Technosoft Game Music Collection Vol. 5 -Thunder Force IV-
Technosoft Game Music Collection Vol. 5 -Thunder Force IV-
August 1, 1992
Buy at Official Site
Technosoft always had a penchant for pushing the limits of their software and, conversely, the hardware they used. This would bode much the same for Toshiharu Yamanishi — many years before scoring the Atelier series, he was responsible for the soundtrack of Thunder Force IV, the final Mega Drive installment of Technosoft’s most famous franchise. If Elemental Master was his defining musical score, then Thunder Force IV‘s own soundtrack would most definitely have to be a return to glory for Technosoft’s sound team. And, through an evolution in experience and having had room to review what worked and what didn’t, he and the sound team returned to the company’s signature franchise to refurbish old standbys, and to experiment cautiously and precisely. And by 1992, the sound team itself had expanded with the introduction of Takeshi Yoshida (aka Omen).
As for style, the new soundtrack has a lot of that: among heavy metal boss anthems lie fast-paced jazz-fusion stage themes, along with more dramatic and distorted experiments later into the soundtrack. Style alone does not make a soundtrack work, however, and the level of execution that the artists aimed for with the vast majority of their tracks is astounding, as one piece after another flows into each other with enough fluidity to work as background music, and enough development and musicality to work on a stand-alone basis. None of this would be possible without the vastly-expanded palette of instrumentation and unique sounds comprising all of the material on the album, presumably developed by Naosuke Arai and applied masterfully within the soundtrack itself. Thunder Force IV is both a testament to the power of SEGA’s Mega Drive system and, of course, Technosoft’s strong grasp of FM synthesis technology. When one has such a fantastic score for such a fantastic game, it’s not hard to understand why the game is still the most recognizable of all the games in the franchise, and much of the credit easily goes to Technosoft’s definitive and most experimental series of tracks in its musical history.
Generally speaking, the album applies the same formula for album pacing and structure used in the previous release for Elemental Master, as if Yamanishi knew that “Lightning Strikes Again”, and that the team would have no issues with their new lineup of sounds and ideas to explore. Yoshida’s role in the process of making the soundtrack was to work on the majority of mid-game scene themes and boss encounter interludes, but he also starts off the album with a striking heavy metal opener that doesn’t let up from start to finish. However, the whole soundtrack is but a mix of different styles that are meant to mesh together and form a cohesive body of information and set the scene for a whole panorama of different scenes, while also paying tribute to the past. “Tan Tan Ta Ta Ta Tan” is an old favorite of Tomomi Ohtani’s and was rearranged and reprised for the configurations menu in the latest installment in the franchise. Meanwhile “Don’t Go Off” is the first track by Yamanishi on the album, a jazz-fusion groove with sparkling synth embellishments and a catchy harmonic hook, easing players into the game while providing some forward momentum on the stage select screen.
If this build-up was at all getting to the player, though, it still won’t be very long before one can see the player “Fighting Back” at the very enemies that summoned him to action in the first place. “Fighting Back” is among the most recognizable Thunder Force opening themes for a quantity of good reasons: it has appealing harmonies, crazy synth and guitar solos, and sends players off on their rollicking way without a hitch in the plan. There’s also no better time to showcase the sheer amount of unique-sounding instrumentation on the album than here and now, and both punchy bass-lines and polyphonic synth pointillism are part of the grand equation that goes into forming one of the most moving stage themes of its time (and today, I might add). “What!” slows the battle down and instead provides a large lode of contrast instead, with a series of angular and spotty bell textures echoing throughout the sound sea that “Fighting Back” first flew over, and Yoshida returns to the fray with his “Evil Destroyer”, the first battle anthem for a series of different boss encounters.
Yamanishi and Yoshida, having introduced the three-piece musical structure for each of the four initial stages selectable from the start, immediately went to work on writing their next aural tapestries. “Space Walk” is suitably moody, with percussive bass and cadences of star-like synth rummaging pulsating throughout the depths of the local interstellar junk heap, a jazz-fusion contrast to the hard rock of the first stage. While “Danger!! Danger!!” is brief and hectic, the shortest looping track on the whole album, the player is yet ready to “Attack Sharply”. In contrast to the more atmospheric and melodic tunes, Yoshida’s boss pieces and other contributions work with simplified, unique arrangement and go for a more orthodox approach to delivering the musical catharsis oh-so-necessary for the game’s melodramatic boss encounters.
“The Sky Line” is one track that deserves to be rearranged for one of Japan’s many jazz-fusion groups, with its manifold instrumentation and strange juxtaposition of alien atmospheres and militaristic rhythms — fitting for a scene of untold destruction amongst day-and-night bombardment. While that track keeps a more moderate tempo with a lot of interplay and interaction going on, the “Air Raid” instead speeds up the tempo and keeps its instrumentation more spare and more readable, heightening and lightening the player’s wits and keeping everyone focused on the vessels ahead. Takeshi, of course, mocks all of this and tells the player to “Simmer Down”, instead pulling another funny boss theme out of his pocket and swapping the stage’s previous mellow coloring with a rude awakening of his own! Much of this back-and-forth continues with the fourth stage themes as well, now describing some sand-ridden badlands through slap bass and funky rhythms and licks. The genius of these initial themes lies in their ability to be memorable and great for standalone listening, while taking advantage of both the context presented and the technology in use. And there are many subtleties to listen for as well, as evidenced in “The Sky Line” and in the overall progression and structure of the themes.
By “Strike Out”, however, there’s already evidence of a more surreal turn in the day’s affairs, and boy was I right when I first listened to “Battle Ship”. Gone are the happy melodies and the inviting rudiments and precedents established early on in the score, and in come the stark distortion and oppressiveness indicative of the mid-game and late-game themes for Thunder Force IV. The fight again the “Battle Ship” is a long and trying fight, and both the visual and aural backgrounds have a messed-up, accelerating twist: you’re in the Rynex, about to go head-to-head with the ORN Empire’s magnificent interstellar battleship, and all you can notice is the constant streaming of star systems and galaxies, whizzing past your senses as both your wing mates and the constant thumping of militaristic percussion and drunken synth lines crush you in a wave of sensory entanglement! If I wanted to know how being this drunk would feel like, the best I could do is ask a glass of water.
But no one is any “Stranger” in the presence of the very enemy one came here to fight — and though the soon-to-be final boss ultimately escapes the player this time, the “Neo Weapon” certainly helps in the long run, providing both a roaring heavy metal ascension and a useful new weapon for the keeping. After this odd gambol through space and time, the second half of the soundtrack starts on a shock and briefly clams down, as the Rynex roams around as a “Great Sea Power”, with all bass-lines functioning and a powerful guitar solo weapon of its own. But the ominous air established in the fifth stage continues into the following stages, and now Yamanishi contributes both an unsettling new stage theme and his first boss theme on the album. With him now doing these lengthy interludes, this one happens to be “The Breaker”, an elegant and effective boss theme, wavering in and out with its chaotic tempo changes and ascending harmonic progression, fitting for the big, blossoming baddie it accompanies. From water to fire comes Yoshida from out of nowhere, taking the player to the “Sea of Flame” and injecting some much-needed fuel into the score’s proceedings; with his rock style comes a large line-up of crazy solos and powerful guitar waves, a perfect complement to the increasingly-chaotic textures comprising such “Rancor” to be experienced in this part of this long and stressful saga.
Even in the thick of all this stylized madness, “Metal Squad” is still a reminder to the player that the mission is never done, and the battle must go on. Barreling through a factorial landscape rife with adversaries and the like to this music is more than thrilling — it’s the perfect late-game montage piece for this kind of shooting game, and is perhaps the most memorable tune that Yamanishi himself is best known for. To this day, I’ve seen more remixes of “Metal Squad” than even “Venus Fire”! Meanwhile, the player also encounters the “Phantom” at the end of the artist’s heavy-metal masterpiece, the second-to-last boss theme he contributes and, unfortunately, the most lacking in development. As the descent into the heart of darkness continues, the Rynex’s “Down Right Attack” continues to evolve into more complex and laborious forms, now sporting a multi-section stage anthem in celebration of the sheer power and might of the player’s ORN oppressors, and ultimately ending up as one of the most successful experiments on the album.
Before the player knows it, he’s facing off against more of the opposition’s “Recalcitrance”, now echoing throughout the chamber with distortion and agitation unlike anything else… To think it happens to be the last boss theme that Yamanishi contributes to the album, and not even the final boss theme in the game. It then follows into “The Danger Zone”, where only otherworldly bell synths and vamp bass-lines dominate amongst a monochromatic landscape sent straight from hell. At this point in the game, all that remains to be done is the final blow, and for that there is need of a “War Like Requiem”, and Yoshida certainly brought that to the foreground. And, in true fashion, the final boss theme is meant to motivate, with its combination of Yoshida’s signature guitar waves and Yamanishi’s more eccentric synth lines; it’s all in one well-developed package that perfectly encompasses both the player’s feelings of ultimatum and the imposing challenge of defeating the ORN empire, once and for all. All of this ruckus is delivered quite effectively, as synth distortion and multi-layering of tracks for special effects like echoing help to make a more immersive sense of heading for a penultimate conclusion both in-game and just listening to the soundtrack stand-alone.
Though the battle is eventually over, the soundtrack stays to chronicle the conclusion, however it went. “Shooting Stars” and “Silvery Light of the Moon” play for the easy and normal endings, with the former being utterly sorrowful and depressing while the latter has a more neutral series of sentiments; both themes are quite laid-back in their lack of percussion relative to the rest of the soundtrack, and do a great job of cooling the player and the game down. “Light of Silence”, while similar in its lyrical, spaced-out approach, has more of a sunny ending and more development than the previous ending ballads, but only “Love Dream” can claim to be the definitive ending theme for the most gifted players, rewarding those playing on “Maniac” difficulty with a diverse, well-developed ending anthem starting off on an orchestral note, and quickly hitting on a broad segue into one of Toshiharu’s many signature ending themes, closing on a reflective final chord. The simple beauty of these pieces, stunningly rendered in FM synth, gives way to the same staff roll theme every time. “Stand Up Against Myself” doesn’t overstay its welcome, leaving just as quick as the short list of credits does; but it doesn’t stay in the same place either, with its incredibly memorable melodic hooks and cathartic summation of what feelings the player may still have after the great adventure has ended. Even game-over anthems like “Dead End” and “Continue” have the same kind of optimism and jubilance that Toshiharu was so effective at portraying, with the former’s memorable guitar line and the latter’s rhythmic pulsation.
And “Because You’re The Number One”, you can easily relax and relish in your latest high score as well, as Yamanishi simmers down and lets his saxophone synth line and jazz piano mingle with familiar elements from the rest of the soundtrack. Even if the player didn’t do as well as planed, the artist isn’t afraid to “Remember of -Knight of Legend” (sic), taking a classic Thunder Force tune and stripping it down to the essential chord progression upon which it worked so well to begin with. Though “The Stars” play it safe and sticks to these musical ideas quite closely, “Remind Revolution” is Yoshida’s own fusion of the first boss theme and the opening theme on the album. “Love Dream” is now the way Yoshida intended it to be: a well-defined J-pop anime-influenced ending theme, with the appropriate level of arrangement and bad sample quality needed to accompany the vocals (and, frankly, I like it). But the most care clearly went to the new version of “Stand Up Against Myself”, which received a great deal more development with its orchestral opening and closing guitar solo. Overall, there wasn’t much of a need to discuss the quality of a lot of the tracks throughout the middle of the album, simply because the quality was undeniably there and it doesn’t take much more than a listen to understand why.
If anything, this kind of youthfulness and shining creativity is what makes Thunder Force IV‘s soundtrack perhaps the best Thunder Force soundtrack yet, and it’s certainly endured to this day. It’s equally comparable to soundtracks of its time and to shooting game music even today. With an impressive amount of contextual awareness, combined with Yamanishi’s eccentric execution and Yoshida’s rolling thunder, the vast majority of the tracks on this album — save the stage interludes, obviously — are enjoyable in-game and on a stand-alone basis. At the end of the day, all the player can do is be incredibly satisfied with how it complements the wide catalogue of visuals and scenarios in the actual game. Thunder Force IV ultimately stands as a testament to Toshiharu Yamanishi’s youthful musical style and early-career curiosity, while it also shrouds the talents of Takeshi Yoshida in the process. Instead, this fifth album in the Technosoft saga represents the peak of the sound team’s success, and serves to make way for a different musician, Hyakutaro Tsukumo. And for Technosoft, the title was the company’s greatest peak in game design, visual design and, most pertinently, music composition and arrangement.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Leon Staton. Last modified on August 1, 2012.