Video Game Orchestra -Live at Symphony Hall-
Video Game Orchestra -Live at Symphony Hall-
Video Game Orchestra
April 11, 2014
Buy at CDBaby
In 2012, the Video Game Orchestra (VGO) launched a Kickstarter to fund an album recording for their upcoming high-profile concert, ~Live at Symphony Hall~ in Boston. Both the concert and Kickstarter were successes with a sold out performance, attendance from some of the featured composers, and ample funding for the album. After some delays with production and licensing, the album is now commercially available, finally releasing to a wide audience high quality recordings of (most of) the great ‘rockestral’ arrangements from the milestone VGO concert.
The term ‘rockestral’ may be a source of conflicting emotions for some, as it has seen varying degrees of success and failure for many years, especially in the area of video game music. Hearing VGO’s founder Shota Nakama pump up the audience on the opening of the album, it may be tempting for listeners to roll their eyes at the whole thing. Given the venue of the Boston Symphony Hall, it hardly seems fitting to address the audience like a bunch of moshers. But once the strings sweep in over the band it’s clear that the VGO have found something special with their blend of the orchestra and rock. The rock elements do not feel like they are simply tacked on to existing orchestral arrangements, nor do they overpower or steal attention away from the orchestra behind them. Throughout the album, there are great moments of real dialogue between the two sections, and also moments where they become a single unit delivering rushes of excitement and energy. The arrangements are helped by the presence of a synthesizer, something that many other ‘rockestra’ productions lack, but here is seen to be a valuable asset. These strong performances are matched by clean recordings and great mastering. For those wondering, audience cheering is present in many of the tracks, even occasionally in the midst of the performance as a reaction to new elements or songs appearing, but these are only for a few short moments and should not hurt the integrity of the pieces.
In terms of the actual arrangements, the opening tracks really capture the ‘rockestral’ vision presented by the VGO. “Theme of Street Fighter II” entertains with electrifying improvised solos from the lead violin, synthesizer, and guitar. These solos prove to be a terrific way to keep the arrangement going despite short source material, making the arrangement fresh but not too unfamiliar. The momentum continues through the main theme of Chrono Trigger, which sees a bit more passion from its lead instruments, and a great interplay between the electric guitar and the solo violin. A bit later, Nakama makes a great choice by mixing “Vampire Killer” with elements of “Bloody Tears”, and its clear here that the synth was very necessary for this concert to work as well as it does. Each of these ‘rockestral’ arrangements are fantastic and fun, showing off the strengths of each to great effect.
A few tracks on the album however are strictly orchestral and do not feature the band at all, but they are by no means made weaker by it. In this category is the centerpiece of the album, the eight-minute “Final Fantasy Tactics Medley” which spans a range of tracks from the series (it is more appropriately an “Ivalice Medley”, as it also contains pieces from FFXII). Original composer Hitoshi Sakimoto has always been adept at passing off synth orchestras as the real thing, but the VGO has a natural step above the originals in terms of sound. It’s great to hear that they don’t just play the pieces verbatim, but also tinker a bit with instrumentation, tempos and dynamics to help with the flow and cohesiveness of the medley while again not changing the pieces up too much. Although the recording has been a bit truncated from the original performance, it has all of the best elements from the arrangement, and is definitely a highlight of the album. In a similar vein is “The End of the World” from Grandia. Noriyuki Iwadare doesn’t stray too far from the original in terms of arrangement, but he uses the quieter elements of the theme while leaving out the faster-paced section, allowing it to be a more focused track that is majestic and enchanting. The God of War theme is also combined with “The End Begins” and features a soaring soprano. It’s a suitably epic performance, if a bit on the generic side of Western game scores.
A few themes on the album have not been arranged significantly. “Theme of Grandia” is one, also being the lightest of all of the ‘rockestra’ arrangements on the album with its bright strings arrangement, and light band backing. The other God of War theme is an arrangement of the aforementioned “The End Begins” originally seen on Guitar Hero III. Both are good performances, but admittedly don’t bring much new to the table. “Still Alive” has seen many live performances and sing-along versions in video game music compilation albums recently, and the VGO version is similar to others in that it falls a little flat in being unable to recreate the charm of the original. The vocalist Ingrid Gerdes is more confident and fun than the others, but while it is fun in concert the song ultimately doesn’t fit well on the album and loses its novelty quickly.
The last piece on the album and the last to be discussed is the “Final Fantasy VII Suite”, which is a medley of the most prominent themes of FFVII. Sections such as the “Prelude” and “Aerith’s Theme” are essentially the same as the ones that everyone knows and loves, purely orchestral and as beautiful as ever. The battle sections of “Fighting” and “One-Winged Angel” feature the band with the orchestra. While they don’t do much that is unexpected (aside from that inclusion of OWA’s chorus in “Fighting”, which is neat), the arrangements set themselves apart enough from the existing Black Mages and Advent Children versions so that they are not overly redundant. It would have been nice to see some surprises by way of the lesser known tracks or some clever overlaying of themes, but as it is the suite is enjoyable and well-performed.
All in all, the VGO have an album that they can be truly of. The album has great sound production to go with their stellar mix of rock and orchestra elements, which is something that very few of their competitors have. The track list is rather typical featuring many crowd-pleasers, but alongside them are some lesser known titles with music that deserves greater recognition on a field like this. The soloists all do a great job of expanding upon the tracks, bringing all of the excitement of a rock concert while being respectful of the original songs. While it is a shame that not all of the tracks from the concert made it onto the album, it is simply a testament to the VGO that we want to see more from them. Until then, we have Live at Symphony Hall to tide us over, as well as some of those performed songs that didn’t make it to the album on YouTube.
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Posted on May 21, 2014 by Christopher Huynh. Last modified on May 21, 2014.