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Motoi Sakuraba

Overview Biography Discography Game Projects Interviews

Note: This biography was written exclusively for Square Enix Music Online by Chris. The act of using it without advance written permission is regarded as a copyright infringement. Thanks to Motoi Sakuraba & the Wolfteam/Telenet Legacy for providing a large proportion of the information given here and to Datschge for aiding the editing of this biography. It was last updated on March 26, 2009.

Born on August 5, 1965 in Akita, Motoi Sakuraba is a prolific progressive rock musician who specialises in creating video game music. His music has also featured on anime and TV drama soundtracks, live concerts, and independent albums. Sakuraba's love for music developed after he received piano lessons while in the middle of preschool. He enjoyed learning under a kind teacher, but quit for a while when she was replaced by a more severe one. He started to become much more active in sports and spent his days and nights playing basketball and volleyball. Nevertheless, upon entering senior high school, he used all his savings to buy a Teisco 110F Synthesizer. Despite his timidness, he became a talented solo performer and local band member, gaining a reputation as an excellent keyboardist by the time he graduated. Through amateur band activities, he channeled influences from progressive rock artists. While his initial influences were British artists such as Pink Floyd and his favourite band UK, Japanese developments in the genre during the 1980s were a further background to the development of his general style; the progressive electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra and the symphonic progressive rock group Outer Limits were especially significant. However, he has listened to gradually less music by other artists since his youth since he prefers to focus entirely on his own music while working.

In his compositions, Sakuraba tends to emphasise spirituality over musicality. He prefers to be unbound by form and enjoys expressing his inner feelings through instruments. Progressive rock musicians represent the main inspirations for Sakuraba's highly melodic and often grandiose style. However, stylistic elements of his music show he is fundamentally influenced by many other composers. With his expansive melodic development, intricate harmonies, and often polyphonic textures, J.S. Bach and other Baroque composers' music is part of the theoretical basis behind his works. Chick Corea is also a major influence, as exemplified by his intricate and often dissonant keyboard improvisation, his overall need to make each instrument individually pronounced, and his integration of jazz-based structures into progressive rock. Away from direct rock ensembles, Sakuraba often composes mature symphonic compositions, some of which integrate epic choruses and rasping brass cues reminiscent of cinematic composers. However, his orchestral music isn't always full of pomp, with 'new age' vibes being evident in many of his works and others showing influences from romantic composers. His eclectic style is dynamic and expansive, since the composer continually introduces and refines ideas into his music. As Taru Kitahara remarked in 2003, his music has 'given birth to what could be called an original new genre, the Motoi Sakuraba Sound'.

In 1983, Sakuraba entered the University of Meiji. Taking his synthesizer with him, he performed hard rock music regularly and even composed his first original tracks. The subsequent year, he was inspired to form the progressive rock group Clashed Ice. Initially a two man band comprised of composer and keyboardist Motoi Sakuraba with vocalist and drummer Genta Kudo, they enjoyed modest success performing live performances. After the pair graduated in 1985, the band became noticed and masterminded by Made in Japan Records producer Shingo Ueno. They changed their name to Deja Vu and introduced bassist, guitarist, and vocalist Tetsuya Nagatsuma. The group became recognised throughout Japan as a result of a successful tour and reached their peak of commercial success in 1988 with the release of their only studio album, Baroque in the Future; composed entirely by Sakuraba, the album featured a mixture of vocal and instrumental tracks bonded by the the aim to present Baroque music in a futuristic manner. After Nagatsuma left the band in 1988, Sakuraba's producer introduced two of Outer Limits' former members to Deja Vu to restore activity — Tomoki Ueno on keyboards and vocals and Ken Ishita on bass and electric guitar. Despite participating in several successful concerts with French band Atoll and beginning work on their second album, the band unexpectedly split in 1989 as a result of musical differences between the members.

Sakuraba nevertheless maintained close links to the progressive rock industry through Shingo Ueno. In 1989, he co-composed "Fragoroso" for Pazzo Fanfano di Musica, a Japanese tribute album to Italian progressive rock; he created a definitive highlight of the critically acclaimed album by blending lyrical piano motifs and romantic violin performances in irregular metre. More significantly, Sakuraba was asked to create his own instrumental progressive rock album, Gikyokuonsou. With a flexible schedule to work with, the composer was able to focus carefully on composing and recording each of the eight pieces. He recorded the album for his favoured rock ensemble — with Motoi Sakuraba on keyboards, Ken Ishita on bass guitar, and Takeo Shimoda on drum kit — and placed particular emphasis on keyboard improvisation and jagged rhythmical constructions. The exuberant pinnacle of the album "Motion" remains one of the composer's personal favourite works to date. All too aware of the instability of the music industry, having seen his band split up and the studio he recorded Gikyokuonsou with go broke, Sakuraba decided to find stable employment. He thought becoming a full-time game composer would be rewarding, having acquired an appreciation for the both the synthesizer, thanks to its pioneer Isao Tomita, and the video game sound, due to some gaming experiences during his youth.

In 1989, Sakuraba became a resident composer of Telenet Japan subsidiary Wolfteam. During his four years at the company, he worked on over fifty games, sometimes alone, but usually with a collaborator. He initially found Wolfteam's sound team Sergeant Wolf Band with Masaaki Uno and Yasunori Shiono. They scored numerous games for the Mega Drive and early computers such as the PC-9801. Four of these works — Zan: Kagerou no Toki, Arcus II -Silent Symphony-, Maneuver Cepter Granada, and FZ Senki Axis — were also given album releases complete with bonus arrangements. Though the sound team was short-lived, having disbanded in June 1990 after Wolfteam was folded back into Telenet Japan, these early works firmly established Sakuraba's style in the video game industry. The composer continued to work on the PC-9801 with Ryota Furuya, contributing instalments to the Zan, Hiouden, and Arcus series. As a solo composer, he also created several high-profile Wolfteam's scores for the Mega Drive and Mega CD, developing his style significantly; among them the largely action-oriented Earnest Evans, El Viento, Sol-Feace, Aisle Lord, and Annet Futatabi scores, as well as an early symphonic RPG effort, Fhey Area: Century of the Gods. None of post-1990 works were released on CD, though many are now purchasable in digital form through Egg Music.

During his final years at Wolfteam, Sakuraba worked on major scores such as Ace o Nerae!, Hiouden ~Legend of the Scarlet King~, and Tenshi no Uta. On these projects, he composed with Shinji Tamura, Michiko Naruke, and Hiroya Hatsushiba. However, his breakthrough achievement at Telenet Japan was 1995's Namco-published RPG Tales of Phantasia. Alongside Tamura, he crafted a traditional and light-hearted RPG score featuring numerous memorable melodies. Sakuraba actually made a distinctive contribution to the soundtrack with his light rock battle tracks and enchanting setting themes, though the lack of composer credits on its eventual soundtrack release led to many misattributing his works to Tamura. The game itself was the start of the third most successful RPG series in Japan, though its delay for a year largely brought about Wolfteam's demise. The company lost many of its employees after Telenet Japan switched their focus to releasing Parlor games, but continued to exist in diminished form as an internal development team. Sakuraba and Tamura initially focused on scoring Telenet Japan's Parlor Pachinko simulations for the Super Nintendo. They contributed a handful of buoyant jazz-tinged compositions to each of the 13 resultant games. However, Sakuraba was no longer a resident employee at the company and decided to also participate in a range of external works.

After going freelance, Sakuraba balanced contributions to three companies. One was Telenet Japan through Pachinko simulations and the Tales series; the latter spawned numerous new games as a joint Namco and Telenet Japan franchise up to 2003, though Motoi Sakuraba, Shinji Tamura, and Eiji Kikuchi were the only consistent contributors. He also worked closely with Camelot Software Planning, a former subdivision of Sega responsible for Shining series development that became independent after Masaaki Uno joined the company as coordinator and sound director in 1994. Sakuraba was employed by Uno to create the scores for the company's subsequent works, including titles in the Mario Sports, Golden Sun, and Shining series. Sakuraba's mainstream exposure principally came as a result of his explorative contributions to tri-Ace's Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile series, however. Funded by Enix, the developer was created by former Wolfteam members Yoshiharu Gotanda, Masaki Norimoto, and Joe Asanuma in protest to Namco's handling of Tales of Phantasia. Sakuraba's involvement with tri-Ace also eventually established his links to record label Team Entertainment and the spinoff company tri-Crescendo. With so many commitments, Sakuraba adopted an even more demanding schedule than before; he worked 12 to 20 hour days, abandoned most of his other interests, restricted himself to three hours sleep a night, and relied heavily on coffee and proteins for his energy.

Sakuraba's first freelance work was Camelot's PlayStation RPG Beyond the Beyond. While the 1995 game was critically unsuccessful, its MIDI-based soundtrack was especially melodious and atmospheric. It inspired a misleading titled arranged album featuring tracks ambitiously arranged into ten minute progressive rock medleys. In 1996, he succeeded Motoaki Takenouchi to score Camelot's spinoff Shining the Holy Ark. Its rich arranged album combined progressive rock and symphonic rock synthesized with the same equipment as Gikyokuonsou; its most notable entry was the passionate nine minute improvised piano track "Elegy of the Bewildered". Sakuraba also scored the three scenarios of Shining Force III in 1997 and 1998, once again crafting the music into an arranged album. Most of the album's tracks were incorporated into its domestic release Force of Light; this was promoted by record label Musea as Sakuraba's second solo album and they reprinted Baroque in the Future and Gikyokuonsou around the same time. In all three of his highly regarded Camelot arranged albums, Sakuraba was able to express himself more freely than most of his other works, unimposed by many demands from producers. Also with Camelot, he scored the PlayStation's Hot Shot Golf (aka Minna no Golf and Everybody's Golf); while he didn't return to subsequent editions of the series, his relaxing score enhanced the praised game and established a style he later fleshed out in the Mario Golf series.

Sakuraba established his relationship with tri-Ace by working on 1996's science-fiction RPG Star Ocean. While the game sold relatively few copies as one of the Super Nintendo's final titles, the emotionally engaging and sensitively refined score was subject to much praise. It received a joint arranged and drama album, the Star Ocean Perfect Sound Collection, shortly after its release. However, it wasn't until 2004 that the score was eventually released in the form of a remastered soundtrack. Sakuraba concluded 1997 by scoring the PlayStation's Tales of Destiny with Shinji Tamura. Thanks to Namco's marketing, the game was a mainstream success and its elements, including its music, largely refined what was achieved in Tales of Phantasia. At popular demand, Tales of Phantasia was remade for the PlayStation the following year, complete with a remastered score released in soundtrack form unlike its Super Nintendo predecessor. Having secured his prominence as a freelance composer, Sakuraba captivated millions in 1998 with the best-seller Star Ocean The Second Story. Fans were touched by the gorgeous operatic voices of "Theme of RENA" and felt exhilarated by the rock organ melodies of the battle theme "Stab the Sword of Justice". Its arranged album served to magnify this effect, emphasising the inspiration behind the original score and the musical sensitivity of its creator.

In 1999, Sakuraba was responsible for scoring tri-Ace's second major success, Valkyrie Profile. Its soundtrack had a more spiritual and atmospheric focus than the Second Story, but included many rock battle themes and dungeon tracks as well. Its release was accompanied by a progressive rock arranged album and a particularly creative voice mix album; for the latter, Sakuraba indulged in controversial epoch-making by combining arranged music from the soundtrack with voices of characters from the game. He subsequently composed the first game in Camelot's Mario Golf series for the Nintendo 64. Here he united arrangements of Koji Kondo's music with the style he established in Hot Shots Golf. The game's success inspired Mario Tennis to be released for the same console in 2000; its score offered light rock tournament themes and further Nintendo arrangements. Sakuraba maintained similar musical approaches while adapting to technological limitations on the Game Boy Color titles Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, and Mobile Golf. However, he dedicated more time to exploring the vastness of space once more with the spinoff Star Ocean Blue Sphere and even commemorated the spinoff with the Star Ocean Blue Sphere Arrange & Sound Trax. In 1999, he led the score for Wolfteam's final non-Tales project, Cybernetic Empire, and reunited with Tamura a year later to create formulaic music for Tales of Eternia.

Between 1999 and 2003, Sakuraba also had numerous roles contributed to several anime projects. For the earliest of these works, Vanny Knights and Saiyuki, Sakuraba created compositions largely stylistically continuous with his game compositions. He opted to avoid producing detailed cinematic underscoring given he wanted to express his music freely rather than be restrained to create something potentially stereotypical. Nonetheless, both scores featured several pieces that were particularly intimate in context. In 2001, he scored Star Ocean EX — an animation based on the manga adaptation of Star Ocean: The Second Story — in an exuberant manner. He also contributed to eight instalments of TV Asahi's Weekend Drama series and the CG movies Gensomaden Saiyuki: Requiem and Blue Remains. In other non-game works, Sakuraba was a guest contributor on Yoshiharu Gotanda's @MIDI's People project between 1998 and 2000; he offered eight well-developed compositions in total to their Freedom, Battle, Dance, and Summer albums. At the request of his principle record label and promoter Team Entertainment, Sakuraba also arranged half of the music for the 2001's Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Children Game Music Arrange Tracks in a gothic rock style. Around the same time, he scored the Game Boy Advance's Golden Sun and its sequel Golden Sun: The Lost Age for Camelot. Though no soundtracks were released, their melodic rock-influenced scores became fan favourites.

In 2002, Sakuraba and Tamura's score for the PlayStation 2's Tales of Destiny 2 was featured across a four disc soundtrack. Shortly after, their work was reprised for the first of numerous times on behalf of several Tales spinoff titles — the mini-series instalment Tales of the World: Narikiri Dungeon 2 and the fan disc Tales of Fandom Vol. 1. After these projects, Sakuraba contributed significantly to the GameCube. He scored Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour and Mario Power Tennis, altogether more ambitious and expansive game- and score-wise than their predecessors; to commemorate their releases, the Nintendo Dream magazine released Mario Sports CD The Best featuring arrangements of themes from the two scores. Sakuraba and Tamura's soundtrack to 2003's Tales of Symphonia, while similar to predecessors musically, represented a change in circumstances. It was produced by the second development team of Namco Tales Studio, a dedicated joint company that formed in March 2003 leading to the ultimate termination of Wolfteam. It also represented a seemingly unprovoked foray back into the world of Nintendo, though a Japan-only PlayStation 2 version was made the following year. Around the same time, Sakuraba contributed to further television productions such as Knight Hunters Eternity, Atashin'chi, Bouken Yuuki Pluster World, and Umigame to Shonen. Following these works, he took a break from anime scoring to focus on his more recognised game works.

Sakuraba's next major project was the massively hyped Star Ocean Till the End of Time. In contrast to his previous works, he decided to record the entire score with live positions; the first volume of the soundtrack was performed by a chamber orchestra while the second volume featured a progressive rock band with Sakuraba as keyboardist. Sakuraba also indited the game's arranged album, which had a more considerable symphonic emphasis that his previous arranged albums, and a voice mix album, inspired by the success of the Valkyrie Profile voice album. A Director's Cut edition was issued by Square Enix to fix problems with the original edition of the game and Sakuraba was hired once again to compose the music for the new areas and FMV sequences offered, resulting in the release of a third soundtrack. The game also brought a two hour concert at Zepp Tokyo on July 19, 2003 dedicated to his works on Star Ocean The Second Story, Valkyrie Profile, Star Ocean Blue Sphere, and Star Ocean Till the End of Time. A DVD was released, featuring an official live video of the concert, as was a full audio recording. The Motoi Sakuraba Live Concert Star Ocean & Valkyrie Profile was musical bliss for fans of Sakuraba's progressive rock; the composer's supreme arrangements and keyboard performances were complemented by the performances of drummer Toshihiko Nakamura and bassist Atsushi Hasegawa, both of whom had solos on the extended "Theme of RENA" arrangement.

At the end of 2003, Sakuraba scored Baten Kaitos ~Eternal Wings and The Lost Ocean~. The game was developed by tri-Crescendo with assistance from Monoloth Soft. The company were originally responsible for the sound programming in tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile and Star Ocean Till the End of Time and its founder, Hiroya Hatsushiba, was one of Sakuraba's long-term Wolfteam collaborators. Its soundtrack was named best soundtrack for a GameCube game in 2004 by IGN. As the site describes, 'everything from the beat-happy and infectious combat themes to the subtle and melancholic tracks during the game's more dramatic moments draw the player deeper into the game world'. Sakuraba commemorated the music for the game in his 2004 live concert; it was a smaller effort than his previous concert and mostly recycled the same arrangements, though three Baten Kaitos arrangements and original themes dedicated to organ, piano, and synth were incorporated. The almost exponential increase in Tales releases after the formation of Namco Tales Studio ensured Sakuraba remained busy after Baten Kaitos. The soundtracks to Tales of Rebirth and Tales of the Abyss were significantly more technologically commanded than their predecessors; the latter was even mostly streamed, allowing Sakuraba and Tamura to use their own audio equipment to enhance fidelity and timbres. However, they were not involved in a number of titles developed by Namco's internal development team and Alfa System.

Now a four company man, Sakuraba maintained his compositional duties on Camelot's Mario Golf: Advance Tour and Mario Tennis Advance, retaining the idiom of the Mario Sports series despite hardware restrictions. The subsequent year, he blended extravagant arrangements of Baten Kaitos compositions with high quality new compositions for the prequel Baten Kaitos Origins. The three disc soundtrack was described as a more consistent experience that its predecessor, albeit with fewer peaks. Sakuraba did not participate in 2005's Radiata Stories by tri-Ace, likely due to high workload, though Noriyuki Iwadare arranged three of his Star Ocean compositions for the game. He nevertheless handled Asmik Ace's PlayStation 2 card game Duel Masters, crafting a score mainly built upon diverse main theme arrangements. Given his prominence, Sakuraba was also asked to create several tracks for several album releases. After retaining the light-hearted style of the Mario series in all his Mario Sports works, he controversially arranged the "Super Mario Bros." theme into a brooding and dramatic symphonic arrangement for Scitron's Famicom 20th Anniversary Arrange Soundtracks. On behalf of Team Entertainment, he also contributed two progressive rock battle themes to the Dark Chronicle Premium Arrange, opened the Phantasy Star Online I & II Premium Arrange with a powerful interpretation of "The Whole New World" sung by his daughter, and made a bonus remix for a Pachinko compilation album.

Sakuraba's highest profile projects during 2006 were dedicated to the Valkyrie Profile series. For Valkyrie Profile's PSP remake, Sakuraba oversaw the remastering of its soundtrack and the reprints of its albums. The score to its PlayStation 2 sequel Valkyrie Profile 2 Silmeria represented an evolution in Sakuraba's orchestration and musicality in general; it exuded a dark and cinematic feel overall, offering some especially evocative orchestral compositions and plenty of curious twists on the composer's trademark progressive rock battles. As usual with Sakuraba's giant projects, emotional arranged and voice mix albums were also released. To coincide with the game's June 8 release, Sakuraba held his third live concert with Nakamura and Hasegawa dedicated to the series' music; the concert received a partial official CD release featuring all new arrangements, though no DVD recording was made available. Sakuraba subsequently worked on Asmik Ace's high school game Tenshou Gakuen Gekkou Hasumi; its light-hearted soundtrack featured many novelty compositions and battle themes using oriental instrumentals. During 2006, Sakuraba also contributed the progressive rock arrangement "Vargogu's Theme" to the Rogue Galaxy Premium Arrange, the opening composition "Reminiscence" to the synth tribute project FM Sound Module Maniax, and the organ performance on Revo's Atelier Iris Grand Fantasm single.

In 2006, Sakuraba moved house and established his personal studio. Misty Inn Studio features the numerous instruments he owns, such as his beloved KORG CX-3 synthesiser, as well as a Bösendorfer 225 grand piano that he purchased after finding 88 key pianos too limiting. He was able to improvise on the instrument on his subsequent work, tri-Crescendo's Eternal Sonata. Given the game was a fantasy based on Chopin's life, its soundtrack exuded a fantastical and romantic sound, culminating in a bombastic final battle arrangement of the Revolutionary Etude and the tragic operatic vocal theme "Kyoutenka". Propelled by this score, Sakuraba decided to dedicated his second solo album Forest of Glass to solo piano compositions; the 14 compositions were each inspired by abstract images and enhanced by Sakuraba's personal performance. Sakuraba also decided to explore vocal music further by creating "Contradiction" for The Idolm@ster Radio Vocal Master and "image" for the collaboration album Message. Apparently undazed by his numerous commitments, Sakuraba created a light-hearted rhythmically focused accompaniment to Camelot's We Love Golf and a short lively orchestral score for Success' Drone Tactics at the end of 2007. He even managed to squeeze in progressive rock arrangements of seven tracks for Super Smash Bros. Brawl (including Mario Sports and Golden Sun tribute), a bonus medley on the Red Stone Original Soundtrack, and a guest keyboard performance at a Sound Horizon concert.

Sakuraba has dedicated much of his last few years working on the ever more expansive Tales series. He actually produced a solo score for the first time in the series on the externally developed DS title Tales of the Tempest. Sakuraba's music has since featured on the series' string of remakes and he has had a direct role on many of these titles. Most notably, he created a fully arranged and expanded four disc score to the PlayStation 2's Tales of Destiny and five additional tracks for Tales of Destiny: Director's Cut. He also arranged 21 pieces from across the series for the DVDs offered as pre-order bonuses for the remakes of Tales of Destiny, Tales of Destiny 2, and Tales of Destiny: Director's Cut. The success of these bonuses inspired Sakuraba to create the first two commercially arranged albums for the series in 2008 — a progressive rock battle album and a temperamental improvisatory piano album. Also that year, he expanded upon the score for Symphonia for its Wii sequel Dawn of the New World and handled the anime adaptation of Tales of the Abyss after several years away from non-game scoring. He spent even more time crafting a more mature and cinematic score to the Xbox 360's Tales of Vesperia while collaborating with Hibiki Aoyama instead of Shinji Tamura. His latest Tales projects were the DS' Tales of Hearts, where he crafted a familiarly styled score and a bonus arranged album, and the PSP's Tales of the World: Radiant Mythology 2, for which he made several guest compositions and arrangements.

Despite these projects, Sakuraba's most high-profile recent projects have been on behalf of tri-Ace RPGs. Though he had limited involvement in the PSP's Star Ocean remakes, his soundtracks for the titles were printed by Square Enix instead of Team Entertainment for the first time. For the Xbox 360's Infinite Undiscovery, Sakuraba largely rejected progressive rock in favour of an epic orchestral score featuring choral work and ethnic influences. Nonetheless, he ensured a varied accompaniment to the gameplay with Baroque-inspired small ensemble pieces and simple piano pieces too. On the DS' Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, Sakuraba blended enhanced reprises from Valkyrie Profile score with suitably moody new compositions; he compiled most of his best efforts from the score into a highly emotional arranged album. Between these projects, Sakuraba also offered three new compositions for the PlayStation 3 version of Eternal Sonata. In 2009, Sakuraba returned to his favourite series to create the expansive soundtrack to the prequel Star Ocean: The Last Hope. Featuring the greatest symphonic focus of all Star Ocean titles to date, it reflected the evolution of his orchestral style through projects like Valkyrie Profile 2, Eternal Sonata, and Infinite Undiscovery. Nonetheless, Sakuraba appealed to his fans with rip-roaring progressive rock battle themes such as "Blood on the Keys", progressive jazz dungeon themes such as "Memories in the Earth", and arrangements of Star Ocean classics.

Motoi Sakuraba is currently working on several new projects. He has been asked to create a high quality score to the Wii's Valhalla Knights: Eldar Saga and make cinematic contributions to the PSP's Yuusha 30. He is also expected to contribute to the tenth main Tales game and has expressed interest in creating a new solo album. Away from composing, Motoi Sakuraba is a quiet family man who enjoys the company of his wife Yuko and his daughter Mio as well as the occasional motorbike ride. However, his opportunities for personal time are limited given he is the most prolific composer in an industry dominated by workaholics. Whereas composing seven tracks a year was normal for him before joining Wolfteam, these days he sometimes composes more than 250 pieces a year and seems to always have several new projects to work on. Wolfteam's numerous spinoffs — Namco Tales Studio, Camelot, tri-Ace, and tri-Crescendo — have provided him with the sheer majority of his work after he became a freelancer. While he extensively reuses certain chord progressions and other features in his compositions, he is keen to individually characterise each of his scores, creating distinct sounds for the Mario Golf, Mario Tennis, Golden Sun, Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, Baten Kaitos, and Tales series. He has also succeeded in evolving his style over the years, becoming an accomplished symphonist, a versatile arranger, and an all-round musical polyglot while staying true to his progressive rock roots.