Three classic albums that should receive video game adaptations

Music has almost always been an integral part of video games.  Good music can make a good game great, and there are even some mediocre to bad games out there that are elevated by their excellent soundtracks (like, for example, Final Fantasy XIII – feel free to get your torches and pitchforks out now!)  I’ve even reviewed a few game soundtracks on this site, and I’ve still got some left to write about.

Since video games and music go so well together, why not make a video game about music?  And I don’t mean a rhythm game – those have already been done and done well. I mean a game centered around a particular musical artist or band.  You might think this would be a pretty dumb idea, but people have already thought of, created, and published a few such games.  These include Moonwalker, a Genesis game in which you play as Michael Jackson and rescue kidnapped children (quite the subject matter considering what he’d be accused of a few years after the game’s release) and Revolution X, an SNES game in which you play as some guy with a CD-shooting gun and rescue kidnapped members of Aerosmith (not sure the 90s-revival version of Aerosmith was really worth saving after hearing that horrible Armageddon song one million times, but sure, why not.)

As ridiculous as those games were, I think we can go further still.  Instead of making a game based on an artist or band, wouldn’t it be even better to make games based on one of their works?  It just so happens that I’ve got three classic 70s albums that I think would translate beautifully into video games.  Any game designer out there is free to use these ideas, though you’ll need to work out the licensing issues with the bands and/or the estates of their deceased members on your own.

Album: Tarkus (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, 1971)

Suggested game genres: 3D tank combat or 2D Mega Man-style platformer

Tarkus was the second studio album put out by progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and it’s the first and perhaps the only album to feature an “armadillo tank” on its cover.  Artist William Neal painted this bizarre album cover at the request of keyboardist Keith Emerson, who wrote a bunch of keyboard-centered instrumental pieces to insert into the title track to Tarkus, a twenty-minute suite about… it’s hard to say what it’s about, exactly.  Supposedly it’s about the armadillo tank on the album cover going on a rampage and battling several other beasts as if it were starring in a kaiju movie (the liner notes contain a whole series of comics in which it does just that.)  But the lyrics to the three songs written by singer/bassist Greg Lake that link together Emerson’s organ and synth freakouts don’t seem to have anything to do with that subject.  Battlefield sounds more suited to the end of Henry V than to a monster movie. And God knows what the hell Stones of Years and Mass are about, but they’re definitely not about an armadillo tank battle.  Oh well, “Tarkus” is an excellent piece of music, even if it is weird and self-indulgent, but “weird and self-indulgent” were the hallmarks of ELP.  They were great musicians and apparently kicked a lot of ass on stage, so who cares if their songs made any sense?

But what sort of game would suit “Tarkus”?  The obvious choice is a tank combat game in which you play as the Tarkus itself.  Then again, it seems like Tarkus would make for a good enemy too.  Since it looks like something Dr. Wily might have built, maybe a Mega Man-style game in which you fight the terrifying armadillo tank would be a better option. Maybe it’s chased Wily off and taken over his castle, and he comes to you and asks you to help recover it for him and promises to be good from now on if you do (and of course he breaks that promise in the next game, but that goes without saying.)  Did I just write the plot of Mega Man 12?  I hope so, because that would be amazing.

Album: Quadrophenia (The Who, 1973)

Suggested game genres: Indie 2D adventure game/brawler hybrid or Key-style depressing visual novel

The Who is one of the biggest, most influential rock bands ever, and Quadrophenia is one of their standout works, an ambitious double-album rock opera.  It’s not quite as well-known as Tommy, the band’s first rock opera (at the very least, it never had a hit as big as “Pinball Wizard”) but it’s arguably even better.  And it even has a way more depressing story, somehow.  Quadrophenia is about Jimmy, a young mod (sort of like a 60s British punk/beatnik hybrid from what I can tell) who uses drugs, gets into street fights with rivals, goes through a bad breakup, and finally questions his role in society and the point of life in general and contemplates suicide.  I can imagine that guitarist/libretto-writer Pete Townshend might have seen some of himself in the main character, since his work often comes off as both depressive and autobiographical.  The fact that the real-life mods were fans of The Who in their early days probably made a difference too.  Of course, all this concept would be worthless in this context if the music were bad, but the music is really damn good.  I could not write a song like 5:15 or Love Reign O’er Me anyway, you can be assured of that.

Quadrophenia was adapted into movie form in 1979, but why not make a game of it as well?  I can see it thriving in the indie game-developing community today, especially since a lot of the themes found on this album (lack of purpose, depression, existential angst) are also common themes in that sphere and among the younger generations today.  I’m imagining a 2D pixel-art game involving some brawling sections River City Ransom-style.  However, there is another option that you never would have guessed a weeb like me would have thought of – a visual novel.  Specifically the really depressing kind of VN, the kind that Japanese developer Key is famous for creating (see Clannad, Air, Kanon, and Planetarian for examples.) The VN format allows for a lot more narrative and dialogue and even for branching story paths based on the player’s decisions. Maybe one good ending can be included, but it should be really difficult to get or only unlock after one or more playthroughs. Or just leave the player with only bad or at best bittersweet endings, just like Key would do.

Album: Mothership Connection (Parliament, 1975)

Suggested game genre: Space-based shooter Surrealistic exploration game

Another bizarre cover to another great album.  Mothership Connection was released by Parliament, one half of a musical cooperative sort of thing with Funkadelic, both led by producer/composer/singer/insane dresser George Clinton.  Both Parliament and Funkadelic put out albums, the main distinction between them being Parliament tended to be more dance-oriented R&B stuff whereas Funkadelic involved a lot more druggy funk-rock experiments.  But the overlap between the two groups and their styles are so great that people usually lump them together as Parliament-Funkadelic, or just P-Funk.  Mothership Connection is probably one of the best albums these guys put out, full of catchy funk tunes with sci-fi themes and some very weird lyrics about… just as with Tarkus, the meaning of a lot of this stuff is unclear.  Flying a spaceship through a nebula made entirely of pot smoke – that’s what listening to this album is like.  I highly recommend checking it out (Side A and Side B are both posted on Youtube along with every other piece of licensed music ever made.)

At first, I thought Mothership Connection would make for a natural space shooter, something like Gradius. But then I realized that these aliens coming in on the mothership aren’t here to fight, they’re here to have a party and probably to spread some otherworldly consciousness-alteration to the people of Earth. At least that’s what I gather from listening to the album. So a more appropriate choice of genre here would be an exploration game with surreal elements, something like LSD: Dream Emulator. Maybe a surreal space sim set to 70s funk/R&B. I don’t think a game like that exists yet, but I would sure as hell play it.

I’m sure there are a lot of other songs and albums out there that would translate into amazing games.  Feel free to post your own ideas below.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this question: did I only write this piece as an excuse to review three albums I like, and also because I’m working all god damn weekend and didn’t have the chance to make progress in any of my games again?

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My seven favorite anime opening themes

Everyone else has made one of these lists, so I thought I should as well.  Also, I’m working overtime this week and weekend, so I didn’t have time to play enough of a game to write about in a meaningful way.  However, I was stuck in my car for several hours this week cumulatively, during which I listened to a lot of old favorites and classics I hadn’t put on for a while.  If there’s one good thing about shitty traffic, it’s the excuse to just sit for a while and listen to music.

Note: I’m not talking about the anime OPs themselves, though I could certainly make a favorites list of those as well. I’m only talking about the songs featured in said OPs. They’re placed here in no particular order, as usual. I’m really not good at ranking stuff if you couldn’t tell already.  There are also quite a few great opening themes that I’m not even bringing up because if I did, this list would be too damn long.

7) Hito Toshite Jiku ga Bureteiru by Kenji Ohtsuki & Zetsubou Shoujotachi  – Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

People feel so strongly about which opening song of the neurotic comedy series Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is the best that they get into internet fights about it. I think they’re all good, but my vote goes to the first season opening song, also known simply as “bure bure” for that repetitive line in the song’s chorus. Singer Kenji Ohtsuki gives the song an especially sharp edge that makes sense, given that he seems to be representing the obsessive, depressive teacher protagonist Itoshiki complaining about how twisted of a man he is.

As if being a teacher weren’t bad enough, I’m also in despair

I also love the fact that the other characters from the show, all students in his homeroom class, are in-character background singers (they’re the ones credited as the “Zetsubou girls”.) This is simply a great song and an appropriate opening to a great show that I still find hard to watch because it reminds me too much of my own neurotic obsessions and fears. Same with Curb Your Enthusiasm. I know it’s good but I just can’t.

6) Katayoku no Tori by Akiko Shikata – Umineko no Naku Koro ni

Okay, just to be clear: the Umineko anime series absolutely sucks and you should not watch it. By all means play the visual novel series, but don’t watch the anime. Studio Deen just completely, utterly fucked the story in the transition to TV. However, one thing they did manage to get right was the music. Umineko has a fantastic soundtrack, and not only did Deen make good use of it in the adaptation, they even included a few songs unique to the show, including the opener “Katayoku no Tori” (“One-Winged Eagle”, a reference to the Ushiromiya family crest) written and sung by Akiko Shikata. I’ve mentioned Shikata already in my Ar tonelico II album review, and her work on the Umineko series is just as good. It’s bombastic and operatic, very fitting to open this supernatural murder mystery. Beatrice the Golden Witch would be proud. Too bad the show itself is crap.

5) Real World by Nano Ripe – Humanity Has Declined

Don’t be fooled by the happy pop sound of “Real World” or the pastel colors in the goofy-looking OP. Humanity Has Declined (Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita if you’re more familiar with that title) really is about the decline of humanity and the rise of the “new humanity”, the Keebler Elf-looking fairies who aren’t antagonists but just want to establish a good relationship with what’s left of our human race through a girl known only as “the mediator”. Unfortunately, this mediator ends up being put through a whole lot of shit thanks to her assignment that I can’t even really start to get into.

Mediator is done putting up with this shit

Humanity Has Declined is a dark comedy hidden in the shell of a light comedy, and “Real World” fits into that structure. It’s more the kind of song you’d expect from a “cute girls doing cute things” slice of life than a series about the fall of the human race. Very bright, energetic, and catchy, and weirdly enough it puts me in a better mood sometimes despite the theme of the show it’s attached to.

4) Tank! by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts – Cowboy Bebop

I can’t very well make a best OP song list without including “Tank!”, the aggressive jazz punch that opens every episode of Cowboy Bebop. I don’t have a whole lot to say about “Tank!” except that it’s amazing. Cowboy Bebop was the second “serious” anime series I ever saw – I stayed up late nights to watch it on Adult Swim long before the days of streaming video services – and the opening sequence knocked me over the first time I saw it. Yoko Kanno and her band the Seatbelts are collectively one of the reasons Cowboy Bebop holds up so well to this day, and large parts of all four of its soundtracks have a permanent place in my playlist.

3) Roundabout by Yes – JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure

Agh – fine, fine, you got me. I’m cheating on this one. It’s not an opening but rather an ending song, specifically to the first season of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. But I couldn’t resist putting “Roundabout” on this list, it’s such a deserving classic, and I didn’t feel like writing a separate list for ending themes, so here it is. Prog-rock progenitors Yes wrote “Roundabout” as the opener to their excellent 1972 album Fragile, but most of the internet now knows it as “that song that plays in the JoJo’s memes just before the ‘To Be Continued’ arrow flies in” thanks to its part in the series.

Fragile also has a great cover.  Someone still has this painted on the side of his van, I guarantee it

Well, it’s no surprise that a classic like “Roundabout” is part of JoJo’s – many of its characters are named after old rock and pop bands and songs, and series creator Hirohiko Araki himself was reportedly a fan of the song. Yeah, the lyrics are insane (sample: in and around the lake / mountains come out of the sky and they stand there and no, these lines don’t make any more sense in the context of the song) but that’s just something you have to get used to when it comes to Yes. Anyway, “Roundabout” is great, though my favorite Yes song is still Starship Trooper, a song that seemingly has nothing to do with the Heinlein novel or anything else you could possibly imagine.

2) Nantoka Nare by Furuido – Mahjong Legend Akagi

There isn’t a song I’ve heard attached to an anime series that captures the idea of world-weariness better than “Nantoka Nare”. This is another early 70s classic, this time by Japanese folk-rockish band Furuido, who wrote and performed a whole lot of other songs that seem to say “sure, the world is fucked, but just keep on going anyway.” That’s more or less the message of this song, a truly powerful one with a lot of feeling behind it. The title character of Akagi is a gambler with a genius-level talent who is so self-assured, but also so willing to take risks that might end up getting him killed just for the sake of finding an even greater challenge, that other characters often think of him as more of a demon than a human. So maybe it’s weird to say that “Nantoka Nare”, which expresses such a human emotion, suits Akagi well as a theme, but somehow it just does.

I know it doesn’t makes a lot of sense without the context, but trust me, this play is all kinds of insane

1) Inner Universe by Yoko Kanno and Origa – Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

This is another obvious pick.  “Inner Universe” fits the feel of Ghost in the Shell incredibly well, and the song is excellent even when it’s removed from that context.  A lot of songwriters and performers trying to pull off a haunting, spine-chilling feel, but Yoko Kanno (again!) and Origa (a Russian-born singer who’s sadly no longer around) succeed at it, thanks largely to Origa’s vocals.  I also just like songs that manage to use more than one language without sounding disjointed, which “Inner Universe” does with alternating lines in Russian, English, and Latin.

Feel free to share your favorite anime opening themes, or ending themes, or just your favorite music in general below.  Or just share how your day was if you want.  Why not?  In the meantime, I hope to finish one of these games I’m working on soon, which is probably contingent on my getting any damn time off work in the near future.  I’m not even eligible for extra overtime wages thanks to the professional exemption.  Can you believe that shit?  If I were in charge… but that’s a subject for a different post, and probably not one I’d ever write here.  If you want to read my angry, bitter screeds, you’ll have to follow my other site.  It’s sort of like the creepy basement to the two-story colonial brick house that this site is.

Okay, when my metaphors start to get this stupid I know it’s time to stop writing.

Music review: Moe Moe EP by Moe Shop

There’s even an out-of-print cassette version for people who are nostalgic for their Walkmans

When I was a kid, CDs were amazing.  They were the big new thing.  Now a CD release is a novelty, and I feel old.  And depressed.

What’s the solution to my depression?  Music won’t cure it, but it sure as hell helps.  I’ve written about the mysterious indie musician/composer Moe Shop once before (that’s moe as in the anime/manga-derived concept of cuteness, not like Moe from The Simpsons) but I haven’t written a proper review of Moe Moe, an EP released last year that’s so damn good I went out of my way to order a physical copy.  The cover really suits the music – this is full of bright electro-funk like someone attached a giant plug to your head and funneled cute female vocals and funk basslines and beats into it.

To be honest with you, dear reader, I wasn’t sure whether to post this review here or on my other site.  This album doesn’t have anything to do with games.  It’s not even a game soundtrack, or an anime series soundtrack, or anything like that – it’s just standalone music.  But I figure this music is weeb/anime-ish enough that it qualifies for inclusion here.  The first time I referred to Moe Shop, I said it was like Parliament-Funkadelic if it were composed of cute anime girls. Like a cute P-Funk that isn’t stoned, or at least isn’t quite as stoned as the actual P-Funk. That’s probably a stupid analogy, but I can’t think of a better one.  I know this stuff is called “future funk”, but I still don’t really know what that means exactly.  Something to do with vaporwave, I guess.

Enough of my bullshit – let’s get to the songs.  There are six on this album, and they’re all good.  However, there are three songs that I especially like.  Virtual is a bit slow-paced and very relaxing, with really nice, smooth vocals and instrumentation (each song has a different singer/lyric-writer collaborating, but all the music is written by Moe Shop.)  Lovesick is quite different.  It’s got a sort of tense feeling, with weirdly deadpan vocals that fit that feeling perfectly.  Deadpan in a good way, though, not in an overly affected way, if you know what I mean. Finally, there’s Notice, which features the line “senpai notice me” in the chorus, which pretty much makes the song worth listening to by itself.  But it’s also got a great driving beat, very cute singing, and pretty depressing lyrics if you bother to read them (or the English translation posted in the song’s Youtube video description.)  The other three songs are good as well, especially the opener Magic, but they just don’t press my buttons in quite the same way.

I’ll give Moe Moe a 6 out of 7 – very solid album all around, and even the tracks I don’t like as much are still pretty nice. Make that a really strong 6, though.  I can’t say this album is absolutely perfect, but it’s close enough, and playing this little EP in the car helped me get through a couple of really bad weeks last year when I felt like driving my car into the river on the way to work.

The artist him/herself has posted these songs on Youtube and Soundcloud, so I wouldn’t feel too bad about listening to them there for free if I were you, but it’s also available on Bandcamp if you feel like buying a digital copy. The physical copy I’ve got also includes each of the tracks without vocals (I guess you can use them to sing over yourself, or to sing to with your drunken friends at karaoke night?)  Anyway, the instrumentals seem to be exclusive to the physical release, and that was a limited run, so good luck finding a copy if you want it. The physical copy also comes with a lyric sheet, most of which I can’t read. Nothing new if you’re a collector of imported goods from countries whose languages you’re not fluent in.  Like me.

CD inserts and lyric sheets are a novelty now too, aren’t they?

By the way, sorry for the lack of game-related posts – I’ve been working overtime the last few weeks. I do have a couple of reviews coming up, though.  Still working through that backlog.

Okay, I’ll shut up now.  Until next time.

Seven super-extended video game tracks to work/study/meditate to

Relax with some popular and also some semi-obscure music that’s mostly from JRPGs I like

I’ve been pulling hard at the oars these last weeks, working through Saturday and Sunday.  A lawyer’s work is never done.  Thank God, I now have a job that lets me sit down and work in peace without being harassed by moody partners, anxious clients, and support staff who are just trying to deal with said partners and clients.  In other words, I get to put on some actual god damn music while I work, a fact that makes it worth not having medical benefits anymore.

And what better music is there to put on than some of my favorite video game tracks?  Whether you’re an expendable white-collar grunt like me or a college student studying for finals so you can also become a white-collar grunt, the following music might help you get into the right kind of mindset to take on hours of tedious work.  Just an aside before I get started – yes, six of the seven tracks here are from JRPGs, but that’s naturally how it turned out.  Did you expect anything else from me?  Finally, I’ve posted links to super-extended edits of these songs on Youtube for your convenience in case you think any of my recommendations are worth taking.

7) Digital Devil SagaMuladhara

Is it any surprise that I’m starting this list with a Shoji Meguro piece?  Probably not if you’ve read any of my other posts.  Digital Devil Saga sits under the Megami Tensei umbrella of games and has an excellent score written by Meguro, who has done soundtrack duty on most of the Megaten games.  A lot of the music in DDS and DDS2 is straightforward hard rock stuff, but the games also feature some mellow mood-setting tracks like “Muladhara”.  This one reminds me of an overcast rainy day, which might be because that’s the weather in the area of town your main characters are camping out in where this music plays.  But it also has that kind of “rainy” feel, where you just sit inside and don’t feel like going anywhere.  That’s my favorite kind of weather if I don’t have to go out, and even if I do, I prefer overcast days to sunny ones, so maybe that’s why I like this song so much.

6) Final Fantasy VIIIBreezy

I know FF8 is a little controversial as far as Final Fantasy games go, what with its janky magic system and its nonsensical plot (though the latter is a standard for FF games.)  And I’m really not a fan of sappy stuff like “Eyes On Me”.  But aside from that wet fish of a love song, FF8 sure as hell has a great soundtrack.  “Force Your Way” is my favorite FF battle song, and I love a lot of the other themes in the game.  As far as relaxing, meditative pieces go, though, “Breezy” is probably the best.  Nobuo Uematsu knows how to set a mood, whether that mood is lighthearted or tense or apocalyptic, and “Breezy” is one of his best mood-setting pieces.  Very simple – just a guitar playing a nice melody.  It’s good to relax to.  Same goes for Balamb Garden from the same soundtrack.

Also good music to ellipsis to

5) Phantasy Star OnlineMother Earth of Dishonesty

This song might have more of a relaxing effect on you if you haven’t played Phantasy Star Online.  If you have, it will conjure up images of a creepy forest full of monsters and alien chickens that play dead when you beat them up.  If you haven’t, it might just sound slightly ominous.  That might be just the kind of music you need if you’re running up against finals right now (and you are if you’re reading this at the time I’m posting it, around mid-April.  Take heed if you’re a procrastination-loving college student like I used to be: open those books now, before it’s too late.  Don’t let your anxiety get the better of you, but don’t put your studies off, either.  That microeconomics textbook isn’t going to read itself.)

Sorry for the tangent.  This is a good song, and PSO has a good soundtrack.  If you end up failing some of your finals because you put off studying too long, I recommend giving it a play on an emulator – it might put things into perspective.  At least you’re not a freelance hunter getting your face clawed off by an alien monster.  Though I can’t blame you if you think that would be a better fate than suffering through finals.  I felt that way too when I was a student.

4) Skies of ArcadiaUninhabited Island

Imagine yourself on the deck of an old-fashioned sailing ship at night, and now imagine that it’s flying in the air, and that you’re the valiant captain of a crew of good-guy pirates.  And then imagine that you wreck on an island, also drifting in the sky, and you’re stranded there alone for a while.  That’s the feeling I get from this track from Skies of Arcadia.  I guess that description won’t make any sense if you haven’t played the game, but even if you haven’t, “Uninhabited Island” is something nice to play in the background while you strain over your textbook or your screen.  Theme of Reflection is another good choice from the Skies of Arcadia OST to help you reflect.  Hell, “reflection” is right there in the title, and the title is apt.

3) NieR Song of the Ancients/Devola

I can’t write a list of songs to relax to without including something from NieR.  The soundtrack has a lot of mood-setting songs, but “Song of the Ancients” is one of the best.  I really like the “Devola” version, which is the one I’ve linked to above, but there are a few other takes on this theme that are all good, including one in the semi-sequel NieR:Automata.  This particular version is pretty simple, featuring the beautiful singing of Emi Evans and what I think might be a mandolin, but I could be wrong about the instrument.

2) NieR:AutomataPeaceful Sleep

Speaking of NieR:Automata, yeah, here’s a nice track from that game.  “Peaceful Sleep” is the song that plays when you first discover the android resistance base in the ruined city near the beginning of the game.  It’s a haven safe from the killer machines wandering the rest of the city, and this track really sets that tranquil mood well (I keep using the terms “sets the mood” and “mood-setting” in this post, but I can’t think of a better way to express the idea.)  I don’t know if it’s lazy to include a song from each NieR title in this list, but Keiichi Okabe is a great composer too, so what the hell.

One nice bit of trivia about the android resistance base is that it contains a little makeshift alcove sort of thing with benches to lounge on and an old-fashioned jukebox that contains every song in the game, though you have to actually play through the game to unlock the entire soundtrack.  It’s a nice place to visit on a new game plus.

Even in the middle of a desperate battle, there’s still time to listen to sit around and listen to music

1) Hyper Light DrifterCascades

Now here’s a game with a fantastic soundtrack from start to finish.  Hyper Light Drifter is an indie top-down action game that was released a few years ago.  Much to my shame, I haven’t beaten it (it’s still more or less in that backlog I keep going on about) but I’ve listened to the entire soundtrack a few times over.  Very electronic and ambient, and I’d bet my life that Brian Eno was a big influence on the composer.  Some of the less ominous pieces make for good background music as well, like “Cascades” linked above.  I really like the ominous pieces as well, but I don’t know if I’d put on “The Midnight Wood” or “Cult of the Zealous” to relax to – you can tell from the titles alone that they’re not made for meditation, unless you feel like meditating yourself into the middle of a bloodthirsty mob of enemies.  Well, maybe you do feel like doing that.  Who am I to judge?

I’m no one to judge.  Especially when I title a post “Seven super-extended video game tracks to work/study/meditate to” and I proceed to put nine songs in the post.  I’m not very good at these list-style articles.  Cracked isn’t exactly knocking down my door to put me on their team.  Then again, Cracked effectively (and deservingly) went under several years ago.  So much for those list articles of theirs.

What’s your favorite music to put on when you need to sit down to your work or studies, or when you want to shake off the stress of the day?  Feel free to comment.  I’m always looking for new music to hear.

Soundtrack reviews: Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue

Some time ago I was digging around an old external drive when I discovered two albums that I’d gotten (yeah, let’s leave it at that) years ago titled Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue.  These two albums, released in 2007 along with the PS2 JRPG Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica, were originally sold together in a boxset which probably costs well over $100 today if you can even find one.  ATII is a good game with one of the worst official localizations in history – read more about it here, along with a link to a completely redone fan translation of the game.  The game’s soundtracks, though, are exceptional.

Notice I said “soundtracks”.  Each AT game has a primary soundtrack and several extra soundtracks.  The primary soundtrack to ATII is very good, but if that’s all you have, you’re missing out on some of the best tracks in the game.  Each of these Hymmnos Concert albums are linked to a particular character in the game – in this case, Flame to Luca and Waterway to Cloche, both featured on their respective covers.  To explain what the hell all this is about and why some of these songs have bizarre titles like “EXEC_with.METHOD_METAFALICA/.”, we have to take a look into the universe of Ar tonelico.  Luca and Cloche are Reyvateils, female humanoid beings who can control the elements by singing.  These songs are sort of like programs, with lyrics specifically created to cause certain effects, hence some of the songs’ weird titles.  Most of the residents of the world of AT are humans living on three massive towers alongside these Reyvateils, who often experience discrimination and worse because of their abilities.  Not without reason, because while their song magic can be used to heal, it can also be used to destroy, and a few of the most powerful Reyvateils can sing songs that are massively destructive under the right circumstances.

Pictured: potential weapons of mass destruction

The backstory and lore of this series is insanely deep, so deep that some of these songs are sung in Hymmnos, a constructed language* made specifically for the AT series.  Most of the songs on these albums are sung in-game by Cloche, Luca, or another Reyvateil, and some of them, far from being mere background music for battles, are important to the plot.  (See above: the costumes they wear also affect their song’s powers, which is where a lot of the AT series’ fanservicey reputation comes from.  Also, you get to pair up with one of these ladies on their own routes through Croix, the game’s protagonist, so you can see at least part of the appeal of Ar tonelico II aside from its music.)

The games are worth diving into, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to play a series of JRPGs with weird rhythm-based battle mechanics, you can still appreciate the music.  Almost every song on Flame and Waterway are centered around the vocals of one of four singers: Akiko Shikata, Haruka Shimotsuki, Yuuko Ishibashi, and Noriko Mitose.  Each one of these singers apparently had a serious career before the AT games were a thing, and according to the AT wiki, a lot of the songs in these games were created specifically with these four in mind.  Each one has her own distinct style, but they’re all amazingly talented singers, to the extent that I can’t say I prefer one over the others.

A lot of these songs are standouts as well.  Almost every one is a spot-on hit.  METHOD_IMPLANTA/. is beautiful and a great introduction to Akiko Shikata’s style.  I’m a great fan of Yuuko Ishibashi’s songs Reisha’s Lullaby and Eternally Connected as well.  Eternally Connected features some of the most stunning singing on these albums – it sounds like it belongs in an opera rather than a PS2 game.

My favorite, though, is Noriko Mitose’s EXEC_SPHILIA/. Once, I wrote about how much I hate the lazy key change as a method of trying to artificially create emotion in a bad or mediocre song.  EXEC_SPHILIA/., despite being mostly sung in a constructed language that pretty much no one is going to understand, packs more emotion without using this cheap trick than a thousand sappy modern R&B and singer-songwriter ballads that do.  It’s fantastic.  I like all of Mitose’s other work on Flame as well; her stuff has a harder edge that appeals to me.

While I can’t say the same for the AT games themselves, their music is diverse enough in tone that there’s enough here to appeal to pretty much everyone, ranging from cute (Hartes ciel, melenas walasye) to operatic (Eternally Connected, The Heart Speaks) to apocalyptic (EXEC_DESPEDIA/.).  If you’re a fan of vocal/choral music at all, you need to check these two albums out.  And it goes without saying that these are must-haves for Ar tonelico fans.  Since I have no complaints about either Flame or Waterway, they both get perfect ratings of 7.

* I don’t really know if Hymmnos is complete enough to count as a constructed language, but I’ve read threads with people arguing about the grammar of the language, so I figure it must be close enough.  It even has its own script!  That’s dedication.

Music review: Touhou Explosive Jazz 6 by Tokyo Active NEETs

No, it’s not a soundtrack review this time, but don’t worry; I’m not changing my format. This and a few other reviews I’ve got slated to post are of cover albums based on game soundtracks. Specifically the soundtracks to various Touhou Project games. I’ve never actually reviewed a Touhou game on the site, but I used to follow this one-man-developer shmup series pretty closely. And I still love the music in these games. ZUN, the man behind game developer Team Shanghai Alice, is good at making shooting games, but he’s a better composer. The pieces he writes for his games are memorable and powerful, and they’ve spawned thousands (yes, literally thousands) of cover albums by hundreds of artists that are sold at Comiket and other Japanese conventions. A few of these Touhou cover albums even show up at American conventions, usually at grossly inflated prices, because they know the only alternative is to pay high shipping costs online and wait three weeks. (And don’t even get me started on the prices of the doujins.)

(Wait. No. Please forget I said that.)

Touhou Eiyashou ~ Imperishable Night (2004)

Anyway, I was very happy to find a physical copy of Touhou Explosive Jazz 6 (translated from 東方爆音ジャズ6 in case I convince you to seek it out.) As its title suggests, this is just one in a series of cover albums by Japanese jazz ensemble Tokyo Active NEETs, who play in a traditional jazz style (at least on this album – they mix it up in some of their other works.)  The several albums I’ve heard by Active NEETs are pretty much consistently great, but Touhou Explosive Jazz 6 is one of the best, featuring the band’s take on almost all of the music from 2004’s Imperishable Night. Imperishable Night isn’t my favorite Touhou game – that title would probably have to go to Perfect Cherry Blossom – but IN’s soundtrack just edges out PCB’s for me, and the Active NEETs do a great job with it. This album really is “explosive” – the NEETs play with a lot of energy, and there’s a lot of tenor sax and trumpet in the mix.  But they’re not just constantly blaring the shit out of your ears.  The brass has a great balance going with the keyboards, and the rhythm section is excellent.

As far as the individual songs go, they’re all great.  I can’t even say I really have a favorite among them, though their take on Marisa’s theme “Love-Colored Master Spark” that opens the album always grabs me, as does their version of Reimu’s theme “Maiden’s Capriccio ~ Dream Battle”. As outstanding as the album is, though, it’s also nice to watch them play live in the studio – the NEETs put out videos like that sometimes on their Youtube channel.

 

Here’s their rendition of “Dream Battle”. Pretty damn good. The guy in the center with the sack over his head is also a member of the band, I guess. He’s supposed to be what’s usually translated as a “sinsack” – a character from some Touhou fanworks who’s usually depicted as otherwise naked. Yeah, Touhou Project is kind of weird. But the music is excellent. I give this album a perfect 7, because I like it just that much. I should also note that all the other albums I’ve heard in the Explosive Jazz series are really good, and the Active NEETs are up to #13 in the series, so there’s plenty to hear at this point.

Unfortunately, you might have a hard time finding a physical copy of this album if I’ve piqued your interest in it at all. I had to attend the same con a few times before anyone had it in stock, and it seems to be out of stock on Amazon along with most of their other albums. Their newest albums are available on iTunes, though. And it goes without saying that there are ways to hear the older ones without paying out the ass for an import (though that’s what I basically did.) Still, if you’re a fan of this kind of music, it’s worth scouring Amazon and other online retailers for these albums. Or hit up your local anime con. You were probably planning on going anyway if you’re reading this site. Don’t lie to me.

Soundtrack review: Sonic the Hedgehog: Passion & Pride: Anthems With Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era

So here’s a strange one. Released in 2015, I guess in an attempt to try to profit off of my generation’s nostalgia for all things 90s, Sonic the Hedgehog: Passion & Pride: Anthems With Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era is a collection of character themes from the two Sonic Adventure games on the Dreamcast and Gamecube. I came across this thing while I was messing around with my 99 cent for three months trial subscription to Amazon’s new music streaming service. (This is not a paid plug for Amazon, by the way. I wish it were. I need money and I’m absolutely willing to sell out. DM me on Twitter.)

I played Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 on the Dreamcast back in those old days of 1999 and 2001, when I was suffering through the shitty ordeal known as middle and high school. I remember them being pretty fun, though not without their problems. Turns out the same is more or less true of their soundtracks. When I think of great, truly classic Sonic music, I think of Sonic 1, 2, 3&K and CD. The later Adventure music is more of a mixed bag. I guess SEGA felt like they had to “update” Sonic’s music in the transition from 2D to 3D, but the Adventure soundtracks aren’t even close to being as good as the old 16-bit works.

Hell, some of these songs are downright embarrassing to listen to, even when I’m sitting at home alone with my headphones on. Like Tails’ SA1 theme Believe in Myself, an annoyingly peppy pop song with lyrics even dumber and more straightforward than the title suggests. Or Sonic’s SA1 theme It Doesn’t Matter, which hearkens back to really shitty late 80s hair metal. Or Knuckles’ awful rap Unknown from M.E., a song so bad it twisted in on itself to become popular and feature in hundreds of Youtube music edits like this one. And for some fucking reason there are also remixes of each of these three worst songs on the album. Thanks, SEGA.

Knuckles is a meme now, thanks internet.

Most of the songs on this album can be listened to without cringing yourself to death, though. And a few of them are really good. I’m a big fan of Theme of E-102γ, a nice piano-based instrumental with a sci-fi sound. E.G.G.M.A.N. from SA2 is catchy and fun and really suits the goofy mad scientist bad guy character that is Eggman (though I’ll always know him as Robotnik.) The biggest surprise, though, was the last song on the album, Fly in the Freedom. It’s the theme of Rouge the Bat, a character I never cared for, but it’s my favorite song out of all of them – an extremely relaxing jazzy piece with nice vocals. Makes you feel like you’re at a beachside bar sipping a cocktail.

There are three more character themes on this album that fall far more into the “weird” category than into the good or bad ones. Here are my notes about them:

Lazy Days (Livin’ in Paradise) (Big’s theme) – Title makes it sound like a Jimmy Buffett song, but actually a Creedence Clearwater Revival ripoff which is at least x1000 better. Dumbass lyrics, good guitar, okay singing but this guy is definitely no John Fogerty. Stupid as hell but not really that bad.

Throw It All Away (Shadow’s theme) – I can feel the angst in my blood. All humans are trash, and happiness is an illusion. Lyrics couldn’t be more laughably edgy. Brings back memories of middle school.

My Sweet Passion (Amy Rose’s theme) – Embarrassed to say I really like this song. Cute jazz-poppy thing, I love the vocals and the electric piano. Lyrics are insane and stalkerish and suit Amy’s character perfectly.

So is this worth buying? At $30 for a physical copy? Hell no. But it does have some good songs, enough that it squeaks by with a passing grade of 4. And who knows, maybe you’ll really like the songs I hate on it. If you’re the kind of person who “ironically” enjoys 80s butt-rock and bad rap, feel free to bump that grade up to a 5 or 6. I’m not one of those people.  I can appreciate making fun of bad media (I grew up on MST3K after all) but I don’t get anything out of a second listen to Unknown from M.E.

I would definitely buy a physical copy for a few bucks, though, just for that amazing title and cover.  Sonic just needs a ripped pair of jeans and a sleeveless shirt and he’s hedgehog Bruce Springsteen.