Front Mission Original Sound Version :: Review by Kero Hazel
Front Mission probably has the richest musical background of any RPG series I've seen. Sure, Dragon Quest has about 73 different speciality albums (DQ3 in Concert! DQ7 Shower Karaoke Remix! Best of Dragon Quest... on Kazoo!) and Final Fantasy and its offshoots have been around the block as well. But Front Mission's been handled by a multitude of artists, from the well-known Uematsu and Mitsuda to the experimental Riow Arai. Front Mission has seen seven games (including Front Mission Online) and eleven musicians, and only three of them Noriko Matsueda, Hidenori Iwasaki, and Ryo Yamazaki returned to work on a second FM soundtrack. The result is a brilliant combination of coherence and individuality. Each soundtrack blends together perfectly, often so well that it's impossible to guess which artist composed which track. At the same time, the soundtracks are all individually quite different from each other.
The Front Mission Original Sound Version is a good place to start, not only because it's the first in the series, but also because it really shows the evolution of the later soundtracks quite well. The music is quite simple in structure, often having no key or tempo changes that make writing soundtrack reviews easier. The synthesizer used for the soundtrack sounds fairly dated, even for the Super Famicom days. Don't take these as negative qualities just yet, as there's a lot more to the music than that.
The Front Mission Original Sound Version doesn't have a single specific genre. Actually, most of the tracks don't really fit into any musical genre at all. One of the soundtrack's contributors, Yoko Shimomura, is well-known for creating music that defies normal classification. Even the moods are hard to define. Tracks like "Advanced Guard" and "Shallow Twilight" are great examples of music which shortly precedes or follows a battle. The former makes good use of drums and chimes to get more of a military feel, from the standpoint of a tactician which makes sense, since this track is played during the unit movement sequences. The latter is a slower event piece which uses percussion in the same way, but this time giving you the impression of a band of warriors after an exhausting battle. My personal favorite track on the OST, "Destructive Logic", is a wonderful buildup of tension. The rhythm is very slow, deliberate, and march-like. It features deeper harmonies and more variation than most of the other songs. Another good one that stands out a ways from the others is a piano duet titled "Elegie." It's a Classical-style piece that sounds very mournful, with interesting little intertwinings between the two parts. Beautiful pieces like this and "Destructive Logic" make me long for an orchestrated version of this soundtrack.
But Shimomura's contributions are not exclusively mood pieces, far from it. The main battle tracks are all hers, the ones that really get your blood pumping. "Holic Shot" and "Hard Drag" are probably the hardest of these, the most battle-like. They don't consist of much more than pounding synth and drums, however, though they do get their point across. My preference leans toward the more involved "The Evils of War." Played during the enemy's tactical phase, this piece definitely has a sinister twist about it. The harmonies here are really good, but I think it's the instrumentation that really drives the point home. Along a similar vein are the tracks "Martial Ecologist" and "Rage! Rage! Rege!" And as if this wasn't enough of a mix, Shimomura also throws in a couple of slow electronic tracks, like "Setting Up" and "Coaxial Town." The second of these is particularly cool, featuring instruments heard nowhere else on the entire CD.
As much as I am a big Yoko Shimomura fan, we can't forget the other musician who composed for Front Mission Noriko Matsueda. Most of her pieces blend right in with Shimomura's, but some of them have minor instrumental differences that can be used to tell them apart. Careful listeners might recognize instruments from the Live A Live Original Sound Version used in some of Shimomura's tracks you'll find none of that in Matsueda's work. In general, Matsueda's tracks seem to be a bit more modal and jazzy. To put it in another way, where Shimomura's tend to be relatively black or white, Matsueda's are shades of gray. Some of them, like "Relative Thinking," don't even feature a strong melody, and instead rely on the background ambience to carry the mood. Speaking of jazz, "Bar" is exactly that. It's a simple little track whose inclusion really speaks volumes about the diversity of music in the soundtrack.
Sometimes even Matsueda likes to use black and white along with her shades of gray, though. "The General Situation" is by far the brighest track of Front Mission. It's very slow and brassy, and features probably the best instrumentation out of them all. The synth quality is so much better here, and it really brings out the richness of the harmony. "Natalie" is the counterpart, which is unmistakeably sad. Even here, though, we have the drums in the background to remind us of the military nature of the game, and of how these things happen in war. Again, this really makes me want a live orchestral version of Front Mission so very badly.
Probably my only complaint about this soundtrack would be the quality of the sound generating equipment. But let's face it, some music sounds just fine even cranked out of square wave generators, and some music just doesn't. For sure, Front Mission's outstanding soundtrack is not "ruined" by the sound quality, by any means. But it is a flaw. The music just begs to be played on real instruments, and I think that's the way the composers envisioned it. It's very good background music, and I think it's kind of hard to listen to in its present form in the background, as it's just not smooth enough. Still, there are many things that aren't wrong with this Original Sound Version. It's a great mix of several genres and plenty of stuff that crosses genre boundaries, with almost no filler. It's interesting because I think this soundtrack, more than any other, embodies what I mean when I think of "pure" game music. It's not trying to emulate any existing style, but carving out something new. I think that's worth listening to.