Myth: The Xenogears Orchestral Album :: Review by Ben Schweitzer
Xenogears, released in 1998 for the PlayStation, combined an expansive plot with characters far more developed than the average clichés that populate RPGs. Its science fiction story touched on social and philosophical themes in a depth unusual in video games both in its time and today. The score was composed by the young Yasunori Mitsuda, fresh off of his scores for Chrono Trigger and Gun Hazard, and featured two songs performed by Joanne Hogg with a decidedly Celtic flair and an a capella choral piece performed by a Bulgarian ensemble.
Thirteen years later, Square Enix decided to release an album featuring orchestrations of some of the soundtrack's best-loved pieces, and album producer Mitsuda enlisted the talents of conductor Youki Yamamoto, Sachiko Miyano, and his studio's own Natsumi Kameoka. He traveled to Bulgaria once again to record the arrangements.
The title of the album is Myth: The Xenogears Orchestra Album, and it is very true to that title. The arrangements are short, and they often feel like mere orchestrations of the originals, with little in the way of added development apart from changing instrumentation or tempo on successive iterations of a theme.
For this reason, some of the tracks, such as "Dark Dawn" and "The Beginning and the End," feel more like transcriptions than arrangements. Two, "lost...Broken shards" and "Small Two of Pieces," are described in the credits as "orchestrated by" rather than "arranged and orchestrated by," as they are, in all respects other than instrumentation, identical to the originals. I would add the aforementioned to these two as well. However, with the increased textural clarity of "Dark Daybreak," added details like pulsing strings over the series of descending parallel chords and the harp doubling the flute passage in the middle can be heard clearly. "The Beginning and the End" benefits from a tighter performance, and the orchestra arrangement by Mitsuda never overwhelms the choir, accompanying it subtly instead.
Mitsuda provides one more arrangement, "In a Prison of Peace and Regret." Opening with a boy soprano singing the melody, he is joined by the orchestra, and then a full children's choir, accentuating the melody with beautiful and unexpected harmonies. The orchestra arrangement has a pastoral feel redolent of Vaughan Williams. This pastoral sound is carried over into Miyano's arrangement of "Bonds of Sea and Fire," which only manages to take off in its second section, as the first minimizes the harp part, which played a role equal to the melody in the original. Miyano also provides an underwhelming piano arrangement of "October Mermaid" that rushes through the second, contrasting section, giving the first undue emphasis.
Conductor Youki Yamamoto arranged three of the tracks, and they are unfortunately not very impressive. His arrangement of "My Village is Number One" jumps from section to section, and loses the charm of the original, except in a brief moment when a piano takes up the melody backed by winds, pizzicato strings, and bass drum. Likewise, the calm melody of "The Gentle Wind Sings" is destroyed by excessive rubato and string schmaltz. "The Wind Calls to Shevat in the Blue Sky" is a much more interesting arrangement than either of these, the ringing bell atmosphere of the opening ostinati reminding one of Arvo Pärt, and the texture throughout emphasizing these light tones, through piano, glockenspiel, and pizzicato strings sounding against the melody, played by cello and english horn.
The majority of the album's arrangements were handled by Kameoka, and she does a suitable job. In "Unstealable Jewel," the opening harp arpeggios are echoed at points throughout the arrangement, showing up at the very end before disintegrating. The pianist performs the first section with too much rubato, though, and the strings do clichéd runs that make the piece sound sappier than it should. Still, the ambivalent mood of the original is maintained.
"Stage of Death" emphasizes the play of ostinati in the original, and the lightening of the texture the second time brings out a considerably different side of the piece. "Flight" also has a lighter texture, and although the arrangement is very literal, it emphasizes the soaring melody, instead of covering it with layers of bombast. A glockenspiel playing over the main melody adds to this lighter impression, even in the heavier final iteration of the theme, and parts can be heard clearly throughout. The unsatisfying ending sounds like a deus ex machina, though, doing little to conclude the piece.
Kameoka also provides two arrangements of the game's theme song, an orchestration of the song itself and a piano version of its music box incarnation. The first utilizes the recordings of Joanne Hogg's vocal and Davy Spillane's low whistle from the original sessions in 1996, and while it sounds natural against the newly recorded orchestral backing, it seems somewhat tacky to not record them again. The orchestral backing is somewhat bland, but allows the vocal to be heard more clearly than with the original pop backing track. "Faraway Promise" is a decent rendition of the original, but it is too literal, and although it is good as an ending to the album, it should not have been placed right after "Small Two of Pieces."
So often, with orchestrated versions of video game music, instrumental color is abandoned in favor of a largely homogenous sound. This would kill Mitsuda's music, in which instrumental color provides so much of the substance. Myth: The Xenogears Orchestral Album succeeds in capturing this aspect of Mitsuda's personality, and provides a new perspective on a classic soundtrack. The orchestral playing is good throughout and the recording quality crisp and clean.
However, the arrangements are far from ambitious, and at times, one feels that they rely more on the merits of the originals more than their own. Many of the tracks are too short. The overuse of rubato and the presence of cliched elements such as string runs feels out of place. The character of the album does not represent Xenogears as a whole, and many of the game's best pieces are not represented: "The Blackmoon Forest," "Where the Egg of Dreams Hatches," "We, The Wounded, Shall Advance into the Light," "One Who is Torn Apart," "Premonition," and "One Who Bears Fangs at God" are nowhere to be found.
Mitsuda's beautiful arrangement of "In a Cage..." and Kameoka's lighter take on "Flight" make up for these deficiencies, though, and the album as a whole is worthwhile, even if it feels in some ways like a wasted opportunity.
Overall Score: 8/10