mystery with “Scala ad Caelum,” a piece which was composed years prior to KHIII, but which officially debuts here.  It’s incredible that even so many years in, Shimomura can write a piece that reaches the highest echelon of Kingdom Hearts music.  A beautiful, haunting melody, with piano and mournful, reflective cello are gradually joined by the full sweep of strings to evoke echoes of past glories faded to ruin; an orchestral lament constantly accompanied by—until the enigmatic resolution at 1:48—the forlorn footsteps of that cello.  “Edge of Existence” is the battle track for this stage, notable for some funky harp work, and later, cascading piano notes that recall previous tunes in the series.

Shimomura rounds out her contribution to this grand conflict with a cutscene cue, “True Darkness.”  Carrying subtle hints of both Xehanort’s theme and “Another Side” in its brilliantly climactic interplay of choir, strings and horn, it is an astoundingly epic piece, one perfectly suiting the momentous approach to the final battle.  It’s another favorite from the album.

Considering the masterful buildup so far on this disc, and the franchise’s pedigree, it would have been fair to expect the usual incredible, brain-melting ride for some Kingdom Hearts final boss music.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.  Three tracks comprise this stretch—“Replicas,” “Critical Crossroad,” and “Dark Domination”—all the work of Ishimoto, who does not rise to the occasion.  Four severe problems among them result in the greatest disappointment in the soundtrack, perhaps in the series’ whole musical history.

The first two I’ve discussed earlier: shoddy orchestral samples and fairly flat, repetitive, monotonous melodies and harmonies.  These shortcomings are only more glaring in this crucial moment: even if the casual listener doesn’t much care for the third issue, that of Ishimoto’s seemingly tenuous grasp of Kingdom Hearts thematic material by including certain motifs that make no musical sense in this context, poor sound quality is inexcusable.  As is the fourth, the fact that “Dark Domination,” after a booming “Destati” intro that works well enough, is in large measure the previous two tracks lazily slapped together, copied and pasted.

In any sense, this is the album’s biggest failure, and yet all the blame cannot be placed on one individual.  It’s my own opinion that someone else should have been assigned this vital section.  If Shimomura herself was unavailable, I believe literally any of the other dozen or so artists working on this score would have been a better fit.  It’s frankly shocking to me that this was the decision made, even more so that these tracks were greenlit from higher up.  In no way do they meet the high standard the series has set for itself for almost two decades, one that should have expected more of itself when it mattered most.

What follows is a surprising “Simple and Clean -KINGDOM Tres Orchestra Instrumental Version-“ from Wada, though it’s not much different than the original.  Utada’s other song, “Don’t Think Twice,” gets its time to shine, and holds up nicely to her previous work.  As with her “Passion” in KHII, this song plays with very creative, off-kilter rhythms, making it fun to follow along with the tune (which I think would make a fitting school graduation song).

“Rhapsody in Tres for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra” plays for the usual staff roll, and follows the pattern of its recent predecessors: an orchestral medley of themes heard in the Disney worlds.  I’ve always been a little disappointed in this trend, much preferring the approach taken in KHII of weaving together character and narrative motifs, reflecting the story of the game through music beyond a mere progression through levels.  In KHIII, moreover, since these themes were already orchestrated, it becomes even more redundant.  Luckily, at the 10 minute mark, a solo bassoon ushers in full symphonic renditions of “Destati” and “Another Side,” the latter of which subverts our expectations by ending on a brilliant G-major (instead of a C-minor) before leading into one last “Dearly Beloved” march.  In this, the saga of the Seekers of Darkness comes to a grand close, the music bringing these darker motifs out into the purifying light at last.

Of course, in classic Kingdom Hearts fashion, such radiance will beget more shadows, and that’s exactly what we get in “Epilogue.”  Secrets come to light in this dramatic, foreboding piece, with rich organ work joined by choir and even some harpsichord to set the perfect ominous mood for opening the next chapter of a great conflict.  Unlike most of the album, which serves as a culmination of what has come, this piece looks ahead, utilizing three newer cues that will doubtless be part of Kingdom Hearts’ future soundscape.  One of these, the ‘Scala’ motif, has already been heard; the other two will appear on the final disc, but are even better here.

“Secrets of the Night” closes the disc in the classic manner of Kingdom Hearts sequel hooks, by teasing new mysteries.  From the solo choir opening, to the tiptoe piano and unsettled strings, to the energetic passage borrowed from “Another Side,” we are once again left in the dark.  Perhaps the biggest shock of the album comes at 1:30 of the track, when we hear a musical cue clearly inspired by the theme “Somnus,” composed by Shimomura for what eventually became Final Fantasy XV.  What this foreign motif’s presence here means, before “Dearly Beloved” closes things out, is still unknown.

Disc 7

We now come to what I hold to be the greatest single disc of Kingdom Hearts music, one which comprises tracks from the ReMind downloadable content.  The words I used earlier as the ideal goal of this score—elaborate, explore, transform in creative ways—are here best exemplified by the several composers arranging Shimomura’s work, while imbuing it with their own styles.  The results are highly impressive.  Having been to Kingdom Hearts concerts, I can safely say that listening to some of these tracks is like being in the actual orchestra hall.  Most of them are brand new arrangements of beloved Organization XIII battle tracks, with one standout exception being “Key of the Brave,” which brings the familiar ‘Key’ motif on a poignant journey, creating one of the most moving tracks in the series as feeling swells to a jubilant burst of emotional catharsis at 1:05.

Overall, however, this disc plays like a coda for Xehanort and the Organization, a brilliant musical sendoff for the group whose role in the story has finally concluded.  Yuki Kishida arranges three excellent tracks, starting with “L’Impeto Oscuro -Young Xehanort-“.  Kishida’s work here tends to have more electronic and even rock vibes, and Young Xehanort’s theme demonstrates this well.  An emphasis on underlying electronica, complementary choir, rich cello counterlines, and reordered sections provide interesting alterations to the original and really enhance the track.

“Vector to the Heavens -Xion-“ distinguishes itself from its source by a dynamic percussive focus and an unusual eclecticism: phrases of Xion’s motif are sometimes given to electric guitar while the next moment will feature lovely piano runs.  The total effect is a tune more action-packed and less emotional than the original “Vector,” which is why I still give the edge to the latter.

Classic boss themes for the Organization abound, including “The 13th Dilemma,“ which receives both a “-Saïx-“ and “-Xigbar-“ variant.  The former is a more faithful rendition, notable changes being a gorgeous extension of the chorus section and an unexpected rock reprise set against evocative, moonlit choir chanting.  Electric guitar is still unusual in Kingdom Hearts, but Kishida makes it work for everyone’s favorite lunar berserker (who is, with Xion, apparently a metalhead).

Our second variant comes from Komiyama, whose take is wildly different and imaginative in the best way, absolutely a true work of transformation of existing material.  Dark and climactic drama is exchanged for a more upbeat mischief, symbolic of the playful but wily Xigbar, while the tune itself is turned inside-out by making the familiar bassline a feature in the forefront.  More tracks deserve this type of exploration.

From one pair to another, Komiyama also tries her hand at “The 13th Struggle -Luxord-“, another creative evolution of a theme.  A change in key is just one alteration in this fun, bouncy piece, as brand new sections march along and interweave with familiar motifs in the full orchestra, culminating at 2:00 in a bombastic climax crowned by gorgeous violin for the melodic refrain.

A “-Larxene-“ variant of this theme appears to be a more faithful rendition at first, but Kameoka shows her own imaginative prowess: around the minute mark, heavy brass takes us in a different direction, including an aggressive orchestral repetition of a four-note phrase at 1:18, before the “Another Side” motif returns.  It’s a track that really grows on you and suits Larxene’s unrelenting blitz.  “The 13th Struggle” has never sounded better than in this couple.

“Dismiss -Terra-Xehanort-“, another from Kameoka, is one of the few arrangements here that doesn’t quite surpass the original, but it’s still a welcome addition.  Notable touches include the insertion of more “Destati” material, while, during the climax, that motif is actually excised from its erstwhile duet with Terra’s theme to give sole focus to the latter.  It’s wonderfully creative, but without the choir and organ of the original, doesn’t have quite the same power.

“L’Oscurità dell’Ignoto -Xemnas-“ does improve on its source in some ways, especially in alleviating some of the repetitiveness of the first half by mixing up the melody among different instruments.  Most surprising is the more measured, elegant take on the titular motif at 1:15, using light piano runs to give a graceful edge to the fight.  It is excellent work, but this track was never my favorite musical vehicle for Xemnas (compared to the underrated “Disappeared,” for example, which was not included in the score).

Moving from Kameoka to Miyano, “L’Eminenza Oscura I -Ansem-“ is a masterpiece, plain and simple.  It’s funny to say that about an arrangement of a track whose original in Dream Drop Distance I criticized as being too copy and paste of previous themes, but no longer is this the case.  You can hear Miyano’s brilliance and passion everywhere: in the new string accompaniment to the main melody, in the vigorous brass counterpoint to the cue from “Guardando nel buio,” in the way the percussion falls away at 1:40 for the full orchestral splendor of “Destati,” embellished beautifully with masterful repetitions, inversions, modulations, calls and responses, lovingly reshaping the material in honor of the story’s first antagonist.  Indeed, this piece, almost if not on the level of a “Forza Finale,” is the pure embodiment of the transformative potential scores of this kind can realize.

Not much different can be said of “Lord of the Castle -Marluxia-“, continuing this arranger’s excellence with its own melodic inversions, gorgeous, sweeping string harmonies and horn flourishes (especially at 0:53 and 1:40), interspersed with dynamic, striking brass passages.  In almost every way does this track’s potency surpass its original from Re:Chain of Memories.

Last among the Organization reprises is “Forze dell’Oscurita -Xehanort-“, perhaps the lesser of Miyano’s three, but still a successful revisit.  Though I have no basis for this, it wouldn’t surprise me if Miyano listened to “Forza Finale,” decided it was pointless to try to outdo its energy, so opted for a calmer, more reserved take.  The ‘Forze’ motif here isn’t my favorite ever (especially compared to the original track from Birth by Sleep), and the blaring brass flourishes can sound a little grating, but the “Darkness of the Unknown” section is by contrast incredibly strong and vibrant.

I keep saying it, but the fact that nearly two decades into the franchise, Yoko Shimomura can continuously elevate her work to new pinnacles is nothing short of majestic.  “Nachtflügel,” the stirring last track of the disc, is testament to that.  Shimomura’s classical music influence shines passionately in utterly sublime piano work, which, with the full orchestra, introduces incipient material that will doubtless be integral to the musical language of Kingdom Hearts going forward.  Of special and lovely note is a graceful four-tone figure that flows throughout the piece, perhaps a motif for the mysterious opponent Sora finds himself confronting in a strange new reality.  Praise for this masterpiece is also due to Miyano, with whom arrangement and orchestration credits are shared, and whom I hope has a continued and enhanced presence in future titles.  Even when reflecting on the totality of Kingdom Hearts music so far, this new piece can be claimed as one of the best.

Disc 8

It feels a bit strange to end this album with music that preceded KHIII, but here are tracks from the mobile Kingdom Hearts χ games, as well as Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage-.  From the former, three new “Dearly Beloved” pieces by Shimomura are strewn throughout: “-Unchained χ Version-“, “Union χ Version-“ and “χ Back Cover Version-“.  The first two are especially neat, one with a segue into fun, bouncy trills just before the minute mark, the other with a lovely, descending piano and harp ostinato.

“Before the Daylight,” meanwhile, is a track I’ve adored for years, a tranquil piece whose gentle piano intro, pizzicato strings, and oboe create the atmosphere of a sleepy little town waking up at dawn, while an accordion gives it an old European flavor.  I’m so glad it finally got its official soundtrack release.

The second quarter of the disc is a run from Sekito, who continues his good work with tracks like “A Nameless Planet” and its futuristic sci-fi aesthetic, to which is added suspense and aggression in the excellent “Hero’s Duty Troopers.”  Another, “Welcome to Niceland” is a more straightforward dance track dressed in chiptune clothes.  All in all, Sekito combines an emphasis on brass-sounding samples and funky electro beats to create his own unique corner within Kingdom Hearts.

More dramatic material enters on the second half of the disc.  Both “The Foretellers” and “Passing the Power” are themes we heard in the earlier “Epilogue,” which to my ears still contains the best of both worlds.  Still, the grand, portentous power of the former, and the peaceful yet subtly unsettled violin of the latter are also present here in their holotypes.

“Master of Masters,” however, might be my favorite of the disc.  With this track, Shimomura clearly woke up and chose violence, specifically against her piano, with its sharp, maddened strikes descending into a deranged dissonance dancing chaotically around the new central motif for strings (most of all at 3:00).  This piece shows a darker side to her compositions, and is one of the best villain themes of the series—if villain, indeed, the Master is.  It’s wild, it’s unhinged, it makes you hope Shimomura was feeling ok that day, it’s brilliant.

The last quarter of the disc leaves behind the χ/Chi saga, finishing with 0.2’s contributions.  Most of these see Komiyama return as arranger, aside from “Simple and Clean -Ray of Hope MIX-“, which is a fun electronic update on the iconic Utada song.

Both “The World Within” and “Forest of Thorns” combine the somber, moody leitmotif of the Realm of Darkness with those from the worlds of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in Birth by Sleep, respectively, creating nervous atmospheres that creep along as Aqua wanders the unknown dark depths.  And yet, moments like the string passage at the end of the latter help to assuage some of the oppression, serving as spots of shimmering reprieve.  In contrast, “Aqua -Mirror Illusion-“ is decisively unsettling, offering Aqua’s motif against both a menacing piano line that stalks aggressively beneath, and distorted string motions that haunt the edges of the theme.  It well portrays the lost warrior’s mental and emotional struggle in her deep isolation.

Fortunately, the album ends on a more upbeat note with the two part “Wave of Darkness,” the first of which especially is yet one more Shimomura banger.  An intense drum beat outlines the catchiest of piano melodies, carried along by a furious barrage of strings, providing a great close to an impressive album.

Conclusion

As the musical culmination of the Kingdom Hearts series so far, this album reaches brilliant pinnacles.  Yoko Shimomura and her collaborators celebrate the musical soul of this universe with mostly wondrous success, while also looking ahead to the future with new material – new expressions of a changing soundscape.  While some contributions don’t measure up, the majority exceed expectations.  The KINGDOM HEARTS – III, II.8, Unchained χ & Union χ [Cross] – Original Soundtrack is a rich, invaluable listen for any fans of the franchise, or even just good music, video game or otherwise.

I want to end this review with my own wish (and others probably share it), because what is unfortunate about this album is how much content is absent.  By my research, there are around 80 tracks from KHIII that were left off this album; possibly more, depending on organization.  Should the situation change, so will this complaint, but for now, it’s simply a musical crime to keep so much of Shimomura’s magic locked away.  Some of the omissions are especially puzzling, as they are part of included tracks as they appeared in the game itself: extra material complementing “The 13th Struggle -Luxord-“ and “Forze del Male -Dark Riku-“ comes to mind.  Hopefully a future release will combine this missing material with the handful of new tracks from Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memories.  After all, as this soundtrack has once again proved, the series is worth it, for there is nothing quite like the music of Kingdom Hearts.

KINGDOM HEARTS – III, II.8, Unchained χ & Union χ [Cross] – Original Soundtrack Jon Weicher

Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!

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Posted on September 19, 2021 by Jon Weicher. Last modified on October 17, 2021.

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