Romancing SaGa Battle Arrange -Re:Birth II- :: Review by Chris
While the Romancing SaGa trilogy was never released in the West, the RPG series is very popular in Japan. This also extends to Kenji Ito's music, especially his memorable battle themes. Over the years, many of Japan's finest doujin acts, including Dangerous Mezashi Cat, MintJam, and S.S.H., have offered contemporary arrangements of these classic themes. In 2012, Ito gained support from Square Enix to produce his own official arrangements of the series' battle themes and teamed up with members of Falcom's J.D.K. Band to record them. Though Kenji Ito isn't known for his rock arrangements even handing over these duties to Tsuyoshi Sekito on Minstrel Song he's always had a rock spirit. How did he fare producing his first full rock album?
With the opening track, Kenji Ito reminds listeners why his battle themes have become so popular with a medley of the series' normal battle themes. Jumping straight into a rendition of Romancing SaGa's "Prelude to Battle", he hooks listeners with lyrical melodies and driving rhythms. The rock band performance energises the piece, with the electric guitar lead providing especially striking, while maintaining a retro vibe. The medley proceeds to cover the battle themes from the other two games, exploring interesting new phrases while maintaining the same uncomplicated, accessible style. The 'no frills' approach won't be for everyone, but it does the originals justice and is bound to appeal to fans of classic melodic rock out.
The majority of the arrangements adhere to this melodic rock approach, resulting in a high-energy but occasionally samey album. Nevertheless, Ito put considerable time into offering a diverse album experience. For "Magical Tank Battle" and "Occult Castle Battle", Ito goes back to the 80s to homage his roots. The latter is especially soothing with its jazz fusion stylings and provides some of the album's most intimate moments. However, its production values are considerably lower than the rock tracks with the saxophone work especially disappointing. By contrast, Ito captures the darker sounds of the final battle themes for the trilogy towards the end of the album shifting from a light rock setup towards a faster-paced hard rock extravaganza capable of challenging the bassist and drummer. The finale even ditches the rock focus altogether in favour of a reflective big band performance.
Re:Birth II is as much of a performers' album as it an arranger's one. Seasoned by his own performance experiences in recent years, Kenji Ito realizes how much energy and emotion instrumentalists can bring to an arrangement and provides plenty of opportunity for them to shine. For instance, the arrangement of "Magical Tank Battle" is lifted by a spirited performance by keyboardist Noriyuki Kamikura, who injects life into the melody and takes plenty of liberties during the solos. Meanwhile the "Four Demon Nobles Battle Medley" offers guitarist Masaru Teramae plenty of air time and he adds so much energy into the climaxes. There can be no doubt that straight arrangements like these are brought to live by their performers. In one further nod to the new J.D.K. Band, Romancing SaGa 3's "Battle 2" places the focus on a radiant violin lead from Reiko Tsuchiya. The mixing could be a little better, but the final result is still refreshing.
Inevitably, Re:Birth II isn't the most elaborate or varied rock-arranged album out there. There are times when one might regret that a more experienced rock musician isn't at the helm. While ensuring "Decisive Battle! Saruin" lived up to its awesome PlayStation 2 version, Ito recycled many of the ideas from Tsuyoshi Sekito's arrangement, while asking the keyboardist and guitarist to solo extra-hard. He meets the challenge, but doesn't offer much new. Yet by asking the trilogy's composer to return, Square Enix ensured all the arrangements would stay honour the inspiration behind the original. And whether his track choices or arrangement directions, it's clear throughout the album that Kenji Ito cares for the fanbase above all. Admire, for instance, how he sneaks in one of the fan favourites from Romancing SaGa ("Four Guardian Kings Dungeon") just before the finale, for instance.
Re:Birth II is a much more consistent and polished album than its predecessor, dedicated to Ito's work on the Mana series. It's admirable that Kenji Ito arranged the entire album himself and the results are generally enjoyable, sometimes spectacular. Even when the arrangement approach is relatively straightforward, the combination of solid track selections and excellent performances ensure most tracks satisfy. Those who enjoy The Black Mages or J.D.K. Band should have no trouble getting into this.
Overall Score: 8/10