Front Mission Alternative :: Review by Chris
Front Mission Alternative is the biggest anomaly in Square Enix's wide discography to date. It's completely different to all other Front Mission scores, neither being militaristic or especially melodic, but rather something completely alternative. The artist employed to create this score was neither a Square Enix employee nor a game musician at any other company, rather someone who seems generally disinterested in game music, a self-taught electronica musician that now specialises in producing mainstream dance music solo albums. That artist, Mr. Riow Arai, was given a free-license to create a largely techno-based score by the game's producer, but also to experiment as much as he already liked. He had already made one published composition to Sega Touring Car Championship, but found this project too limiting, so used this opportunity not only to use his other two inspired yet rejected tracks from that score here, but to experiment to the full. Defining the overall success of musical experiments can be difficult, as an assessment of musical accessibility is rarely an accurate assessment of the inspiration, appropriateness, and musical refinement of the score, and indeed this simple fact cannot be more true here. Arai succeeded in creating an experiment, certainly, but is this score really capable of being appreciating for anything beyond its experimental qualities?
The score is, quite simply, completely inaccessible to over 99% of the population, at least in terms of a stand-alone listening experience. This is unfortunate, but the inevitable consequences of adopting a style that is not always enjoyed by gamers to a series that, with the possible exception of most of Koji Hayama's contributions to Front Mission 3, has always been known principally for its militaristic tracks and largely acoustic instrumentation. The producers were proposing a major move by employing a complete outsider to create such a score, as they risked alienating the modest league of fans built up from the scores to Front Mission, Front Mission: Gun Hazard, and Front Mission Second completely. Regardless of whether the game was 'alternative' and a diversion from the ordinary series, it definitely had the 'Front Mission' feel and was, despite its flaws, relatively accessible to fans of the series' previous instalments. This is not the case here, and the unrelentless repetition that often negatively characterises the score is perhaps the biggest reason that a techno style often only deterred gamers. There is considerable evidence to support that Arai is not one to appreciate demands being put on him, is confident enough with his work to not seek criticism or feedback, and considered his own freedom to be the most fundamentally important aspect to ensuring the score's success. It seems likely that many of the score's problems can be placed down to Square tolerating such a potentially impractical attitude, likely because of a lack of a musically authorative figure, and it seems baffling that there was clearly no proper specifications for Arai to work on. The following quote explains a lot:
"Musically [Square] set me free. They depended on me and there were no demands. I composed almost all of Front Mission Alternative without seeing the game and selected tracks for each scene myself." - Riow Arai
Indeed, there's no doubt that the biggest flaw in the score is that most of the early tracks on the album generally go on for far too long all of the first six tracks bar "Opening" exceed 5 minutes playing time and are largely based on copious amounts of repetition. This significantly damages certain highly interesting tracks, especially "Jungle," overextended to 7:10 in total, when it would have quite sufficed with half the playing time in a more concise form. Slightly less inspired tracks, such as "Woods," become almost unbearable to listen to in full, particularly after featuring a whole minute's worth of generic techno beats being layered in its lengthy introduction. If Arai actually avoided repeating old material over and over again before introducing new material at random places, he'd create some excellent creations here. Curiously, in "Jungle," a new section is even introduced at 5:43, which seems almost completely unrelated, hardly retaining the melodiousness of previous sections, and relying far too much on crazy yet dull synth sounds. If the listener manages to get that far without skipping the track, they'll just be left thinking one thing: 'Why?'. Yet, expecting the average listener to skip the track after 3 minutes or so might be a little presumptious when faced with the second in a succession of repetitive tracks and a layered introduction that lasts for a whole 90 seconds, it's very tempting to just press 'stop' button, and this is likely why most of its listener don't even get to experience the more inspired part of the score.
Away from the negative parts of the score, paradoxically Arai's freedom is sometimes the winning feature of the score as well, in that it is the source of all experimentation and creativity. Refreshingly, very few of the tracks are just plain 'techno', and Arai shows eclectic influences by his inclusion of music from a variety of other electronic genres as well. The abovementioned "Jungle," for example, has tribal influences, its name both reflecting both the setting it is used in and the genre of music it is based on, while a more general Drum and Bass style is largely the basis of "Port," supported by its witty bass line with great rhythmical impetus. There's also many funk influences, first represented by the misleading "Sandtown," a rhythmically complex track with a thick bass line, syncopated synth melodies, and an overall upbeat yet somewhat aggressive attitude. Greater Jazz influences are represented in tracks like "Night," led by a synthetic and pseudo-improvised saxophone, and the more laid-back "Beach," extended to 8:06 in total yet made unique and inspiring practically all the way through with its jazz-funk-ambient fusion, only to feature an absolutely dire conclusion. This, "Defeat," "Airport," and "Ending" are the only slower pieces on the soundtrack, yet, collectively, they largely serve to increase the emotional depth of the score. "Defeat" is an especially likeable jazz-based piece, featuring synthetic vocals and a sleazy piano solo, while "Airport" succeeds in reiterating the success of the hybrid in "Beach," combining a really strong melody with an emphatic bass line, some gorgeous synth vocals, and lots of deep electronic overtones, which eventually ensure that the track is the most outwardly enjoyable on the soundtrack. Arai's own brief summation of his far-reaching style reflects this particularly soundtrack fairly well, if his use of the word 'techno' is taken to mean the broadest sense of the word:
"To put it simply, [my style] can be categorized as techno. And there are so many elements related to this such as Drum and Bass, Trip-Hop, Hip-Hop, Ambient, and so on." - Riow Arai
The most interesting aspect of the score, aside from its considerable diversity, is its percussion use, oddly enough. "Woods," for example, features carefully articulated hand clapping during its more remarkable sections while a diverse array of other percussion instruments also feature elsewhere, many of which are too abstract to name. Though the theme eventually becomes highly repetitive, it introduces a unique talent, only reinforced further by the subsequent track, "Rock," where something highly unusual happens; here, the synth is almost entirely chordal, with the initial one bar ostinato being repeated for 100 seconds before a welcome change occurs, but is completely deemphasised in favour of aggressive percussion, essentially the intended focal part of the track, which forms often complex polyrhythms with the synth, particularly after the 1:40 mark, to create a lot of rhythmical variation overall. The equally aggressive "Town 01" is partly an expansion of this idea, with the percussion parts frequently interchanging with the synth part as the lead feature, sometimes accompanying, as in the frenetic introduction, though often leading, as shown by the highly agitated and often syncopated beats against the main melody. Its successor, "Town 02" also sees more synth-percussion interplay, but is more complex once again, with a synth instrument that exhibits percussive qualities taking the lead early on, with each of its notes heavily accentuated at first yet quickly fading away, as if hit. Its uneven drum beats associate it firmly with the Breakbeat genre. "Desert" is perhaps best of all, however, creating a highly oppressive sound with distorted synth samples and aggressive percussion rhythms, which often sound industrial, with drum breaks appearing sporadically to create an eerie minimalistic feel, giving it more diversity in timbre than most other tracks.
The score's success within the game is variable, and its discussion has been left to the last stages of this review in light of the fact that Arai practically admitted the soundtrack was treated a solo score above. Anyway, set in Africa in 2029, Front Mission Alternative is vivid visually, featuring lush jungles, impressive cities, and blistering deserts, boasting a cinematic camera angle and integrating real-time battles, meaning the emphasis of Arai's soundtrack is almost entirely based around representing scenery, the absence of battle themes being appropriate. In some ways, Arai has been quite clever, using the African-influenced drum emphasis to some success with the town themes, integrating the Jungle genre to represent exactly the right scenery, and providing effective yet unusual scenic representations in "Beach," "Night," and "Airport". "Desert" is also quite suitable for representing the blistering heat, and some will draw parallels here to "Bikanel Desert" from Final Fantasy X-2 in the way electronica can be good for creating an intense and oppressive atmosphere, even if "Desert" is far more developed and sophisticated, not to mention the first of its kind. The most successful in-game compositions has to be the "Opening" theme, however, the one track on the album that actually develops in a clear way in conjunction with the visuals. Opening with ethereal synth pads, an atmospheric build up of percussion soon follows before a classic robotic voice (possibly Fred from Radiohead's "Fitter Happier") utters "Front Mission Alternative". While the core of the track features an addictive and goofy synth melody, the progression featured is excellent, and two really unusual drum breaks heighten the experience only further, ensuring the eventual conclusion is more than satisfying.
Is this really ignoring the bigger picture, however? This is the soundtrack, after all, where the standard 'we give you specifications and you create music fitting for the scene' is apparently scrapped for the new approach of 'do whatever the heck you want, so long as you produce something techno and then fit it to the game's scenes after you've produced the score'. The subtlety of the African influences on the town themes and jungle theme is probably lost on most listeners and it seems practically impossible to see the brash "Woods," "Under," and "Port" really fitting whatever in-game context they're used in. Greg Kasavin from GameSpot seems to echo the voice of many gamers on this matter, stating "Front Mission Alternative's so-called alternative soundtrack is basically a bunch of dizzying techno that doesn't suit the onscreen grandeur," and it seems perfectly clear from comparing screenshots of the visuals with the score's audio that the style doesn't quite fit, at large. "Ending" is especially worthy of further discussion, being the most repetitive and underwhelming ending theme featured on a Square soundtrack, hardly emulating the success of the "Opening" theme. It is, essentially, a slow-paced harp theme accompanied by atmospheric yet monotonous synth effects that drags for 3:24 practically repeating the same thing over and over. It's a complete disappointment, showing complete lack of inspiration and no real thought as to the fundamental importance of an end credits theme, yet is strangely relieving once it eventually ends, perhaps due to the tedium finally being cut. Could all this mean that, despite all its variety and awesome percussion use, the soundtrack is, functionally, a failure? Yes, it does, for the most part.
Square's biggest musical experiment, Riow Arai's Front Mission Alternative soundtrack, was largely an unsuccessful one from the point of view of fitting the game and in terms of accessibility. If the first five lengthy scenic tracks were cut down from their massive original sizes, Square gave Arai a clear specifications regarding the in-game context the music was supposed to fit, and Arai wasn't so hell-bent on treating the album as a free-license to do whatever he wanted, the two massive flaws of this album repetitiveness and inappropriateness could have been avoided. Square's laziness here was quite astonishing, if Arai's initial quote and similar comments since are to be considered, and it was their fault, ultimately, that the soundtrack became a partial failure, as they should have guided their overzealous collaborator and thought more deeply about how to make this soundtrack appropriate, not mislead him with a load of vagueness. It's also a pity that Arai was considerably hindered by technological limitations regardless of Junya Nakano's considerable strength as a synthesizer operator, the PlayStation's hardware did not satisfy Arai, who found it a challenge to cope with samples of limited emotional capacity and described the sounds used as 'cheap'. Indeed, the problems described above make it quite clear that game soundtracks are not Arai's true calling and it's not surprising that he followed this production with a series of solo albums, where he had even more freedom, especially from a technological standpoint.
Yet not all is lost. The soundtrack can be highly satisfying, if the listener learns to know where to press the 'skip' button in the first five scenic themes, and, more importantly, has an inclination for a variety of electronic genres. The diversity of the score is quite astonishing, the use of Drum and Bass, Ambience, and Jazz fusions, in addition to ordinary Techno, being highly effectual, while Arai's use of layering techniques and unique integration of percussion can make the score intellectually remarkable in places. It ultimately showed that Arai was a capable electronic musician and set a background for the creation of more musically mature subsequent albums, such as Mind Edit and Circuit '72. Yet, this soundtrack is not worthy of a listen from any of the following a Front Mission music fan (the score's doesn't have the distinct Front Mission feel, after all), someone wanting to be introduced to Riow Arai (try his latest solo album Riow Arai + Nongenetic instead), or someone with an inclination for seeing Square's electronic side (try Code Age Commanders or is: internal section for more consistent experiences). Only the really experimental buyer, the hardcore Arai fan, or the people who go around buying every Square album there is as some sort of collecting expedition should seriously consider this flawed yet remarkable gem.
Overall Score: 5/10