Xenosaga Episode I
Xenosaga Episode I
May 19, 2004
Buy at CDJapan
When the words Xenosaga Episode I spring to mind, the word ‘epic’ is not far away. ‘Epic’ as a word is source to great ambiguity, but I consider it to reflect a vast inspiration that brings about a large-scale production yielding impressive results. Xenosaga Episode I, a re-release of the Xenosaga Original Soundtrack with many new goodies, fulfils all three such criteria beyond doubt. How so? I will explain.
The production of the game Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht from Monolith Soft was one of epic proportions: the game was to be heavily cinematic; it was to rely greatly upon a sci-fi based storyline; and it was intended to have extensive gameplay. Most importantly, it was to be the first of four prequels to the immensely popular Xenogears, which was released in 1998 more than four years before it to form a unit known as ‘Xenosaga’. The pressure upon its original score was immense; the sheer scale of the game, the high quality of the production values, and the enormity of expectation from the fans of Xenogears all meant that its original scores had to achieve mammoth results. The pressure was on…
If you read the liner notes for the initial release of the Xenosaga soundtrack, you will see that it was the desire of Tetsuya Takahashi (the game director) that the music would overpower the graphics. In the previous games he had worked on (from Final Fantasy IV to Xenogears), the music did exactly that and he wanted this to happen again; however, with visuals being so strong and prominent in the game, this seemed somewhat like a pipe dream. Even Takahashi himself was sceptical. What was the solution? Yasunori Mitsuda. As a freelance composer, Yasunori Mitsuda was neither tied to Namco (who produced Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht) nor Square Enix (whom he split with in 1998 after the Xenogears Original Soundtrack). However, the fact his army of fans loved his work for Xenogears and wanted him to return contributed to giving him the will to agree to work on the first instalment of the Xenosaga series (along with a big pay check, no doubt).
Mitsuda’s approach is significantly different to all his previous works, despite holding some comparable similarities. There are numerous attempts at experimentation throughout the score and, while a lot of the tracks are similar in style (particularly the action tracks), Mitsuda experiments nonetheless wherever he can. A wide array of styles are therefore interpreted, ranging from ‘new age’ to great operatic to impressionist. However, unlike certain scores, Mitsuda’s experimentation is sufficiently subtle to avoid the risk of alienating his fans. These attempts therefore prove likeable to the casual listener and even better for the more thorough analyst. In addition, unlike most of his scores, which result primarily in background music being produced, Mitsuda appears to consider the programmatic music to accompany the game’s cinematic sequences to be much more important. (This was probably as a result of advice from producers rather than his decision, however). This was to have mixed success in the game, however, with the non-cinematic gameplay being left heavily neglected.
Perhaps the greatest change is that the small ensemble compositions abundant throughout Xenogears and Chrono Cross are gone (all but a few exceptions) and replaced by solo instrumental tracks and full orchestral/choral ones instead. Before starting the Xenosaga Original Soundtrack, Mitsuda was an amateur with orchestration, making the task seem quite intimidating; however, by the end of it he was a developed professional almost resembling that of Koichi Sugiyama (whom he was influenced by while sound programming for Hanjuku Hero). It’s a shame he didn’t seem to enjoy the task more. The inspiration — from eager fans, a devoted director, and Mitsuda himself — was undeniably immense. The task had been set to create one of the most epic original scores in VGM history. Was Mitsuda to succeed?
As far as production is concerned, never before had a Japanese video game score been treated with an approach that reflected sheer enormity. The full-blown approach to the recording process concerned with this score played the biggest part in this. Unlike Mitsuda’s earlier scores (and most other VGM scores for that matter) that used their respective game console’s sound chips predominantly to generate synth sound, the bulk of this production used pre-recorded sound rather than the PlayStation 2’s sound chip. The majority of synth tracks used were sequenced on Mitsuda’s own equipment by Hidenori Suzuki and were recorded from there. This created synth of very high quality, and, while it obviously doesn’t rival the album’s live orchestral tracks, neither is it significantly undermined by them.
Live orchestral tracks, did I say? Yes, that’s right. If pre-recorded synth sound and Hollywood sound effects weren’t enough, nothing other than the illustrious London Philharmonic Orchestra greets us with their presence in a number of the album’s tracks. In case you are somehow unfamiliar with the London Phil., this is one of the world’s leading symphony orchestras and it has attained a high reputation for its versatility and artistic excellence since its establishment in 1932. Although they are more known for their involvement in film scores than video game scores, they have collaborated with Koichi Sugiyama in the Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites in the past. A full choir, the Metro Voices, is also featured throughout the score often in conjunction with the orchestral tracks. Can a production get any more epic? Actually, yes it can…
If you thought that weren’t quite enough, there are three other treats waiting for you. The first is that a number of acoustic piano tracks are produced, including several solo tracks, as performed by Shelagh Sutherland and Yasuharu Nakanishi. It is true that the Xenosaga Original Soundtrack uses the solo piano as an instrument much more prominently than any of Mitsuda’s other solo scores. The second treat is that the Ittetsu Gen String Quartet make an appearance in two tracks, “Nephilim” and “Pain,” while respectively accompanying pianist Yasuharu Nakanishi and vocalist Joanne Hogg. Yes, Joanne Hogg (best known as the vocalist in the Christian Celtic band Iona as well as the diva for Xenogears) as the diva for the album’s two love ballads, “Pain” and “Kokoro.” That’s the third treat for you! Are you impressed? You ought to be…
Perhaps the greatest thing about the production is not its magnitude, which is clearly on par with a standard film score, but how effortlessly a number of formats come together. By including the London Philharmonic in parts of any score, it runs the risk of making the other parts of the score sound comparatively feeble; however, by using superb pre-recorded synth instead of the PlayStation 2’s standard sound chip, this was reduced to a minimum, as was the splitting of live performances and sequenced compositions into separate discs on the re-release. The use of recorded solo instrumental performances and an odd few small ensemble performances throughout the album also helped to reinforce the quality of the music set by the London Philharmonic. By signing up Shelagh Sutherland and Yasuharu Nakanishi as solo pianists, Leslie Pearson as a pipe organist, the Ittetsu Gen String Quartet for certain ensemble tracks, and Joanne Hogg as the diva, Mitsuda’s enormous inspiration was realised by a number of able and high-profiled musicians. Its level of production is left completely unrivalled by most other game original scores and this provided a potential stepping-stone for progression. It is clear that the big budget paid off here, but did it yield the desired results?
When a work is of this magnitude, you might consider it inevitable that it will yield huge results, particularly when Yasunori Mitsuda is composing. You might be justified to some extent in saying this; however, the success of Mitsuda’s work is much greater on Xenosaga Episode I than in the game, surprisingly. It seems ironic that one of the best soundtracks of all time suffers from being the most poorly integrated soundtrack to emerge in recent history. Due to the fact the majority of the tracks (in which there are only 45 in the first place) are used to accompany the cinematic in-game sequences and are thus only used a few times (sometimes just once), there is a great shortage of other background tracks. The majority of the gameplay sequences are spent in silence. There is just music played in a select few rooms and the normal battle theme “Battle” to add contrast (and “Battle” doesn’t really manage to do even that, considering the theme grows repetitive very quickly due to the little variation as it develops). This leaves major gaps — there isn’t even a boss theme, for example! Industrial-style sound effects are the replacement and they are nowhere near as effective. A video game really suffers as far as memorability, enjoyment, and evocation is concerned without proper integration of a musical score. This was a major mistake as far as the game’s producers are concerned.
While the music accompanying gameplay outside the cinematic sequences is not particularly abundant, when it does occur, it tends to be very welcome. This is primarily because of the diversity of styles Mitsuda has induced as a result of the daring experimentation I mentioned earlier. As a few examples, you get progressive synth chill out in the form of “U.M.D. Mode,” tear-jerking string mastery radiating from “Sadness,” haunting operatic malevolence with the villain’s theme “Albedo,” and even a classical piano arrangement of the traditional English tune “Green Sleeves,” which features a new live performance in this re-release. The only attempt at experimentation that didn’t go so well was “Everyday.” Mitsuda’s poorly considered attempt at 1930’s jazz felt far too blatant to be anything other than an interruptive misfit.
It doesn’t take long to realize that battle and action tracks are what primarily dominates the soundtrack, however. This may strike fear into the eyes of all those who know too well that many of Mitsuda’s past battle themes have suffered the classic BAD Syndrome (Boring, Annoying, Deafening Syndrome). Fortunately only “Battle” and “Followed Space Shuttle” come close to catching this frightful condition while all the other tracks remain immune thanks to their unique merits. “Life or Death,” for example employs use of some outstanding metrical expansion by incorporating the “Gnosis” theme, which is discussed later, and transforming it from 3/4 to 4/4. “Panic” goes with the stridently dissonant approach by initiating with a forceful yet potentially oppressive percussion overdrive until it ‘mellows’ as a few melodic passages develop. While overpowering at first, it manages to be quite effective overall. Do you remember the “One Who Bares Fangs At God” in the Xenogears Original Soundtrack? Well, “Last Battle” is very reminiscent of this theme what with its peculiar, rather jocular format, although its results are very much more appreciable. It builds up rather magically from a bouncy violin and piano ostinato into a complex orchestral work featuring some great integration of male vocals. Still, while the action themes clearly boast their great individual value, their overall dominance to the soundtrack, particularly once the cinematic action themes have been added, is a mixed blessing. Although battle themes are an obvious fan’s favourite and add to the epic and impressive nature of the score, there is no doubt that they can be potentially overpowering in bulk. This makes the score considerably less balanced than Mitsuda’s scores for Xenogears and Chrono Cross and perhaps somewhat less subtle.
Despite the music for gameplay being very limited, Mitsuda’s effort spent on the cinematic sequences certainly pulled off in both the game and its soundtrack, however. As game director Tetsuya Takahashi remarked seeing the finished product in all its glory, “The music overpowers the visuals” hence fulfilling his dream. The very first orchestral performance in the soundtrack, “Prologue,” for example, builds steadily from an ambient sci-fi passage featuring strings and clarinets into a typical aggressive passage only to conclude with a soothing chorale. However, while highly successful on a programmatic note, it has to be considered that Mitsuda clearly didn’t inject it with as great a musical substance as other tracks and the London Philharmonic’s performance was actually surprisingly weak. Fortunately “Opening” is better, however, with synth programming being carefully administered to create a delectable blend of ‘electro-acoustic’ (in inverted commas, considering it actually entirely synthetic) music. This theme is crucial for engaging the gamer and listener initially to the sci-fi theme presented in the game and its soundtrack. On this particular release, “Prologue” is an early addition to the first disc, while “Opening” initiates the second disc, demonstrating the split of pre-recorded performances and synthetic pieces.
If you’re looking for magical synchronisation with the game’s visuals, the fully orchestral action track “Gnosis” is the greatest highlight of the score. It sounds utterly tremendous thanks to the brute force of the brass dominating the track. Mitsuda avoids making this action track unmusical however, by carefully balancing the overpowering, characteristically fff passages with quieter interludes. Such a technique is carried over for the powerful “Durandal” and the extraordinary non-cinematic “Fighting KOS-MOS” as well. His approach with “U-TIC Engine,” possibly the best track on the score, is distinctly different. This ghostly martial march is blaringly dissonant throughout (not a good thing for some people), but is made pleasing and imaginative by the use of timbres throughout. A variety of textures are experimented with from tremolo strings to flutter-tonguing flutes to even deathly chanting from tenor vocals. Mitsuda is sure to use the London Phil and the choir to their fullest here and this achieves repulsive yet somehow striking results within the game. “Omega” is again very different in approach against “Gnosis” and “U-TIC Engine.” Its wide range of instruments — a solo trumpet, full orchestra, full choir, Hollywood sound effects, an acoustic guitar, and even an overdubbed electric guitar — make it perhaps the most ambitious track. Still, despite its unusual instrumental combinations, it manages to be one of the greatest pieces of electro-acoustic music I have so far heard. It just works. The last action track of the game, “Escape,” doesn’t manage to be quite as unique on a musical note as the other tracks, but it still manages to build up a climactic feel thanks to its intense orchestration and its numerous rasping leitmotifs.
The cinematic sequences aren’t just about action, however. The game boasts three chorales sung in Latin by the Metro Voices that really stand out for their celestial charms. The a capella “Ormus” is the most complex of the three. It is stunning how a number of tonal colours and contrasting passages flawlessly combine together here to create a work unparalleled for its richness and musicality in the score. “The Resurrection” is certainly less complex and is little more than a capella Gregorian chant; however, it remains mesmerising nonetheless thanks to the warmth of its intricate polyphonies. It is unfortunate they found no place to include it within the game. “The Miracle” is definitely the most outwardly impressive of the three. It uses similar structures to that of “The Resurrection,” however the driving rhythms of the accompanying strings and the heavily punctuated articulation of the vocals make it much more agitated. In the latter part of the track, the entrance of some fierce timpanis marks the start of an alarming climax that you cannot help but enjoy (and tremble at). Two other tracks worthy of mentions would be the ambient gems “Anxiety” and “Awakening.” The former is particularly well done and, while dominated almost entirely by piano and strings, their original use and synchronisation gives way for some haunting textural contrasts as the track develops.
The firmest fans’ favourites would definitely be the sensitive music that accompanies the game’s soppy cinematic sequences. “Beach of the Void,” for instance, is a string ensemble track that manages to do so much out of so little, enhanced greatly by the new recording in the re-release. Its disjointed melodies, unvaried harmonies, and fragile textures all play a part towards establishing a great sense of loneliness and emptiness throughout the track. The numerous instrumental renditions of the “Kokoro” main theme are often touching too despite my indifference to the vocal version itself. “KOS-MOS” and “The Girl Who Closed Her Heart” have very similar and rather simple arrangements of this theme yet differ in their timbres, considering the former is a pipe organ solo as performed by Leslie Pearson, while the latter is a piano solo performed Shelagh Sutherland. Both interpretations are truly agonising to listen to, however, and this is thanks to the magnificent performances from these two soloists. Both shape the phrases of the original melodies with so much subtle and musical sophistication. The versatile timbres of the pipe organ return for the highly decorative introduction into “Zarathustra” from where it develops into a striking classical piece that is host to some of the most poignant and dramatic passages featured in a video game. It features the strongest string use in the soundtrack and boasts extraordinary use of a full choir and Eimaar Quinn’s solo chorus. You don’t get much better than this!
The extent to which you appreciate the two ballads, “Pain” and “Kokoro,” that conclude this soundtrack depends strictly upon whether you were a fan of Mitsuda’s previous vocal themes; the format, style and instrumentation used in these themes are practically identical to those of the vocal themes from Xenogears and Chrono Cross. They prove perfectly amicable and enjoyable from the point of view of their strong melodies and benefit from the fact that Joanne Hogg’s vocal use is so commendable. However, if you are looking at this score in the light of a progressive achievement for VGM then these carbon copies don’t really have a place in the score. If this doesn’t bother you and its other features are sufficient to win your approval then so be it. The piano version of “Pain” recorded for the re-release does offer something different, however, a warm melodic line being enhanced by a subtle performance from Yasuharu Nakanishi, demonstrating elegance in simplicity. This, together with the fascinatingly layered orchestral and choral theme “World to be Born,” are the two brand new tracks featured in this re-release.
The outcome of this original score is in some ways quite variable: On one hand Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht boasted some of the best programmatic music written for VGM as far as the cinematic sequences are concerned; however, the music to accompany the non-cinematic gameplay was insufficient in quantity to provide a full musical backing to the game, and it was therefore foolishly ignored. Nonetheless, Mitsuda’s music is a source of endless delight and leaves an amazing impression: the action tracks are breathtaking (though a little too dominant); the emotional tracks are strongly heartfelt; and the other tracks present expand upon the great diversity of styles integral to this score. The fully orchestral tracks and the three chorales certainly prove the most established tracks in the soundtrack. Whether this is because Mitsuda’s composition is genuinely better here or whether the London Phil. and the Metro Voices simply add an extra intensity to Mitsuda’s composition that a synth track cannot commit is a matter of personal contemplation. Still, no track is undermined by the quality of the next, with tracks for solo instrumentals, small ensembles, large ensembles, and pre-recorded synth all coming together to create impressive and highly distinguished results, even if the first disc is likely the one most will endlessly revisit.
Hopefully my review brought you round full circle into assessing the heroic voyage none other than Xenosaga Episode I. The soundtrack’s elements — Yasunori Mitsuda’s ever-inspired composition, the grand scale of the production processes, and its impressive impact on both on the game and in its own right — make it definitely worthy of the title ‘epic soundtrack’. Despite the split of pre-recorded and sequenced themes in this re-release disrupting the flow of the soundtrack slightly, the bonus of five excellent new recordings and two brand new tracks are sufficient reasons to buy Sleigh Bells’ version, which is also more true to Yasunori Mitsuda’s original intentions. It would be inexcusable not to pick the album up if you have the opportunity to buy it.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.