King Records; Nihon Falcom
K32X-7710 (1st Edition), K28H-4710 (Tape); NW10102300 (CD – Edition)
November 5, 1988; December 22, 1999
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There was a time when I searched around online, sifting through list after list in search of any game album that had the words “orchestral” or “arranged” in the title. Other than a few Final Fantasy titles, that process did not yield many results. One result of that, and a very notable result, was Ys Symphony. I was not, and am still not, familiar with any other Ys titles, but from what I can tell, most of the music is very rock-oriented. How does this translate into a fully orchestrated symphonic suite? Despite being performed by an orchestra, its roots are still very apparent — there is a very modern feel to these pieces. With this being the case, it would almost be expected that such an album would yield simplistic arrangements targeted at the same rock-oriented group. Well, it doesn’t. In fact, this is a surprisingly thoughtful album, well orchestrated, and very enjoyable. The late Kentaro Haneda, who has had extensive experience creating music for animes, games, and concerts, is responsible for the arrangement here. Again, I’m not familiar with the original tracks that were orchestrated here, so I shall review these pieces not as arrangements, but by themselves, as simply good music.
“Chapter 1” begins very forebodingly with a deep pulsing before the percussion carries the piece away to an epic fare for powerful brass. A softer transitional section for winds and strings sends the piece on the rest of its eleven-minute journey. The first movement, “Feena”, presents a wondrous theme for strings, supported by horns, and given an almost jazzy, Latin feel with muted trumpets and nearly constant, soft Latin percussion. When a gentle tapping comes in, you can sense that the piece is about to take off, and that it does. We are presented with a heroic theme performed by trumpets and then taken over by the violins. A string ostinato emerges separated by punctuated brass before a more ominous section moves the piece on to another movement. The twinkling of chimes, soft plucking of the harp, and lush violin solos mark this next section, “Palace”, as both a way to cool off from the action that preceded and as a way to brace the listener for the tumultuous finale of this chapter. At about 6:40, the piece loops, going through the “Feena” and “First Step Toward Wars” movements, before the same string ostinato from before leads us to a very fast-paced variation on the “Feena” theme before blasting off to a glorious climax. This final recapitulation should go down in history as the most notes to occupy a single, 20-second period.
“Chapter II” begins with a bang with racing strings bringing the track to its first heroic melody for trumpet. It’s a very strange track that seems to juxtapose more popular, cinematic sounding music with strictly Classical; I daresay it works. The next section is much more steady and resolute and presents the main theme that will be expanded upon throughout the rest of the track. Beginning with soft woodwinds and then moving to strings, the theme is determined yet wavering before leading into a triumphant fanfare and settling down once again with lush strings. The next section is perhaps the best. The main theme is presented by an oboe, showing the oboe’s full astounding range (who knew that an oboe could go so low?), then a trumpet with winds, strings, and percussion providing some interesting colour. Next we have a steady rhythm, setting a nearly militaristic tone, with the same theme but presented more sternly with steady trumpets and woodwind trills between phrases. After an interlude for swirling strings, we’re back to the militaristic side of this piece. It gains intensity before reaching the climax with brass hits and… castanets!
After hearing both those movements in all their heroic glory, you might be expecting something rather similar now. That’s where this album throws in a major curve. “Chapter III” is written for a smaller ensemble including violin, cello, flute, oboe, and horn solos. It is in this movement that a more Classical approach is truly embraced to wondrous results. The first section is bouncy and pleasant, but once it has reached full development, a mournful cello solo takes the track to its next, achingly beautiful section. This rather romantic theme is reprised by a violin solo before seamlessly transitioning into the jaunty beginning material again. While all of these pieces are medleys and all of them are great pieces, this is the only one that really flows. With a CD full of swashbuckling, emotionally draining (in a good way), and lively music, this pastoral piece is successfully sweet, but not saccharine, making a much-needed break from the action. I hope you enjoyed it, because “Chapter IV” gets the adrenaline pumping even higher than the other movements.
“Chapter IV” begins with a glorious trumpet fanfare before sending us off on its exquisite journey with a deep string ostinato punctuated by exotic percussion and winds. The main melody has a strange Eastern flair, and its development is impeccable, flowing from one phrase to the next logically, being familiar yet original. An invigorating section for racing strings with percussion and trumpet hits keep the movement going until the piece practically stops, ushering a new, more reflective section. This section contains wondrous instrumental colour, with the melody being presented by strings only, then winds only, and eventually all instrument groups come full circle to the final “breather” moment — after this, you’ll get no breaks from the adrenaline. If the next section reminds you a bit too much of the “Superman March” by John Williams, then you’re not alone. It is a bit too close to that famous piece bordering on plagiarism, but it’s in the spirit of the piece, being triumphal and shamelessly heroic and flamboyant
Continuing with “Chapter IV”, next is a playful piece for winds and xylophone before the snare drums come in and another determinate melody for brass. Subsequently another string ostinato that seems lifted exactly from “Chapter I” segues into the glorious build-up into the quasi-Superman theme; then w”re back on track with the somewhat Arabian-sounding theme and the opening fanfare. The main melody begins to play, staccato and furious, but then a very strange thing happens. Before it reaches the refrain, it is jarringly interrupted by a lush section for strings and winds. It is a strange way to assure that monotony does not set it, and it is certainly effective and also strangely fits in with the rest of the piece, although it takes on an almost Baroque flair. Then we’re back to the Superman theme once again. Unfortunately, we’ve already heard all the original material for this piece; the rest is a mere succession of reprises of previous thematic material before it reaches a very short-lived climax. While it may seem I was disappointed by this last piece, the original material, however repetitive, is still strong enough to make this piece up to the ridiculously high standard set by the rest of the movements.
The recording quality on this CD is something to behold, being both atmosphere and crystal clear, with just the right amount of that ‘dated’ sound that makes the strings sound more edgy and the brass more ballsy, if you know what I mean. The performance is also great, but not immaculate. There are a few moments, when the trumpets are blaring the high notes that they miss ever so slightly. It’s not that noticeable, but it had to be mentioned. The Latin percussion adds a great deal to the exotic flair of these pieces. The one very interesting thing about this is that the music is very immediately enjoyable, but also warrants repeated listens, revealing a lot more going on under the surface. At times, the music is actually very complex. Every track is a medley, presenting a few to several different themes within each movement, and the miracle is that there is not a single boring, uninteresting, or unmemorable melody in the entire album. The only issue is that the themes aren’t entirely original sounding either, especially the material from “Chapter IV” that sounds lifted directly from Superman. That does not put a damper on this album in the least, however. This particular release was rare when I bought it years ago, but it’s now easily available at VGM World, so why not buy it. It’s a marvelous album that entertains from start to finish.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Duncan MacIvor. Last modified on January 16, 2016.