Rockman 25th Anniversary Rock Arrange Version :: Review by Boris Foust
What was once old is new again. Such is the basis for tradition and reinvention, and few companies live and breathe this ethos more than Capcom. Well, that and cold, hard cash, and few series make them as much of it than perhaps their most beloved icon, Mega Man. The company's recent treatment of the franchise and its fanbase has been less than kind, but Capcom can never turn away from a proven moneymaker for long, and in the spirit of the series' 25th Anniversary, released a mammoth, encyclopedic collection of the main series' venerated musical history, from the first game to the last. But whereas the Rockman Sound E-Can represents the old, the "new" in the equation is... a resurrection of an old idea; in this case, releasing another pair of high-profile arrange albums, one for rock music, the other for techno. They made two such albums to celebrate the 20th Anniversary and now they have released another two to celebrate the 25th Anniversary.
Of course, the newer Mega Man games released since 2007 are included and accounted for, up to Mega Man 10. But Capcom wisely chose to also expand the breadth and variety of talent for each album, as opposed to one composer handling all the work for each, with Basiscape handling the lion's share of arrangement duties and a few surprise guest stars to fill the margins. After Tohru Iwao's serviceable but low-risk 20th Anniversary album, the Rock Arrange Vervesion has less of an act to follow than its counterpart, but the task of producing interesting new takes on material as beloved as this is always a tricky proposition. I'm happy to report, however, that Basiscape completely knock it out of the park with brilliant arrangements and slick production values.
Both arrange albums are split fairly evenly between massive epic medleys of classic favorites and single-track jobs. Almost by definition, the medleys are more scattershot and exciting, reaching across the entire span of the series, whereas the tracks that zero in on one piece make up with slight repetition with more focused, dynamic arrangements and are generally the more developed and interesting of the fare. Far more so than the 20th Anniversary arrangements, in any case. The team at Basiscape are the biggest stars of this project, and their newly formed band, LivestRow, opens the album with a blisteringly fun amalgam of the Elecman, Crashman and Magnetman themes. The guitar work is the first and final element one will hone in on when judging a rock album worth its salt, and the CD demolishes expectations across the board. The riffs come fast, dirty and heavy, with screeching solos, excellent musicianship, and pitch-perfect mixing in nearly all cases, and nowhere is this more exemplified than in the first track.
By that same token, in terms of ROCK arrangements, LivestRow, and the tracks to follow, kind of cheat in places when they use synth and chiptune elements to carry the melody with the chugging riffs acting more as an insistent rhythmic drive. But considering the source material, their use never detracts from the raging licks or feel out of place. Point of fact, they gel perfectly with the wild power chords and breezy exuberance of the band's arrangement. The Elecman portion is power rock at it's finest, but the jazzy take on Crashman impresses with brillaint interplay between Yoshimi Kudo's funky rhythm licks and Azusa Chiba's rapid-fire piano. Things get a little heavier when Magnetman comes in before the guitar takes the lead melody and the piano breakdown brings it all crashing down into screaming arena rock glory. Kudo and Chiba repeatedly prove themselves the most interesting and talented members among Basiscape's sterling crew, and this album gives them plenty of time to display their depths of ability. Kudo may be the hardest working man on the album, contributing guitar work for most of his contemporaries, but his skill shines brightest in his own work. His medley of themes from Mega Man 2 lays on the chiptune and post-production effects thick and heavy, and the Bubbleman bridge relies on them almost entirely, but the riffs are never far from the mix, and overtake it entirely in the Heatman section. The medley has a generally sharper bite to it than LivestRow's opener, with dense power chords and rockin' solos. He won't be the last on the album to seemingly attempt to bridge the gap between rock and techno, but he makes the gamest effort.
On that note, if one wanted to be pedantic, the argument could be made that this is not actually a "rock" album in the strictest sense of the word. Technically, the arrangements span everything from arena ballads, symphonic and heavy metal, prog, jazz fusion, lounge and even hints of ska and surf rock. The bigger question is whether this should be considered a bad thing. I do not, and heartily welcome the great variety on offer. What are all these genres but variations on a theme, separate but equal elaborations that come together under the singular banner of all things rock. If anything, it helps ward off the risk of samey arrangement work, and what matters is whether the guitars are loud, proud and powerful.
That said, the next two tracks are perhaps the most conventional on the disc, at least superficially. Hitoshi Sakimoto's approach to Metalman will likely shock and awe fans at first listen not expecting a composer traditionally versed in orchestral and electronic palettes to produce rock of such power as if to the manner born. Indeed, it seems incredibly transformative for both the source material and for what Sakimoto is capable of, but then one listens deeper and realizes perhaps it was there all along. Everything about the stellar arrangement the insistent rhythmic movement, the wheeling circular chords, the shimmering heroic peaks and harmonies, the clever progressions and melodic turns, the thick fluctuating soundscapes are all elements of Sakimoto's inimitable style and idiosyncrasies superbly transcribed into the language of punchy alt-rock. You could easily replace the roaring guitars with brass and horns and the gorgeously distorted bridge of chords halfway through with and organ and voila, you'd have something akin to the roiling symphonic cues he creates in his sleep. It takes some liberties with the original theme, but overall this one is a stunner. The more indisputable proof I come across that Sakimoto and his crew at Basiscape could excel at literally anything, the more I wonder why they don't try to.
Kenji Ito provides the most straightforward reworking of the album with a simple but passionate version of perennial crowd-pleaser, Dr. Wily's first stage theme from Mega Man 2. It's not too far removed from his recent work on Romancing SaGa's Re:Birth album, but that's hardly a complaint. The groovy melody is just as catchy and nostalgic as ever, passed between some sterling prog keyboard and guitar work. The drums carry punch, the solos shriek like banshees, and the whole thing surges with energy and makes you wanna cheer. Little in the way of frills, but as often as this theme has been revisited, it doesn't need flash to be a winner.
If it's something flashy and new you want, the next track delivers by the tankload. Hiroshi Tanabe, aka Naoto from the tragically defunct Ge-On-Dan, transforms the little known Darkman theme from Mega Man 5 into a revelatory work of prog genius, a sparse, dusky aura of monolithic guitar noise crashing onto the senses. An enigmatic melody whistles along low on a matryomin while Kyoko Natsume's sirenic timbre howls above, whether the guitars are leading the charge with bright licks, chugging hazy blocks of chords or just rambling along with the tides. The acoustic strumming and bass noodling colors the piece with a warm autumnal texture, and the mix screams with soul, Tanabe having performed every instrument himself. A shocking showstopper that ranks among the best of the album. Another Ge-On-Dan regular, WASi303 drowns the second Cossack and Wily themes from Mega Man 4 in grungy, crunchy electronica and percussion. The pulsing beat is herculean but grows a tad repetetive and the guitars are mostly there for chunky rhythmic support, the melody articulated via synth. The semitone switch in melody mid-track is so minute as to be barely noticeable, and the higher pitch makes it difficult to pick out among the cluttered mix. The track is more hard-bodied electronica than rock anyway, so it's very inclusion on the album is suspect, but apart from those niggling issues, it's far from a bad piece, though I would call it the weakest.
No longer being part of the Basiscape crew, Kimihiro Abe and Noriyuki Kamikura do not contribute to this album. However, there's still plenty of jazz-tinged goodness to go around, courtesy first of Mitsuhiro Kaneda. His mutation of Mega Man 8's first Wily theme is subtle at first, a compulsive jazz fusion experiment in percussion that expertly utilizes the stealthy bassline from the original, blasting the eardrums with punchy, machine-gun drumkits and groovy keyboards. There's no sign of the toasty licks rock fans love until several minutes in, but once they tear in, they tear it up with blaring improvised solos that sing in counterpoint to the bass-heavy mix. The sophisticated arrangement carries moments of creeping menace to it, and while it runs a little long to the point of rambling, it's a wonderful surprise to the eyes. Azusa Chiba keeps the fusion train going with a groovy, piano-led jam session in pentatonic scale, using Mega Man 9's Galaxyman as point of departure. Chiba's sense of fearless style always takes me aback, and her performance here is bewildering to keep up with. The mix shifts timbre and texture every half-second, switching melodic leads between piano and guitar and back again, dirtying the riffs or playing in wildly different keys, pulling back on the drums or rattling them off in spurts. Slides, glissandi, counterpoint and harmony fill the aural space, and the sound is in constant flux between light and swingin', heavy and forceful. There are even stabs of brass that punctuate the song with inflections of ska. Some may find its chameleonic flair muddled or busy, but I tap my toe to every last second.
Chiba's next track dips again into material from Mega Man 9, this time spinning the moody wanderings of Splash Woman into an inspiring surf rock ballad. It maintains the restrained tempo that recalls the introspective tone of the original but amplifies it with emotive chords and leads and gentle piano accents. It even references Bubbleman in parts, just for that extra hint of aquatic solidarity. There's some light Asian flavor with periodic bouts of koto strumming, but many of the bridges focusing on it are a little clumsy and don't jive well with the overall mix, making the track feel slightly muddled. Chiba's light chorus, which she sings herself, serves the piece better and gives the song a lighter, warmer element just when needed. Yoshimi Kudo returns for the final time to stun the senses with a ripping symphonic metal medley of Wily boss themes from across the ages. It's got everything a metalhead could want. Overblown Gothic dramatics, mach-speed chords and runs, choir, string ostinati, all melded to the catchiest tunes in gaming. The opening pulses forward with determination and stunning harmonies, erupting into an energetic and heroic midsection before doubling down into a biting guitar breakdown that drives into the nerves the sensation of rushing headlong into the final battle. It has moments of relative, string-laden calm and darkly melodic turns where the licks scream like pipe organs before tearing it up for one last ferocious finish. Kudo impresses every step of the way with this album.
Shadow Hearts' alt-rock extraordinaire Yoshitaka Hirota turns Solarman's theme into a slow-broiling beast of pockmarked Asian percussion and ferocious industrial beats. The build is gradual and hazy, making the original melody hard to place, but when it drops like a meteor, you feel it. The riffs are the filthiest on the disc, low and dark against the riotous drums and piano stabs. It's not a piece you turn to when you want something to hum to. Headbangers only apply. The rock journey concludes with those first notes of piercing beauty in Kyoko Kishikawa's unmistakeable voice, scatting and pitching wordlessly over a triumphant yet prettily sad lounge cover of the ending from Mega Man 3. Mitsuhiro Ohta has lent his soulful guitar virtuosity to numerous game projects, including Shadow Hearts and the SaGa series, and if his work here doesn't get him more composition offers, there is something tragically wrong with the world. Like all good lounge, it opens mellow and somber, all smoky piano and notes so blue. Then Kishikawa scats wordlessly across every pitch in the human voice like the fingers on a guitar neck and like a call to action, the guitar springs to wonderful life and the rhythm picks up and the strings glide in and the piano twinkles and the sad, pretty verses of the melody soar on high. And one trembling breakdown solo later, it all winds down to silence and begins anew. The swelling emotion of the song is simple, perhaps sentimental, but deeply profound and artfully articulated. It's a perfect summation of finality expressed in sound, and draws the album to a perfectly dramatic finish.
Leagues above the journeyman quality of its earlier counterpart, Mega Man's 25th Anniversary Rock Arrange Version is an excellent tribute featuring a collection of wholly unique rock tunes. The production values are exemplary, the guitar performances astounding and as brash and powerful as needed, and nearly every composer is at the top of their game, some even revelatory. Like all arrange albums, it won't be perfect for everyone. One can never stop wondering what could be if more iconic tunes were chosen or if more talents like Daisuke Ishiwatari, Soyo Oka, or Ryo Yonemitsu were invited on, but these are minor, subjective quibbles. For anyone with even a remote fondness for Mega Man music, the game themselves, or just good old fashioned blood-boiling rock, this album is wholly and heartily-recommended
Overall Score: 9/10