Video Games Live Volume One
Video Games Live Volume One
EMI Classics (Inter); Toshiba EMI (Japan)
50999 5081362 9 (Int); TOCP-70794 (Japan)
June 30, 2008 (iTunes – Inter); July 22, 2008 (CD – Inter); July 1, 2009 (CD – Japan)
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So, we find ourselves once again among epic choirs and massive orchestras. We must be hearing another set of pieces from the ever popular orchestral concert series of video game music. This time, we’re taking a look at a mix of studio tracks and live recordings from Video Games Live. Created in North America, the show offers music from a wide variety of western game titles, in addition to the staples from the East like Zelda and Final Fantasy. However, due to licensing issues, those tracks don’t appear on this album. But don’t worry; there is still enough material here to get a good look at. As with all of my arrangement reviews, this review will touch upon the original versions of the pieces that are performed. However, the majority of the review will discuss how the new arrangements stack up, both with the rest of the tracks on the album, and with the arrangements produced by other live shows (such as PLAY! and Distant Worlds). In we go!
After listening to this album for the first time, one particular recurring feature stood out the most — almost all of the tracks on this album seek to impress through volume. What I mean by this is that the majority of each track has a tendency to feature large, epic, or powerful sections of the pieces that make up each suite or medley — tracks that can make use of loud brass or intense choir. This creates a bit of a distortion on the album, because it results in hearing the same sound over and over again. It also creates a sense that this album is more about flash than substance, seeking to impress rather than staying true to the original musicality of the material being preformed. While this isn’t necessarily a problem, it certainly affects the way some of the pieces come across. I’ll explain these instances in more detail later in the review.
But, to start with, I’m very happy to look at one of the selections that stay true to the orchestral form and use for the most part a softer volume. The Medal of Honor selection features “Operation Market Garden” from the Frontline instalment of the series. One thing that I want to mention about this particular track is that it is incredibly loyal to the original score. This is one example of where an arrangement has made a successful transition from soundtrack to the live stage. This is also the first of three tracks on this album that are live recordings. The piece begins with a very serene sounding solo vocal before moving into a soft lament by a solo trumpet. The background instrumentation of this opening segment is handled well, staying on the softer side while still providing a solid base. A short segment of strings and harp follows, augmented by a solo clarinet. The first half of this track represents exactly what I mentioned earlier — a well balanced representation of soft and loud volumes which make this sound like a piece being performed in a real orchestral style. Next, we get a choir segment which steadily builds before dropping away into a violin solo. The rest of the orchestra slowly joins in before once again returning to solos for piano and clarinet. Later in the track, we get a real sense of honor, as snare drums appear to accompany a large orchestral and choir build before returning to the softer solos for a very pleasant ending. One thing that I particularly like about this track is that all of the orchestral cues are simple, often having the same recurring line of notes passed through different instruments. As a whole, this is one of the two strongest pieces on this album.
Contrasting this track, we look at the God of War Montage, also a live recording. As one might expect, the score for God of War is as epic sounding as the action in the game, and the choices of “The Great Sword Bridge of Athena” and “The Vengeful Spartan” definitely express that tone. As mentioned earlier, this is a track that relies heavily on loud volume, but for this track it works because of the source material. In the game, both of these tracks are audible, but many of the details become muddled. During this performance, many of those subtleties are brought to the forefront which brings out the hidden potential of these tracks. We begin with a loud choir introduction, supported by strings, brass, and percussion before moving into the real essence of the piece. A solo operatic vocal accompanies the background rhythmic segments, gradually increasing in volume before arriving at a stunning vocal plateau. This strong vocal solo is carried through the next section of the track, backed up by more choir and powerful brass. The track then transitions using a rhythmic choir and percussive elements to drive the track. The main melodic elements of this section are expressed through the brass, strings, and choir (all three often at the same time), adding additional power to the track. A subtle draw back then brings us to the end of the track.
Probably my greatest disappointment on this album is the representation of the Halo Suite. Although I’m not a fan of the game, I will be one of the first to applaud the soundtrack to the entire Halo franchise. Unfortunately, a lot of the elements that make the score so compelling are absent in this arrangement. The track begins with light choir and simple string work, one of the signature sounds from the original score. It takes a lot to mess this up, and luckily this arrangement keeps the integrity and the emotion that this instrument combination originally provided. The track then transitions into a louder segment, but it seems to be filler for the most part as it only lasts for about twenty seconds. We then move into the main Halo theme, which if you’ve heard the soundtracks is represented with accented cellos, heavy electric guitar, and finally piano on the third soundtrack. With such a high profile theme, you would expect that by now (with several performances appearing in various live shows) that someone would have a solid arrangement of the piece. If one has appeared, it certainly isn’t this. The only word I can think of to describe this attempt is sloppy. The opening choir delivers a solid performance, but from there it just goes downhill. The initial percussive elements have no spark or power to them, and then the main cello melody is sabotaged by a badly done electric guitar solo. As more of the orchestra comes in, you barely hear it as overly loud timpani and other percussion drowns everything out — something that is only made worse by off-timed and badly tuned tubular bells. Following this section, we get a little solo vocal work, but again you can barely hear it. As the track transitions again, we are able to hear a bit more from the cellos as choir elements come in before withdrawing to a powerful representation of the iconic Halo ending. The choir here is the focus and I like that none of that importance is lost. However, things turn bad again as we go into the next segment of the piece — wait, weren’t we here already? The main Halo theme returns, but this time it is the version heard with the trailer for the third game. All the mistakes of the previous attempt at the theme are repeated with the addition of a very silly sounding trumpet which comes out of nowhere for no real reason. Add in the spoken vocals from the trailer and an overly drawn out final crescendo and the track finally comes to an end.
Another disappointing track is the rock arrangement of themes from Castlevania, the final live recording on the album. Most of my disappointment with this track stems from my previous experience with music from this franchise. I haven’t heard a lot from the various scores for the series, except for the selections I was happy to enjoy when I attended a performance of PLAY! However, some of those themes are revisited in this arrangement, and they really make me cringe. Putting the incredibly obnoxious introduction to this track aside, this track is the perfect representation of what I don’t like about the Video Games Live show. Sometimes, the treatment applied to certain pieces alters the integrity of an entire performance, and tracks such as this destroy the general idea of what orchestral performances demand from an audience and what they deserve in return. Looking at the track itself, all the major themes from Castlevania are represented, but the presentation of these themes is somewhat lacking, especially after hearing other rock arrangement performances such as those done by the Black Mages. Overall, this just sounds amateurish, and while I can see the novelty in performing a rock arrangement of themes, I would expect it to be a little more polished than this if the piece were to be featured on this album.
Moving from Castlevania, we look at another iconic game franchise through the music from Warcraft. I was recently introduced to the Warcraft games and to their cinematics to which some of the themes in this arrangement come from. Overall, my view of this track is a little mismatched. There are some good elements and a few very interesting developments, but just as many disappointments or areas where the arrangement could have gone further. The track begins with a powerful choir introduction before dropping back into softer brass and string elements. I like how something as simple as a solo flute or two are still able to be heard in the murk. Further instrumental and choir swells follow, moving in and out of the piece at different intervals. However, for the most part the choir is either too soft or too loud, and presents a slight ambiguity in the sound. A transition takes us into the next segment, which is recognizable as being the main theme from World of Warcraft. However, this section has the same problem as the Halo suite in that the percussive elements are a little too loud for the orchestral accompaniment. The choir in this section is strange as well, because although their words are more pronounced, they are paired with trombones which distort the vocals. Another transition leads us into a faster section, which features one of the more melodic sections of this arrangement, allowing strings to come through briefly. Everything then comes together increasing in volume, before transitioning into the final segment of the piece, which has a bit of fanfare to it. I don’t recognize the theme, but it is very uplifting, bringing different orchestral elements together all at once. The French horns in this section sound a bit off though — not really out of tune, but sounding a little too thing. The ending of this track is also a little disorienting, because while there are strong vocal hits which provide an excellent dynamic ending, the piece comes to a close after them with a softer instrumental bed.
Moving into more pleasant territory, we’ll take a look at the Civilization IV Medley. For the most part, “pleasant” is a very apt term for this track, because there are no strange surprises or out of place volumes. The entire track just sounds “right”. In part, I think this can be attributed to the instrument choices. Some simple percussive elements join in with tribal choir fill the majority of the track with strings providing a simple accompaniment. Additional instruments are introduced when the track calls for them (such as intervals between vocal segments or at vocal builds), but for the most part they allow the vocals to be the focus. I really enjoy the melodic nature of this track, because it is always moving into something different, whether that be a different key, a louder volume, or simply an increase in the number of voices being featured.
To finish off the review, let’s take a look at the Myst Medley. This is one track that I had high hopes for, because I really enjoy the music from the Myst franchise. Although it isn’t perfect (far from it), it does have elements that I like. The string work in this track is nicely done, staying sharp and focused where necessary and blending well with other instruments in other sections of the track. The opening segment of the piece is very nice, focusing on these sharp strings and light vocal. Transitioning into the next segment, the iconic light electronic work from the series is showcased, combining these elements with strings and choir vocals. The track picks up speed for the next section, which showcases these electronic elements more, combining them with sharp and quick tribal choir elements. The track then transitions into the opening from Myst III, one of my favorite pieces from the Myst repertoire. This section really shines, because the powerful choir element is balanced well with the orchestral melodic segments. I would have liked the strings to be a little more prominent, however. The piece then mimics the original by picking up speed heading into the conclusion of the track. The percussion is a little strong here, but for the most part the balance is maintained. The ending does feel a little rushed however, but all the major elements are there, so I am happy with it.
One of the things that strikes me about this album is the track selection. With over thirty different franchises represented it the Video Games Live repertoire, even with the obvious omissions due to license issues, I have to question why this particular track list was chosen. It seems to me that with so much variation to choose from, a more diverse selection could have been better represented on the album. Partly because of the track selection and more so because of the pieces chosen to be featured in the arrangements, the overall presence produced by the album is a little one sided and repetitive. Besides the Medal of Honor and Civilization arrangements, nothing else stands out as being particularly noteworthy. If you’ve been to see the show and you want some memorabilia, then pick up this album and give it a listen once and a while. If you enjoy the arrangements, then that’s fine too. But for anyone looking at this album with the hopes that it will represent those original themes in a positive light, or for those looking to add this to their collection of orchestrated game music shows, I would recommend omitting this album and picking up the original soundtracks instead.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Andre Marentette. Last modified on January 17, 2016.