SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack
SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack
DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (2nd Edition)
July 21, 1997; February 1, 2006
Buy at CDJapan
To me, Kenji Ito is known as ‘the unloved composer’. After spending a few years within the online game music community, I’ve never seen anyone placing him on the list of their favourite composers. Although he has worked on a fair number of respectable game soundtracks (the SaGa series, the Seiken Densetsu series, and Shadow Hearts II), his listeners don’t seem to hold him in high esteem. But, why? Reviewing his eighth work, the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack, is an opportunity for me to try and understand the Ito phenomenon. You may proceed to the next paragraph if you are ready to learn the truth.
After a first listen, I had a fairly established impression of what’s going on with Ito, at least on this soundtrack. First of all, he seems to fall into the trap of simplicity. Ito tends to mainly focus on the melody, leaving the rest (structure, backing, intensity, and variation) as mere options to fill the void left behind the leading instruments and the tune they play. Consequently, several tracks sound quite poor, as every background element lazily follows the main instruments’ melody and key (“Fight! Alkaiser” and “Shudder” to name the most obvious), or just keeps looping shamelessly (“Back Streets of Koorong” and “Shuzer” to name just two). This sounds satisfactory until you happen not to like a certain melody; this is precisely when you realize the overall weakness of the arrangements.
Another, tricky, but typical, aspect of Ito’s works is his use of string ensemble samples. Even recently, on the Shadow Hearts II Original Soundtrack, his high-pitched string sections sound like they are handled like a synth or a trumpet; there’s few volume variations — I’d almost say ‘full volume no matter the circumstances’ — and each note well separated from the other. By going against the flow (strings tend to be used the most realistic way possible), Ito probably aims at defining his own unique sound. I admire this integrity, yet I don’t think it is wise to choose the improper use of an orchestral section as a watermark. To end instrumentation issues on a single detail, a certain cymbal sample can be heard regularly, roughly every four tracks, and in any possible context (at the 0:50 mark in “Shudder,” for instance). The truth is that this is one of the most mind-aching samples ever.
As you may expect, the most enjoyable parts of the soundtrack are those that escape these flaws. First of all, tracks inspired from occidental genres. For instance, the trumpet that sounds utterly whacky in “Standard Yorkland Song” fits perfectly in “Theme of Emelia.” Wooden drums, a marimba, and maracas lay out a cool background for the flute and trumpet to relay each other. The same applies for pseudo-disco “Baccarat,” where its use along with a soft organ renders a great easy-going mood. The second character theme of the album, “Theme of Asellus” is a must-hear as well; for once, the backing is rather elaborated, and there is even a middle section that sounds like a bridge. The main tune is a duet between flute and harpsichord that evokes freedom and refinement. That same harpsichord appears again in the next track, “Trick,” a typical baroque chamber music tune that does wonders, adding even more diversity in the beginning of the first disc. As a matter of fact, it’s also one of these tracks where you do not hear that annoying cymbal sample that I mentioned earlier. To complete the early tour of this album’s musical horizon, a dungeon theme is gracefully provided, and just as gracefully named “Dungeon 1.” This one is nothing extraordinary, but like most dungeon themes on this album, it creates a mysterious mood backed by light and regular percussions representing the party’s progressing into the unknown. In my opinion, the most worthy of these dungeon themes is “Ancient Tomb of Sei,” with its obsessing processional percussions, and its three eerie xylophone notes materializing behind the orchestra like ancient ghosts. These themes are just the start of an enjoyable experience.
I’ve been told the SaGa series music is known for its battle themes. Indeed, Ito’s particular strings samples, stressful use of snare drums, and emphasis on brass contribute in creating something special, and I don’t doubt it stimulates the player plunged into action. However, most of them would sound like circus parade music if they were slowed down and played in major key; they rely way too much on these annoying and loud percussion. There are a few exceptions such as “Last Battle – Emelia” where Ito’s organ and guitar sound way more natural; once again, an occidentalism that brings the best out of him. Another exception is “Last Battle – Lute,” the most pessimistic and awe-inspiring of all, which sounds strangely better than the others.
The second, darker half of the album is my favourite. Take a listen to “Wakatu,” for instance. Its deep percussion and its despaired flute melody convey a most tragic feel. From the 1:12 mark to the 1:36 mark, the mood changes gradually from despair to hope, and falls back into despair at 1:36 when the track reaches its loop point. I find that way of using looping to express the idea of fate very clever. During my first listen, “Castle of Needles” was one of the tracks that quickly caught my attention; the sad melody of an harpsichord accompanied by bells, strings and a harp. On the whole, it successfully forms a sinister and appealing baroque tune in the same lineage as the famous “Woodcarving Palteeta” from Castlevania Symphony of the Night. You should also pay particular attention to “Melody of Time,” as it really stands out amongst the other tracks. It starts with ticking clocks, soon joined by some slow percussion, descending harp notes, and strings. After a short appearance of the legendary cymbal samples, the leading oboe appears to play a bewitching melody. The tone is nostalgic, reassuring, but definitely hides something evil; the rhythm is too slow, and the repeated ticking has an hypnotizing effect. This tune is very much like a carnivorous flower: you don’t realize what you’re exploring until it’s too late, when you’re trapped into it. It’s strange, yet I sense that the most successful tracks of this album are those that convey negative feelings. Perhaps Ito was having personal problems at the time when he composed the music? Even so, his darker themes are most certainly my favourite addition to the soundtrack, which just blossoms at every turn.
Well, we’re nearly in the end of this review, but what about love and courage? Where are these epic tracks that bring tears to our eyes? Apparently, this album isn’t oriented towards that kind of music. There are only a couple of tracks with a real epic calibre. “Opening Title” and “Never…” are amongst them. Their backing is simplistic yet efficient, with snares, occasional horns and a brass section being the main instruments, and the leading melodies does their job very well. Even the ending themes are decent, but do not impress me much. If I had to pick one, it would be “A Memory of Childhood” and its gentle ocarina and harp duet growing into an orchestral ensemble. Ito has kept us waiting for the most moving track of the soundtrack until its conclusion, which is also a way of hiding the unfortunate fact that there are very few of them.
Overall, the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack has all the required elements to be a nice RPG soundtrack, as it is solid, features several memorable tracks, and ultimately, various atmospheres. However, Ito’s way of handling this album is most of the time disappointing, especially knowing that he had already spent seven years composing for Square when he made it. His backing material remains purely functional, leaving the melody virtually alone to please the listener. In my opinion, the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack would have sounded much better if it had been composed by someone with a better mastery of instrumentation and arranging techniques. My advice would be to keep your money to get another, more inspired SaGa soundtrack, e.g. the Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song- Original Soundtrack. You’ll probably discover Kenji Ito in a more favourable light. Who knows, maybe one day, you may become his first dedicated fan.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Zeugma. Last modified on August 1, 2012.