Video Games Live Level 2 CD
Video Games Live Level 2 CD
October 19, 2010
Buy at Amazon
Video Games Live: Level Two is the successor to 2008’s Video Games Live: Volume One. Whereas the first album was a studio-recorded audio CD, its successor focuses on live performances. Nevertheless, both albums feature wildly popular orchestral/rock arrangements of video game music organized by Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall (who also serves as the conductor for this album). Knowing that this is a live album, one must approach it with the following expectations:
1. There will be crowd noise in the form of applause, cheering, and the odd cough.
2.Tracks will have slight flaws that are not present in studio recordings (soloists may be slightly off-pitch, an entrance may be a split second later than it should be, etc.)
3. The audience will be reacting to visual cues that you, the listener, will not be privy to.
If you’ve already seen Video Games Live (in person or on DVD), does this CD provide enough of a unique auditory experience to justify its cost? With these caveats in mind, this review will attempt to answer whether this album is worth purchasing, or if you should you spend the extra $3.00 to buy the DVD version of the concert instead.
A quick look at the track list shows that this album shares a seven track overlap with its predecessor, Video Games Live: Volume One, which leaves nine tracks unique to the Level Two CD. Most of these are also featured on the equivalent DVD release, though there are a few absolute exclusives here. The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra picks up with the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra left off in Volume One and they handle the arrangements admirably with their featured soloists, leaving nothing to be desired. The same cannot be said about the mixing of the sound engineers, who all but spoil many tracks with overly loud soloist microphones.
“Baba Yetu (Duet Version)” represents Civilization IV and opens to enthusiastic applause from the audience. While the piece begins perfectly and exhibits Christopher Tin’s tremendous compositional talent, it collapses when the two soloists are introduced as they clearly overpower the rest of the arrangement. They’re quite talented and energetic but the sound mixer really should have turned their track down since the supporting work of the orchestra and chorus almost disappear as a result of this oversight. A cleaner, more polished, adaptation of this track featuring a somewhat different arrangement can be heard on the first album, which I would endorse over this live performance.
The “Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross Medley” would be better in a studio recording too. Tallarico begins the track with a confusingly redundant introduction (“This is the music… to Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross!”). This leads to gales of applause from the audience that persist throughout and distract from an otherwise enjoyable arrangement. In particular, the flute soloist’s more subtle work is lost in the crowd noise, but there is a great tenderness in the performance which the acoustic guitars (played by Tallarico and Wall) supplement this perfectly before Chrono Cross moves to an incredibly upbeat arrangement carried by the string section.
What disappointed me the most about Chrono Cross is the piece that followed, “World of Warcraft: Lament of the Highborne”, is is a perfect example of what the tracks on the album should have been. There is no introduction or crowd noise (until the end), and it features a great vocal performance by Vangie Gunn who is supported by the orchestra and choir perfectly. Gunn’s tendency to slide slightly off pitch and the echo of the hall are permissible imperfections that help one appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of the live performances all the more. Likewise “God of War: Revenge and Redemption” is epic from the outset and swelling throughout, with the threnody style of the female vocals working well to establish the Greecian theme of the piece. The percussion driven second theme is an incredible and faithful orchestral adaptation of the game score, which doesn’t deviate much from what you’d expect to hear on your PlayStation.
One compelling feature of Video Games Live is blindfolded pianist Martin Leung. After a small representation on the first volume, he contributes “Mario Solo Piano Medley” and “Final Fantasy Solo Piano Medley” here, neither of which, I believe, were actually recorded live due to the complete lack of crowd noise. These studio-recorded are both impressive performances by Leung who adapts the various themes of the original Super Mario Bros. in a mercurial piano adaptation (complete with sound effects!) “Final Fantasy Piano Medley” encompasses many themes from the franchise, including a very dulcet rendition of Zanarkand, Aerith’s Theme, Terra’s Theme, and Melodies of Life, albeit in a somewhat abrupt way. If you’re a fan of video game music or solo piano performance, you are likely to enjoy these tracks.
Leung’s scintillating performance unfortunately upstages the orchestra’s “Super Mario Brother Medley” which is a rather lackluster arrangement that falls flat with the audience. This is thrown into contrast with “The Legend of Zelda Suite” which opens to a tremendous crowd reaction that unfortunately distracts from the establishment of the main theme. This continues throughout the piece every time the recognizable first notes of the Zelda melody begin and ultimately distracts from the variations which the orchestra was attempting to perform… which is a shame since this is exactly the innovation I was hoping for.
“Sonic the Hedgehog: Staff Credits” opens the audience going absolutely wild when the chorus sings “SEGA!” at the outset of the piece, but rapidly loses steam (and the audience’s interest) two minutes in. It’s not a bad arrangement, by any means, but certainly isn’t the most current or popular game on the list, which makes me wonder why it’s the fourth-longest track. It is unfortunate that the arrangement of “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty Theme” is so short in comparison to Sonic. It is the shortest track on the album, but easily one of the most enjoyable, offering a great blend of the chorus with the low brass section (which can be a bit “splatty”, admittedly) and ultimately produces an soaring, strident piece.
Similar to Chrono Cross, I found Tallarico’s introduction for “The Megaman Montage” to be superfluous. Once you overlook that, and the ensuing audience reaction, the montage offers a great use of Tallarico’s rock guitar at the 1:45 mark, which really helps conceptualize the Mega Man theme as rock (man… +10 obscure NES reference points!), which is as good as it is energetic. Tallarico’s guitar also features nicely in “Halo Montage”, which juxtaposes Gregorian chant vocals with gritty electric guitar riffs that counterbalance softer moments of the piece nicely. Audience reaction is loud, but expected.
Coming to the closers, “Castlevania Rock Overture” opens like a circus with plenty of crowd noise Tallarico’s thrasonic introduction (“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! BOYS AND GIRLS! Please put your hands together for the one, the only, CASTLEVANIA!) Both are, perhaps, forgivable considering this high-energy piece is the closer of the set. I found the audience call and response of “HEY HEY HEY!” to be catchy, if distracting. If nothing else, it reminds you that this is a wildly popular live performance, although again redundant with the first volume. “Final Fantasy VII: One Winged Angel (Rock Edition)” is the encore and starts off extremely well but quickly falls apart. Tallarico’s guitar is mixed oppressively over the orchestra once he hits his stride and the chorus seems to be struggling with the lyrics, which lose everything of their pseudo-latin grandeur in this performance. Crowd noise congests much of the gaps between guitar and chorus, and Tallarico’s bellowing of “Come on, sing it with us!” is the last Omnislash needed to finish it off. With all of these competing distractions, the foreboding feel of the song barely makes its way to the listener’s ear. In short, I hated this track.
I find it difficult to endorse this album as a worthwhile purchase. With so many tracks overlapping the first Video Games Live CD, it is a difficult sell to begin with. If you are interested in experiencing the feel of the a Video Games Live concert, you would be better served buying the DVD and enjoying the visual spectacle of sweeping laser arrays and game footage on towering screens above the stage.
If you are interested in great standalone tracks that aren’t compromised by shoddy sound mixing and crowd noise, I would recommend saving $5.00 off of the album price and downloading “World of Warcraft: Lament of the Highborne”, “Super Mario Brothers Solo Piano Medley”, “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty Theme” and “Final Fantasy Solo Piano Medley” à la carte from iTunes or Amazon. Follow this advice and you’ll be quite happy that you listened to me and, more importantly, listened to them.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Matt Diener. Last modified on August 1, 2012.