Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~ Original Soundtrack :: Review by Harry
Hidenori Iwasaki can now be regarded as the Front Mission series' principle composer, having produced the scores for Front Mission 4, Front Mission 1st, Front Mission Online, and, most recently, Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~, establishing consistency to a series unbelievably diverse composer-wise. Having already proven his ability to create effective militaristic and emotional themes in his last album release, the Front Mission 4 Plus 1st Original Soundtrack, this soundtrack sees both a massive refinement of his old ideas and the introduction of many new ones. One of these is additional troops, as he is accompanied by co-composers Kenichiro Fukui and Yasuhiro Yamanaka, who specialise in adding an electronic influences to the score, the latter's primary role as the synthesizer operator. A mixture of old and new, tied together by a militaristic emphasis and a beautiful main theme, could this be the most impressive Front Mission score to date? Quite possibly...
No other Front Mission track has started its album so beautifully as Iwasaki's "Children of the War". A traditionally short opening, the theme beautifully describes the whole soundtrack in just over a minute. Having changed direction completely from his opening track for Front Mission 4, the composer makes the most of synthesizer operator Yamanaka's superbly mastered choir and powerful percussion, utilizing both forces around the framework of a majestic melody tinged with sadness. The impact of the introductory track is maintained with a handful of short but effective tracks; "Island of Hope" continues the slow mood, aimed to raise hope with strings lightly accompanying serene and militaristic horn fanfares, while "Invasion" at last demonstrates the often aggressive basis of the score, with its initial percussive emphasis and string discords creating an oppressive atmosphere that soon becomes more epic and militaristic when the piece gains more melodic focus. Unfortunately, the beginning of the soundtrack is marginally tainted by the inclusion of "First Conflict," a somewhat depressing 0:31 filler track that would have been better simply added on to the end of "Invasion" to give it more depth, rather than being abruptly separated from it. Otherwise, so far, so good.
The action themes are easily the best part of the score, with Iwasaki's largely militaristic ones being contrasted by Yamanaka's and Fukui's electronic tracks, to be discussed later. "War of the Titans" brings back memories of Front Mission 4's "Pride and Honour," with its epic melody being supported by fast-paced strings, some interesting imitative structures during one section of the piece, and many fine harmonic features. However, it is more developed than the abovementioned theme, and largely features the main theme as the source of its melody, rather than a Pirates of the Caribbean one. Indeed, this theme already surpasses perhaps the best contribution to Front Mission 4, and we haven't even got past half the first disc! "Defenders" proves just as amazing with an expertly crafted melody undergoing several metamorphoses during its multifaceted development sections. Iwasaki's instrumentation choices are perfect here, a rich symphony of anticipation based on powerful climactic strings and, during one section, heartrending horn melodies. Outside the orchestral spectrum, there's also "Mechanized Infantry," an interesting fusion of symphonic strings and brass, progressive electronica overtones, jazzy styling in the bass line, and some sexy electric guitar riffs by the score's sound tool editor and one of the many performers, Satoshi Akamatsu. Needless to say, the blend goes down well, Iwasaki even throwing in a section that features a danceable jazz-based melody at one point.
Ever since the creation of the Front Mission series, the selection of heart-touching emotional tracks featured has complemented the action themes beautifully, perhaps proving more memorable in some cases. On Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~, this is still the case, although the action is clearly more dominant in some cases. Anyone who fails to see the beauty of "A Soldiers Scar" is likely deaf or aurally impaired. The subtlety of the choir and solo clarinet playing in unison a slow and poignant fanfare-like melody against snare drum rolls makes the theme an ideal militaristic elegy, gorgeously representing the loss and memories of many soldiers at war. "Ode to the Fallen" is another of the very lucky tracks to make excellent use of the main theme. Although limited in the length of time it plays, Iwasaki has arranged the melody so that the emotional characteristic can be shown and expressed in a deep and passionate way. If you were familiar with Iwasaki's work on Front Mission 4, you'll notice that "Ne M'Oubliez Mie" (slightly mistranslated French name, retranslated into "Don't You Forget Me") resembles tracks such as "Leaden Sky" and "Requiem for a Soldier"; that is, if you're not familiar, the track is largely piano-based and supports a decent melody. If it got just that much more development, I'm positive that it would've surpassed being only 'nice'. However, the arrangement, found a little later, "Always," corrects on the mistakes, receiving solid treatment and more instrument focus. "Recollections II" has similar setup to "Always", but is nowhere near as pleasing.
Another of the most remarkable styles used in Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~ is jazz, again staying true to the series' tradition. Once again, Iwasaki stays traditional, adding in roughly the same amount of tracks from the genre as any past score. I definitely hold "Mr. Kato" close to Noriko Matsueda's compositions on the Front Mission Original Sound Version, particularly "Shop". Indeed, guitar and laid-back synth pads are often the best instruments to use for jazzy scene setters this is shown many times by the series' different composers and Iwasaki continues to show and mature his ability to compose competent and diverse jazzy themes. In contrast, "Ghost Dog" puts on a fluttering show largely by demonstrating the composer's ability to create effective piano movements. His composition reflects ever so graceful movements across the keyboard, well-accompanied by strings. Perhaps the only fault is that there could have been a little more emphasis upon this style; while the limited amount of themes do boost the originality factor, from listening to the whole score countless times, I'd say that, with the addition of more, the diversity of the overall listening experience would have been even better.
The latest and arguably the greatest thing about Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~ is the involvement of Kenichiro Fukui, who finally revives the electronica roots akin his critically acclaimed score to 1997's Einhänder to produce some electronic masterpieces. His additions to the score are very distinguishable, always using heavy, authoritative beats, generally focusing on representing an atmosphere rather than boasting a melody. The strictly electronica pieces are the more influential tracks; the first one is "Under Siege," with its focus on techno beats capturing the essence of a siege, the occasional horn fanfare and synthetic electronic guitar riffs added to avoid repetition and intensify the theme. But after this track, Fukui doesn't appear in any tracks until "Visions," the very last track of Disc Two. To me, this track is very hit or miss, because not a lot actually happens in the massive 5:13 it was given. Basically, the composer manipulates a heavy beat, changing the pitch, and occasionally adds a new electronic sound every 30 seconds or so. The same can be said for "Accelerator" with the exception that it's easily more intense and the progression is superb nonetheless. I feel the dancing bass helps a lot, helping to move the body of the piece with the flowing tempo. His orchestral/electronica tracks unify flawlessly with the difference of Iwasaki's themes. "Keepers of Freedom," featuring trumpeter Koji Nishiura, is lovely, combining a sweet melody and symphonic suite with the composer's established style. Similar is "Whiteout," although very sinister, subjected to more of Fukui's wit and intelligent synth styling.
Another surprise was the disappearance of Ryo Yamazaki as synthesizer operator and composer; his hard working effort on Front Mission 4 made the score sound clean and uniformed. Fortunately, he was replaced by the best available, though only a newcomer to the company. The man's name is Yasuhiro Yamanaka and, as I have raved on above, the synth quality is the best featured on any Square Enix game, discluding the more recent score to Dirge of Cerberus Final Fantasy VII, perhaps. Yamazaki's strings felt harsh from the previous instalment, but they are fixed and improved upon, a distinct advantage over the prior score, and, because of this, they easily help highlight some tracks further than just a composition. But following Yamazaki's role, Yamanaka also donates a single composition and several arrangements. In a nutshell, "Breaking Limits" features the composer's signature techno beats dictating over quiet strings and horns. Not what you'd call epic stuff but it reflects deeply on a medium in between the other two more prominent composers on the score. With his standard and sometimes not-so-standard approach, he arranges several Iwasaki pieces. "Grim Reaper" is one of the more appealing action compositions, a fusion of Yamanaka's and Iwasaki's trademark styles, with some chilling synth effects pronouncing pure evil is facing you, but doesn't compare to its arrangement "Iron Demon," a longer, faster, and more furious arrangement of the theme, and, ultimately, the better listen too. Skipping over the short and disappointing "Antechamber," Yamanaka's last arrangement, "Gladiator," is yet another symbolic theme; like all other arrangements, the arranger rearranges the melody into electronic noises, and it sounds fitting enough for a Front Mission track, although nothing too great.
After a boatload of surprising twist and turns, the album's conclusive tracks are incredible and fresh. Going straight to the action, "Deliverance" is the final battle theme, and a surprising one too! There's so many wonderful attributes to it; the magnificent reprisal and arrangement of the main theme, the utilization and mastering of the live choral group, Music Creation, or the sinister electronica integration during an especially dramatic section. Once the eerie synth choir in the intro comes to rest, the intense orchestral strings come crashing out of nowhere, paving way for some haunting choral chants. Iwasaki, who was inspired by such film music composers as Hans Zimmer here, must've borrowed this technique from his inspiration sources, but it certainly works. When the electronica kicks in after the main theme, the theme suddenly and decisively darkens and a menacing beat enters forcefully shedding all hope from before. You can't ask anymore from an action theme. It gets its job done well, and is very impressive coming from a composer who has only expressed his true talents in a very small timeframe. Following this, there are several brief tracks that tie up loose ends, which are effective, though compare nothing to the true ending...
"Scars of the War," arranged by Norihito Sumitomo, is undeniably the best live orchestral arrangement, beating the short though enjoyable "Victory" and "Last One Standing" themes. Like most live orchestrated Square Enix ending themes these days, "Scars..." starts slow and filled with emotion, thanks to famed harpist Tomoyuki Asakawa's performance, building up to the middle section, where Sumitomo makes clear that this is the ending and tries to squeeze out any feeling left from the listener following the awe of "Deliverance". My favorite part is the final reprise of the grandiose main theme in the ending sequence, when Music Creation and the orchestra unite and deliver a bold performance worthy of Iwasaki's original melody. The only question remains whether it was the best decision to place the track near the end and not directly at the end, as the remaining tracks following aren't anything spectacular in the least. That is, of course, with the exception of one. "Blue Stream" is a vocalized sports advertisement composed by Square Enix resident employee and sound editor, Masayoshi Soken, and it's a piece you either hate or love to hate. The music is catchy, though the composer has had experience writing commercial music before, and the addition of a DJ is quite silly yet helpful. The irony is that the lyrics are poorly written and the vocalist group singing them is called The Poors! Out of time, out of tune, dysfunctional, and hilarious, you can't go to the next theme without having one smirk at least!
I'll say this once the score for Front Mission 5 ~Scars of the War~ is a vast improvement on the music from Front Mission 4. Iwasaki has matured, having two years to work on this project, and, with financial support and the premier equipment available, he not only achieves another consistent musical experience, but one filled with many peaks in musical achievement. Because of his work, I believe it's only a matter of time before Square Enix upgrades him to composer status where he should belong. Unlike Front Mission 4, largely a continuation of the series' tradition, this one introduces a whole new set of ideas, like the introduction of an orchestra, the addition of a composer experienced with electronica, and the whole aim not to produce a score that effectively accompanies a game, but is a diverse and emotional stand-alone experience. Hidenori Iwasaki, Kenichiro Fukui, and Yasuhiro Yamanaka have outdone themselves, and this Original Soundtrack should be treasured by Square Enix music and or video game music supporters in general for years to come.
Overall Score: 9/10