Kingdom Hearts 3D -Dream Drop Distance- Original Soundtrack
Kingdom Hearts 3D -Dream Drop Distance- Original Soundtrack
April 18, 2012
Buy at CDJapan
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the latest entry in the long-running beloved franchise. Almost equally beloved, at least on my part, is the series’ music, traditionally composed by the great Yoko Shimomura, who always brings a spark of magic to the games with her melodies. This score sees her return to the helm of the ship, joined this time by two additional composers to help in the task: Tsuyoshi Sekito and Takeharu Ishimoto. Together, the three have crafted a soundtrack that, with varying levels of quality, successfully gives the series’ fans a new auditory treat. Featuring an eclectic mix of both familiar themes and new, appropriate for the game released around the series’ tenth anniversary, fans would be remiss not to give this latest installment a go.
The first piece to kick off the album is, appropriately, the latest rendition of what has probably become the most emblematic leitmotif of the Kingdom Hearts series, having spanned each and every game from its inception to the present day: “Dearly Beloved.” We’ve heard quite a few interpretations of it over the years, and now are treated to yet another via an arrangement by Kaoru Wada, the man responsible for the sublime “Fantasia alla marcia” of the Kingdom Hearts II album, along with other orchestral arrangements. And so with reflective strings and horn, we are ushered into this new journey with Sora and Riku, in their never-ending struggle against the forces of darkness. Now, for the most part, this track proceeds very similarly to past iterations of the theme; in fact, you might be forgiven for initially confusing it with the version found on the menu screen of Kingdom Hearts II or Birth by Sleep. It is only around the 1:25 mark that the track takes a turn for the novel: the instruments transition as the strings swell and our first ever waltz version of Dearly Beloved begins. This is definitely the highlight of this opening track. Weaving its enchanting melody, you can almost imagine this serving as the musical backdrop to a scene set in the classic ballroom of Beast’s Castle, or the Opera stage contained within a level of this very game, the cast taking to the floor for the performance of their next adventure. Disappointingly brief as this portion is, it lends the track a much appreciated verve, serving as a new arrangement of a familiar theme that remains true to its roots, reflecting on all that has come before and what the future will bring. Around 1:45 the waltzing horn tapers off into a repetition of the earlier progression, only to close with soothing strings and woodwind that beckon us into the dream worlds that await.
With Sekito’s “Storm Diver” we plunge into the proceedings with all the tranquility and subtlety of being shot out of a cannon. This is the theme used for the game’s Dive sections (think gummi ships without the ships) and the first piece Sekito contributes. After listening to the whole album, there is a definite feel to Sekito’s tracks, elements that run as a common thread to make them fairly distinguishable from the work of the other two composers, and this starter track is no different. After an energetic, percussive intro backed by madly dancing flutes, the strings take over the main melody for a short time, only to pass the baton to blaring brass; a thematically appropriate mirror of the game’s new Drop mechanic enacting such baton-passing between Sora and Riku themselves. A choir emerges around 0:35, enhancing the grandiosity of the track and nicely evoking the sensation of falling through the void. All in all, it’s a good track – intense, quick, a striking wake up call after Dearly Beloved lulled us into a false sense of calm – and sets the tone for Sekito’s future contributions. Used later in the game, the arrangement “Wild Blue” is what you might expect: similar to “Storm Diver” with its hastened beat, uplifting brass, and ethereal choir. It’s a good successor to accompany Sora and Riku through the challenges of their later dives. With “The World of Dream Drops”, we come to the overworld for this game, where our heroes access the rest of the sleeping worlds. Not much to say about this track, with all its brevity. It sounds nice enough, but it may also be the most underdeveloped of all the series’ overworld tracks. Featuring little more than some ostinato piano runs over supporting ambience, with occasional chimes streaming through the background like shooting stars, it strikes a mystical chord similar to Birth by Sleep’s “Hau’oli, Hau’oli” – appropriate, given both tracks’ use in outer space areas.
The feast for the ears continues as we take the first steps into the sleeping worlds with our arrival in a quaint little town that should instantly bring a wave of nostalgia to all long-time fans. Before I voice my take on “Traverse in Trance,” I must again prefix it with the disclaimer that in all the time since its inaugural appearance, I’ve never loved the theme for Traverse Town. Not that there was an active enmity: it was pleasant enough, and atmospherically suited for the world in which it played, but it never truly ‘wowed’ me, as other musical pieces from the series have done, never stood out as anything more than a nostalgic tune from the first adventure with Sora and his friends. But that is the past. Now, with this new treatment, I think it’s safe to say “Traverse in Trance” has quickly become one of my favorite area themes of the series overall, enhancing the original in every way. It’s clear Shimomura, with this album, was looking to present us with some older, familiar themes, while giving them significant makeovers and dressing them in lustrous new garments; this track especially shines. Beginning with an echo of main Traverse Town theme, sleepy strings murmuring beneath, our ears are soon graced with a lovely new take on said theme via airy woodwind, gentle cello, and glittering harp runs. It is nothing short of soul soothing, the calm and peaceful harmony twinkling and gleaming like the glow of the town’s lanterns, or the countless lights of the starry sky, scattered across the surface of the fountain in the Second District. The otherworldly chorals that sing around 0:52 lend to the build in potency until at last, at 1:16, the traditional melody of the original piece is taken up by the sax. It’s smooth, it’s jazzy, it’s warm, like a cradle that snugly nestles the sleeping world Sora and Riku now inhabit. It’s deeply impressive—amazing, really—that Shimomura could take the original decent, satisfactory tune, and transform it into something this stellar. “Traverse in Trance” is truly an example of the heights to which other fresh treatments of old tracks should aspire to reach.
The first battle theme of the album is another remix, this time of the usual Traverse battle theme, “Hand in Hand.” This has always been an enjoyable piece, conveying in past games and soundtracks a proper sense of being on a wild adventure, and that is retained in this incarnation as well, along with an air of festive mischief, thanks to the playful 6/8 time reminiscent of “Scherzo di Notte.” Regardless, I’m a bit divided over this entry to a certain extent – namely, some rather grating trance-like synth textures that run rampant throughout. These sounds are similar to the ones used in “The Tumbling” in Birth by Sleep; however, they can be a little like sandpaper scraping against the ears. This detraction aside, “Hand to Hand” remains a fun romp, with horns and strings intertwining from 0:38 onwards, belting out the familiar Hand in Hand melody in rapidly alternating rhythms until at the one minute mark, just before the loop, the arrangement stills, and a calm refrain rings out on oboe and celesta. In all, a decent revival of an old theme, creatively altered, marred only by some questionable synth choices. Delivering the majority of the album’s normal boss battle tracks, Sekito contributes “UNTAMABLE” next. Once again, he brings a new voice to the table, but one that fits like a puzzle piece within Shimomura’s tried and true musical style. As with “Storm Diver,” we are here thrown into the thick of things with a frantic, tumbling opening. Woodwinds carry the melody to the beat of determined, purposeful percussion, while bold, blaring brass announces the enemy’s power. The highlight of the track for me, however, has to be the section at 0:45; with clashing cymbals, the trumpets return in a triumphant blaze, as if depicting Sora and Riku gaining the upper hand in the battle, pushing forward with the power of glorious light. But it’s not over yet. At 1:14, prior to the loop, the strings step forward, accompanied by the brass and snare, creating a marching, militaristic feel, as if the previous heroic surge was only temporary, and the Nightmare still clings to life, crawling back now from the precipice, advancing forward once more. Sekito has crafted a bit of a gem here, to add to the long collection of previous KH boss themes.
Ishimoto’s contributions include several remixes from The World Ends With You used for the Traverse Town world. Now, I must confess, I am not a big fan of Ishimoto, nor have I yet played the game from which these guest-appearance songs originate, so whatever extra meaning they might hold for fans of that game, I cannot share. The odds were stacked against these tracks for me, and yet I ended up enjoying them. I don’t want to spend too much time on these, since they are remixes from another game, but there is something catchy about them. With “TWISTER -KINGDOM MIX-”, from the catchy acoustic introduction, to the swinging trumpets, to the vocals, these elements come together in a sort of “dirty” blend that can in a second make even a newbie like me see in my mind’s eye the no doubt crazy streets of Shibuya, with its eclectic cast of characters, who we are soon introduced to in this game as well. Probably my favorite of the TWEWY arrangements, with a finish that has a particularly Cowboy Bebop sound. “CALLING” is the second TWEWY track that Ishimoto has transferred to this album. I must say, I really like the vocalist on this track. There is a real power and body about her voice, and the song utilizes it to strong effect, particularly during the haunting interlude around 2:35, with the harmony vocals echoing darkly in the background. While some will no doubt prefer the original version of the song, this is a respectful, engaging remix in its own right, retaining and enhancing the original’s J-pop beat. “SOMEDAY” (yes these are all in caps) closes out both the Traverse Town level and also the TWEWY contributions. Of the three, this is probably my least favorite, which is not to say I didn’t like it. Compared to the original song, this version has undergone a reduction in tempo, being transformed from a fairly straightforward J-Rock piece to a slower power ballad. Much of the electric guitar used in the original gives way here to mellow acoustic and poignant string accompaniment, giving greater spotlight to the vocal harmonies. These changes create a much calmer song than the original, less energetic, but deeper, and more contemplative. While my least favorite of the trio, this song serves as a fitting track as we bid farewell to the first sleeping world and the TWEWY cast.
“Dream Eaters” introduces us to some new creatures which lend this track its name. Many of these critters you meet in the game will join with Sora and Riku and become your allies; this track serves as their leitmotif. As you can probably tell the second the music starts, this is a rather playful, cutesy piece, one that seems tailored perhaps to the younger of the series’ fans. Beginning with some light strings and trilling xylophone, the beat quickly kicks in, and shortly thereafter, a solo voice cheerfully chanting repetitions of “la la la.” It’s unexpectedly catchy in its upbeat attitude, as is the minigame it accompanies in the game. Other than that, there’s not much to say about it. It remains somewhat plain in the end. Continuing the Dream Eater tracks, “Sweet Spirits” has a similar sound. Happy, extremely saccharine, almost to the point of detriment; I think it’s a safe assumption that some people will be turned off by these. On the other hand, amusingly enough, I feel like a monster for even suggesting this, with memories of those adorable little Spirits rolling around innocently on the top 3DS screen. Clearly the cute factor is very effective here. As for this track specifically, there’s really not much else to say. It’s just as short and repetitive as “Dream Eaters,” and fairly unremarkable.
With “La Cloche”, we’re thrust into the streets of Paris for the second world, based on the long-awaited Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And, no surprise given the film, the tone of this track is darker than your standard Kingdom Hearts fare. With this track, Shimomura gets her first opportunity on the album to flex and experiment with a new area theme, the result being wonderfully compatible with the atmosphere of this odd duck entry into the Disney canon. Opening with ominous strings, chorals, and organ, an oboe picks up the melody, sweeping the listener through the empty, oppressive Parisian streets. Some harpsichord work adds a slightly Renaissance feel, while a violin howls out mournfully for the tumult and evil times brought to the people under Judge Frollo’s tyranny. And naturally, this being Notre Dame, such a track wouldn’t be complete without the organ getting its chance to shine around 1:14, backed by choir and bassoon, in a vivid depiction of the sacred cathedral towering over the city; you can practically see the stained glass windows. A powerful timpani drives the beat throughout “Le Sanctuaire,” and together with a rushing snare, chorals, and horn, the music radiates a fierce tension. I particularly enjoyed the organ once again taking brief prominence at 0:38, as well as its background runs starting at 0:57 as the piece hurries to its conclusion. And what a haunting conclusion it is, with the cry of cascading brass blaring out its dissonance. Brief as it is, I found this section of the track the most intriguing, as it feels almost like a hero’s defeat. Sekito’s next boss theme, “Majestic Wings,” lives up to its name. As with all his work on the album thus far, this track is a sweeping, dramatic piece. In fact, the light brass section at 0:39 sounds just as heroic as the initial development from “UNTAMABLE.” I was also fond of the calm oboe at 1:05, a nice contrast to the energy of the rest of the track, and the battle itself. But by far the highlight is the soaring climax at 1:17, portraying the triumph and splendour of battle. I may not be incredibly familiar with Sekito’s entire body of work, but even just listening to his contributions here, it’s easy to get a feel for the man’s style, as I’ve described it. “Majestic Wings” proves yet another worthy entry into the series’ musical repertoire, echoing Shimomura’s own work while still remaining distinct in its own right.
Delving into the more emotional side of the score, “Ever After” is easily one of the most melancholy pieces in the series, full of sorrow and regret personified in the weeping violin, accompanied by harp and later replaced by a synth string section. Compared to a track like Birth By Sleep’s “Tears of the Light,” however—another with a prominent solo violin—this one is both shorter and exudes a greater emptiness. It feels more bare bones, although you might say this is fitting, and that the music is meant to make the listener reflect on the past losses and sorrows that have occurred throughout the story. In that light, the track takes on a greater meaning, but it still remains too simplistic to really be memorable. “The Dream” is a simple piece, reminiscent of the first game’s “A Piece of Peace,” but with slightly more depth and flavor. Here, too, some pizzicato strings lead us in, and are soon overlaid by the cheerful, weaving melody of flute, woodwinds, and poignant violin. A short, simple track, but thankfully with just enough to it to avoid being a forgettable filler. That said, “Distant From You” is easily the other most melancholy track of the album, and a contender for the entire series as well, it mirrors that former track with its mournful violin solo and ethereal plucked strings that add a faint feeling of hope. This minimalistic piece feels like a deep reflection on all the pain and heartbreak the various people throughout the series have endured, those remembered by others, and those not. The impression of emptiness is prominent, and, as the title suggests, of great distance between friends, and isolation.
At the start of the second disc, the world of Tron returns to Kingdom Hearts, this time the world getting a complete revamp of its previous incarnation to resemble the recent sequel film, Tron: Legacy. But as different as the level now looks, one thing remains constant: the electronic, alien feel of the accompanying theme. From the pulsing beat at 0:34, reminiscent of Mass Effect’s Noveria, to the main line of thick synth ambience, it brings to life this gritty, digital matrix and its desolate surroundings. Unfortunately, the same complaint arises as that I had with “Hand to Hand.” While the underlying rhythm is pretty catchy, the main synth starts to drone on rather quickly, and as before, becomes a bit overpowering, flooding the listener’s ears with a digital whine. One last item to note: The Grid has more tracks than most other levels on the album, and in all of them, Ishimoto’s emulation of Daft Punk’s work on the film’s score itself seems pretty apparent, though not entirely successful. This also applies for “Digital Domination,” the battle theme for this area, and a bit more pleasing to the ear. Oddly enough, though the same synth drops in at 0:39, it doesn’t feel as overwhelming as before; perhaps the track’s faster tempo makes it more tolerable. At 1:56, there’s a catchy new, but disappointingly brief, section of stuttering synth that complements the beat nicely. This might actually be my favorite part here. I just don’t understand why this track runs over six minutes; it’s a fairly repetitive piece (the main melody is essentially the same four chord progression), and there is not nearly enough variation to warrant such a length. Overall, though, I do prefer this to The Grid’s area theme.
I might as well get out of the way that the aspect of “The Nightmare” that initially turned me off to it was the thick electronic beat, a bit unusual for your average Kingdom Hearts piece, and one that stood out like a sore thumb. Over several repeated listens, however, the track’s highly positive elements have stepped much to the fore, compelling me to be a bit more lenient in my criticism. From the brief prelude of tremulous strings that evoke gathering clouds, to the main melody carried by solo violin, this has the makings of a somewhat twisted and eerie track, perhaps one of the series’ creepiest—not low and brooding like “Strange Whispers,”not reeking of grandiose malevolence like “The Key of Darkness.” With its haunting strings and disorienting beat, the whole thing feels like drifting along helplessly in the titular nightmare. The tortured violin, entering at 0:52 and hitching in pitch at 1:19 like a splinter in the mind, sends chills up the spine, appropriate for the dark revelations the heroes uncover in this game. Foregoing the synth and electronic sounds characteristic of this level, Shimomura opts for a more traditional approach with “Rinzler Recompiled.” And while I do appreciate the change, an issue I took with “Digital Domination” returns here as well: there is simply not much variation. Thankfully, this one doesn’t clock in at six minutes, but even so, I found myself wishing there was more to it. That criticism aside, this track does have some positives in its favor. The anxious ‘hurry-section’ strings that run throughout the piece—and roar to climax around the 0:47 mark together with piano—greatly boost its effectiveness, lending an intensity befitting the desperate, personal struggle it backdrops. Almost right off the bat, the blaring synth returns in Ishimoto’s “Keyblade Cycle.” I don’t have much to say about this one. It has a fast, energized beat, an ethereal ambiance in the background, and flashes of some interesting synth textures, and does effectively portray the bizarre technological wonderland that is The Grid, but on the whole it’s a fairly standard electronic track. And for the last track of this world, Sekito steps up to the plate with “Gigabyte Mantis,” featuring some otherworldly synth and sounding a bit like Mario Kart’s Rainbow Road. The result actually feels like a theme that could accompany an outer space level, and, more impressive than its predecessors, proves an exciting farewell to Tron and Jeff Bridges.
The Grid behind us, we plunge forward toward Pinocchio’s World, the Prankster’s Paradise, and with it, yet another example of why 3D is providing some of the best area music of the series. An enchanting clarinet plays the main melody of “The Fun Fair” over some sleigh bells, flowing piano runs and twinkling celesta that successfully paint the picture of a magical circus. Actually, this composition really has that classic Disney feel, even more than most other music in the series. And it works splendidly. A cello, as beautiful as Shimomura has ever used it, creates at 0:45 a sweet-sounding polyphony, enhanced further at 0:58 by solo violin. At last, the woodwinds, cello, and celesta join together with swelling strings at 1:07 to lead us into the loop, closing out one of the lovelier area pieces Kingdom Hearts has known in a while. Of course, it’s right about then that “Prankster’s Paradise” decides to say: “Come one and all, and see the amazing Destiny Island Brothers perform tricks and delights for your amazement!” At least, that’s how I felt listening to this spectacularly fun and bouncy battle theme! While looping fairly soon, the ride is nonetheless thrilling. A xylophone and oboe sprint out of the gate like two sugar-hyper kids in a race to a joyous climax of slower, emotional strings and some fun harp runs. As with the previous track, the picture is well painted here of a circus, with all its tricks and tumbling performers and spectacle. “Broken Reality” tiptoes by next, and while I have never before said this about a Kingdom Heartstrack, it truly makes me nostalgic for games like Banjo-Kazooie or Donkey Kong 64; not that this is a detraction, as I am a huge fan of Grant Kirkhope’s jaunty, often atmospheric jingles. It is an interesting style for this series, too; the marimba and low ominous strings give off a feeling of sneaking around in dank places—fitting, for the level in which this plays. A level which ends, again, with Sekito at bat. “Ice-Hot Lobster” begins as bombastically as his other boss themes, though it makes some unique departures from those predecessors: the horn at 0:31 gives way to a brief, but pleasant oboe solo, and at 0:55 a very Zelda-like flute. Overall, a decent addition to Sekito’s boss repertoire.
But behold! Shimomura knocks it out of the park with “One for All,” one of the best new area themes of the entire series (I told you 3D was chock full of great ones, didn’t I?) It is here that we hear Shimomura exhibiting a sort of pure, naked playfulness that’s been almost absent from the album, and certainly was for most of the BBS area themes. From the fluttering flute introduction, to the hurried strings jeweled with spurts of pitched percussion, which then give way to rather bouncy clarinet and deeper violin polyphonies. It’s a very merry piece, one that gives the image of our band of greenhorn heroes gallivanting about the open countryside, braving any dangers that might be looming, putting right and justice before all else. My only complaint: looping at 1:15, I wish there were more! A fair consolation prize, however, is the battle theme, “All for One.” With the rapid tempo the area theme for this world had, you can predict how heart-pounding this one will be. The furious strings whip up the frenzy of a battle against the Nightmares, built upon by the returning clarinet and violin. The standout to me was the lull at 0:49, where the marimba and, in an odd but pleasant choice, steel drums take over. I have no idea if Shimomura was aiming for a tropical atmosphere with this section, but the image of a white, sandy beach was clear in my mind. Great battle track, overall, sure to get the player’s adrenaline surging with each encounter.
As an interlude, Sekito takes on the Flick Rush minigame with “Ready to Rush,” a short, bell-studded, militaristic march led by oboe and trumpets with, intentional or not, faint sprinklings of the “Majestic Wings” theme. Standard minigame fare, followed immediately by “Dream Matchup,” which, if not for its position in the album, you might be forgiven for initially assuming was another track used in The Grid. The pulsing beat, harsh synth, the repetition; I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this one (although the beat is good). The progression isn’t that interesting, but it’s effective where used in the game, as it blended into the background during my Flick Rush matches. Continuing the numerous minigame themes, “The Flick Finalist” is basically a tempered version of “Dream Matchup,” with better synth. Unfortunately, this does mean the intense repetition and rather monotonous progression remain. As for “Victor’s Pride,” our final Flick Rush piece, Sekito does a decent job. It’s obvious victory music in both title and sound, with the swelling trumpets and emotive strings you might expect; although, there is one particular highlight here: a light, whimsical flute and clarinet, whistling happily against the more grandiloquent instruments. Fitting, for our Dream Eater companions. That aside, this track is a serviceable auditory close to this minigame, if overly brief and repetitive.
With almost two-thirds of the album behind us, we start coming now to the home stretch. The story’s climax draws close, and as Sora and Riku near the finale, the dark machinations of the villains are slowly illuminated, the mysteries unraveling, only for the duo to realize, these revelations are still cloaked in shadow. Appropriately, Shimomura from here on begins to infuse the music with the creeping darkness thematic of a Kingdom Hearts final level, through which she now guides us with a series of more serious tracks. “Xigbar” is up first. The wily old Nobody who was first introduced in Kingdom Hearts II, whose human form appeared in BBS to carry out Xehanort’s will and cause mischief—at last he gets his own leitmotif. Well, to clarify, it really is just the track “Organization XIII” arranged as a waltz: piano, strings, choir, the usual. It’s befitting that such an arrangement should be assigned to one of the Organization’s most enigmatic members, and it’s nice to hear the old theme given different flavors, but that is about all there is to say.
Moving on, we come to the actual theme for the final area. I would prefer not to spoil by revealing what this world is, and won’t outright say it, but there’s really no way to discuss this track without painting a fairly obvious picture of where Sora and Riku’s journeys ultimately lead. So, be warned if you wish to continue. “Sacred Distance” is a mysterious piece, and a bit of an amalgam in all the other series’ tracks it evokes. The ambient and harp-plucked opening is reminiscent of that of “Sacred Moon.” The falling chord progression of piano and cello here calls to mind other tracks like “The Key,” or a twisted echo of “Dearly Beloved,” and creates a choking atmosphere of hopelessness and ruin to accompany the Keyblade masters as they plunge deeper into the dreams. It is thus hard to tell if this is a devoted remix of “Sacred Moon” or not: at 0:40, a section enters, reminiscent of the “ominous enormity” referenced in Ross’ review of the track in the Kingdom Hearts II album; and at 1:07, far more clearly, a brief piano reprise of the theme rings out as the percussion pauses, as if challenging: “You’ve made it this far, but are you ready for what awaits in the darkness below?” At the very least, then, there is a definite inspiration at parts. This is followed by a small violin section, playing what sounds almost like a tranquil sampling from “Dark Impetus” before returning to the main melody. Again, “Sacred Distance” is a bit of an amalgam, and a wonderfully moody, atmospheric accompaniment to the game’s ultimate stage.
The trek then heats up with “Deep Drop;” yes, this name, like the last, pays homage to a former Kingdom Hearts track, in this case “Deep Drive.” And it does pose some similarity, particularly in the frantic piano and percussion. Somber strings glide through the main melody until an interlude at 0:47, where, in a pleasant surprise, the ivories pound out a clear portion of the original “Another Side” track, the theme that introduced us to the villains back in Kingdom Hearts II, who have long since fallen under Sora’s blade. And yet, whatever evil now waits at the end of this world has seen it pertinent to give this leitmotif a tiny resurgence. At 1:09, the strings return to quickly play a minor key version of Deep Drive’s closing segment. On the whole, this track creates the sensation of rushing at breakneck speed, down, down towards the final confrontation, the power of the Nightmares strengthening. A more pleasing work than the original “Deep Drive,” though I still think 358/2 Days’ “Critical Drive” tops them both.
With disc three, we come to it at last, jumping right into the final battle themes, and boy, are they plentiful! Before I tackle them individually, I want to say that overall, they are worthy additions to the series’final boss musical canon. However, this being so, it was a bit disappointing how familiar they all were, and in some ways too little altered from past incarnations. But I will elaborate more on that when I get to each—starting with the exotically named “L’Oscurita dell’Ignot.” In English, this translates to “The Darkness of the Unknown,” so immediately you should know what’s coming. No, this is not a straightforward remix. The track opens with delightfully ominous and lightning-fast organ runs, joined by chorals that, together, depict the enemy’s menace. The melody soon appears, via live violin, with strings in the background and snarling brass, like a wild beast that’s hunting you, daring you to survive. The violin becomes almost playful at 0:40, as if the enemy is merely toying with you, taunting his prey as you struggle to keep up with the impossible assault. And then, just as you start to gain your footing, the track explodes with a crash; “Darkness of the Unknown” is here in its climactic glory. Now, I must say, I genuinely appreciate the first half of this track for its originality; I also prefer this version of “Darkness,” which makes up the second half, to the rendition given in “Forze dell’Oscurita.” The violin here sounds fuller and more lively, and actually has backup in organ, wind and brass, along with a neat twist near the tail end around 1:44, where, rather than simply cutting off, the melody trails, echoing Terra’s theme, into a final synth refrain. These are all positives. Keeping all this in mind, however, half the track remains essentially the same theme we’ve heard in both Kingdom Hearts II and Birth By Sleep, barely altered. Something a little different might have worked well in this case. Even so, this can’t be held too much against “L’Oscurita,” dynamic boss music that it is.
Following which, we pause with “Xehanort: The Early Years” (ok, I lied, it’s not all final battle tunes). And this one is, well…unique. Imitating “The Nightmare” with its thick, head-shaking beat, this piece, as its name implies, is a remix of Xehanort’s theme from Birth By Sleep. Here, too, that beat jumps out as kind of annoying and out of place, even more to its detriment than in “The Nightmare.” Worse, the melody is nearly drowned into oblivion (a melody which remains the same, given a dose of rhythm, but retaining the low, creeping tone). Personally, I was never too sweet on the Xehanort theme, but I suppose it’s suitably twisted, given the villain here. And just like that, we splash back into the deep end of the pool with the next boss theme, “The Dread of Night.” Dominated by strings and deep brass, you immediately get that same feeling of animalistic power as in L’Oscurita. Particularly beneficial here are the strings and dashing piano runs at 0:15—they lend an emotional aspect to the theme, and a layer of desperation emphasized fully at the 1:00 mark, where the instruments surge with a vengeance in fierce climax. It truly summons the image of a dreadful monster, a ferocious evil that now hunts you to exhaustion at the end of your journey.
But no breaks this time! “L’Eminenza Oscura I” immediately descends with a crash like thunder. As indicated by its translation to “The Dark Eminence,” the foe you face now is great and majestic, one whose threat is severe and whose power is absolute. I’ll start by offering glowing praise: this track’s introduction is awesome. Plain and simple, that absolute power is on full, heaven-shaking display in these thirty seconds of musical splendor. The choir, the brass, the sinister organ, the murderous piano so intense it’s like the ivories are stained crimson; the way the din builds, pulsing, pounding, the piano flaring in intensity, refusing to be dominated or silenced, roaring out its prominence, creating a swirling, grand display of pure, unstoppable power. And then–! It ends, and we are led into the main portion of the track. Herein was born my gripe: said main portion is simply “Guardando nel Buio” mushed together with “Dismiss” (absent the strain of violin for Terra’s theme) back to back. Don’t misunderstand, both are great pieces: “Guardando” retains the quiet, mysterious choir and piano that summons to mind an ocean of darkness, before the strings and horn blare out that familiar Destati tune; the “Dismiss” side adds the air of a final stand to the track with its chorals and piano. But still, I can’t help but wish there was more to this theme than that. I’m all for reusing past themes in new tracks, believe me, but not in an identical manner: “Forze dell’Oscurita” is one example of a piece that altered its component themes into something fresh. “L’Oscurita dell’Ignot,” too, combined a familiar second half with an original first half. Not so the case here; Guardando in particular sounds identical to its old self. Well, it’s a pleasing enough theme—and is built from such, too—but overall I was underwhelmed; it could have greatly benefited from some more originality to match its jaw-dropping start.
“L’Eminenza Oscura II” follows hard on its predecessor’s heels, and it proves a strange beast: while lacking any fantastic, skin-tingling features as Part I had with its introduction, on the whole it is the better of the two. While being yet another arrangement of the Destati theme, it is remixed in a new, interesting way we have certainly never heard before. Opening with some surprising synth textures, chorals, and dramatic piano chords, traditional strings and echoing woodwind then drive the melody. The real exciting kick, however, is the 6/8 time, giving us our first chaotically waltz-flavored Destati! Things proceed to the climax at 1:15, where the poignant cry of a violin breaks through the clouds along with a quick, whistling flute, trailing off at 1:33 into a haunting piano section that brings those dark wisps back together. Dust yourself off at the loop. Sora and Riku’s battle is not yet over. The next piece in this installment of Let’s Translate Italian is “L’Impeto Oscuro.” Yes, even those who wouldn’t know a piazza from a paisan can probably guess, this is a remix of “Dark Impetus,” the track from Birth By Sleep assigned to perhaps the most horrendously difficult (and at times outright cheap and unfair) boss in gaming history. So, guess who’s made a comeback? Hooray! To begin, let me say this about “Dark Impetus:” while it was a distinctly enjoyable theme, and even possessed a kind of chaotic, frenzied charm, it felt somewhat unrefined, and disjointed. That is not the case here; this version feels more cohesive, more dramatic, though it loses a bit of the wild intensity. The live violin that coolly leads the melody, complemented by cello and a hurried piano, really demonstrates this change, as does the lower pitch of the entire piece. These two strings lead us to 1:06, where begins a fan favorite portion of both tracks, the spirited, toe-tapping violin solo – though the cello remains present. In a way, this makes the solo stand out less, but, conversely, the cello is a great complement, adding a haunting solemnity to reflect the narrative weight of a final showdown, rather than the completely optional boss battle where it debuted. It’s a worthy track, freshly arranged, with its ups and downs in comparison with “Dark Impetus.”
Another breather track graces us next: “My Heart’s Descent.” Arranged by Sekito, this is actually the first time the haunting “Dive into the Heart” theme has been on an album since Kingdom Heart II’s woefully synthed take. Now, with all the battles put behind, there is one more challenge to surmount, but, as the name suggests, Riku must first descend into one final darkness. And this piece certainly gives that imagery. The calm, moody strings, the choir at 0:38 that evokes the mystery of the heart stations that prove this theme’s usual backdrop: that unknown abyss into which you’ve plunged so many times before, yet even now it remains as cloaked in shadow and mystery as ever. Little rings of glockenspiel contrast tonally with the ominous nature of the piece, chiming like little pockets of light within the heart’s darkness. Overall, it’s peaceful, tranquil, like a lullaby before the slumber—and certainly of better sound quality than last time. And what better way to follow this than with the final, final battle theme? I’ve heard rumor, though I’m not certain of it, that originally, the final fight belonged to “L’Impeto Oscuro,” and that this one was only tacked on late in development. If that’s true, then the rush of this battle’s insertion is mirrored by the rushed and hastily thrown together feeling of its track. Another Sekito arrangement, “The Eye of Darkness” is not a horrible piece; a sped up version of the previous track, primed for use as a boss theme, it’s actually perfectly serviceable. But it’s short, and highly repetitive, and doesn’t even employ the majority of the Destati melody. There’s really not much to say about it, except that it’s underdeveloped for such an important piece. After a short string, brass and harp intro, the rhythm kicks in, the brass booming bravely, strings gliding along, bells ringing to add an almost divine quality to the music, and the choir at 0:52 to top off the symphony. It pumps you up enough for the final showdown, but there’s not much more to it – thus, serviceable.
“Link to All,” while similarly brief, proves more than that, however. The battles are done, the darkness has passed, and a ray of light has pierced through the veil to guide our heroes home. After a brief string introduction, a piano takes up a happy, vivacious rendition of “Dearly Beloved,” backed up by a softer brass and the snare marching heroically onward. The themes of friendship and connected hearts are on full display throughout the track, thanks to this confident piano progression. The oboe that enters then, and the violin after it, further enhance these themes, as they flit to and fro, waxing both playful and poignant, portraying the emotional connection between Sora and his friends. It’s an endearing track, short but sweet, overcoming its lack of development through sheer, heartfelt loveliness. Another victorious theme follows, and a character one, to boot. “Sora” returns, to play as the heroes emerge from the darkness of slumber into the light they call home. Back when this piece was first introduced in Kingdom Hearts II, it didn’t stand out much. In fact, if not for Kaoru Wada’s fantastic arrangement of the theme in “Fantasia alla Marcia,” I might not have remembered it at all. Here, it fares a touch better: the tune is virtually unchanged, except for, fortunately, somewhat better sound quality, which does do the piece a favor (although the main melody still sounds a bit whiny). It’s a bit redundant, perhaps, to have another triumphant, happy march right after “Link to All,” but it works well in context. Overall, it does its job, though next to the stronger character themes of the series—Riku, Ven, and of course Xion—“Sora” feels lacking.
For the last original track of the album…Wada! As is custom, he is responsible for the orchestrated credits theme, his sole contribution aside from the first track. And as was the case in Birth By Sleep, for the most part this piece is a compilation of the various worlds’ battle themes. They’re all here, with the Dream Eaters’ theme standing in for Digital Domination. And the orchestration is great as always, with the whole symphony makes for a haunting, bewitching treat for the ears. Highlights for me included: the gentle clarinet and glockenspiel transition between sections at 1:18; All For One’s frantic strings which sound even better with actual instruments; and the entirety of Le Sanctuaire, its power only enhanced live with a rib-tickling piano and organ. At 5:20, Dearly Beloved makes its return with a stunningly beautiful violin and some harp plucks, leading to a piano-centric reprise of the theme that now serves to bookend this latest chapter of Kingdom Hearts. And there are few others as worthy. The progression continues, sweet and delicate, that old warm cello joining with its own hum; at 6:45, the enchanting waltz section makes its encore, dancing out once more onto the stage, but all too soon has taken its final bow. The theme continues, until, with a crash of timpani, Shimomura and Wada’s vision crescendos with blaring brass and passionate strings, then closes with a quiet reprise. It’s a good track, and a satisfactory end to the original compositions; however, and perhaps I’ve merely been spoiled by “March Caprice” and “Fantasia alla Marcia,” but the credits music in the past couple of Kingdom Hearts games have for the most part just played a list of battle or character themes. Those two tracks I mention were also comprised of other themes from their respective games, but the pieces chosen there made the tracks feel like more than a mere list. “Fantasia” picked its melodies carefully, and arranged them in a way that had shape, cohesion, and purpose: “Sora,” “Dearly Beloved,” “Destati,” “Another Side,” then the first two in reverse to finish. These weren’t just character or level themes, they carried more narrative and thematic meaning, and spoke in their specifically arranged order to the heart and soul of the game we had just completed. They told the epic, fateful story of Sora and Roxas in a way that a track like this does not (or, if it does, tells a very linear story). Great as it is, I prefer the way the earlier credits themes were compiled.
We’ve come at last to the end of the—wait! What is this, you say? There are four more tracks listed? Couldn’t be, let me check…Oh, well it seems you’re right! Let’s see here… What’s this? Beethoven? Tchaikovsky? Dukas? Mussorgsky? Yes, indeed, the final four entries of this album are arrangements of some classical masterpieces by Nobuko Toda. And I am not going to review them. I’m not even close to qualified to do so, and even if I were, what more could I say about them that hasn’t been echoed throughout the decades (or for some, centuries)? What I will say, though, is that, this album aside (and they sound like excellent arrangements on Toda’s part), the choice to use these pieces in a Kingdom Hearts world, specifically the one based on Fantasia, was inspired. And the decision to let them continue playing uninterrupted in their revered sublimity during battles in that world? Genius. The choice, further still, to mute all other sound effects of those battles, the grunts and cries and harsh clangs of steel on foe, instead replacing them with harmonious jingles? Perfect. All I can say is, if a Fantasia world never returns to Kingdom Hearts to continue this innovative example, it will be a colossal disappointment. Thanks to such perfect musical integration, Symphony of Sorcery proved one of the most memorable worlds in the series, and Toda’s arrangements are welcome closers to this album.
Kingdom Hearts 3D’s musical character has proven a unique and delightful one. From the unexpected inclusion of Takeharu Ishimoto’s quirky TWEWY songs and Daft Punk’s tributes, to Yoko Shimomura’s revival and refurbishing of various older leitmotifs (Destati, Traverse Town, Darkness of the Unknown, the eternally moving Dearly Beloved, to name a few), to Tsuyoshi Sekito’s fresh contributions that still right at home among the rest, this album moves the Kingdom Hearts musical tradition forward with a proud stride that shows little sign of age or slowing down. There are, of course, shortcomings; questionable stylistic and instrumental decisions, and the like. While some tracks stand as shining pillars of achievement among the Kingdom Hearts musical hall of fame, others unfortunately do not reach such memorable heights. Regardless, if this is the direction in which the series is headed, the future looks nothing but bright, and hopefully, Shimomura will remain at the helm for a long while to come.
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Posted on May 19, 2014 by Jon Weicher. Last modified on August 6, 2014.