The OneUps Volume 1
The OneUps Volume 1
June 28, 2005
Buy at OneUp Studios
A band’s first album is generally what makes or breaks them, and many bands sadly end up failing. The reasons for this are complex, but lack of publicity, poor music and performance, and lack of originality are the three major reasons. Thankfully, such reasons for failure should not be the bane of The OneUps. Indeed, publicity is not a problem, as OneUp Studios already has a fairly dedicated group of fans, after releasing several fan-arranged albums, including Xenogears Light and Time & Space: A Tribute to Yasunori Mitsuda. In addition, there is certainly a demand for such a band, as there is no band other than The OneUps that specialises in jazz and other types arrangements of a wide variety of video game music available. While there are some people out there who still doubt fan-arrangers capabilities, as several albums have gone to show, fan-arranged albums are not inferior to most official ones, but merely different. Most importantly, however, the quality of the music and performance of The OneUps Volume 1 is far stronger than most fan groups.
With that said, let me introduce you to the performers. First and foremost is Anthony Lofton, the leading star, who is the tenor and soprano saxophonist for the majority of the album. As a fairly proficient saxophonist myself, it takes a lot for me to be left in awe of another performer, but Anthony had that effect on me. His jazz ability is phenomenal, with his solos not only being immensely technically accurate, but also original, varied, and extremely passionate. He was an excellent choice to lead the album and, in many ways, is the heart and soul of the band. Violinist Greg Kennedy is another amazing soloist throughout the album and quite a few tracks display his talent. Though he appears to have already picked up a legion of fans after his work on Xenogears Light, this album shows off his virtuosic flair even more prominently. While the other musicians take a more supportive role, each stands out in some way, with Jared Dunn proving to be consistently excellent on the drums, Tim Yarbrough and William Reyes being strong on various forms of guitar, and Mustin proving his versatility on keyboards, bari sax, percussion, and other instruments.
The track listings incorporate arrangements of from a wide variety of games, and though Zelda and Mario arrangements feature most prominently, arrangements from hit games such as Katamari Damacy, Chrono Trigger, and Donkey Kong Country also feature. Most of the original melodies are very well-known and the track listings should ensure it is a wonderful haven for gamers and soundtrack collectors alike. As you’ve probably guessed, the arrangements themselves are principally jazz-oriented, though a wide variety of other genres appear, varying from Rock to Bluegrass all the way to Funk. Often, such diversity is added when a member of the band creates a solo arrangement himself, and there are several solo arrangements in addition to the ones created by the band as a whole. This supports the diverse track listings, though stylistic consistency is maintained to an extent, which ensures the album forms a cohesive whole. In fact, with one exception, there isn’t a single track on the album that feels misplaced or interruptive. All the arrangements take a new and creative approach by often transforming the styles of the original altogether, and this gives the album its own unique flair. Still, a happy medium is maintained between being expansive and making the original unrecognisable; though the styles sometimes change, the original melodies are often left untouched.
The album starts with a funk arrangement of one of the most memorable Sega themes ever created, taken from ToeJam & Earl. Mustin begins the track with the bass guitar, playing a classic riff, and William Reyes and Tim Yarbrough come in soon after, playing the electric nylon string guitar and electric guitar respectively. Though a simple introduction, this is the intention, in order for the melody to have room for expansion later on through some real jammin’. Indeed, the track really starts moving when Anthony Lofton and his tenor saxophone join in. At first, he has a small input, but by the 1:30 mark he is giving the track a awe-inspiring performance, playing virtuosic jazzy passages with flair and never relenting. The best part of the track comes at the 3:00 mark, when Mustin comes in and improvises on the electric piano, later joined by Anthony Lofton, who makes this passage even more remarkable. Despite the absence of any guitar solos and violin passages, it still feels very fulfilling; boasting an excellent performance, some inspired arranging, and plenty of development, this track is certainly a wonderful introduction to the The OneUp’s work.
Katamari Damacy‘s arrangement is one of the few tracks to feature the entire band, giving it a special touch. The diversity of the timbres to be heard in this one is greater than any other, admittedly in large part given Mustin and Jared Dunn play nine instruments between them! The melody mostly alternates between Anthony Lofton on his two saxophones and singer Rebekah Wood, a guest performer for this track and the only vocalist (and female, for that matter) to be featured on the album. Her vocals fit in perfectly with the laid-back feel of the rest of the track and capture that distinctive Katamari spirit. As far as ambient pieces go, “Aquatic Ambience” has always been surprisingly melodic and The OneUp’s arrangement serves only to emphasise this by combining Anthony Lofton’s utterly gorgeous soprano saxophone melody with all sorts of atmospheric effects from Mustin’s synthesizer pad and piano decorations. The dreamy melodic lines leave you captivated, due to their natural flow and gorgeous execution from Anthony, while Mustin’s underlying piano decoration adds to the surreal feel further. It will be too close to smooth jazz for some people’s tastes, but matches the tone of the original and overall album.
As I briefly discussed in the overview, several arrangements on the album were written by only one person and “Monkey” is the first of these, coming straight from the heart of Mustin. He plays no less than four instruments here — the melodica, piano, guiro, and bass guitar — and though the melodica is the dominant throughout, the other instruments are all effectively utilised and are an apt demonstration of Mustin’s ability to play almost any instrument well. Though it’s fairly rare to see a melodica be utilised these days, since this track seems to be inspired by Jamaican music, it seems entirely appropriate and gives the track a novel timbre. Though fans of emotional or action-packed arrangements may find this one a little dull, for those who like light arrangements done in an unusual style, it is sure to satisfy. Kirby’s “Green Greens” is Anthony Lofton’s only solo arrangement, and he plays a major part in the performance, too, as the electric pianist, soprano saxophonist, and tenor saxophonist. Despite Anthony obviously requiring separate recording sessions for each instrument in order to do this, the track runs perfectly, as each instrument is played in time with the others and the the saxophone melodic lines are perfectly interwoven together and even elaborately improvise together at one point.
Tim Yarbrough also gets a chance to truly shine with Koji Kondo’s “Isle Delfino”, offering both a crisp arrangement and an acoustic steel string guitar performance. These guitar lines certainly have a certain brightness and punch to them, and this is further emphasised with Tim’s enjoyable solo about a minute in. The Super Mario Kart arrangement is another laid-back piece, this time featuring an alto saxophone performance courtesy of Nathan McLeod. Like Anthony, he is a strong performer, capturing a cheeky, laid-back, yet beautiful sound of the “Koopa Beach”. Despite the dominance of the alto saxophone, Anthony Lofton gets his soprano sax out a little later on to play an absolutely incredible solo and William Reyes also makes some fine contributions by stretching his nylon string guitar melody to its limits through some excellent improvisation. It’s another successful refinement of The OneUps’ light jazz sound. Axelay is guest arranger Posu Yan’s only arrangement on the album and succeeds in being a strong addition to the album. Posu Yan, saxophonist Anthony Lofton, and guitarist William Reyes all really stand out for their efforts here, since the trio successfully allowed the arrangement to be relaxing and also stand up in its own right against tracks with a similar atmosphere.
The sole Bluegrass track, taken from Earthworm Jim, isn’t a disappointment and Greg Kennedy is the primary reason for this. He truly shines on the fiddle, demonstrating his flair by playing immensely difficult passages with unsurpassable technical accuracy, while retaining a buoyant feel throughout. The arrangement’s fast-paced tempo, vast range, and endless demanding runs are no match for Greg and his unfaltering persistence throughout the track is nothing short of inspirational. Though it will rank unfavourably by individuals who despise all country music, it is still well done. Another violin-focused arrangement, the band’s interpretation of Bomberman also captures the spirit of the original. The various guitar and bass riffs capture the quirky yet dynamic feeling of the original, while Greg Kennedy’s violin solo adds to the eccentricity. It’s bound to win over most fans. The town medley from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is the only solo performance on the album, being an acoustic guitar piece that was both arranged and performed by William Reyes. Probably the most subtle track, the repetition of the main melodies and simplicity of the harmonies contrast with the rest of the material. However, the arrangement captures a serene town perfectly and provides a welcome break from the action-packed pieces.
Since the Zelda main theme has been arranged many times in its long history, arranging it here might seem a poor move. However, it actually proves to be one of the best additions, since it affirmatively demonstrates that The OneUps can give any track their individual touch, even if it has been arranged 20-30 times already. Instead of adhering to a synth orchestral or hard rock approach, they present the theme as a relaxing bossa-nova. It’s another display of McLeod’s talents on the alto saxophone, while the rest of the band offer a lulling rhythm throughout. While another saxophone-led arrangement may be excessive, it’s a fresh take on a wonderful melody. Talking of overarranged pieces, “Schala” is the only arrangement of a Square album to be featured, which is quite a surprise, as OneUp Studios have mostly arranged Square themes in the past. Mustin opens the track with the memorable glockenspiel melody from the original and Greg Kennedy soon joins in and plays part of the main melody on the violin in an extremely sensitive way. Though the violin sadly takes a backseat in the passage that follows, Anthony Lofton fills in the hole effectively by playing the rest of the melody in his trademark semi-improvised style. It’s nothing new for the band, but a nice perspective on the original.
Remember that I said there was one arrangement that was one exception to the rule of all arrangements fitting the album? Well, unfortunately, the arrangement of “Koopa’s Theme” is it. Suddenly placing a heavy metal arrangement after a series of light jazz arrangements simply ends up sounding odd and the arrangement significantly undermines the overall feel of the album. As a stand-alone arrangement, it is pretty good, and expands effectively on the original in order to fit the genre well. Particularly notable additions include the emphasis on the amplified and distorted guitars, the virtuosic and wonderfully executed lead guitar solos from William Reyes in the arrangement’s latter half, and the aggressive, driving rhythms from Mustin’s bass guitar and rhythm guitars that run throughout. The correspondence between Mustin and William Reyes is particularly well-executed, while Jared Dunn’s supporting role on the drums is also very effective. Still, though the solos add a lot to the track, the arrangement does feel repetitive, as the bass riff and main melody all repeat far too many times to allow this track to sound interesting after several listens. Though this track boasts an excellence performance and will surely please most rockers out there, it is the most disappointing on the album, since the arrangement is a little weak and the style itself is inappropriate for this particular album.
Maniac Mansion‘s “Michael” has the most interesting introduction on the album, being led by Greg Kennedy on the violin, who plays a light and syncopated little melody. The rest of the piece follows the same structure of the band’s other jams — exposition of the melody, a succession of solos, and an emotional recapitulation — with a few deviations here and there. While not one of my favourites, its catchy violin melodies and superb instrument solos still make it a very worthy addition to the album. “Paperboy” leads straight in from “Michael” and closes the album in a fitting way, despite the absence of Greg Kennedy. The bicycle bell, in particular, really screams nostalgia during the introduction. William Reyes thereafter leads on the electric nylon string guitar, playing a light and rhythmic melody, subtly accompanied by Tim Yarbrough. Soon enough, the melody becomes improvised over by Anthony Lofton and he doesn’t let us down with his final solo on the album, which shouldn’t be a surprise, since Anthony seems incapable of doing anything badly. Though the section after the saxophone solo seems a little uninspired, being repetitive and anticlimactic, the track doesn’t quite end there, as there is a bonus part featured after silence for about a minute. Though I won’t spoil it by describing it, it’s a fun and slightly cheesy touch that should certainly make any gamer smile.
The album does have flaws, though these are mostly minor ones. The most significant of these is the low-key role keyboard instruments had throughout the album. As previous albums have shown, Mustin is a very talented pianist, yet none of the tracks really show off his talent. A track based around principally around jazz piano would have been a welcome treat to all those pianists out there and would have brought an additional layer of diversity to the album. The only rock track was also disappointing, sounding inappropriate for the album, and it’s clear that the band need to spend more time refining this style. Another significant letdown was the information accompanying the CD; apart from a Special Thanks page and some credits, no further information is created. Some liner notes and biographies of the performers would have been a welcome addition, and, though substantial information is provided relating to this on The OneUp’s Web site, a hard copy would have been much more easily accessible and given the album a more personal touch. The design could have been better, too; though the artwork is lovely (save the dead turtle on the inside cover), the text is often very difficult to read, particularly on the Special Thanks page.
Quite evidently, The OneUps Volume 1 is an outstanding debut for The OneUps. The arrangements are nearly always inspiring, creative, and melodic, while the performances are consistently good. The band members are all hugely talented, and, while Anthony Lofton, Greg Kennedy, and William Reyes make the biggest impact, the other three never stumble and all stand out in several places on the album. Furthermore, each band member clearly has a significant amount of talent when it comes to arranging Furthermore, Mustin and mixer Dale North deserve a special mention for their work behind-the-scenes, which made this album possible and ensured it became executed in the finest way possible. With such a great amount of musical talent in the band, as well as high levels of publicity and an original style, The OneUps certainly deserved their success. Despite its slight flaws, with near-perfect track listings, exceptional performances, accessible arrangements, and unique and diverse styles, it’s well worth checking out.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.