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Sword Maniac :: Review by Chris

Sword Maniac Album Title: Sword Maniac
Record Label: Toshiba EMI
Catalog No.: TOCT-8253
Release Date: November 24, 1993
Purchase: Buy at eBay


A comprehensive description of "Heartless Battle" seems like the most suitable way to introduce Sword Maniac as a musical experience:

Written in a funk style, "Heartless Battle" opens with a rhythmically complex and very catchy rock organ riff that is revisited and variated upon throughout the piece, accompanied by a variety of instruments used in a percussive way, notably a bass guitar utilising the slapping techniques and a percussion line itself. Creating an intense groove and an overall upbeat feel, the highlight of the track comes when a secondary riff is introduced that becomes the basis of a sequence over an ascending chromatic progression, ultimately creating tension, while the harmony remains near-enough the same yet with occasional dabs of dissonance added here and there. The initial riff is revisited following this previous section, yet a separate pseudo-improvised rock organ line is added over to it resulting in the emergence of an extended jazz-based intricate solo that initially corresponds in a sophisticated way with the original riff before it leads the piece freely with only minimal harmonies accompanying it. Following the recapitulation of the secondary motif, the piece ends on a high as the initial theme is revisited for the final time, proving to be even more danceable, addictive, and remarkably crafted than before.

"Heartless Battle" is a microcosm of this arranged album's stylistic features. If the musical jargon made sense and the description appealed, carry on to learn about Hayato Matsuo and Hitoshi Sakimoto's unusual experiment based on the score to the Toshiba EMI SNES action game Sword Maniac, a notoriously inaccessible but otherwise remarkable contribution to game music.


First things first, in order to appreciate this soundtrack, listening to the arrangements in full is simply essential. The worth of the arrangements come from thorough development, and pretty much all the soundtrack's other features are secondary to this; during the six minutes of development, memorable melodies are established, contrasting atmospheres are created, original material is use in profound ways, and arrangements gain purpose, meaning, and accessibility despite little initial promise. Without it, the soundtrack will simply be unpleasant musically and bland emotionally. Take the introductory track, "The Shudders," for instance. It is initially dominated by fragmented, dense, distorted, and incoherent synth ramblings that has the overriding effect of overshadowing the melody and making the track sound nonsensical and unappealing in one; they serve a purpose, however, creating a phenomenal amount of tension that is prolonged thanks to the sheer persistence of this rapid and unpredictable line. This delays any harmonic resolutions until the latter half, leaving listeners in a somehow elevated state by the end of the complex and ingeniously crafted experience, considering everything comes together so flawlessly, naturally, and unexpectedly. At the other end of the spectrum, consider "Mad Buffoon," initially sounding like a honky-tonk with its repetitive and infantile synthetic piano melodies; it opens in a fun way, but feels overly light, one-dimensional, cheesy, and hopeless... that is until synth vocals enter and the track transmogrifies into a ghostly affair until the interplay of light and dark passages in a funk style dominate the track in a similar way to "Heartless Battle." Matsuo and Sakimoto were producing a daring experiment here in their attempts to reflect both the intensity and fun associated with the action of Sword Maniac; most pieces in arranged albums emphasise material to captivate the listener from the start, whereas making tracks often remarkable only for the wrong reasons. Artistically, this has a fascinating effect and familiarity with the soundtrack will make very little of it unappealing, since everything ends up having a distinct purpose and fitting together so well, but simple fact remains that the soundtrack is misleading and a source of initial alienation that any prospective listener will need to overcome.

The other key element to enjoying this soundtrack is having some affinity to the musical styles featured. The old-school synth utilised is deceptive, as this isn't a traditionally styled game soundtrack by any means, but rather a funk extravaganza with some progressive rock, electronica, jazz, and symphonic music thrown into the mix. Some tracks, notably "Shadow Devourer," are built from just a repeated bass riff; to get into the groove and enjoy these rhythmically enticing figures, it's necessary to be in a certain state of mind, though emotional fulfilment increases with the subtle and complex layering of other forces and the introduction of the secondary riffs so essential to funk music. Other tracks feature tangential development sections and lengthy pseudo-improvised solos, which in some cases end up being the sole feature of the track. The harmonic basis of "Hunting Beast," for instance, is just a pile of unpredictable drum beats, orch hits, and synth arpeggios that revolve almost exclusively around a single chord; it is made remarkable, however, by a superbly synthesized electric guitar solo that spans around two and a half minutes in total and is an elaborate, enticing, and expansive exploration of the theme's limited melodic material through modal means. Another fascinating and sometimes frustrating aspect of the soundtrack is the tension created by the ambiguity of the way melodic figures will be utilised. In some cases, the melodic basis of pieces is actually very strong and most listeners will anticipate their development into fully-fledged, well-shaped, and dramatic focal points; however, more often than not, melodies are utilised as 'heads', as memorable yet underdeveloped recurring figures before improvisation takes over. "Unlimited Desire" might appear to possess a warm melodic line initially, but doesn't develop as most ears would anticipate, staying rhythmically consistent, being repeated almost exactly on several occasions, and eventually being contrasted by a differing riff, again staying close to a funk style. Hitoshi Sakimoto's principle approach to melodic utilisation exemplified by the main themes to Vagrant Story and Soukyuugurentai is also evident in "The Retribution" and "Iron Jungle"; that is, his integration of well-pronounced, rhythmically compelling, and abstractly shaped melodic fragments through unusual means, though this soundtrack has no overriding melodic material to speak of.

The diversity of the album is its most endearing feature to the casual listener. Those that enjoyed Hitoshi Sakimoto's soundtracks to the shooters Soukyuugurentai and Gradius V will love "The Retribution"; a classic fusion track featuring the composer's trademark rapid synth arpeggios and ascending portamentos, oppressive percussion use, and aforementioned melodic fragments, it is colourful, energetic, and creative. Hitoshi Sakimoto and Hayato Matsuo collaborate directly on one track, "Start an Attack!!," the most intense of the action themes and the penultimate entry to the album. A fusion of rock, electronic, and funk styles, the track is multifaceted and expertly arranged, but ultimately too complex to describe in a way that will do it justice without extending this review another paragraph. The sole symphonic track on the album, "The Brave Fencer," concludes the experience. Initially featuring interplay between sparkling series of playful synthetic piano motifs and an epic array of triumphant orchestral passages, the drama only intensifies with the exposition of the beautiful main melody and the incredible additional development. While completely different to all other entries to the album, 'tis not a problem, for it is a fitting epilogue that demonstrates exactly why Hayato Matsuo is one of the most famed orchestrators in the gaming industry. Combine these themes with the jazz, rock, and honky-tonk references elsewhere on the soundtrack and the album becomes nourishing stylistically as both a diverse treat and an overall funk-influenced experience. All this said, appreciation of the wider experience will not depend on whether one is a Sakimoto (or Matsuo) fan, as the album is completely different to everything they have created; "The Retribution" and "The Brave Fencer" will be highlights for such a fan, but neither the orchestral beauty nor electronic madness that Sakimoto is most commonly associated with are present elsewhere, in case this isn't obvious already.


Sword Maniac's arranged album is a misleading and unlikely reflection of profundity. The deceptive labels of 'arranged album', 'Hitoshi Sakimoto', and 'Hayato Matsuo' have resulted in many misinterpreting its nature. The soundtrack's unusual stylistic features, emphasis on heavy synth use, and unpromising starts to themes generally leads to alienation. Familiarity and analysis, however, reveals that the album is one of the most remarkable, refined, and satisfying arranged albums available from a stylistic perspective; everything comes together marvellously and all arrangements add to the individuality and diversity of the album, though it takes a lot of listens before it becomes appreciable. It's highly recommended for the most thorough and experimental of game music fans with a tolerance for funk, traditional synth, and lengthy development.

Overall Score: 8/10