Xenogears Original Soundtrack :: Review by Don
Xenogears. What does it represent? To me, it represents deviating from the norm. How so? With his first released solo contribution to Square, Mitsuda experiments quite a bit. Why? Surely his normal composing style would lend nicely to this game. While that may be, he attempts to capture the dark and philosophical storyline that harbors many religious overtones. Housing a myriad of musical styles, Xenogears bears it all to the listener. While this may put off some Mitsuda fans, it shows his diversity as a composer, as well as his influences for his later Xenosaga soundtrack. But in the end, is Mitsuda successful in capturing the essence of Xenogears or does he end up wandering about like a pilot who has lost his Gear. Come, jump into the pilot seat of your favorite Gear as I review this album!
Yasunori Mitsuda has always had a penchant for writing opening themes and "Light from the Netherworld" is probably one of his best opening themes since it combines tons of styles and moods. Ranging from very atmospheric to very powerful, motivating motifs, the listener is taken on a rollercoaster ride for the ear. The violin's way of creating a very chilling and, at the same time, beautiful melody adds so much depth to this track over the heavy percussion and industrial rhythms. In addition, the introduction of chorals, in both a dramatic sense and in a more revered tone, really contributes to a strong sense of variety. Militarism rears its head too as Mitsuda creates a nice rhythmic section reminiscent of warring nations. In addition, Mitsuda also introduces the main theme of the game, "Small Two of Pieces" as a fantastic way to end this track and as Miang stares out into the horizon from the beach, the gamer is instilled with a sense of peace and serenity.
Moving from one of his stronger traits, we'll shift gears to one of his weaker traits: his battle themes. While his battle themes in this game still aren't on par with some of the greats out there, they are definitely some of his strongest. The normal battle theme “Stage of Death” is probably the weakest one on the album. It shares the militaristic qualities of the other tracks, and is certainly fitting for the scope of the game, but it seems to fall short. It's a bit repetitive in the beginning and it doesn't give that sense of battle that the others do, but the choice of instrumentation is very good. Brass and percussion definitely give off that militaristic flair! The boss theme for the game, "Knight of Fire," is probably the best battle theme on the album, save for the one of the final battle themes. It, too, employs the use of a strong percussive rhythm with an overlying brass melody. It is epic in scale and execution and definitely employs a unique tension easer in the form of some spoken commands, most likely from that of a gear. "Steel Giant" is another battle track used at times in the game and is also a nice treat to which to listen. The percussion use isn't as prominent a feature as in the other battle tracks, but it's much stronger when it is used. The brass melody is militaristic, frenzied, and above all, very strong. It really helps to hold the piece together.
Another striking section of this album is its town themes. "My Village is Number One" is a very playful track that incorporates a lot of Celtic influence. The use of bagpipe, violin, a catchy percussion line, and vocals makes for an interesting combination and their execution is fantastic. The chorals add a bit of seriousness to the track, while the bagpipe and violin help to portray the happiness of a tiny village before it is obliterated. Similarly, "The Valley Where Wind is Born" shares a similar style to its predecessor, but focuses much more on the usage of woodwinds to convey its message. Both are very playful in nature and really help to bring the main character's way of living into focus. Another town theme that shares this Celtic influence is "Singing of the Gentle Wind." This is a very peaceful track which utilizes woodwinds and an accordion to invoke the image of a twon theme to the listener. Piano serves as a fitting accompaniment and helps to add another level of emotion. As the piece develops, the feelings of emotion only grow stronger.
If you think that Celtic town themes were all you'd expect from Mitsuda, you are mistaken. He offers up a few other styles as well. "Dajil, City of the Burning Sand", is probably the best desert town themes I've heard in my lifetime. This track definitely is home to some of the more exotic instrumentation you'll find on the album. From zithers to bongos, it really offers something nice. While the main melody is played on a woodwind instrument, it doesn't feel Celtic at all and is a nice interjection into an album dominated by orchestral and Celtic overtones. We move on to the more bombastic "Tamusu, Man of the Sea," the town theme for the ship Thames. The combination of brass and woodwind in the melodic line really help to offer some contrast to some of the town themes heard. I also love how the percussion is strong and helps to accentuate the strengths found in the melody. While it is a bit repetitive, it's still a nice addition to the soundtrack. "Solaris, Eden of Heaven" is probably the quirkiest of the town themes on here. It has a nice rhythmic nature to it, but at the same time, it seems to contrast with what one would expect to hear in an Eden. While it definitely gets points for being original and playful, it still suffers from being repetitive and a bit lackluster compared to the other town themes.
Since you can't have a Xeno game without religious overtones, likewise, you can't have a Xeno review without mentioning some spiritual aspects of the soundtrack. "The Wounded Shall Advance into the Light" is a very religious sounding piece. The use of a choir here really helps to portray the serenity of the cathedral and, at the same time, it offers a very strong melody for something as simple as this. It's surprisingly very touching as well and the layering of the choir adds a bit of depth to the track. While "Ship of Sleep and Regret" isn't the most religious sounding track, it definitely has some religious influence inherited within its composition. The use of harpsichord and subtle choral work makes for a very nice backdrop to Elly summarizing parts of the story. Unfortunately, it suffers from a pretty straightforward melody which seems to drag on after a while. Surprisingly, the main instrument one would think of when they think religion has yet to show itself, the organ. Fortunately, "Pray for the People's Joy" gives us just that. The melody produced by the organ is very fitting and helps to bring some contrast to the album. While it doesn't offer the strongest of melodies, it definitely provides a very solemn atmosphere.
Although the remaining tracks don't fit into a category per se, they all are worthy of mention because they showcase more of Mitsuda's strong points. "Grahf, Emperor of Darkness" is one of Mitsuda's most striking villain themes, and in my opinion, is only surpassed by "Albedo". Very militaristic and sinister in nature, this piece just exudes evil in its purest form. The percussion is extremely rhythmic and fits with the brass melody, which gives off a feeling of divine power. It's a truly moving villain theme and one that avoids clichés that earlier role playing games have suffered from. "Tears of the Stars, Hearts of the Strong," is a very somber piece. The sad piano line really helps to convey the feeling of sorrow, while the violin only helps to accentuate the feeling. The introduction of the woodwind section offers a glimmer of hope and really fits the duality of the track title. In the end, this track is one that shouldn't be missed because of its offerings on both a compositional and emotional level. To end this section, I chose "The Treasure Which Cannot Be Stolen" because, to me, this exemplifies Mitsuda as a master of crafting the most emotional of pieces. The use of woodwinds and piano help to create a picturesque soundscape that really offers a sense of hope and sadness in the listener. The piano shows the truth that a treasure that cannot be stolen may very well break easily but at the same time, the woodwinds offer the hope that it won't. At least, that's my take on the track.
Returning to the battle themes, "Flight" is used in an event battle that involves Maria. Essentially, it's an exhilarating arrangement of "Gathering Stars in the Night Sky." As with the other tracks, it has a very militaristic trait infused within, but at the same time, it's much more melodious than the others. In his early years, Mitsuda had a very interesting way of dealing with final battles and Xenogears is no different. "One Who Bares Fangs at God" serves as the true final battle, but at the same time music, suffers from not sounding like a battle theme at all. Despite this, it is still a very solid contribution to the album. Harboring a very interesting rhythm and utilizing many different elements, this piece truly sticks out in the soundtrack. The overall mood is one of seeming serenity, but at the same time, hints of despair can be heard. I attribute this to the use of some very striking vocals. In stark contrast to the final battle theme, the battle theme against Deus Ex is truly one of Mitsuda's best. "Awakening" just exudes excellence. Relying on a strong percussion line, a powerful melodic motif, and the use of some chilling chorals, this battle theme is truly a masterpiece. It sucks you and doesn't spit you out until it finishes. The mixing of all these elements is one of the more striking features of this track. Alternating between the powerful brass melody, and a more sinister percussion and chorals section, it really shows you how well crafted the track is. In addition, it also ties together the album by incorporating a motif found in "Light from the Netherworld," adding a bit of sadness to the track.
The last section of this review is where I think Mitsuda shines amongst his contemporaries, the vocal performances. Of the two ballads here, "Stars of Tears" was not used in the game, but its melody was not wasted as it appears as the world map theme "Emotions". The lyrics are poignant and Joanne Hogg really brings the track to life. The addition of some echoing vocals helps to add some contrast to the piece. The track itself ends with a small Irish jig and really helps to drive home the idea of a Celtic flair. However, the true star of the show is "Small Two of Pieces," the ending theme to the game. Once again, Joanne Hogg's lovely voice is featured and she really helps hit a homerun with this piece, bringing this track to life. The lyrics are poignant, describing the relationship between Fei and Elly. On to the compositional quality of this piece, the Celtic flavor is the prominent aspect of this piece and is immediately effective from the opening notes. The verse and chorus sections of the piece are extremely simple, consisting only of a subtle percussion, electric guitar, and piano, in order to allow for the vocalist's voice to drive the track. The addition of the Celtic flute and violin later in the track to offer an accentuation of the melody sung by Hogg helps to add some nice development to the piece as well. Following the law of vocal performances, there is a solo in this piece as well, this time from an electric guitar; it offers some nice contrast to the piece and, after the solo, is still featured. Ending very much the way it began, the Celtic flute is featured as Hogg sings the final chorus. "We can run to the end of the world. We can run to the end... of the world."
Xenogears is definitely a mixed bag. It offers a lot of different styles to the table. While some of these styles may put off certain individuals, there is enough variety here for the average listener to at least like something on this album. In no way, does this represent his best album, but it shows he is willing to try something new, as opposed to Celtic music. As such, his recent works have shown a deviation from the traditional Celtic base. While they may contain the Celtic track here or there, a lot more non-stereotypical Mitsuda is being seen. I recommend this album to anyone who is a fan of Mitsuda or wants to see the early roots of Mitsuda's deviation in his compositional styles.
Overall Score: 8/10