Xenosaga Original Soundtrack
Xenosaga Original Soundtrack
March 6, 2002
Buy Xenosaga Episode I Instead
I am a somewhat peculiar specimen in the vast industry of game soundtrack reviewers. While it seemed that everyone and their mother was praising Xenogears as one of the greatest soundtracks of all time, I actually found it to be quite disappointing. Maybe it was the hype. Maybe it was the style. Don’t get me wrong — I’d take a bullet for Yasunori Mitsuda any day of the week. I just didn’t think the Xenogears Original Soundtrack was as good as, say, Chrono Trigger‘s score. I would even rank Mitsuda’s work for the Mario Party games as better stuff than what was seen in Xenogears.
I’ve figured out that what first got me hooked on Mitsuda was his light, whimsical music. Chrono Trigger was choke-full of it. While it had its share of sad and angry tunes, very few of the tracks could be called “heavy” or “hardcore”. (The same goes for the Mario Party games, but even more so.) The Xenogears Original Soundtrack was a surprising move away from this kind of music, and what let me down so much was not that Mitsuda was trying something new, but that he hadn’t quite let go of his old style. And the light-hearted tracks of Xenogears tended to be the ones I clung to, probably because they were the ones that reminded me the most of Chrono Trigger. I was afraid to embrace this new, serious Mitsuda, and I have a feeling that Mitsuda himself wasn’t quite comfortable either.
In the Xenosaga Original Soundtrack, Mitsuda finally takes hold of a style that he could only faintly grasp in Xenogears. This is serious stuff. It’s a delightfully dark, foreboding style that combines traditional movie-style symphonic pieces with some heavy industrial instrumentals. With some twists thrown in there, too. I grouped some of the more notable so tracks in this soundtrack into groups according to their style. This is not to say that the tracks are divided. The dark atmosphere binds these pieces together and gives them a cohesion that Xenosaga lacked. The track arrangment is also quite good, so that one style does not get repeated over and over again.
While listening to Xenosaga, you feel that the whole time this soundtrack is building up to something big. For the mood pieces, foreshadowing some sort of eerie plot twist, this goes without saying. The battle themes do it too — while listening to them, you feel like you’re taking part in somesort of nightmarish, never-ending series of fights. There is rarely any release to this tension, so the battles always feel like there is “just one more baddie to go”. The same is true for the soft pieces and the small number of happy victory themes. Of course there are exceptions, like the aptly named “Everyday,” which is a nice relaxing piece that evokes a calm, beachy mood. But in general, the Xenosaga Original Soundtrack keeps you waiting in anticipation of the next piece. Sometimes it’s creepy and foreboding, sometimes it’s more of a cry of despair. But there’s always this ever-building tension there, pulling you in deeper and deeper as you listen, and continually raising the bar for each successive track.
Just popping in the first disc and listening to the “Prologue” should put you in just the right mood. It starts out with a very conventional symphonic opening that is a bit like John Williams’ mood music for Star Wars. Then the whole brass and percussion sections start a revolution in motion, followed by the strings and their weird off-beat rhythms. Pretty soon the whole orchestra is in a frenzy. A choir of voices then comes in to soothe the anxiety for a while, wrapping your ears up in a soft musical blanket. But even in this sweet passage, there is something that is not quite right — a hint of dissonance that leaves you ready for something a bit darker. A bit of side story about this piece: the first time I heard it, I was riding in a car on a lonely road in Sequoia National Park at night. I can’t imagine a more appropriate setting for this piece. Don’t ever try this unless you like feeling on edge. It’s very creepy stuff!
“Opening” introduces the industrial side to this soundtrack. It’s quite a contrast to the narrative “Prologue” and is definitely more ambient, which is not surprising for slow industrial music. (Note that I use “industrial” rather loosely, just as most people probably use the term “metal” loosely.) You’ve got to love those instruments, from the electronic tones to the factory sound effects, to the droning voice “hum”. These two tracks are actually a great representation of the basic tone of the soundtrack. If you’re not sure about buying Xenosaga, see if some nice person would be willing to send you samples of these two — and if you like them, you’re bound to love the rest.
There are many fine examples of the symphonic and industrial styles on both discs. The ones on Disc One tend to be more instrumental and menacing, building up to some unknown climactic terror. Sometimes they are vague and ambient, like the symphonic “Shion’s Crisis” or the industrial “Starting Examination.” Other times, they are right there in your face. “U-TIC Engine” sounds like an evil army is on the march, and it hides none of its sinister character — it even has a chorus of evil laughs at the end. It’s also a great fusion of both the symphonic and industrial styles. Fusion pieces such as this one are found all over Xenosaga, especially in the second disc. Some of them are quite unusual, such as “Omega” on Disc Two, which features an electric guitar.
Disc Two also features some fantastic choir work, blending a religious motif with the hard symphonic and industrial stuff that is introduced in the first disc. I assume the game features a similar blending of themes (which isn’t surprising, given that Xenogears did exactly this). “The Resurrection” is a beautiful joyous song, going against the dark grain of the soundtrack for a bit. “Zarathustra” and “Song of Nephilim,” however, are quite the opposite. Then there’s “Proto Merkabah,” with its white noise sound effects blended with a single voice crying out in despair. And then there’s my personal favorite of the entire soundtrack, “Albedo.” I can’t describe the full effect of this track, so that means you’ve got to go out and listen to it. It features a tenor singing as though he were part of some dark opera, backed up by a full orchestra, which is pretty unnerving in itself. The end of his passage is this haunting “oooh oooh oooooowoooooh,” which is sure to send shivers down your spine. But it gets better. The singer and the whole orchestra immediately drop out, and all that it heard is a single piano playing this back-and-forth sequence of minor chords, and the creepiness factor increases tenfold. Not even Sephiroth was this creepy.
It is a testament to Yasunori Mitsuda’s skill as a composer that he is able to effectively combine so many different styles of music into a single “uber-style” that makes a single unified impression. Xenosaga would be quite a robust Original Soundtrack even if it stopped with the symphonic and industrial stuff (plus the fusion), but it goes even further than that. There is a healthy helping of solo piano pieces, plus a few other tracks that feature piano as a major instrument. Disc One has “Sadness,” “Shion ~Memories of the Past~”, and “The Girl Who Closed Her Heart.” The last of these is one of my favorites, as it sounds just like one of Chopin’s Nocturnes. Disc Two has “Nephilim,” “Warmth,” and “Shion ~Emotion~.” All of them are quite well-done, some of them in the style of classical composers, though you’ll realize that both of the Shion tracks are piano renditions of the soundtrack’s main theme “Kokoro,” which I’ll get to in a moment. An interesting addition to Xenosaga is Disc Two’s “Green Sleeves”, which is a piano rendition of that famous ancient song. While I didn’t think Mitsuda’s version was anything special, I have to admit it was a nice unique touch.
The action themes are also very well-done, borrowing a bit from Xenosaga‘s equally-dark cousin, Final Fantasy VII. “Battle” is obviously the normal battle theme, a nice motivational piece with a moderate tempo. “Battling KOS-MOS,” “Life or Death,” and “Durandal” are also action themes, though they are not used as battle music. And then of course, on Disc Two, we have “Last Battle”. This one bears some special attention. It has some fantastic instrumentation, moving from one rhythm to the next, keeping a repeating piano chord in the background, and building upon it with a rich chanting choir and a violin which plays a theme introduced in a Disc One track, “Gnosis.”
Now we get to the vocal pieces — not the choir songs, but the tracks performed by Joanne Hogg, the same artist who sung the awesome “Small Two of Pieces” in the Xenogears Original Soundtrack. “Kokoro” is a theme heard several times earlier in the soundtrack, in the piano “Shion” pieces plus a chime version on Disc One’s “Emotion” and Disc Two’s organ remix titled “KOS-MOS”. A couple of these are not exact copies of “Kokoro,” but rather variations on a slightly different harmony. Sadly it is a lesser follow-up to “Pain,” the vocal track that precedes it, and I would have felt just fine leaving off the soundtrack entirely. “Pain” is not quite as good as “Small Two of Pieces” in my opinion, but I imagine that personal preference will be a pretty big factor here.
Xenosaga‘s biggest strength, aside from Mitsuda’s successful fusion of several musical styles, is its enormous power. It just builds, builds, and builds, heading for a climax that seems unimaginable. And unfortunately, it remains unimaginable, since the ending tracks prove unable to give this beast a proper finishing job. This should not be taken as an insult to “Pain” or “Kokoro” (well, maybe a little bit to “Kokoro”) but rather as a compliment to the bulk of the Original Soundtrack. It simply raises the bar so high that it cannot surpass itself. To write a proper ending to Xenosaga, Mitsuda would have had to kill himself with the effort. There are a couple filler tracks here and there, but the vast majority of the Xenosaga Original Soundtrack is simply too good to pass up. It’s well worth your money, believe me. If you liked the serious side of Mitsuda that was glimpsed in Xenogears, then Xenosaga will be quite a trip for you. Even if you prefer his lighter stuff, like I do, please give Xenosaga a listen. You just may find a place in your heart for Mitsuda’s serious side, and if you start with Xenosaga intead of Xenogears, you’ll get a much better impression. Xenosaga is the soundtrack that Xenogears *should* have been.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Kero Hazel. Last modified on August 1, 2012.