Front Mission 4 Plus 1st Original Soundtrack :: Review by Dave and Harry
Here, the brand new score to Front Mission 4 has been paired up with the classic arrangements from Front Mission that constitute Front Mission 1st in a four disc set. While both sections of the album are quite different, both in terms of style and the melodies used, the soundtrack is linked together by its use of certain Square Enix employees. Hidenori Iwasaki composes and arranges the vast majority of both scores, and achieves surprisingly well, especially for someone previously more used to synthesizer operating. Joining him is synthesizer operator and Front Mission 4 co-composer Ryo Yamazaki, most well-known for his collaborations with Masashi Hamauzu previously, and sound programmer Minoru Akao, already a familiar face to the Front Mission series. What is produced is a highly pleasant experience two discs of strong original compositions followed by two discs of fine arrangements of Shimomura's and Matsueda's Front Mission themes that suit the game and have relatively few flaws.
Front Mission 4
The soundtrack starts off with a series of atmospheric tracks. "Assault" puts the listener on edge with its militaristic nature and sudden transition into a synth orientated section filled with dramatic chords and bizarre instruments. A melodious section effectively follows this, and then the track dies out in a sorrowful fashion. "Dust and Flames" follows on from where "Assault" left, and it is great to see Iwasaki manipulating the instrumentation suitably here; the piano line, for example, is rushed and accentuated, with a ghostly feel given through reverberation. "Red Alert," featuring guitarist Tsuyoshi Sekito and Satoshi Akamatsu, doesn't match the same standards however, as although it develops wonderfully, the integration of some really chilling breathing noises simply goes overboard; it is actually a highly terrifying addition if you're not expecting it and unsuitable for a strategy-RPG soundtrack. Nonetheless, when we get to "Beginnings," Iwasaki seems to regain his initial subtlety, and creates a theme that holds no similarities in instrumentation to the previous tracks, but has an equally strong atmosphere, partly eerie, partly hopeful. Indeed, so early on, Iwasaki has set a standard for the rest of the atmospheric tracks that follow, and later tracks only affirm his skill at creating such compositions. Take "The Central Assembly" as an example, a very simple composition that just seems to grab hold of the listener through its creation of a surreal atmosphere, well-supported by some subtle melodies. As exemplified first by Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles and now supported once again here, Iwasaki excels in creating atmospheric themes, though his greatest talents are reflect elsewhere on the soundtrack...
So, what else does Iwasaki offer us? Perhaps his principle strength is his battle themes, which sees a reversion to the original style of the Front Mission series' action tracks after the diversion represented by the often mechanical and largely unmelodic Front Mission 3 Original Soundtrack. Indeed, since Hayama and Matsuo's album seemed to need an acquired taste, Iwasaki stayed faithful to the earlier scores in the series, and produced a great number of melodic themes which would later go on to be some of the highlights of Front Mission 4. "Durandal" holds one of the most memorable melodies in the soundtrack, and it becomes a running theme, too, appearing in many other compositions. The theme features in its most prominent form in "Move Out!", a militaristic march that sees Shin Kazuhara reemphasise the melody's profoundness with his rasping performance, while the endless discords that lie below make it quite clear that uncertainty awaits. Hidenori Iwasaki often seems influenced by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt as well, with two themes being especially influenced by the popular soundtracks Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean. The earliest of these to be heard, "Knights of Steel" is especially powerful, featuring an incredible 'cello-led passage at one point. Of course, some might criticise this as lacking originality, particularly considering one melody used is almost identical to one of Badelt's used in "The Black Pearl," but the themes are perfectly fitting for the game's battle sequences and still boast a lot of Iwasaki's flair.
Remarkably, however, Ryo Yamazaki often composes the best action themes on the soundtrack, despite only creating a limited number of compositions overall. While his other compositions on the album are short, used to accompany brief FMV sequences, the likes of "Nexus News" and "Rampage" are certainly impacting. "Nexus News" is very threatening in nature, as with piano chords creating a dark atmosphere, the strings and synth orientated instrumentation really raise the aura. It is "Rampage," however, that remains most people's favourite composition from Ryo Yamazaki. Not only is this theme highly militaristic, it is marvellously structured to give an effect of an increasing anxiety. Trumpets, emphatic drums, and fast paced strings all feature in this track, and when they are all blended together, the overall effect is stunning. The 1:36 mark sees the birth of a new, much more sorrowful section, but when Yamazaki suddenly ends the phrase with two seconds worth of silence, the anticipation of a return of the action focus is very high. Indeed, this is an expertly composed track from Ryo Yamazaki, who obviously learnt a lot from being a synthesiser operator for so many years. Perhaps, however, his greatest feat is creating such high quality synth throughout the score, which is very realistic and shouldn't go underappreciated.
Another genre that Iwasaki explores during the course of the album is jazz, again reminding us of the classic days of Noriko Matsueda's compositions for Front Mission and Front Mission Second, and providing a link that makes the crossover from Front Mission 4 to Front Mission 1st less jarring. The relaxing "Grape Vine" is a classic example of this, featuring a light and semi-improvised piano line, accompanied by the traditional jazz double bass and drums. It's not especially original, but a convincing and pleasant addition to the score. "Harbor Town" also sees a moderately effective jazz-electronica fusion. Here, the piano line does most of the work, as without its emphatic blows and intriguing rhythm, the piece would just be a string of sound effects drawn together with the occasional melody. Electronica is not his speciality, as demonstrated by his need to collaborate with co-composers Yasuhiro Yamanaka and Kenichiro Fukui for Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~, but he does well to integrate it into the score nonetheless. Overall, though, it's a shame that Iwasaki didn't explore this genre more on this section of the album, but at least we are offered more by his arrangements of Matsueda's themes in Front Mission 1st in the third and fourth discs.
Do not be misled into thinking that the album all consists of fairly standard approaches to action tracks and jazz, as this is hardly true. One style that is experimented with is ethnic-influenced ambience, representing the exotic locations the gamer visits on their mission. "Free Spirit" is a classic example of this, and it comes at a great time in the album, too. Instead of being dark or aggressive, the theme's melody is light and laidback, and of course, the combination of the marimba and panpipes highlights this even further. "Break Free" also takes upon a tribal form, though is actually a courageous action track, surprisingly enough. With the heavy percussion placing a huge emphasis on the darker nature of the scene, a captivating melodic line guides the player through the battle, and when this is coupled with an electronic bass line, the result is superb. Other such themes to note are "The Revolutionary," a short yet respectable theme that sees the use of the panpipes on the album once more, "Deserters," which sees a greater emphasis on an electronica fusion, and "Lock & Load," an electronic masterpiece that returned in Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~.
Iwasaki's final battle and ending themes are impressive, too, and although they may not be as well developed or as captivating as others, they do their job well. The power of "Pride and Honor" will definitely catch you off guard, with its development being its greatest feature, some triumphant new melodies combine with a reprise of the Pirates of the Caribbean-esque "Knights of Steel" to create a lot of diversity and power overall. "Iron Tempest" isn't as melodic as "Pride and Honor," but the atmosphere is just as electrifying. It starts with ominous piano chords and timpani, and when brass instruments are added on top of this, everything seems to come to life, constituting a superb overall theme. There are several highlights still left in the score by this point, most notably "Credits," a memorable reprise of most of the album's main themes, namely "The Durandal," "Aggressors," and "Knights of Steel"; though the scary breathing noises and slightly too orthodox repetition of themes means it isn't one of Square Enix's best ending themes, it wraps everything together well and the theme is very well-structured. Overall, Iwasaki's efforts for this section of the album have paid off, and he has proven that he is a consistent composer. So, what about Front Mission 1st? Read on to see.
Front Mission 1st
The arrangements made for this section of the album generally adhere closely to the original themes, and their main new feature is their upgraded sound quality. I was a little bit sceptical of the sound quality at first, but we were fortunate enough to receive a great production team. The sound production team consists of the best available; that is, Square Enix's top synthesizer operator, Ryo Yamazaki, and sound programmer Minoru Akao, who programmed the sound to the 1995 score. With the possible assistance of the arranger Iwasaki, too, it was sure that this game would sound good even when in the stage of speculation. However, it was never Yamazaki's intentions to match his unbeatable synth on other such PlayStation masterpieces as Chrono Cross or SaGa Frontier 2, but rather to improve on the SNES quality from the original game. In a fair comparison, it would rate close to Seiken Densetsu 3 or Final Fantasy VI, two games which have the most outstanding synthesizer quality of the era. Naturally, Yamazaki makes the sound smoother, making it pleasant and accessible to the ears. Indeed, the instruments do still resemble the samples manipulated by the SPC chip.
"A Minefield" opens this section of the album, and it proves to be an effective one at least. Yoko Shimomura's composition gets an instrumental revamp, and the piano strikes sound even better, melting directly into the beat, climaxing at such ferocity and intensity. The dark and militaristic style that it's arranged in fits perfectly with the genre of the game. The next track, "Canyon Crow," shifts directly towards the electronica medium, introduced when Iwasaki focuses upon highlighting the synthetic attributes, creating that extra bounce. Another example of a central emphasis on the beat is the following track, "Rise to Action," which has some pretty decent electronic samples to accompany the jazzy melody originally mastered by Noriko Matsueda. Even so, the synthesized instrument designed to play the melody isn't impacting as the original, and takes a softer and more flowing role instead.
It is well-known that Shimomura and Matsueda took different approaches to the Original Sound Version, with the Street Fighter II co-composer taking grasp of the action oriented themes, and the Chrono Trigger co-composer responsible for most of the calmer tracks. Focussing on one of Shimomura's works first, "The Evils of War" has always been a classic battle track, but the level of satisfaction, for me, was never high, primarily because the instrumental samples were weak. Nonetheless, here we see Iwasaki and Yamazaki fix this within the first few seconds. Thanks to the duo, we have a completely perfect stern and dramatic track. All is also well in Matsueda's part, "Tension," a great excerpt demonstrating Iwasaki's trend. Admittedly, the original's brass was poor, but now, the clarity and the development of the instrument alone is worthy of the track's title. As a bonus, the arranger also tweaks the once shallow percussion to give it some life. I was also very pleased with "Shop," a would-be signature jazz piece from Matsueda. While no major or noticeable difference, the whole effect and atmosphere is more convincing, and the addition of the clearly audible guitar sets an image of a near-deserted and foggy bar from the '70s.
The character themes are amongst some of the best I've heard, originating from the previous generation console. Matsueda took on the majority of the themes, and Iwasaki improves on where she left off. There are three impressive character themes that really stand out, and the first of these is "Kalen", surprisingly one of the simplest, but most melodically enjoyable, themes ever created by the composer. Based on repetitive synth choral samples, the six note melody painfully paves way into the deepest etches of your heart, and, if you played the game, the scene promoted by the music will find its way back into your memory. Next up, "Elegie" is a dark and mysterious piano solo by Shimomura, who, at the time, was only exploring the start of her long Square career. While Iwasaki doesn't do much with the material, Yamazaki was more than willing to help by making the piano samples sound as foreboding as possible. The last of the themes is called "Natalie," and receives the most development. The piano starts as the focal point before a variety of different instruments enter quietly adding harmonies, textures, and secondary melodies to the theme. The overall effect atmosphere is sad and depressing, and even more so than the original.
Shimomura's hard-hitting action themes are consistently top-notch, and with Front Mission, you could see her skills develop into what we hear on scores such as Seiken Densetsu Legend of Mana or Kingdom Hearts. "Advanced Guard" moulds her killer beat with a familiar Arabian tune, and although this combination screams success, Iwasaki's arrangement disappoints. Despite Front Mission 1st being made for the PlayStation, the horn sounds very vague and pathetic, and the arrangement doesn't shine any light whatsoever on the original. A lesson is quickly learnt from the arranger when he tries to arrange "Take the Offensive," which is a buoyantly, controlled, yet frantic track; the chip tune version remained elegant, whereas Iwasaki's is strong but jagged. "Manifold Irons" is the theme for when enemies move on the map, and the French horn compliments the worry of the characters while the enemy moves foreword to assault the heroes. Progressively, the strings and horns transform, peaking with the violin, replacing the strings of the original, and repeating with an expansion of the horn's melodic line. One of the final boss themes, "Destructive Logic," usess vengeance-filled and menacing thesises, perfect to suit the final enemy. Shimomura and Iwasaki harness the ominous effect of the church organ here and include substantial development prior to the conclusion.
Those familiar with the later works of Matsueda should be well aware of the composer's eclectic, and often jazzy, influences. Well, being a Front Mission score, the composer rarely gets to touch her familiar abilities. Aside from the few jazzy themes I mentioned earlier, "Bar" is one of the only ones left over from all her other slower and militaristic-focused tracks. Thanks to Iwasaki and Yamazaki, this theme's inner life can bounce even more, adding improvement to former grungy, worn-out sound technology making the piano and atmosphere smoother and tolerable. What we have left, on the composer's less jazzy side, is a good deal of slower but impacting themes, which surpassing Shimomura's in term of diversity. She covers all of the areas that Shimomura couldn't, including mood setting compositions like "Bloody Temperature," in which Iwasaki opted for a beat to be underplayed with the improved synth choir, and upbeat militaristic ecstatic parodies like "A Person Easily Elated." Fanatics who've heard the Bahamut Lagoon Original Soundtrack will see some resemblance to her action themes. While Shimomura loves to harness the power of the percussion in a driving and thematic manner, Matsueda takes a liking to progressiveness; her themes don't jump at you but marvellously grow to the fitting scene.
Iwasaki does more than just arrange some old classics; he adds his own legacy to the score, albeit a whole ten years later. He adds only five pieces, but they flawlessly match the styles of Shimomura and Matsueda. He creates two extra character themes; "Maria" takes on after "Elegie" as a delightfully sorrow filled piano solo, and is the first track ever to present Iwasaki's skills with the solo instrument. The composer includes slow and subtle progressions to convey emotion in the right way, as, although the character theme is simple, akin to the others, the beauty behind it is very clear. Next up, "Driscoll" made me ponder at how Iwasaki made a track to accompany one of the main bad guys yet with a low level of malevolence within the track. Luckily, the theme shapes up a bit when it enters the ending stages when the proud melody is sung out by the horn with strings. After all the character themes, "BlackHounds," a Matsueda-esque composition enters, baring a killer frantic melody and a decent beat. One could easily mistake it as one of the aforementioned composer's works, though the track has a special quality that fans who well know Iwasaki's style should pick up easily. This is also apparent in "New Enemy Turn" where Shimomura's 'edge' is emulated, complete with driving power.
Going back to arrangements, the ending theme for Front Mission, an extended and fully developed arrangement of the heartbreaking "Kalen," was beautiful. The SNES version felt like more of an 'upgrade' from the character theme rather than a memorable ending theme that plays after a hard game is won. What Iwasaki did was pretty much the standard upgrading of instruments, but with some extra power on the orchestral expansion directly after the reprisal of "Kalen." The music is outstanding. But wait, there's more! Iwasaki also composed his own ending theme exclusively for Front Mission 1st; "U.M.N (Ending)" an over seven minute long militaristic composition, based on and featuring constant reprisals of "Maria." Basically, the structure is very much like Matsueda's take of an ending theme, but strictly relies on the main motifs of the new character theme to progress. I found the second half disappointing, as "Maria" is again played as a piano solo. It's not necessarily bad, but I was expecting something a little more creative as a finale to an impressive chapter in a growing saga.
On the whole, the Front Mission 4 Plus 1st Original Soundtrack is clearly another winner. Nearly everything about the Front Mission 1st section is much stronger in its new arranged incarnation, especially in the sound department. Iwasaki pulls it off with little trouble, so we can see through his new compositions and arrangements that he was the ideal man for scoring the Front Mission 4 game, where he also creates an impressive achievement that stays true to the series' tradition yet clearly has the composer's distinct touch. Though the four disc set is not the most diverse or consistent of Front Mission scores, the more recent Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~ being considerably stronger, it is nevertheless a highly worthy purchase that revived the much-loved yet underrated Front Mission series after an absence of new scores.
Overall Score: 8/10