Dragon Quest X Symphonic Suite :: Review by Juan2Darien
At the announcement that there would be yet another installment in the already substantial canon of Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, I felt a number of conflicting emotions... I had personally felt that Sugiyama's best days were behind him, given his recent suites lacked the flair, personality, and many other intangible qualities that made, say, Dragon Quest IV, V, VI and VII's Symphonic Suites so memorable. I would consider those four to be written Sugiyama's prime. They all featured great melodies, wonderful orchestrations, a great deal of interest (yet another one of those intangible and wholly subjective qualities), and, of course, were a load of fun to listen to. Then came Dragon Quest VIII, which seemed like a retread in many ways, and there were some strange experimentations, particularly with the percussion some of them paid off for me, others didn't. Even still, that suite was finished off with two incredible pieces. Then Dragon Quest IX came around, and I felt rather disappointed all around. There were a couple of interesting compositional choices, but it seemed that the more experimental sections were shoehorned in and didn't quite fit.
Many of the issues I've ever had with Sugiyama's suites are present in the Dragon Quest X Symphonic Suite, and yet... I can't help but feel that this latest instalment is... a breath of fresh air. Whereas my favourite pieces by Sugiyama are characterized by innovation and originality (particularly in VI), this suite is more like a wonderful little sampling. It is Sugiyama doing what he does best. He doesn't push any boundaries here, and it all seems rather comfortable... and that's just fine. My reviews for the previous Symphonic Suites were all based on a track-by-track analysis. However, after listening to this particular suite a number of times, I feel that approach would be slightly fruitless. Not to say that I shan't look at each piece, but I will not designate particular track with an arbitrary numerical rating.
By this point in the series, many of us have come to expect (and perhaps loathe) the Dragon Quest overture. It is upbeat, heroic, and, unfortunately, unchanging. Sugiyama has modified the introduction in the past, and, from IX onwards, incorporated a whole new section before the main melody comes in. I find it slightly unconvincing, as if it belongs in a different piece, but I at least commend Sugiyama for changing things up. This particular overture also features a little surprise in the way of a percussion-only section. There is an overarching tone to the entire suite, which is present even in this opening track, though. There is a feeling of lightness and elegance that hasn't been featured much in Sugiyama's music before. There was the urgency of IV and V, the dramatic weight of VI, etc., but never before has his music seemed to float so effortlessly as it does in this suite. Again, such descriptions are intangible and necessarily subjective, but there you have it.
The new material begins with "Blessing of Anlucea," which is very similar to many pieces you've probably already heard from Sugiyama: constantly moving wind lines in accompaniment to a long-lined violin melody, although Sugiyama inserts some interest (and a bit of darkness in the texture) with some low brass punctuations. It's charming if not particularly memorable. The same could be said (well, minus the 'charming' part) of "Great Panic." It is a piece which establishes its tone urgency and alternates between sections of slight dissonance as well as some admittedly lovely string writing. I'm not entirely convinced that these two different harmonic sides of this piece really work together, but it is an interesting piece, nonetheless, just not one you're likely to return to often.
I have to make particular mention of "Invitation to the Castle." I will say outright that I have not been particularly impressed with Sugiyama's castle themes of late, but this one, again, is a breath of fresh air very elegant, stately. It also emphasizes another interesting point in this suite: the orchestrations. There is a simplicity to the orchestrations that is thoroughly refreshing. Everything is idiomatic there are few of the experimental orchestrations of VI through VIII, instead with Sugiyama seemingly opting for a cleaner sound. It might sound like this would be a crutch for the music, making it sound bland and too thin. But it has the opposite effect: when the brass enters, the unique colours that the brass bring to the table are really allowed to shine. The same with the winds, the strings, etc. This particular quality really shines in this addition. The next track, a town medley, is just about what you'd expect. The melody and accompaniment is light and bouncy I'm sure it would be a great little piece if it didn't have to compete with some of the other town themes that have come before it in previous Suites, which tend to show Sugiyama at his most unabashedly joyous.
I would offer "Sailing in the Sky ~ Unseen Danger ~ Racing Heart" as my personal favourite piece on this suite. It has a bit of the patchwork feel that some of Sugiyama's lesser medleys tend to have, with the very buoyant beginning non sequituring into a different side of Sugiyama (though one we've heard in previous suites): it is trudging, dominating, but, again, achieves a lightness due to greatly thinned orchestrations. Interestingly, it also features some wonderful string counterpoint, the likes of which I can't remember quite hearing from Sugiyama since V's "Satan." However, it is the final part of the medley that steals the show. "Racing Heart" emphasizes yet again the effortless lightness that defines this suite. The cleanness of the orchestration is especially important at about 1'40 into the piece, at which time we are privileged with wind solos and, soon, some very fun brass punctuations. It's absolutely delightful stuff.
It must be said. One of my least favourite of Sugiyama' staples is his unwavering usage (especially in the later suites) of the drum kit. I do not know why he gravitates to it so unfailingly, particularly in his battle themes. To me, it does not add or emphasize urgency, but instead dates the music, making it seem slightly 'retro,' for lack of a better term. Thus, I have a personal bias against "Clashing Edges ~ With All One's Might." However, if I ignore the drum kit (difficult, though that may be), I can at least notice that the theme is memorable and the strings are given some really fun material to work with. There is, of course, the slower and softer section interrupting the two halves of this medley, as seems to be the case in most every Sugiyama battle theme I can think of, but it is a worthy addition to the piece. As I've tried to show in this review, this entire suite seems to show Sugiyama simply sitting back and letting his music speak for itself. It does not impose nor does it seem to try to dare anything particularly new, but it is a perfect distillation of the staples that have defined Sugiyama's music over the years.
Now, titling a track "The Heavens" is setting oneself up. It immediately gives some pretty high expectations. I immediately expected something in the same vein as "Heavenly Flight" or something along those lines: dramatic, long-lined melody with potentially heavy-handed accompaniment. Well, we do get that long melody, but unfortunately, it isn't quite one of Sugiyama's best rather straightforward, but not particularly interesting. That said, at times it sounds like a bit of a quilt you'll recognize little patches here and there from other melodies he's used in the passed. Another example of all the edges being smoothed over in Sugiyama's music is "Puklipo ~ Dwarf ~ Ton-ten-kan ~ Exploring the Hills." It has that level of immediate familiarity and breeziness as Sugiyama keeps the music mostly in the higher registers. The orchestrations perhaps branch out a bit with some harp, celesta, and brass accompanying the, again, straight-forward melody.
And now comes perhaps another of the most interesting pieces on the album and one in which we might say Sugiyama tries something a bit new. In "Elegant Ancient Palace ~ Monsters of the Tiered Tower," we have some very sly, slow-moving jazzy chords in the strings (and eventually the winds) while fragments of a melody come and go, never quite developing into anything particularly full-blooded, but that is in no way a crutch. Even the orchestrations get a bit varied in this piece also, with some interesting percussion writing again, it's all very sparse, but I think the effect is greater in that case. I must mention, though, that the melodic fragments in the beginning reminds me very greatly of the casino music from the "Around the World" medley in III (the second theme in that piece); sometimes, I feel it borders on variation of that theme, but I can't tell if that is just a stylistic similarity or if it is intentional.
I don't have much new to say about the next piece, "Weddie ~ Elf ~ Ogre," because the piece itself also doesn't have much new to say. It alternates in the beginning between the more upbeat and cheery aspects of Sugiyama's writing in this suite (you know, wind solos, bouncy strings, and harp accompanying, before smoothing over for the strings to take the melody amid some very cozy brass), and the slower, slightly more 'mysterious' writing usually associated with his overworld themes (or even his less oppressive dungeon themes), before swooping back in for the cheerful ending perhaps with some bolder brass writing than we've received thus far in the Suite. The ending, however, is exceptionally interesting. Why? Because not only is it quite lovely, powerful, and harmonically lavish again, nothing revolutionary, but different enough in the context of the piece and rest of the suite but also it is so deliberate and different from the rest of the piece. So different that, at times, you may think your player has skipped no transition, just an abrupt shift from light to heavy-handed and dramatic. I don't take a stand, really, on whether or not this is a 'good thing,' but it is definitely a tad jarring.
Sugiyama's dungeon themes are often miraculous. Why do I pick this particular adjective? Because you'd think, given dungeon themes tend to require bleak and potentially oppressive music that the music would also, incidentally, be not exactly the most pleasant to listen to. Yet, somehow Sugiyama always seems to keep his dungeon themes afloat, whether they break into jazz territories like III's did, become a bit terrifying and experimental like VI's, or if they simply keep the textures swirling, unsettling, yet undeniably beautiful like V's. So which route does Sugiyama take with X's "Wandering Place to Place in the Dark ~ Dungeon of no Escape?" Well, it's perhaps a bit unlike a dungeon theme, but he maintains the lightness (I feel a bit tired of using that word, though it fits) with long-lined wind melodies, bouncy accompaniments. There is perhaps a bit more drama inherent in the music than some of the other pieces on this album, and there are some interpolations of less straightforward music. The second half of the medley features even more thinned orchestration, usually a wind solo and strings what seems to be the standard format for this Suite. We are also introduced, though, to some thematic ideas that will come back in the next track:
"Visitors from the Underworld ~ Drawn between two Worlds ~ Fight with the Spirit Most Evil." I always look forward very much to hearing Sugiyama's final battle themes. They often show him at his best, really letting loose and writing music which, oftentimes, is not the most pleasant to listen to (at least in the context of the suite), but powerful, effective and, perhaps, where he takes his greatest creative liberties. This one, however, seems to be a medley of more dungeon themes before the final battle in the final minutes of the track. So, firstly, the opening is quite jarring, especially after the extreme lightness of basically all that preceded. We have strong brass writing, Sugiyama's usual chugging rhythms in pieces of this nature (think "Satan" from Dragon Quest V), but I cannot emphasize enough the strength of the brass writing... Unfortunately, something happens in the second section of the track. The thematic idea from the previous arrangement is basically repeated ad nauseum for the next three minutes. It's not particularly interesting, mostly just a repeating figure, more noticeable by its rhythmic identity, but it gets monotonous very quickly. However, Sugiyama does some interesting things on top, with more idiomatic brass writing.
And then, we come to the final battle. Wailing brass? Check. Timpani solo? Interesting choice... and then... drum kit! I don't think it's just my bias this time, but I feel that the drum kit takes any kind of emotional stakes and urgency out of the music almost immediately. It lightens it up, especially when there seems to be some interesting music underneath. The repeating figure comes back, but it is given enough variation in orchestration to sustain interest this time around. We end the piece with another of Sugiyama's staples that I've never found particularly convincing: one final blast from the entire orchestra, usually a dissonant chord. It has always felt to me very tacked on, and he tends to use it without fail.
"Bright Horizons" provides a fun little respite before the ending theme very light, dominated by winds. And now, of course, comes the "Ending." Sugiyama had really hit his stride with VI's "Eternal Lullaby," among my favourite pieces by him, continuing with VII's "Triumphal Return," and VIII's "Sky, Ocean, Earth" was another highlight... IX's "Journey to the Star-Filled Skies" didn't quite reach the same heights, but it was still enjoyable. Now, we have X's "Ending." My expectations for a dramatic powerhouse were high... and they were also shattered. In keeping with the lightness of the suite, this is one of the most flighty, pleasant ending themes I can remember from Sugiyama this side of V's "Bridal Waltz." As I've said with plenty other pieces on this Suite, it is well-written, interesting enough, but isn't particularly memorable apart from that. It has that feeling of familiarity that comes from the fact that, again, this entire Suite seems to be a bit of a culmination for Sugiyama.
Now, two things that I stressed greatly in (most of) my previous Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite reviews were the performance and the recording quality. Now, to be honest, you only have one choice of recording when it comes to this particular suite, so a full exploration of these elements would be a bit foolish; however, I must make mention of it. I've always been fond of gathering multiple recordings of pieces so that I can hear how different conductors approach things, or how the strengths of different orchestras are allowed to emphasize details onto which I might not have latched before. So, when the Tokyo Metropolitan recordings of the Symphonic Suites came out, of course I bought them. However, there was a severe issue: I don't dare compare the Tokyo Metropolitan to the London Philharmonic, nor did I ever expect them to outshine the Londoners (though I feel that's exactly what they did on VI's suite), but I also didn't expect to have to try to listen to some of the suites as if at the back of a cathedral. VIII's, in particular, was downright cavernous, emphasizing certain sounds lots of highs and lows, and a muddy middle register (the bass drum made my knickknacks rattle on the shelves, and the piccolos were practically whistles). However, that's not to say that they were all bad. In fact, the more spacious, atmospheric approach proved quite nice in some of Sugiyama's suites.
So where on this spectrum does X lie? Well, I am glad to say that it falls closer to VI's in that the recording quality is still quite roomy, and so you won't have the punchy details of the London recordings, but it really does create a wonderful atmosphere into which you can simply revel in such beautiful music. The strings and winds are very smooth—but, interestingly, the brass is quite punchy and sharp. As I've emphasized earlier, though, the orchestrations are taken in such a way that this works to the music's benefit: contrast. Now, I don't know what I could say about the performance other than, "it's good"." For one thing, as already exhausted previously, the music on this particular suite is not exactly challenging to listen to quite the opposite and also it doesn't seem to be as technically demanding as previous suites. Therefore, the performance does not stand out or draw attention to itself. Instead, the Tokyo Met simply plays with a very good feel for this music, and as such, their maneuvering throughout Sugiyama's sound world is quite effortless. In that way, I think this is probably the best performance/recording we could hope for.
Much of what I have said about this Suite probably sounds like criticism, and that is why I abstained from using ratings for each track, because honestly, the music is hard to describe. Yes, it could be considered retread (and probably, technically, is); and yes, it could be considered fluffy and insubstantial. But there is something so beautiful about that, though the fact that so much of the music is just light and pleasant. One cannot say that this suite doesn't have a very specific personality, and once you commit to the realisation that you will have a simply delightful hour's listen, there is so much to enjoy.
If it was not obvious by this point, this suite could be treated as a bit of a starting point for those unfamiliar to Sugiyama's work on Dragon Quest. There's nothing (or at least very little) that will put strain on or offend the ears, and it all showcases Sugiyama's talents marvelously, providing a glimpse at many of the mainstays that he had used in his previous suites. What this album provides, finally, is a glimpse at a composer with complete control of his resources and confidence in his style. Does it hold up to the other suites? In a way, I might say that this suite proves that Sugiyama has, even into his 80s currently, "still got it." In that case, yes, I would say that this suite does hold up quite nicely.
Overall Score: 8/10