Soundtrack review: Katamari Fortissimo Damacy

It’s been a while since I reviewed a game soundtrack, so I thought why not take another one for a spin.  This particular soundtrack I only own a digital copy of, so I can’t tell you about the inserts or liner notes, but the music itself is enough to write a review, isn’t it? I’m not a professional at this.

If you can’t tell from the cover to the left, I’m talking about Katamari Fortissimo Damacy.  This is the OST to Katamari Damacy, a weird ass PS2 game that pretty much defied categorization when it was released back in 2004.  If you’ve never played any of the Katamari games, imagine rolling a sticky ball around a city that grows as it collects objects and is able to pick up increasingly larger objects as it grows such as cats, mailboxes, cars, fountains, trees, entire buildings, and eventually whole land masses.  That’s more or less the object of a stage in a Katamari game, or at least of its most fun stages.

Katamari Damacy was one of those wacky new things from Japan when it came to the States, the kind of game that made people think “wow, look at the crazy shit they come up with over there.”  Something like Super Monkey Ball or Seaman.  It is also a complete classic.  I’ve only played the first and second games in the series (We Love Katamari, also for the PS2) but both are well worth picking up.  They have a style of goofy lighthearted humor that is actually pretty funny and not annoying as such attempts can often be, and one that also gels with the unique gameplay style that the series established.  I don’t know why someone made a four-hour longplay of Katamari Damacy, since it’s the kind of game you really have to play yourself to get anything out of, but here’s one on the off chance you’ve never seen it before:

The same “wacky and interesting” vibe delivered by the game is also carried by the game’s music — in fact, I think the soundtrack to Katamari Damacy is one of the reasons the game did so well.  Even if I’m not totally in love with all the tracks here.  That’s not a criticism of any of the songs on Katamari Fortissimo Damacy, though.  The old breakup line “it’s not you, it’s me” comes to mind when I think of some of these songs, except in this case that phrase isn’t a lie; it actually describes how I feel about a few particular songs on this album.  (Well, that line doesn’t even work in the context of a breakup, but the subject of breakups is outside the scope of my blog.)

Before getting into that, let’s start with the positives.  I really like about half the songs on Katamari Fortissimo Damacy.  The theme of the game, Katamari on the Rocks, is a fast-paced song with a big horn section and a chorus of singers in the background.  This establishes the lighthearted feel of the game, and it’s a catchy song aside from that — good luck getting that “naaaaa na na na na na naa naa katamari damashii” line out of your head after hearing it the first time.  A Crimson Rose & Gin Tonic uses a 1940s-style big band setup with female jazz vocals, a style that I really like.  I’m also a fan of Katamaritaino for being such a nice chilled out song with relaxing vocals.  I really am getting older; every year I appreciate this kind of easy listening stuff more.  But this is good easy listening.  Tasteful.  Like João Gilberto or Tom Jobim.  In fact, there’s a really good bossa nova-style song on the second Katamari album that I’m not reviewing here but that you should check out anyway.

My favorite song on this album might be Katamari Mambo, a song that features two main vocalists: a goofy comic relief sounding-guy who keeps trying to start singing the song’s lyrics proper, and a lady who keeps interrupting him to sing said lyrics in a strikingly sexy mature voice (sorry if that sounds weird, but I can’t describe it any other way; just hear it for yourself.)  Add to that the fact that the song is full of lines that sound like sexual innuendo, and you’ll start to wonder how Namco got this one past whatever the Japanese equivalent of the ESRB is, if they have one.  Good thing the lyrics weren’t translated into English for the game’s western release, or else concerned parent groups might have started a campaign against it (this was back in the day when they were the ones primarily fighting against “inappropriate content” in games instead of our current set of usual suspects.) I’m always a fan of getting stuff past the censors, and Katamari Mambo is energetic and catchy enough to keep on my playlist forever.

The song’s main singer, Nobue Matsubara, also has a metric ton of albums out since the early 80s that all have covers like this, so I guess she’s been a big deal in Japan for a long time. No idea what these might sound like, though.  Leave a comment if you’re a fan!

However, while the game’s musical quirkiness works for me in some places, in a few others it doesn’t.  Like Cherry Blossom Color Season, for example, which features a bunch of little kids singing.  Which I’m just not a fan of at all.  Same goes for Katamari of Love, the ending theme to Katamari Damacy.  That song doesn’t feature annoying little kid singing, but I still don’t like it that much.  I can’t point to any really good reason for my dislike, though.  Maybe this album is just too god damn quirky and positive and happy for me to take all at once.  Or maybe the songs I like on the album are the ones I heard first while playing Katamari Damacy, and the novelty of the game along with the novelty of the music made a positive impression on me at the time.  I can’t think of any other reason why I’d like Lonely Rolling Star and dislike Katamari of Love, because there’s nothing technically wrong with the latter.  Same goes for a few of the other songs on the album that just grate on me sometimes.  In fact, if I’m in a bad mood, I can’t get into any of this Katamari music at all — even most of the songs I normally like end up irritating me.

So I’m not giving this album a rating.  I just don’t think I can judge it objectively enough to assign it a meaningful score.  Not that any of my reviews, or any reviews at all, are ever objective, but this time I really feel like I’m being unfair to the work in a way I can’t help.  So here’s my general view of it: this is a good album, and if you’re not a bitter, miserable asshole like me, you’ll probably appreciate it more than I do.  Or maybe you won’t like it that much, and that’s fine too.  This is one of those cases where I’d recommend playing the game over listening to the soundtrack on its own, though.  Katamari Damacy is still a lot of fun, and the music contributes to the game in setting a rhythm and pace for the player.  And the game is a hell of a lot cheaper than the album — a quick search shows used copies of Katamari Damacy available for several dollars, while the soundtrack will run you more than 30.  If you have a PS2 lying around and haven’t played this or any of the Katamari games, consider that a solid recommendation.  Or you can buy the Switch remake Katamari Damacy Reroll, but I haven’t played it, so I can’t give it a rating either.  Some fucking reviewer I am, huh?

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.

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.

Music to hear with your ears and brain: Moe Shop

I am going through a horribly stressful period in my life right now in which my inevitable death seems more like a comforting promise made by a friend than a threat made by an enemy. What can relieve this feeling? Maybe drugs, and certainly alcohol. But also good music. Namely Moe Moe, the latest EP release by French group Moe Shop.  These guys put together funk basslines and synths straight out of the 70s/80s and join them with cute female vocals.  Moreover, every song on the EP is hypnotically catchy.  See above for my favorite track, “Virtual”.  However, unlike previous Moe Shop EPs featuring absolute standouts like “You Look So Good”, this one is extremely even throughout. If you like this kind of music, moe moe disco/funk like Parliament-Funkadelic if it was entirely composed of cute anime girls, you should check out Moe Shop. Moreover, they wrote the ultimate yandere girl anthem seen below (highly NSFW, I guess???) What more do you want in your entertainment. You can’t get this shit from LA or Nashville or Atlanta.