Genso Suikoden V Original Soundtrack :: Review by Resk
Suikoden V is probably my most favorite out of the series so far. The cast is diverse, the plot is intriguing and stays fresh, and the setting is quite suited to the franchise as a whole. Suikoden V also features, in my opinion, the most diverse score, courtesy of Norikazu Miura, branching into several different genres with more than one attempt in each. More importantly, this score does a fantastic job at staying consistent style throughout the entire album. This score is also the longest, coming in at 148 tracks! Obviously I can't look at them all, so instead I'm going to choose a select few tracks from each disc, which demonstrate their individual strengths, yet stay true and connected to one another. If you've read my other Suikoden album reviews, you know that I mention the 'Suikoden' sound, where a large symphonic instrument set is used to achieve the maximum quality and overall fullness of any given track. All of the tracks that I am going to look at, use this sound to the best of their ability, so I won't be mentioning it each time. With that, lets get into it!
Let's begin at the start, on disc one with Yuji Toriyama's "Wind of Phantom." The opening pieces for each Suikoden game always seem to be perfectly tailored for their settings and their plot. This one has a very regal sound to it, supporting the idea that the game takes place in the Falena Queendom. Stringed scales are combined with guitars, giving the piece a quick introduction before moving into slow, sweeping strings, flute, and guitar. In this piece, it is particularly interesting to note how the instrumental tones have evolved over time, as the difference between this score and the one for Suikoden IV is very dramatic in that respect. The main theme of this piece is delivered by a combination of acoustic guitars, while strings and brass provide an excellent bed of sound. An unexpected electric guitar then comes in to provide a countermelody, and while the instrument choice appears out of place, the sound blends well. Giving impressions of a march, the percussion is light yet prominent, giving excellent structure to the piece. Altogether it is a great opening which highlights and demonstrates the quality that will be heard throughout the album. Next, we look at "A Power Like the Sun." I have very fond memories of this track from when I first played the game. The second I entered the queen's court after the initial meeting in the game, I knew immediately that I would not only be hearing this piece a lot, but that I wouldn't get tired of it. The instrumentation choice is a very interesting combination of harpsichord, flute, high strings, bongs, and congas. The melody is very light, and it's quick enough to keep pace with the actions on the screen without being too overpowering. It is the perfect background piece that simply plays while you're directing the characters. The touches in the harpsichord especially are quite interesting, as it provides a unique layer to the melody that I haven't heard before.
In contrast, "Prison" is a very atmospheric and plodding piece, which has extreme control over creating the correct mood. Strings and synth provide the lower range accompaniment, while a repetitive marimba hit lightly pierces through the mist. Decorative guitar work is heard throughout the piece, but the definitive lack of melody doesn't hurt the piece. This absence, in my opinion, is exactly what makes this piece work so well. "Slaves Living Area" does the same thing, using atmosphere and mood to create a piece instead of relying on melody, counter melody, and accompaniment. The synth is used more heavily in this piece, providing airy echoes of varying volumes, with light vocal work mixing in-between. Some of the chord combinations, if you can call them that, are quite intriguing, and create just enough dissonance and tension without being annoying or hard on the ears. "A Beauty in Black" is another piece that follows this method of using synth with reverb to create a suggestive and atmospheric piece. I love how in this track, you get light suggestions at a theme in various instruments like horn, strings, harp, guitar, even a little percussion, but all of them are only small fragments. Sometimes when I hear this piece I wish those fragments had been expanded upon, but then I remind myself that the lack of melody and the lack of prominent instruments is what makes it stand out.
One track that really stands out for me is "The Stage of Battle." This is a piece that relies on layers to achieve the maximum effect, and it certainly does that. The track features a lot of empty space, especially in each of the individual parts, but because of the layers, you don't notice them. The piece begins with a brass fanfare, before the individual parts begin to emerge: a single oboe melody paired with a flute, a four note cello pattern, simple staccato brass and string chords, and a basic snare drum rhythm all lend their own elements. The piece then shifts to bring in a counter melody given by high trumpets, while a trombone takes over the melody in the lower range. Throughout this, the parts heard earlier continue to play. The piece then changes focus, giving the melody to the flute while strings provide light chromatic work. The piece then begins to repeat. The real strength of the track, however, is what occurs overtop of all of the layers. A single bongo pattern assaults from both left and right channels and continuously plays throughout the piece, providing an excellent and well constructed rhythm for the track. This is the most important layer, as it gives the piece its energy.
Moving onto the second disc, we look at a truly emotional piece, "Overcoming the Grief." What begins with solo piano turns into a fully developed piece with the addition of bass, guitar, oboe, cello, and percussion. On a different album, you could see this piece being transformed into a vocal work, but I like it this way better. It is a stunning piece where a great amount of detail has been used to create the right mood. When listening, you can feel emotional and sad even without knowing what the piece is referencing. With "Running to the River" we return to the grand presentation of Suikoden music, taking advantage of the full symphonic sound. Quick and expressive percussion propels the track, while string and brass provide long chords. The main melody is given by flutes, while decorative harp adds a little influence here and there. The piece is fast, which can be a bit alarming for a world map theme, but I think all in all it works well at taking the player along for a ride in the country.
"The People Underground" is another piece that I instantly liked when I first heard it. The piece is driven by strong percussion work, combining rhythmic drums and shakers for the maximum effect. Plucked strings also add an element to the lower range to emulate the drum work. Probably the most interesting aspect of this piece is the oboe. In many ways, the oboe is quite unexpressive in this piece, which I think is a bit of a disappointment. However, in the context with the rest of the instruments, this attitude works to the track's advantage extremely well. It allows the player to experience all parts of the piece equally, instead of only focusing on the melody. "Tactician" is a piece which creates a similar effect. Guitar, strings, bass, and light percussion (particularly cymbal work) provide a bed of sound for an echoic flute providing the main melody. The flute is not crisp and clear, but I believe this allows the rest of the instrumentation to mix together to create a wall of sound. Some people will be thrown off by this, but I think it is an interesting route to take. At the same time, the piece also mimics this game's tactician quite well. For a closer look at both of these pieces check out my review for the Suikoden V Music Collection.
"A Phantom Reborn" brings us back to another atmospheric track. This time, however, we are given a distinct melody through flute which plays overtop a bed of synth and strings. The flute work is quite expressive, with decorative acoustic guitar work that moves between the channels. Perhaps it is my experience with atmospheric tracks in the kind of music I generally listen to, but these types of tracks, particularly on this kind of an album, attract my attention. "Traces of Sindar Civilization" expands on this atmospheric idea a little more, combining atmosphere and mood with rhythm and melody. Beginning with waterfall guitar work, the piece grabs your attention before launching into the main melody. A strong 3/4 pattern emerges, with extremely high guitar work in thirds, while the synth work gives the suggestion of a lower range melody. Percussion also works in favor of this piece, keeping a rhythm but without breaking up the mood created by the synth. The key changes in this piece are also somewhat unique, switching from major to minor keys almost constantly. The only bad thing about this piece is where it is located. You spend a LOT of time in this area of the game running back and forth, and this area also has a high enemy encounter rate. Because of this, the piece can get very repetitive very quickly.
You've probably noticed a pattern to this review. Large instrumental tracks, atmospheric pieces, and quirky pieces populate each disc respectively, but there are a few pieces that are a bit different on the third disc. So far, I haven't mentioned any of the traditional battle themes in the game, not because they aren't good, but because I can only look at so many tracks. However, there is one piece that I simply must mention simply because it is very experimental. On the Square Enix Music Online forums, we've had many arrangement projects, such as taking popular pieces and altering them for rock bands, woodwinds, symphonies, and pianos. This same idea was applied to the battle theme of Suikoden V: When Cornelio is placed in the battle party the battle music changes. Cornelio is a conductor who is obsessed with the DoReMi elves, little creatures that are musically inclined. He is inspired by these elves, and his inspiration can be heard in "The Sound of a Flute Echoing on the Battlefield." This piece is an extraordinary example of true experimentation. The main battle theme is transformed into a piece lead by flutes and strings, with woodwinds providing the quick chromatic parts that the brass and strings normally have. The brass replaces the woodwinds, particular with French horns, while very light percussion (mostly in the form of shakers) keeps the piece moving. All in all, it is completely unrealistic for a battle theme, and it sounds extremely out of place (hence why I never used Cornelio ha!) but the piece still needs to be mentioned.
Picking up with my pattern, "The River and the Sun" is another large symphonic piece. Personally, I prefer both the melody and the percussion work in this piece to the others on the album, simply because it creates a happier mood. It's very upbeat, with the instrumentation passing flawlessly between parts, delivering a small mix of main themes from the game. The end of this piece is also quite nice, because the percussion is stripped away and you can really hear what the mix of strings, brass, and flutes actually sounds like. However, the real gem of this disc is "Enchanting Runemistress." You saw me mention this piece in my review of the score for Suikoden IV, and now it's time to properly look at it. I'll remind you again of Jeane, the seemingly immortal, beautiful, talented, and witty rune saleswoman of the Suikoden universe. Her theme is very grand, and her character is one of those iconic figures that stand out in video game culture. The first part of this piece focuses on a grand, dramatic fanfare melody given by strings and brass. A little light acoustic guitar hints at a rhythm to give the piece an little extra life. In the second part of the piece, Jeane's theme is expanded to include the guitar while bongos pick up the rhythm. The rest of the instrumentation becomes more chord-oriented, expanding the sound heard in the first part of the theme. The piece itself isn't very complex, but the presentation is strong enough to make you take notice.
These next two tracks are connected in that one plays in a location which leads to another location, which is our first real glimpse into the mysterious Sindar Civilization that appears throughout the Suikoden universe. Strings, flute, and bass are the main instruments of "Wandering the Labyrinth," with a little timpani thrown in now and then. The instrumentation is very well done in this piece, aside from the flute itself. This is one of those places on the album where you have to wonder if something was added at the last minute. In particular, the volume of the flute doesn't seem to match the rest of the piece. All in all, I think the piece without the flute is very beautiful, as the string work is crisp and has that wonderful suggestive quality to it. "A City Sealed Within the Earth" follows up with a more atmospheric approach, using flute accents in combination with light strings and percussion to bring a very mysterious quality to the piece. Echoes especially play a prominent role in the piece, allowing each instrumental set to fully warp in and out while still creating a musical key that changes. This is the other thing to remember. Each of the atmospheric pieces on this album could easily all be called 'repetitive and sounding alike,' but I see each piece as being tailored to fit their use: a prison doesn't sound like a sealed off underground ruin. When working with atmosphere and mood, creating these distinct and unique sounds is very difficult, and Norikazu Miura does a fine job at it.
I have only a few independent tracks to talk about on the fourth disc, so lets head into them. "Purification Spring" is a very cool piece, using percussion and guitar together to propel the piece. The rhythm of the guitar parts meld seamlessly with one another, creating a pattern that you would normally expect to hear through a harp. The harp, however, simply masks itself under the guitar tones. A light echo is applied to the entire track, giving each note a slight delay and creating a very nice overall sound. Differences in volume throughout the track help to add to the mystery, all while maintaining a crisp and continuous movement. "Land of the Founder" is another piece which utilizes atmospheric sound to propel the piece. Again, we hear individual instruments soaring through and accenting the piece while it shifts from key to key. Flutes, strings, harp, and guitar can all be heard doing this while string and synth chords create a full bed of sound.
The reason I'm avoiding many of the tracks on the fourth disc is because of what is to come. As with my Suikoden IV review, I will be taking you through the entire ending sequence of this album, a full 25 minutes of music! Lets begin with "The Final Conclusion," the final battle music for the game. As final themes go, this one is kind of a disappointment. When I was playing the game, it offered very little in the way of inspiration or joy of defeating the game's final boss. This is largely because the piece is very empty. Each instrument has a specific purpose, but there aren't any combinations to provide an underlying melodic accompaniment. The strings and brass each have their individual touches, where the strings provide high ranged sweeps, and the brass give loud accents. A somewhat out-of-place organ also permeates the entire track, giving it an ominous atmosphere which clashes with what the rest of the piece tries to give. The percussion of this piece is also very fragmented, providing almost no recurring rhythm to give a sense of movement to the track. Many of the melodic choices are also in question, as dissonance seems to be preferred to any real melody. In "Finale" we're given a very nice string and harp combination that gives a true sense of completion and finality. The next section of the piece returns to some of the fanfare heard earlier on the album, before plowing ahead into a melodic interpretation of them. The piece is then joined by some somewhat out of tune vocals, while strings and harp provide an accompaniment. The end of this piece is great though, as it returns to some of the liveliness heard early on in the game and the album, featuring a solo trumpet line with a little harpsichord thrown in; a very nice way to finish it off.
"To the End of the Woven Tale of the 108 Stars" is probably the piece on this album which could be transformed into a vocal piece. The instrumentation of it definitely allows for it with the full piece sounding more like an accompaniment. The inclusion of electric bass, electric guitar, and a drum kit also adds to this illusion, where the melody provided by the oboe and the strings could easily be replaced with a voice. Some of the ornamentation during this track as well mimics what someone might choose to do with lyrics. However, the real tribute to the 108 stars is coming up. If you remember from my Suikoden IV review, the 108 Stars of Destiny are 108 characters in each Suikoden game who have a direct or indirect influence on the main character's journey and are considered important in the grand scheme of things. If you want to know more, check out my other review. "Future of the 108" provides us with the roll call, and you'll hear a very familiar theme. This time, the 'theme of destiny' is given with even more grandeur, including tubular bells in the instrumentation. The strength of the oboe in this piece is quite dramatic, whereas the string work becomes more intricate, allowing the brass to give its support throughout the middle range. The middle of this piece is populated by harp and staccato chords before having one of the game's main themes given by a flute. This is one thing that I find very interesting about this theme. Although each Suikoden title features the same melodic theme for the 108 Stars, each version of the piece includes a prominent theme from its game to give it a real sense of purpose, rather than simply having the same theme play over and over again.
Following the roll call, we get the staff roll. The Suikoden reprise "Into the World of Illusions" is a piece that relies on guitar and piano to drive the piece. Another great duet, the piano work is its own instrument, instead of simply being an accompaniment for the guitar. Each instrument has its purpose, and melds nicely with the other. Of course, we finish off with "To Peaceful Days" which returns with a full symphonic sound. Strings and harp provide the lower range, while an oboe soars with the melody. Strings then join the melody, while brass provides a middle range, which is balanced out by a repetitive snare pattern with other percussion (cymbals and tubular bells). Bells then become the focus with a flute, while vocals and strings embrace the track from all sides. Harps and a violin then get a chance to shine in their own duet, highlighted by tubular bells. Finally, a little acoustic guitar brings the piece to a close while a fanfare of chimes takes the piece out.
Now, of course I can't let you go before talking about one more track. "A Light Moaning in the Darkness" is the clearest presentation of the game's main theme, and what a pretty one it is. Heard throughout the album in such tracks as "Recollection," "Sadness," and "Bonds," this theme is expressive and extremely emotional. The piano work in this track is very intricate, yet delicate. Although the theme is on the short side, over its various incarnations throughout the album, it is portrayed in many different ways. Certain instruments, like strings and flutes, highlight the sadness in the track, while percussion and brass accentuate the power and determination that can be created. It is definitely one of those themes that stands out on the album, and is a memorable one from the series.
At the end of it all there is very little to negatively criticize about this album. After the failure that was Suikoden IV, Suikoden V has reclaimed the musical quality that the series is known for. Many of the tracks on this album are carefully constructed, with a close attention to detail; no one instrument is given phrase without a purpose. The only downside, if I had to pinpoint one, would be the length. Although the game itself is long, perhaps there are too many tracks to avoid the idea of filler or repetition with the themes. It's true, some of the tracks sound very similar to one another. However, I feel that each track does indeed have a specific use and a reason for appearing on the album. This is a definite listen whether you enjoy the series or not!
Overall Score: 9/10