Unlimited SaGa Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
Following his work on SaGa Frontier II, Masashi Hamauzu returned to score Unlimited SaGa. The series' most diverse soundtrack to date, it is split into two distinct halves; the first disc represents Hamauzu's emotional and traditional side, akin to a high-quality standard RPG soundtrack with experimental touches, while the second is altogether more eccentric and unprecedented, featuring 12 daring electronic compositions crafted by Hamauzu and synthesizer operator Ryo Yamazaki. Although the soundtrack went out of print some time ago, a reprint is apparently planned and it is also available on the series' box set.
Opening with a overture, fully orchestrated by Shiro Hamaguchi, Unlimited SaGa's unforgettable main theme is introduced in remarkable fashion. Initially fragmented as the charming melody passes through a variety of instruments, soft strings gently meander against thick luscious harmonies to create a serene yet imposing atmosphere. With the entrance of a brash militaristic fanfare, the theme heightens and the main melody is delivered in full form before concluding with a rousing coda. Immediately after, the theme is arranged with "Seven Travelers," where pre-recorded oboe, 'cello, and flute performances enhance an otherwise sequenced piano-led theme. Here, the timbral qualities and human emotions expressed by each instrument complement the lines that Hamauzu has thoughtfully written. A conflict of emotions is evident, with the theme's light and adventurous exterior being contrasted by its inner melancholic wanderings, as a journey of seven united characters begin.
The character themes provide a limited but impressive exploration of Hamauzu's range. "Theme for Judy" is a classically-oriented theme written for piano trio and accordion; impeccably sequenced by Yamazaki, it employs timbral contrasts, chromatic progressions, and subtle integration of the main theme to achieve a melancholic effect. Perhaps the most emotive addition to the soundtrack is "Theme for Laura," which builds from a subtle piano, flute, and strings introduction into a dramatic climax. More subtle are "Theme for Cash," which features an expressive melody against fluid piano accompaniment, and Myth's French-influenced representation, which prominently features the main theme on Hirohumi Mizuno's accordion. "Theme for Ruby" is one of several themes together with "Enigmatic Scheme," "BT 'ultimate'," and "March in C" that were written earlier in Hamauzu's career, not initially intended for the score. Though one the least memorable of the character themes, it still has a rich and magical quality.
The other noteworthy tracks on Disc One are orientated towards representing action. The normal battle theme is unforgettable; structured in aa variation of rondo form, its first section comprises of a solo violin interpreting the game's main theme in a bouncy way against bossa nova accompaniment. While it sounds improbable, it works a treat. Also catchy and original is "Battle Theme IV," which assimilates an eclectic array of forces, including castanets and foot stamping, in the style of a flamenco. The other battle themes do an excellent job creating an intense atmosphere through creative means, though aren't as invigorating outside the game. "Invasion," which is very similar to Final Fantasy X's "Attack," and "Shocking Space," which combines all sorts of ominous forces with a light-hearted melody, are both accomplished attempts at creating action through unconventional means. Hamauzu also impresses with the more eccentric "Enigmatic Scheme" and "Perpetual Movements", which should serve as reference points for those who doubt Hamauzu's aability to create memorable melodies.
While many individual tracks are amazing, the first disc is hindered by a multitude of problems. In contrast to SaGa Frontier II, the main theme is utilised inconsistently often as a source of melody rather than as something meaningful. What's more, there appears to be a constant battle between the producer's intentions to have a continually melodic and accessible soundtrack akin to a Uematsu album and Hamauzu's own needs to indulge in random and musically accomplished batches of experimentation. Furthermore, Hamauzu clutters the bulk of the FMV accompaniment tracks, ten in total, at the end of the soundtrack; while most are successful in context, all but "Mystic Flame" are quite boring on a stand-alone basis, hardly as remarkable as the cinematic tracks for Final Fantasy IX, for instance. The first disc has momentous highlights, but overall lacks the reconciliation of awe-inspiring experiments and accessible classics to have internal rationale. In addition, its underwhelming ending means most will switch discs after "Shocking Space," fortunately to bigger and better things... depending on who's listening.
The second disc is filled with inventive and purposeful electronica. Some are battle themes (mostly those referred to with 'BT'), while the rest are very interesting examples of ambient or relaxing music. For instance, in the opening track, Hamauzu portrays the vaariability of time and boundlessness of space through contrasting repetitive elements, such as an ethereal semi-arpeggiated piano line and an ambient electronic bass line, with an ever-changing and luscious sound palette in the foreground. Also fascinating is "DG 'sine'," minimalistic chillout music that employs pure sine waves throughout, to create a sense of warmth and emptiness simultaneously. Several of these tracks really emphasise the power of Ryo Yamazaki. For instance, he created all the sound effects in the dark ambient "DG 'mixture'" independently of Masashi Hamauzu's composition, before assimilating them. He was also jointly responsible for the final cut of the "DG 'listless'," which combines pseudo-improvised piano lines with warm synth pads and eerie percussive elements, to gorgeous but unnerving effect.
The electronic battle themes are a diverse bunch. A few probably won't appeal to the casual listener, for instance "BT Ver.8" with its heavy beats and vocoder samplers, or "BT Ver.4" with its IDM-influenced beat and eerie sound effects. More accessible themes include the Yamazaki-influenced jazz-funk fusion "BT Ver.1," the exciting Latin-electronic fusion "Battle Theme EX", and the saxxy porno rip-off "BT Ver.7". Preceded by the epic tones of the first acoustic theme on Disc Two, "Challenge to the Seven Wonders," the soundtrack reaches its incredible climax with "BT 'ultimate'". With its hard techno beats, epic trumpet melody, chilling sound effects and synth vocals, and, best of all, awesome interlude, it beautifully depicts an image of gliding through space while facing the ultimate foe. After the soothing "Liberation," the game's third full-orchestral track, "Finale," reconciles the score thematically with several welcome reprises. Sadly, the score's vocal theme "Soaring Wings" is largely disappointing; it lacks a particularly memorable melody and seems to blend influences from operatic aria and J-Pop hits somewhat haphazardly.
Appreciation of this album will principally depend on the appeal of the electronic music featured throughout the second disc. Those who enjoy such creations will find the overall album an accomplished piece of experimentation that is also often satisfying on an emotional and melodic level. For the rest, the album will be often wonderful but also hugely inconsistent. To buy the album for its acoustic compositions alone may be unwise, as only around half of them are especially accomplished, but the best of them, e.g. the overture, certain battle themes, "Theme for Judy," "Enigmatic Scheme," and "Finale," are classics. Though not quite a 'love it or hate it' experience, experimental leanings are required to fully enjoy the score, even if it undoubtedly features at least a handful of tracks that will appeal to everybody.
Overall Score: 8/10