December 1, 1999
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The game Koudelka was quite simply a financial flop. Its sales crashed, not helped by flawed gameplay, the game’s unstable financial providers, and endless internal disputes that led to the game being developed in a way contrary to how it was conceived. This was certainly not the turn out that the president of the game’s developing company, Hiroki Kikuta, wanted. After leaving employment from Square after composing for the uninspiring Soukaigi, he created his own company called Sacnoth to create a more mature RPG, and his game’s failure hit him devastatingly. He took numerous roles for the game, including writing the scenario, designing the historical background, directing the CG cinematics and events, and composing the score. Now, not all was a failure in Koudelka. The game helped inspire a spiritual sequel, Shadow Hearts, which has since developed into a cult series principally scored by Yoshitaka Hirota, inspired by Kikuta’s largely experimental music here. The score to Koudelka itself was also largely a unique effort. There isn’t a lot of music at all, and on the album only seven tracks are ‘musical’, followed by a boat load of short clips. Is the music good or bad? Do the short themes suffice enough to raise the album’s profile? All will be revealed in this review.
The first part of Koudelka contains music from fairly significant parts of the game. In only three tracks, they reflect a side of Kikuta that is rarely heard in game music, with the exception of the ending theme which was composed by Maurice Duruflé. “Requiem (Opening)” takes an outlook on the composer’s ability to convey depth. He uses vocalist Catherine Boot to express a powerful melody in a chilling way; utilising her vocal and dynamic range impressively, the effect of her vocals is so dark that it has the ability to freeze up one’s body. The effect is exacerbated by the minimal use of instruments; almost an a capella theme, just the occasional sound effect and chime accompanies Boot’s voice, leaving the textures eerily thin. The subsequent track, “Ubi Caritas et amor (Ending),” is displaced on the track listings so that it doesn’t conclude the soundtrack, in one of many unorthodox features that defines the score. Durufl´ and arranger Nick Ingrain create a theme much like the former track melodically and texturally, though utilise a full-choir, The London Oratory School, rather than a soloist and do not include any vocals at all. The piece opens with the group having a muffled discussion before a pleasant boy soprano enters to launch the renaissance-influenced track and choir. Fans of Soukaigi should be very comfortable with the next track, “Dead (Title BGM)”, as we see the return of the successful string ensemble ideas used in Kikuta’s former work. Utilising a standard string quartet, this is simply a beautiful piece, composed and arranged to perfection; although not as rich and elegant as Soukaigi‘s parallel “Broken Memory,” it offers a greater sense of emptiness and melancholy, further defining the depressing nature of the game. The overall nature of the opening tracks is strong; the live performers on these tracks help the album immensely and help immortalize that Kikuta can compose and arrange terrific themes for live instruments.
Up next are the most ‘musical’ tracks on the entire album. “Waterfall” is almost eight and half minutes (the longest track on the album) of percussion and basic melody. Surprisingly, not a lot happens; the 6 note melody plays continuously with the occasional support of string and wind instruments, but it’s otherwise percussive as the taiko drums and maracas repeat and loop many times. The infamous “Incantation again” is similarly styled, utilising exotic and ancient instruments to create a repetitive and moderately paced battle theme. Despite melodic highlights, considerable rhythmic energy, interesting use of tribal instruments, and occasional effective interludes, the theme becomes incredibly annoying during gameplay and its effect is exacerbated by the fact that it uses the same percussion line from “Waterfall.” There is a little bit of change in “Patience”; while equally percussive as two tracks preceding it, it’s the most melodic track featured, includes some pleasant chordal harmonies in places, and features a pleasant pre-loop percussion solo bridge. The really nifty difference here is the addition of a woodblock xylophone that performs an almost danceable beat to quirky effect. Finally, “Kiss Twice” is much like the former track, but features much deeper development leading up to the emotional climax at 2:19 when the pan flutes intertwine and harmonize to poignant effect. Overall, while these tracks have nice ideas, the identical percussion theme going on between these tracks becomes exasperating after “Incantation again”; it’s fatal during gameplay, which revolves almost entirely around these themes due to the rest of the music mostly being cinematic. In addition, they lack the lushness and eloquence of Soukaigi or the grace and serenity of Seiken Densetsu 3 — to be expected, to an extent, given Koudelka was a survival-horror RPG — thereby disappointing most Kikuta fans. Despite their decent development and interesting ideas, these tracks completely fail in terms of diversity.
After the mixture of interesting themes, the albums height comes to a sudden stop as the beginning of the main portion of the soundtrack commences. Featuring in the subsequent 23 themes are a mixture of inconspicuous and beautiful tracks, although most do not even exceed the one minute mark. Used to accompany cinematic scenes in the game, all tracks are dark in nature, have programmatic tendencies, and usually have distinct and often sudden endings. The best themes are those that have a significant amount of development. “Scene 7c,” for instance, combines three oriental instruments with an expressionistic style that relies on repeating motifs in a way that evokes an image of great purity. “Scene 6a” is a touching listen. The harp moves with much diligence while a violin and flute sombrely play suspended notes above until the three forces unite and complement each other with their soothing sounds. “Scene 2Bd” evolves to be an effective programmatic theme that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a horror movie; starting off with a suspended ambient noise, the subsequent additions of driving percussion, screeching violins, and a resounding ‘cello leads to a tense buildup. “Scene 14” involves a hybrid of tribal attributes with primitive drums and ullulation with a sense of desperation and horror; like the previous track as it is fast, loud, and exciting, but, again, because there simply isn’t enough music, it takes more effort to actually get ‘in to’ to music itself. It’s the last ‘scene’ pieces which actually stand out, compared to the hefty majority of the others. For fans of “Trigger Situation” from Masashi Hamauzu’s Dirge of Cerberus Final Fantasy VII score, “Scene 18” should come as some surprise, as Kikuta uses the same free choral sample. The choir gradually builds from whispering soft Latin phrases to climaxing with supplementary members exclaiming the same words in a more forceful tone. “Scene 17” takes on the same approach as “Dead (Title BGM)” by using a string quartet and climaxing with the entrance of a choir; unfortunately, it’s painfully underdeveloped, stopping after just 30 seconds just as strings and choir promisingly unite, though it’s certainly a pleasant listen after so many atmospheric tracks. Finally, “Scene 20” beautifully finishes off the short tracks with a gorgeous Asian inspired theme; featuring arpeggiations from a graceful harp and a tender ethnic flute melody, it’s unquestionably one of the better tracks from the short collection of themes. Overall, there are very few highlights among these themes and, while many provide elegant accompaniment to FMVs and demonstrate moments of inspiration, they collectively add very little to the album due to complete lack of development.
So what’s left in this unimaginably weird album? Live performances, of course! But composer Kikuta has no involvement in these tracks whatsoever, leaving the duties of arranging three of his key pieces from early on in the album to Naoya Akimoto, accompanied by a group of talented musicians. Akimoto ensures these pieces totally differ from those fairly simplistic originals. “Live Waterfall” reflects this best. Akimoto changes over 8 minutes of repetitious percussion and cuts down to just over 4 minutes of energy, excitement, and stamina. The arranger replaces the melody with his electric guitar performance, which works excellently in conjunction with the hastened pace and beat. Long-time VGM percussionist and drummer Masaharu Ishikawa makes a noticeable difference with his live drumming and a welcome one too; Kikuta’s synthetic beats got tedious and tiresome, but Ishikawa provides fresh movements that never get the better of the listener. The high standard remains at a consistent level with “Live Incantation,” where a live vocalist is used to enhance the mystical summoning environment. The pan flutes of the original “Incantation again” are interpreted by Reimi Tanaka, who performs passionately to show the exotic nature of her instrument. The short sitar solo from 3:10 to 3:33 adds a pleasant Indian taste to an already culturally rich theme before the reentrance of Tanaka’s chants to fittingly conclude the piece. The last arrangement and piece on the album is “Live Patience.” Akimoto arranged it so it is more melancholic than the original, completely stripping it of its exotic prowess. Akimoto’s guitar sounds wonderful playing the melody, and the way the theme develops captivates the listener and compels them to listen further. The keyboardist, Tadamasa Suzuki, gets a little more attention as he imitates a Rhode piano with soft movements, but the gentleness goes well with the emotions created by the guitarist.
Regardless of the quality of the game it accompanies, Koudelka the album is an interesting effort despite the lack of material to listen to again and again. The highlights are found at the beginning and the ends of the album. All tracks from “Requiem (Opening)” to “Dead (Title BGM)” are outstanding, with a mixture of choral performances and touching instrumentals, while the live tracks at the end of the album are strong thanks to the incredible live performances and inspired arranging. Were the extended gameplay tracks not carbon copies of other and the cinematic tracks were better developed, the album would have had more highlights. It lacks as it stands, featuring mostly nonentities and disappointments sandwiched between a handful of masterpieces, though some may consider the album because it demonstrates a different side of Kikuta or because of the strength of a portion of the material. It suffices as an accompaniment to a game, though could have been much more.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Harry Simons. Last modified on August 1, 2012.