November 21, 1995
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The one contrasting album within Motoaki Takenouchi’s library of Shining series soundtracks happens to be his album release of Shining Wisdom‘s soundtrack, and there are a number of reasons for it’s peculiarity. It’s a curious album: instead of richly-arranged, traditionally-orchestrated JRPG music as the standout definition of this album’s contents, it’s filled to the brim with highly-synthesized, highly-rhythmic, and quite off-kilter progressive rock and jazz-fusion — an odd direction for the stout series’ composer to take after two successful symphonic arrangement albums. And the way I take it is just as unique: Takenouchi approached this release with little intention on offering arrangements in a familiar style, one that would update the sounds heard in-game and also offer some more interesting arrangements than previously heard; in fact, Takenouchi kept much of the same stylistic elements he had applied in earlier soundtracks, but completely messed with the instrumentation! At this point, many of his progressive rock influences, once obscured in the guise of his Sugiyama-inspired offerings for Landstalker and the Shining games, finally come to light in their most overt form yet, and insinuate a more interesting insight regarding the album’s intentions. Takenouchi’s second-to-last album is a defining moment for the composer, who would retain this album’s synth-orchestral approach for following soundtracks — the most notable of them being the original Gungriffon musical score.
In many ways, Shining Wisdom is more than an arrangement album that simply has very loose ties to the original soundtrack, and more than just an original album in a different suit — altogether, the end product comes out to be a modern re-interpretation of JRPG musical conventions, combining Western influences with contemporary Japanese instrumentation to strike a brazen post unto the boundary line of many different musical styles. The overall execution is somewhat lacking, but Takenouchi’s signature style was first defined here and now, a style that he would also end his game music career using, and one that takes a great amount of analysis to appreciate to its fullest.
In fact, the composer felt obligated to establish some of his key principles in the opening “Introduction”, perhaps one of the most hilarious and outrageous album openers ever arranged! From the very start, the narrator takes the spotlight with whole strings of casually-spouted nonsense, yet it soon forms a cohesive whole and comes around full circle by the end of the track. More interesting is how well the general arrangement complements Takenouchi’s words of wisdom, setting a precedent for the rest of the album with a percussive mix of meandering synth sounds and constant percussion, along with occasional embellishments that Takenouchi uses to introduce a whole variety of intriguing sounds. Despite the excess cheese and kitsch with which he starts off the whole album, the opener is done with Takenouchi’s typical level of panache, and he ultimately crafts a swift transition into “Novae”. Perhaps the one track on the album most similar to its in-game equivalent, “Novae” is a striking exploration theme with just as much grandeur as elegance. Though the overall development is actually quite traditional, it’s the blend of brass synth, rock instrumentation, and many moments of more rustic beauty that all allow for interesting contrasts in style, at one point sounding like a T-Square jazz-fusion jam and at other times more resemblant of the synth-rock stylings shared by other contemporary composers, including Motoi Sakuraba and Hayato Matsuo. Like many of the other tracks on the album, it’s also rich with solo breaks and soli sections.
The same can be said for “Hang Loose”, which quite clearly is a typical, breezy town theme. Where one once heard more traditional instrumentation, one now hears and feels the Japanese jazz-fusion influences that Takenouchi deftly combines with some subdued, albeit relatively-functional harmonies. As well-executed and well-placed as these two opening tunes do a great job of translating Takenouchi’s JRPG style to a different instrumentation, the suites following thereafter show his sweet tooth for experimentation and style definition, and even this track has its own curiously-placed section near the end. “Celebration”, by comparison, feels more like the combination of an overworld theme and a dungeon theme, starting off with spare percussion and ending on a similar note. Rather, the track elaborates on misty feelings and waterfalls of emotion, with a broader sense of adventure and discovery than previously heard. From the top, machine-gun waves of trumpet synth and a whole variety of fluttering flutes and orchestral synth reproductions guide the fanfare through its many-fold layers, always retaining a triumphant flair from embarkment to descent. However, the adventure turns on the “Aesthetic Extreme Heat” without notice, heading into ethereal annals and reveling in the glorious ambiguity of obtuse harmonies and strange synth layers. A more brusque transition brings the piece into its own, however, as a fast-paced boss dirge, with pulsating vamp lines, a distinct lack of melody, and a more obvious reliance on wandering solo interludes to keep the battle lively — generally, a bit of a disappointment following the more well-defined, yet similarly-experimental “Celebration”.
Initially, “Secon Effort” (sic) resembles “Novae” more closely in its optimistic opening, though it quickly develops from this naive self-assurance into something more grotesque and manifold, with the introduction of newer sounds, now neutral and bravely-apparent to the listener. If I had to choose one kind of musical piece that Takenouchi never fails to succeed at producing, it’d either be a dungeon theme or a battle theme — with tracks like “Secon Effort” and “Aesthetic Extreme Heat” straddling the fence between both through similar stylings, it’s obvious that Takenouchi always thought the two worked together as one, and the latter track succeeds at contrasting melodic morning with enigmatic evenings, setting a precedent for much of the album’s middle-half. And as Takenouchi brings the listener deeper and deeper into the catacombs of his musical mind, all of the elements previously established in tracks like “Introduction” and “Celebration” follow with him, evolving into strange creations coming straight from his magical synthesizer.
No one would know what to expect before listening to “Gene Targeting”, but here’s a fair bit of warning: it’s certainly strange. Seemingly another loosely-derived dungeon theme, the track does a great job of accentuating soft sections with moments of oppressive punctuation, accompanied by a couple of chaotic solo interludes to help mend a general lack of melodic focus. As a matter of fact, the main melody is represented by the most crazed synth sound I’ve heard in a while myself, and it can be a bit grating sometimes — though, on the other hand, this tune doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it leaves room for the next movement in this devilish symphony, entering “Distorted Reality”. The title really does represent what lies inside with accuracy, but the precision is lacking, as the song has a little bit of everything: oppressive synth textures, a ruthlessly-mean chord progression, all flowing together under bombastic percussion and interludes that bring some more clarified emotions to the forefront. Uncertainty is the name of the game, and the path in such a piece like this is never clear and always obfuscated — clearly, though, one can be sure that Takenouchi is a master at these kinds of maddening anthems and a master at providing the same level of musical depth that an orchestra would bring with just his home synthesizers, extracting the traditional aspects of JRPG music and replacing them with his over-the-top sensibilities. This is also the album’s downfall, to an extent, because there’s often too much going on at one time, and this sort of showmanship gets in the way of providing any formidable melodic and/or harmonic base for some of these compositions to stand on — shaky foundations, though they are quite unique.
Heading “Into the Court”, the initial grand entrance is soon replaced with a swift deadening and silence, giving way to an indulgent violin solo while slowly progressing into a more active series of moods. While the solo just goes on way too long, the piece picks up halfway-through and segues into a couple interesting tempo changes, all the while retaining the same level of dread and awe that “Distorted Reality” defined previously — by the end of the movement, the listener must really have landed in a bad place, as now the pace has gotten to an extreme and it just keeps getting worse! And it got worse, such is the way “Prestissimo” hits. Like the march of a massive army, like the invasion of a million battleships, and much like the climax of a century-long conflict; this final tracks brings to the destruction and caprice to an end in an explosive climax, working off of an up-and-down harmonic line, leaving the rest of the fight to the numerous interludes of simulated battle cries and rollicking dissonance, carried by a seemingly-accelerated drum-line and a vamp presence of bass. From start to finish, this is the definitive late-Takenouchi final boss anthem, a thrilling culmination of his interest in the arcane arts of King Crimson and too many drunken nights at the bar listening to noise music (and too much free time at the sound deck!).
For him, it was now or never — “And Then”, well, it was a good time to relax after a hard day’s night. The contrast between the musician’s brooding, complex background music and his more song-like, more conventional ending and beginning themes is no more obvious than in the transition between both of these particular tracks, the latter more resemblant of Weather Report with its fretless bass, excellent melodic sense, and a more docile use of the rhythmic angularity present throughout the album — and as far as album placement goes, it’s better here than in-between a whole bunch of other nasty things. “Heraldic Emblem of Wisdom”, the final ode to what is often the final track in a JRPG’s soundtrack, starts off pleasantly and calmly, much like Gungriffon‘s “After Conflict”, before it restarts as a classic piece of J-rock with abundant wind synth and a catchy melody and harmony. Even with its naivety in mood, the track has some sufficiently-complex elements that liven up what would otherwise be a typical ending to any average Japanese anime, and even adds in a vocoder choir for fun, and to say quite clearly that Takenouchi still respects the orchestral tradition he was originally versed in, albeit now personalizing it for his own use. The only real issue this track has is that it fades out of an ending solo, which is rather disappointing considering “After Conflict” had the same kind of song structure as well as a more defined ending — but, alas, this album is but the first to be rendered in Takenouchi’s new musical outlook, and flaws are abound this and that way.
Indeed, Shining Wisdom is flawed in several ways: some of the over-arrangement can be grating and can get in the way of listening to the music; some of the solos are annoyingly long, and can take up a bit too much time on the record; and there is a good deal of inconsistency in development across the whole breadth of music on the disc, all issues that would be remedied in his next and final album release. But these imperfections are only so notable due to the general quality and sheen that this album possesses, with its experimental mid-section, a surprisingly-fresh take on JRPG music instrumentation, and its historical significance and endurance even amongst the giants of today’s game music. Hayato Matsuo also contributed his own unique stylization of JRPG music via the Ogre Battle Image Album, yet Takenouchi’s contribution feels more personal and reliable than the former take, infusing great melodic sense with a rich harmonic underbelly to create meaningful sounds, albeit with inconsistency and some lack of preparation.
Compared to previous Shining albums, one can see why this album is considered the odd one out: it doesn’t feel like a Shining album, not so much as it feels like an ode to Shining music and a signal for Takenouchi to move on to new projects, where his style can be integrated with some necessary contextualism and procure ever-greater results. This was exactly what happened with Gungriffon, a successful end to a successful career, and the scaffolding for that project all began back in the days of Jewel Master and Landstalker, evolving through the Shining series, and all coming to fruition by 1996. More so than his other works, Shining Wisdom is a defining look into the mind of Motoaki Takenouchi, one of the most puzzling game musicians to ever make a mark on a growing field for musicians and developers alike — and, unsurprisingly, understanding why this album is significant is a treasure in itself, and a treasure that one might easily have a hard time finding.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Leon Staton. Last modified on August 1, 2012.