Vagrant Story Original Soundtrack
Vagrant Story Original Soundtrack
DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (2nd Edition)
March 8, 2000; March 24, 2006
Buy Used Copy
To call Vagrant Story a passionately convoluted, head-first dive into untrodden musical depths which fill the mind and heart with utter terror and leave the lungs gasping for air, would be putting it shortly so I will proceed with caution. This is a good soundtrack, but it’s not going to be for everyone. I will be honest, I absolutely despised Vagrant Story upon first hearing it. I picked up Vagrant Story with the premonition that Sakimoto would be composing and it would be similar to Final Fantasy Tactics. Final Fantasy Tactics was a brilliant game, backed by beautiful music and when I bought Vagrant Story, I must admit I was expecting more of the same… Boy was I wrong. The harmonies, percussion and orchestration were so jarring, so shocking that it literally turned my head on its side and punted it across the room. Like one who gets ill after being at sea for the first time, Vagrant Story literally made me nauseous and I fled away in terror, sense raped and repulsed. After a brief recovery period, of about 3 years, I’ve re-examined the album and have one thing to say; genius. My own experiences with the soundtrack largely reflect first impressions of another infamous work, but more on that shortly.
What I’ve come to realize is that the ‘grotesque’ can contain its own inherent sense of aesthetical beauty. What gives the Vagrant Story soundtrack its sense of gravity and purpose, is its very abrasive and unsettling nature. I’ve also come to realize that Vagrant Story is one of the most artistically viable works of art in video game music history. Hitoshi Sakimoto hasn’t only created a work which defies explanation, he has done so in the presence of an industry in which originality and deviation from normal expectation is not always greeted favourably.
There has been NOTHING like Vagrant Story before or after. Coming across the Vagrant Story soundtrack is like finding a watermelon in the orange produce section. It doesn’t seemingly ‘fit’, but the juiciness and tastiness of this fine fruit is without question for those willing to invest a little extra into the experience. It will take that, to be honest. Not everyone will be able to handle Vagrant Story. The intensively convoluted thematic nature of the soundtrack makes it both difficult to define and appreciate at first glance. The percussive and dissonant nature of the soundtrack is rooted in a most virulent musical violence and has no qualms with puncturing the heart to sell itself. By most definitions, the music is caustic and ‘unbecoming’. In all actuality, it is, within itself, and since there is no definition by which to define it, a work of startling vision.
Like the crowd present at the Rite of Spring’s premiere, my musical sensibilities were completely redefined by this work. It is so unlike anything which has come before that it irrefutably changed the way that I and perhaps many others, look at video game music. It has pushed the boundaries of what game music can be and did so according to its own sense of invention.
I’ve heard people claim that Vagrant Story is a picture painted in one color. This is not only incorrect, but glaringly naive.
This is one ‘painting’ that will turn your emotions upside down and leave you screaming for mercy. I will tell you why in this review. Sakimoto’s mastery of utilizing emotional and instrumental textures is what makes Vagrant Story, regardless of whether you can handle or not, nothing short of a masterpiece.
Let me delve into this review while mentioning that I prefer to listen to the music of Vagrant Story apart from the game. The music, as a whole, is very intellectually driven and challenging to listen to in both areas of mind and heart. There are so many highs and lows touched upon, so many depths waiting to be discovered. The complexity of the tracks and the sheer amount of tonal color thrown at the listener is dominating and truly defines the Vagrant Story experience. So while I like to listen to the tracks apart from the game, the context of how well the music expresses the mechanics of the game really have to be seen and heard to be believed. Okay, enough about that.
To better understand the nature of the music, it is imperative to understand the nature of the story which accompanies it. Vagrant Story is a tale of winter, so to speak. It is a story which encompasses a wide spectrum of themes, most notably involving physical, mental and spiritual death as well as the greed of those who hold power and wield it irresponsibly. It is a tale of love, betrayal, loss and the hopefulness which springs forth. All of these features of the story are represented unfailingly by the music.
The first musical piece that will be heard in the game is ‘The Climax of the Graylands Incident’, which details Ashley Riots pursuit of an entity known as Sydney, who has been labeled a terrorist by the powers that be. The music begins with great vigor, introducing a bombastic bass drum and shiny brass work to open up the music with a very heroic theme. The “Graylands Incident Investigation” opens with the trickling of a harp and is accompanied by strings, brass and choir. A few luscious Sakimoto chords start this soundtrack off in a wonderful way. The piece continually morphs through phases, which provides the piece with an unbreakable sense of character. It describes all musical elements that will be later re-called in various portions of the game. There is a little bit of everything to be found in this opening. Death, Life and Hope are essentially explored in one smooth… erm, semi-smooth sequence of music.
As with most music by Sakimoto, there is an incredible explorative spirit in the music. A given track may morph textures instantaneously without warning. This allows for many emotional qualities to play out in any number of ways, sometimes startling but always poignant and refreshing because it remains unexpected. I can’t tell you how much the change of tonal scenery has the potential to dramatically deepen the gameplay, but it also heightens the exquisite environments that one may come across, where the melody gracefully echo’s throughout Leo Monde’s willowy halls, with impending reverence for the character of desolation, sometimes to beautiful effect.
A piece which echoes this sentiment aptly is ‘Sanctum’, a piece which is carried solely by choir. The piece is sad, sobering and displays a sternness which is almost disconcerting, if not for the beautiful way in which the harmony grows and the timbre broadens like a condor spreading its wings. It is a requiem for the departed, afterall and thus chills the marrow of the living. However, it also contains an earnest thoughtfulness and reflective beauty which becomes more defined when held in contrast to the various themes surrounding it. My god… the dissonance. I feel emotionally exhausted after listening to the music in this game. (and while writing this review trying to recall my time with it) The level of harmonic edginess in Vagrant Story is on a level all its own. The orchestration is also notable as it details a major turning point to what was customary to the RPG palette.
The brash rhythms of Vagrant Story often reveal Sakimoto’s percussive prowess and adds a primal element to the battle sequences that is nothing short of unnerving. ‘Golem’ is one such track that will leave the heart palpitating with consummate terror. A blatantly dissonant horn blare gets the track started off on uneven ground, where a piano then exacerbates the dissonance with an equally disturbing demeanor. More on ‘Golem’ later.
One of the things that I like best about Sakimoto’s work, and this is true of all of his work, is that there lies the capacity to become hopelessly lost in it, as if being lost in a dream. Its an effective gift to be able to write music which is not only appropriate per context, but also vastly interesting, not only in what it does, but what it doesn’t do. This can’t be overstated enough as it is a staple of Sakimoto’s compositional technique. That is, he knows when to turn the musical gears a little bit to keep things from becoming mundane and everyday. This can best be described when listening to a piece which seems like it is going to go with traditional expectation on a certain chord, but then does something completely different. It is a sense of musical awareness that is very difficult to come by and Sakimoto knows how to use it to influence the impactual capacity of his scores. In my eyes, this is what makes Sakimoto such a versatile, competent composer. He’s not only writing music, but he’s writing smart music, formulating it to directly interact with the listener. In that way, his music is very listener-inclusive.
The orchestration for this soundtrack, utilizing a synthetic orchestra is re-created with a strange twisted intonation. For the most part, there is a certain dark defiance in the way the instruments state their presence. I can only guess that this is a reflection of not only expression and dynamics with instrument groupings, how the individual instruments are used and also how they were mastered by Sakimoto himself.
He seems to tint most tracks with a tinge of cold-ness. Then for others he seems to give the orchestral schemes a brighter palette to lighten the mood. Not only that, but the sheer swarm of instruments being thrown at the listener truly throws them head-first into experiencing the music in the moment. While this appears to be wonderful at first glance, it can also prove problematic. There is so much going on in Vagrant Story that it sometimes becomes difficult to determine how it relates to a thematic principle. There are a number of themes in this soundtrack, all of which are completely a-typical in comparison to more traditional thematic work, which become difficult to discern as a result. As was mentioned in the intro, this is largely what makes it such a seminal work but unfortunately also increases the chances of it by-passing the listener’s senses. In the end, this isn’t what’s important. The music itself is to be experienced firsthand. Let the mind come back to it later, so to speak. The point of the music is to entrench the listener within the music so deeply, that it consumes them. Let me tell you, it does. It throws the listener into a very dark place where no sunlight dare ventures and it is always winter. With that, the soundtrack is likely to send shards of frost to the heart, sending shivers down the spine all the while.
One such work that proves this point is, ”Iron Crab”. Dissonant horn blasts permeate the opening of the mix and are slowly joined harmonically distant strings. If we are to look at the structure of music as a fully formed being, there isn’t a consonant bone in this piece’s body. Sakimoto never lets up with the dissonant intensity of the music. Another such piece is “Ogre”. Dangerous from the very onset but beautiful in the unexpected emphasis that the chords give to the life of the instrumentation. Very techno-core in regards to the drum work, with classical instrumental juices provided to ply the seams. The strings are wickedly modulating (1:27) along with the horns to create a most unsettling effect; like a lone person floating helplessly in a dark and eternal sea being tossed between two viciously angry waves. All for sport! This is one of the many tracks which details Sakimoto’s musical orchestration, which pulsates with life… and death. Another one! “Golem” is a grainy piece of musical architecture. The drums and piano pound with a hunger and voracity to the appeasement of destruction. This piece is more environmental than most others in the soundtrack, with very little quarter given to substantiating a clear melody. That’s alright because the piece gets the job done towards establishing a near perfect visualization of what it might actually be like to battle a giant Stone golem that would like nothing better than to pulverize your sack. The piece is very stone-like in the way the piano drums on the keys relentlessly and is particularly illustrative in describing the scene and the circumstance. This is a head-banging tune! Especially if you are the grim reaper.
Don’t get me wrong, this soundtrack isn’t ALL about death and destruction. Just about 95 percent of it. There are a few themes which don’t violate the soul, but have a decided lightheartedness. The existence of these beautiful themes is all the more effective con-current with the icy nature of the themes surrounding it. The best way to envision this relationship is to look upon the concept of consonance and dissonance and the way that they are often utilized in music to promote a sense of dynamic contrast. Each principle works with the other to create a more impressive emotional effect. Another way to look at it is to note light and dark, or good and evil… merely a part of the duplicitous nature which surrounds us. One such beautiful theme is, “Joshua’s Theme”. It opens with a cascade of soft piano notes, which lead smoothly into a string section. The chord changes are breath-taking and a bit a-typical, which is a bit of a trademark of Sakimoto. “Reminiscence” is another such theme which puts the heart at ease. The title is apt as it’s a perfect musical portrait to provide insight into a fond remembrance. The flute plays the theme in a bittersweet manner and seems to float in the clouds, like a bird finding it’s way. Gathering strings add momentum to the message of the flutes by rising up… a worthy musical description of hope. That is what best defines this piece. However, it never really resolves. It leaves you wondering when it is going to happen. THAT is exactly why Sakimoto is such a smart composer. He knows when to resolve and not to. “Weapons Factory” is truly the mark of a great craftsman. The orchestration of the flute and strange paths it takes to it’s destination lend a subtle description to getting lost in another world. It’s rather beautiful and also very solemn and mediaeval. There is a very experimental ambience to the music which also describes thoughts of alchemy or the tinkering of great swordsmiths behind closed and darkened doors. A perfect theme to serve as a back-drop for the crafting of ancient weapons. To be completely truthful, I have this theme looping endlessly as I go about forging this iron clad review.
As for Whimsical themes, there is one that comes to mind. “Snowfly Forest” is quite a peculiar little musical animal. Pizzicati play consistently throughout, providing a punchy nature to the accompaniment of a smoothly flowing harp. There is almost something bitingly sarcastic about the music, but given to moments of hopefulness and bliss. As with most of Sakimoto’s pieces, the explorative nature of this music is unbridled and essentially becomes the experience. Fitting as the music represents a seemingly endless forest, smitten with many paths. Get lost in this track and perhaps you will have found the point behind this ingenious little Sakimoto piece.
Onto MAIN themes. “Bloody Sin” is an important theme in the game that will be re-prised in various ways throughout the course of the soundtrack. “Bloody Sin” is the main antagonist theme of the story. Some of the re-capitulations of this theme are difficult to determine due to the large wave of instruments that Sakimoto is consistently letting out of their cages to add texture, but this one is pretty clearly spoken. The harmonies are disagreeable but the main idea becomes more agreeable as it makes re-integrations at various points in the game.
I will finish off this ridiculously long review with describing the “Staff Roll”, one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. CLOSURE. FINALITY. It is what makes Sakimoto such a brilliant composer and it’s what makes Vagrant Story a foray into grounds as one of the great soundtracks of our time, or perhaps any other. Sakimoto knows how to lead the listener on an adventure. The music crafted up to this point was purposely unclosed and it all leads up to this point. The way this piece of music closes the book is nothing short of inspirational. A harp gently plucks at the chords while a soft pad of delicious strings stokes like a quiet fire in the background. The heart of the flame grows as the music develops and becomes a bonfire of epic proportions, casting light on the whole of the soundtrack and the remembrances of the sadness and hopefulness of a grand adventure. The flame slowly dies out at the end, the last dying embers of the fire/ orchestra playing the final notes of the main Vagrant Story theme via woodwind and bells. It is a truly remarkable denouement. Sakimoto presents a theme which serves as a perfect finishing touch to a soundtrack that is ground-breaking in sensitivity, aggression, depth and overall explicit passion. There is so much more to write but in the end, the soundtrack needs to be experienced first-hand and all the talking in the world won’t really prove any real point. There is so much to the music and there simply aren’t enough words… There is nothing else to be said.
…Well, almost nothing to be said. I know, I know… Why did you write such a long and convoluted review? I had to. Well I didn’t have to really but I felt the need to speak of the soundtrack in the same way that it left its indelible mark upon my heart and soul… that has taken time. Vagrant Story is truly an ocean and it has taken me ages to row across it. Having been ‘at sea’ with Vagrant Story for awhile, and after braving the ever turbulent waters of this mind-opening soundtrack, I must admit that I no longer feel ill. In fact, I find that the sea of themes and illustrative musical textures are quite beautiful once accustomed to. I find that the waves are no longer objects of terror, but unique principles of startling clarity and poise. The moonlight above no longer destroys the spirit and fills the heart with fear, but lights the way to possibility. Simply, Vagrant Story both rocked my boat, my eardrums and my world. It took Hitoshi Sakimoto some severe kahunes to create this soundtrack. All things considered, and if anything, I hope this review serves him well by marking him as a musical innovator and force to be reckoned with, sailing a sea, marking a path for others to admire as it drifts to the horizons…and beyond. I do not LOVE the Vagrant Story soundtrack, but it’s truly a work of art. IMO, it is a work that will stand the test of time and further legitimize Sakimoto’s legacy as one of the truly great video game composers of his era. I too hope others will be willing to brave this sea. Many riches await.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Ryan Reilly. Last modified on August 1, 2012.