The Greatest Video Game Music :: Review by Joe Hammond
The Greatest Video Game Music features most of the arrangements and orchestrations from the one off concert Video Game Heroes, which took place at Londons Royal Festival Hall on the 2nd September 2011. It features music from a range of video game titles adapted by arranger and orchestrator Andrew Skeet for performance by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Voices. Obviously it's down to personal taste whether or not you think that the music featured on this album is literally the greatest video game music out there, but certainly all of the pieces featured on this album are well known and most of them have had a big impact on video game music. It's been interesting listening to this album, and hearing whether or not these recording hold up well compared to the live performance and compared to the originals.
The concert began with Advent Rising's "Muse", which was an unlikely opener, but nevertheless quite emotional with its operatic focus. The same is true for this album. The experience and talent of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Voices shine here, and some of the additional touches this arrangement adds to the piece work really well. This is followed by "The Legend of Zelda: Suite", which is based on the arrangement from Video Games Live. This suite is played really well, and the LPO captured the feel of the main theme and slower sections as desired. Obviously it's not as elaborate as the arrangements and orchestrations found in The Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Symphony efforts, but it's performed really well and makes for a great listen. The main theme from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is also performed really well, and makes for a great listen, despite the more epic sounding arrangement from Skyrim sort of outdating this version.
Thankfully, the album contrasts the serious pieces with more fun, comical pieces. Modern Warfare 2 is followed by something completely different, Ari Pulkkinen's theme tune for Angry Birds, which is brilliant fun and great to listen to. The orchestra have great fun passing round the lines in the texture to different instruments.The "Super Mario Bros. Suite", based on the arrangement from the Orchestral Game Music Concerts. It's played really well, and all the character of these pieces is present right from the start. Unfortunately there is one thing that is really distracting in the arrangement. During the string pizzicato in the overworld theme, the top line is not the melody it's a harmonic line a third higher and it really distracts from the tune; it should have been on a lower instrument with the melody at the top. As for Tetris, the opening is actually quite epic sounding, and then the piano started playing the Type A tune, after which the whole orchestra joins in. They have great fun passing the tune around from instrument to instrument. The orchestra eventually arrives at a section where they speed up until they launch into a swing rhythm, which is really cool, a really fun arrangement.
The album also includes "Suicide Mission" from Mass Effect 2. While I like that this is a real orchestra performing this piece as oppose to the samples used in the game, unlike at the concert, I don't feel like this recording has the same power as the original. This being said, you do get to hear a lot more of the subtleties in this version. The same can be said for the Splinter Cell: Conviction main theme. The orchestra capture the strong espionage feel really well here. That said, "Liberi Fatali" was definitely the weakest performance in the concert. the arrangement didn't have the power that the original orchestration has and the choir were simply not strong enough and even mispronounced some of the words. It fares better in this recording, and the orchestra do a good job, but the choir is still not strong enough. I'd still stick to the original orchestral recording. While also choral-focused, "Seasons of War" from World of Warcraft features a stronger performance; again the choir could've been stronger, though worked well during the more ominous quieter sections. The performers all kept up the 7/8 rhythm very well too.
Among the more dubious choices is the main theme from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I definitely wouldn't consider this theme one of the greatest video game themes out there it's pretty bland compared to some of the other stuff on the album but it's pretty dramatic and, just like the concert, the combining of electronics with a live orchestra is done well here. Normally arrangers and performers in this scene shy away from including any electronic elements in their live performances or recordings, but here everyone involved did a good job. The main theme from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is also a bit bland and forgettable. The electronics are messy and there's barely anything for the orchestra to actually do here. By contrast, the main theme from Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is one of the few pieces by Harry Gregson-Williams that I really like. The trumpet and horn solos are really good and the electronics keeping the rhythm and tempo going work really well.
The main theme from Battlefield 2 is appropriately militaristic, and the brass and percussion are careful as to not overpower the rest of the orchestra too much. "The Ocean on His Shoulders" from BioShock is beautiful if a bit short; especially the violin solo. It's also very dark and intense in places. "One Final Effort" from Halo 3 has a really strong feel and rhythm, with the strings keeping it up throughout and the piano being a highlight at the start of the track. There's some great percussion work here too. The Fallout 3 theme meanwhile had a much slower, appropriately apocalyptic feel to it, and there was a good kick from the low brass. Among other highlights is "Nate's Theme" from Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Personally I prefer the Uncharted 2 and even the Uncharted 3 versions of Nate's theme, but the original version is also good and this version is well performed.
The album also includes "Soviet Connection" from Grand Theft Auto IV, an arrangement that was cut from the concert at the last minute. Even though I think the Grand Theft Auto series is overrated (I hate how mean spirited the whole series is), the orchestra performed this piece really well, and Skeet has made an extremely bland piece of music sound really good. We also get the main theme from Final Fantasy, although it's a different arrangement from the one that's used in Distant Worlds and other related concerts. This arrangement is in the original key of B flat major instead of F major, and some of the orchestration was different. It's well written, particularly for the strings. Since the concert, the team have added in an appropriately dramatic ending, which is great. The last track is something completely different, "Gusty Garden Galaxy" from Super Mario Galaxy. Even though the arrangement is lacking in a few areas, such as a lack of countermelody in the middle, they capture the spirit of the piece really well.
Depending on where you bought the album from, there might be a bonus track. The standard physical release features the 21 aforementioned tracks, whereas the digital releases include a bonus. On Amazon MP3, the bonus track is "Welcome Aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura" from Dead Space, which is really good. The atmosphere is really haunting, thanks in part to the shimmering strings, and there was a good mix of action and suspense in the piece. I just love how unique and unconventional the music of Dead Space is. On the more expensive iTunes version, you get "Hanging Edge" from Final Fantasy XIII, which, by contrast, is fast paced and action packed, with some great piano work. Both these tracks are worth owning so it just depends on your personal taste. That said, I am disappointed that some of my favourite arrangements from the live performance didn't make it into the album such as "Athens Harbour Chase" from James Bond 007: Blood Stone, "The Orb of Dreamers: The Cosmic Imagisphere" from LittleBigPlanet, and especially Michael Nyman's "Last Movement" from Enemy Zero.
Overall, this is a really good album which captures the one off concert really well. Some of the arrangements surpass their original counterparts, others are slightly inferior but offer something new and interesting as well. The only major disappointment for me is that some of the pieces which were performed in the concert but omitted from this album, as I would've liked to have heard those again. I'd personally recommend this album, and if you like some of what you hear then maybe consider checking out the originals too, see how they compare.
Overall Score: 9/10