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Dragon Quest V Symphonic Suite :: Review by Andrew

Album Title Catalog No.
Dragon Quest V Symphonic Suite (NHK Symphony Orchestra) APCG-9004
Dragon Quest V Symphonic Suite (London Philharmonic Orchestra) SVWC-7065
Dragon Quest V Symphonic Suite (Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra) SVWC-7201


Dragon Quest V is a bit of an odd child in that game series. For one, the game has a much more personal story. Up till this point the series had relied upon the cliché of a set of noble heroes who valiantly struggle against a dark unseen foe who threatens the world in some vague manner (in the earliest three adventures you never really see the villain until the last portion of the story where he sits inside his castle waiting to be slain). In Dragon Quest V, the story begins with the birth of a child, and you happen to be this child. And you begin your journey travelling with your father and of course you get stuck in a larger, more epic quest, but mostly it centers upon the same quest that your father was undertaking before he meets his tragic end in the first act.

As such, the music has a different tone. There are bold pieces to be sure, but the music feels more toned down as compared to previous entries in the series. While its predecessors relied upon music that conveyed an epic story, this is much more paired down. The series also had entered the Super Famicom age, and with it decided to add a bit more narrative to it, so with this entry we get some pieces which serve as background for dramatic "cut scenes".

As with previous Dragon Quest scores to date, the composer Koichi Sugiyama has been re-recording the scores with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. With this orchestra he also has been correcting past omissions from the original prints. Included in this recording are a few dramatic pieces of music left out of previous recordings, totaling an added 3 minutes and 28 seconds. That may not sound like much, but for those who are obsessed with completing the set, this is a necessary evil.

I can hear the audience now and they are asking "What about the music?" And I reply with, "It's divine". Which is a fitting word considering the game's subtitle is "Heaven's Bride" and this is the middle game of a trilogy of games centered around the battle between God and the Devil. So let's talk about the music with a bit more depth.


Rather than talk about tracks in any specific order, I want to look at some of the base motifs and compositional styles that Sugiyama uses. One of the more obvious aspects of this suite shows up early on and never quite leaves is that a lot of these pieces center around a soloist and a small ensemble of players performing backup. The earliest example is "Castle Trumpeter" which breaks tradition of the strings only castle theme. Or the lovely lead for "Melody in an Ancient Town" or the haunting solo lines within track 6 ("Monsters in the Dungeon" et al.)

Of course this also brings us to another Sugiyama tradition of layering. Consider the "Toward the Horizon" theme from the third track, or more specifically start with the first part of the piece (1:55 - 2:20). For the first seconds of this piece, all you hear is the subtle tones of the backup players — in this case horns of the brass section (quaver - crotchet - quaver - crotchet - quaver, with staccato quavers), a gentle rising and falling of tones (E - F Sharp - G - F Sharp). Four measures pass, and then another layer is added, this time the soloist. Another four measures pass, and then the strings become part of the back-up players adding another layer of harmony. Four measures pass, and the piece has started to build up significantly, where the harmony has now changed pattern with a series of quavers (low bass note — then three higher tones in succession, but yet still following the same pattern as before: E - F Sharp - G - F Sharp). You can also hear the string section improvising underneath adding a new layer. And finally the explosion of sound at 2:36 where the piece comes to life. Now the lead has changed, and the piece become bold and sounds more sure of itself. This act of an arrangement taking on a different timbre and shape is a common staple of this composer.

You can find similar examples of this in "The Ocean" where the piece starts off with a more relaxed dramatic build up and finally explodes at 5:11. I usually always say that, if you dislike the first round of his compositions (they usually stick the closest to the source material), wait for the second round; he usually brings in the full orchestra with a dramatic flourish.

As said in the background, this soundtrack features several pieces which underscore dramatic events. These pieces would be "Melody of Love", "Make Me feel Sad", "Mysterious Disappearance", and "Disturbed Village". Although you could consider "Bridal Waltz" to be within this chain, that piece also doubles as the staff roll. These types of tracks are in many ways alien to the Dragon Quest universe as dramatic centered pieces have yet to be part of the picture. But Sugiyama who had worked with the drama medium in the past (even scoring a Godzilla movie) is no slouch and crafts these pieces with competency.

Probably the biggest surprise in this soundtrack are the battle themes. This is sadly one of the areas that the composer has the worst track record in, mostly featuring the concept that loud and fast music equals a good battle theme. "Violent Enemies" takes this idea away with a bold melody that sounds like it wouldn't be out of place in an action film sequence. Of course it also sneaks in a classic Sugiyama motif of having his battle themes introduced by a connecting series of rising and falling of tones which keeps continuity. (falling tones at the beginning, rising tones at the end to meet up). Sadly, you then hear a bit of a return to the old style of combat music with "Almighty Devil Boss is Challenged", which is a shame.

I really love the feel of "Satan" though. The booming drums that open it up with several sharp orchestra attacks. This piece also follows the tradition of piling on layer upon layer. This is a traditional compositional technique he has used repeatedly in previous arrangements and previous final battle sequences. One thing of note though is that at 1:21 - 1:44, Sugiyama brings in the "evil motif". This simple series of notes has appeared throughout the game whenever bad things happen. Although up till now, it hasn't made an appearance in any musical form in the suite. The string section that follows from 1:44 - 2:12, is inspired chaos, a sort of cool semi-improvised sounding riff on the simple motif. Then the piece takes a brief shift with a horn lead to 2:36, and then it returns to the original dark brooding opening of the battle theme. These brief periods of inspiration are the sort of thing that makes or breaks these suites. Without them, it would merely be a note for note orchestration of the original soundtrack.

One of the tracks that I glossed over in the first pass was "Noble Requiem ~ Saint". This track is a slow burning track with a haunting melody that is carried by the strings and punctuated occasionally by a booming drum. What I really love about this piece is the latter half of it where it sounds like it's building up to something big and dramatic. It feels a bit anti-climactic when it basically just fades into nothing and starts over again. I suppose that is much like the nature of death — it's something that can be very anti-climactic in nature. "Saint" is an interesting shrine piece, and it makes an interesting contrast to the dark and brooding feel of "Noble Requiem". It's short (at 4:14), but it does make an impact.

I should point out "Bridal Waltz". It's a standard waltz form and there's nothing really unique about it compositionally. The only thing that is unique about it is that it's the ending theme of the game. In previous entries (and the entries that follow this game), the staff roll has been a big bold number that concludes the epic tale. But here we get a nice cheery waltz and it previously appears inside the game itself. When I first received this soundtrack I was of the opinion "I must have a defective copy! Where's the staff roll?". Perhaps you will think the same way, if you own any of the other suites. On the other hand, after the evil one is vanquished, wouldn't a party sound like a good idea?


In conclusion, this is a bold start in a new age of Dragon Quest suites. It's one of the first to have extensive dramatic pieces, and one of the first to try to shake up the Dragon Quest soundtrack experience with such examples as adding the trumpet to the castle theme, or ending the game with a waltz. And including a long and well developed battle theme that isn't just a 40 second ditty that is expanded with endless repetition. In many ways, while this is a more compact score than its predecessor, it is a stronger soundtrack. And I suggest that everyone who doesn't have a copy, to add it to their library immediately.

Overall Score: 9/10