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Dragon Quest VII Symphonic Suite :: Review by Juan2Darien

Album Title Catalog No.
Dragon Quest VII Symphonic Suite & Original Soundtrack SVWC-7052/3
Dragon Quest VII Symphonic Suite SACD SVWG-7069
Dragon Quest VII Symphonic Suite (Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra) SVWC-7403/4


After the miracle that was Dragon Quest VI, I was quite curious as to if Koichi Sugiyama could keep the quality of his work up. While the Dragon Quest VII Symphonic Suite is not nearly as cohesive and does not have the same kind of thematic continuity as Sugiyama's previous efforts in the Dragon Quest series, it is still a very enjoyable suite. The thing that makes this album stand out among the rest of the Symphonic Suites is the fact that Sugiyama's experimentations, mostly in orchestration, have reached their peak here. There are some truly inspired combinations to be found here, with "Screams from the Tower of Monsters" standing out as a particularly noteworthy effort. There were only two recordings of this suite, the first by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the most recent by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. In this review, I will focus on the enjoyment of the tracks by themselves and also compare and contrast the two available recordings.

Track-by-Track Reviews

1) Overture VII

One of my biggest gripes with the previous Symphonic Suites was the fact that Koichi Sugiyama's laziness with this particular piece was very apparent. Apart from the original "Overture" and the fourth, when Sugiyama changed the introduction to the melody, there was such a severe lack of variety that I came to dislike this piece. Dragon Quest VII is off to a good start with an arrangement that completely recaptures this piece's former glory. It is much more bombastic, with the cymbals coming in much earlier. The swirling figures at the beginning, under the trumpet solo, are absolutely colourful due the Koichi Sugiyama's addition of woodwinds to the mix. The melody has been completely revitalized, as the trumpets are now allowed to carry it instead of the strings. This arrangement is much busier than the previous ones, and the richness of the orchestrations are notable.

The cymbals are stellar on the Tokyo Metropolitan's recording, but, as I said, this arrangement has much more going on than previous ones. What this means is that the Tokyo Met's typically atmospheric and resonant approach to Sugiyama's music makes everything sound utterly cluttered here. The London Philharmonic, however, fares much better. By now, we've all come to expect crystal clarity and flawless technical precision from them, but there's something else that had little presence in their previous recordings: passion. They instill this piece with enthusiasm and emotion that I had not heard from this orchestra before.

Scores: Enjoyment - 10/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10

2) Morning in Eden

I don't know exactly how to characterize "Morning in Eden". Perhaps it is a village theme... Anyway, this track is a very important one because it lets us know, without us even knowing, the nature of Sugiyama's experimentation on this Symphonic Suite. How? In subsequent pieces, woodwinds take on a much larger role than Sugiyama's music has ever before permitted. This is the first of those pieces dominated by winds. After a somewhat unmemorable melody heard by a flute, an oboe carries it away with some interesting chord changes provided by string arpeggios. Some harp arpeggios carry the piece to its jolly next phrases for flute duets. There are really only three elements that make up this track, and those are the strings, the harp, and the flute. With such a limited palette, it is quite interesting to see how they interact with each other. Phrases can be traded from the strings to the harp or to the flute, it doesn't matter, but either way, Sugiyama has such command over the orchestra.

I'll give you a hint about the winner of this track's performance 'award'. And the Oscar goes to... But seriously, as I made abundantly clear, the orchestrations here, while never straying from a few select instruments, are very interesting, and Sugiyama's usage of counterpoint is incredibly admirable. The hint is thus: this kind of piece requires complete clarity to get the full force of. I'm sure for most of you, as that was quite enough to determine which performance is better. It is none other than our dear friends at the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Some of Sugiyama's greatest orchestrational experiments take place on this album, and the Tokyo Metropolitan's recording quality, which smoothes over them, does not do this piece any justice. Again, the London Philharmonic plays with more than just precision. When the woodwinds are playing a sprightly melody, you can almost feel the joy of the performers as well. There is such emotion in their playing that I dare you to remain unaffected by it, even in a frolicsome piece like this!

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10

3) Saraband

I'm not sure if this is a castle theme, but the way the piece is constructed sure makes it sound like it. The choice of chord progressions and phrasing is quite similar, albeit much more somber, to previous castle themes. The string writing isn't quite as intricate as Sugiyama has a tendency for, but what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in sheer emotion. The violins begin with a very high, sustained note while the cellos provide the melody, eventually switching places. The melody is full of lovely trills, but the piece on the whole is quite predictable.

The Tokyo Metropolitan plays this piece with extreme fluidity, with the phrases literally flowing into each other. This actually detracts from the emotional impact the piece can have on a listener. By smoothing over the edges, the piece almost becomes musical 'fluff'. The London Philharmonic doesn't exact that much greater of an emotional impact, but their playing is at least raw and edgy. Even if they play the piece too sternly and without sufficient emotion, the London Phil is still the better on this piece.

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / London Phil - 8/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

4) Echo of Horns Throughout the Castle

Do you remember Dragon Quest V's "Castle Trumpeter"? I stated of that piece that I was amazed at the kind of colour Sugiyama was able to evoke by simply adding a solo trumpet to his usual string writing for the castle themes. Well, here he gives us the entire brass section, and the result is heavenly. The melody, which is very memorable, is heard by powerful horns amid some interesting, choppy string writing. Then the strings take over the piece, developing the melody quite a bit before a solo horn comes for the transition section. Then the proud horns are heard once more before ending the piece with an authentic cadence.

This piece is based on the power of the horn section of the orchestra. If that section does not deliver, the piece will inevitably fail. This is the case with the Tokyo Metropolitan, whose opening horn fanfares are particularly weak. Also, even the string writing isn't given proper justice. Somehow the recording quality sounds more stale than usual. The ending horns are much stronger, but instead of saving the track, it ruins it further with its inconsistency. The London Philharmonic delivers once again with a performance that is bold, yet very controlled. The orchestra is disciplined, but the performers also allow themselves to just let go and have fun. Their enthusiasm is reflected in the music, and the piece is better for it.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

5) Heavenly Village

Following the London Philharmonic recording's tracklist, the next piece is "Heavenly Village". I have never cared for this piece much. It is pleasant enough and features some nice colourful orchestrations, but the piece comes off sounding a bit novice for some reason. The melody is not particularly memorable, for one, and the piece itself comes off as sounding a bit superficial. The melody is first carried by the flute, then the clarinet before a new section emerges for sprightly strings. There is an almost subliminal harp in the mix that does not so much as enhance the track rather than just clutter it. As was proven with "Morning in Eden", sometimes less really is more, but unfortunately, this piece didn't follow the same model.

The Tokyo Metropolitan's recording quality certainly does mute out the pesky harp quite a bit, but unfortunately this is because it muddles all the other elements. The woodwinds are masked by too much reverb, although the strings can be heard just fine when they come in. The London Philharmonic may not have the same issues, but it is far from a perfect performance. The playing here is very superficial sounding, lacking the emotion that they had devoted to the past few tracks.

Scores: Enjoyment - 6/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

6) Days of Sadness

I take it that this is the Requiem music of Dragon Quest VII. All of the suites have this kind of track, although only Dragon Quest V's was as enjoyable as this. After a lush beginning for low strings, the harp comes in and carries the somber melody throughout the piece. There are some interesting chord changes in this piece leading up to the lovely refrain. The string writing here gains much more intricacy than before leading up to a very rich, sonorous section where the melody is transformed into something much more hopeful. Unfortunately, in this section, Sugiyama seems to have gotten a bit carried away, and there is an extra string part that could have and should have been eliminated. Like the previous track, it just gets a bit too cluttered. The piece repeats, but with the violins carrying the melody instead of the harp. It is now that the melody is revealed to be a bit shallow. Before the superb choice of having a harp solo was enough to mask this fact, but unfortunately without this solo, the theme falls apart. Even though I have pointed out much wrong with the piece, I still enjoy it so thoroughly every time I listen to it that these issues tend to just dissolve.

The Tokyo Metropolitan does not play the opening strings with much conviction, and the piece never quite recovers, as it is. Also, the harp solo sounds rather twangy and hollow on the Tokyo Metropolitan; this does not bode well for the rest of the album, as the harp, along with the winds, finds itself in use more often than ever before in a Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite. The London Philharmonic's clarity is once again their downfall. That 'extra string part' I mentioned is absolutely glaring in their performance. I was hoping that the Tokyo Met would get at least this one thing right, as they tend to smooth their pieces down, sometimes to a fault, but it turns out that the same string part that is too loud in the London Phil recording is even more prominent in the Tokyo Met! Again, though, this is just one minor defect in the piece, and apart from it, the London Philharmonic still gives a sound performance. For the Tokyo Met, however, it is just one of many issues.

Scores: Enjoyment - 7/10 / London Phil - 8/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

7) Strolling in the Town

After a sprightly beginning for strings and chimes, the melody comes in by the strings with woodwind trills and brass choirs providing a great dosage of colour. When the melody repeats, again by the strings, wind and glockenspiel arpeggios separate each phrase. The piece rather thoughtlessly transitions into the next section, the casino theme. This section attempts the same kind of big band feel as Dragon Quest VI's "Happy Humming", but the lack of a strong melody, which is too laid back, causes it to fail where the other piece succeeded. It does feature some lush, dissonant, sliding string textures. The next section features the harp once more. It plays the melody once by itself before being joined with subtle orchestrations including pizzicato strings and vibraphone. The melody is taken over by the flute amid soft mysterious washes of strings. The strings start churning, and the melody is given to the clarinets before some flute and chimes lead this section to a repeat.

The next section is absolutely shamelessly cheerful. The flute melody is just pure joy with sprightly strings and the drum kit keeping up a jazz feel. Then the beginning section of the entire piece repeats, ending rather softly considering the pure orchestral fun that had preceded. The thing about this piece is that while the orchestrations are superb and all of the sections are just great, they don't make a cohesive whole like Sugiyama's other medleys do. Even Dragon Quest IV's "Comrades" melody, with all of its extremely disparate sections, was more cohesive and structured than this. There is a supreme lack of transition sections in this track, which also causes it to sound more like four separated pieces with nothing to do with each other.

As far as performances go, the winner is the London Philharmonic, hands down. First of all, not only are the orchestrations lost in the mix with the Tokyo Metropolitan's unnatural amount of reverb, but also, the first section is played so fast that, while it does show extreme skill, it also makes the track sound utterly rushed. Also, the casino section is considerably slower, so the transition between sections is brutally abrupt. The harp still has that twangy sound to it, and none of the orchestrations really stand out in the final section. The London Philharmonic corrects all these issues and more with yet another performance where the enthusiasm of the performers comes out in the recording. The technicality is there and so is the heart.

Scores: Enjoyment - 7/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

8) Memories of a Lost World ~ Moving Through the Present

After a simple harp beginning, the somewhat predictable melody comes in for flute. Luckily, the next section for strings is much better. I'm at a loss for words to describe it. The strings aren't quite trilling, for they're much slower than, but I can't seem to place the musical term that fits that technique. While the violins play the melody, an interesting combination of oboe and cellos play some interesting counterpoint. Then the piece repeats, but with the melody carried by the oboes, and then the refrain is taken by the cellos, while violins provide lush harmonies.

Some eager, trilling strings lead the piece into its next part of this medley, "Moving Through the Present". A somewhat overused chord progression is heard by brass before the rousing melody comes in by the trumpets. Flutes take over the melody, leading to a quirky interlude before the repeat. It is here that Sugiyama presents with the richest orchestrations in the piece. The cellos saw away at the harmonies quite quickly as the violins play the melody. A repeat of the initial trumpet statement of the theme leads the piece to its rather cheesy, but fun climax.

The London Philharmonic approaches this piece with the kind of precision that we should all have come to expect from them. During "Memories of a Lost World", the strings are particularly strong and flighty, enhancing the emotion of the theme to a level that the Tokyo Metropolitan, with their constant dulling of the orchestrations through excessive reverb, cannot match. The cello part toward the end of "Moving Through the Present" is perhaps too clear in the London Philharmonic recording, but they are far too obscured in the Tokyo Met recording, to where they hardly have any presence at all. The trumpets of the Tokyo Met are not particularly strong either. Apart from that previous issue I mentioned with the London Philharmonic, they also play the opening flute solo a bit too superficially, but none of these affect the performance by too much.

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / London Phil - 8/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

9) Shadow of Death

I'm not sure what to characterize this track as. I thought "Days of Sadness" was the "requiem" theme of Dragon Quest VII, and this track doesn't sound all that sad. After a sinister beginning for low strings, Sugiyama begins to stack up the counterpoint on this motif, which will be used in later tracks! Aha, the first signs of Sugiyama's thematic continuity for this score. Suddenly, this ominous beginning is broken with some lush strings followed by a mysterious oboe solo with some quite unexpected chord changes along the way. Then the ominous beginning music plays but with winds added to the mix to produce some shrill effects.

The lovely, mysterious melody comes back in by strings later with brass providing the harmony, followed by a harp and flute duet. The main dark motif is heard once more with some string trills added to the mix for a completely unnerving effect. The melody is repeated once more by the oboe until the low strings come back in with the motif. Now, the trilling strings have gained much volume and presence and, in one of the most deliciously creepy musical moments Sugiyama has created, the piece ends after a trilling string glissandi. It sounds truly musically disturbing. The problem with this track is, however, that for all of its high points and clever musical devices and an interesting, if not particularly memorable, melody, it just isn't that satisfying of a listen. At over (or nearly, depending on the recording) six minutes long, this piece tends to drag, and the ominous motif (which I will refer to hereon out as the "Shadow of Death" motif) is grating, for sure, but absolutely unmemorable do to its dissonant leaps.

The opening low strings are actually stronger in the Tokyo Metropolitan recording, but this probably comes from the fact that the piece is played much faster than the London Philharmonic recording. The lush strings here are severely muted before the melody comes in, but that seems to be the only fault. The London Philharmonic plays the music with a very grating edge, never really allowing the listener to feel at ease. This may be the desired effect, considering the track's title, but as a listening experience, it lacks emotion and atmosphere, making it just another showcase of the London Phil's sound quality. The Tokyo Met finally has a better track than our friends over in London.

Scores: Enjoyment - 6/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 9/10

10) Fighting Spirit ~ World of the Strong

I lament this track. It is after this piece that Sugiyama started sticking to a rather crappy formula involving an overactive drum kit. I wonder if Sugiyama started using this quasi-orchestral / rock formula because he thinks that's "what the kids are into". No, sir, I can only speak for myself, and that is not what I want. After so many great, Classically influenced battle tracks, he abandoned that style for this! I only lament this track because of the subsequent battle tracks that adopt the same style. Having said all that, this can be regarded as the last great Sugiyama battle track. Yes, even though I don't quite like the formula he uses, it cannot be denied that this track is just a great load of fun (well, with the exception of the "World of the Strong").

Beginning with swirling strings and powerful blasts of brass, the melody comes in by the strings amid brass chords and the drum kit. The theme is flighty and spirited. A short section for winds brings on the next section of the melody, where the strings really get a workout. They perform the next part of the melody as well as the string flourishes that separated the phrases. This part is what really makes the track for me. The beginning orchestral hits repeat, leading to a typical, more reflective section. It features three wind solos, one by the oboe, the clarinet, and the flute, before the discordant strings come in with the "Shadow of Death" motif.

The piece literally explodes into the next section, "World of the Strong", that, while not as great as "Fighting Spirit", is still rather interesting. Beginning with very fast rhythmic blasts of brass, a steady ostinato is kept by low strings. The brass blare with single phrases of somewhat of a melody separated by the same kind of string flourishes as in the previous section. The drum kit tinkles away with this very fast paced music. The next section is incredibly chaotic and features some great interaction between the strings and the brass before the piece seamlessly moves back into "Fighting Spirit". The piece ends after the orchestra, in unison, plays the "Shadow of Death" motif. Funny, actually — I seem to have enjoyed "World of the Strong" this time much better than I remembered.

Why, Tokyo Metropolitan, do you have to smooth over everything?! I'm getting really tired of using the word 'smooth' also, but my faithful thesaurus has provided no better word for what the Tokyo Met is doing. The strings flourishes in this recording are so severely muted, and the drum kit is so severely overbearing, and the brass is very weak here as well. In "World of the Strong", the chaotic sections sound less like a structured piece and more like the orchestra is simply off, not playing together as they should. It goes without saying, then, that the London Philharmonic performs this track absolutely flawlessly. The difficulty of this piece is great, but that does not seem to stop them. The string flourishes are lovely, the brass is crisp and sharp, and even the most chaotic sections of "World of the Strong" sound rather structured.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

11) Sphinx ~ Mysterious Sanctuary

After a rather stale-sounding beginning for chugging brass and a rather nondescript melody for strings, the brass get to play an interesting, discordant, and rhythmic section undisturbed the rest of the orchestra. The problem is that this section repeats a bit too many times and by the last time you hear it, it sounds utterly shallow. Fortunately, Sugiyama corrects this mistake by playing this jaunty section for brass underneath the melody, adding considerably colour to it, which almost makes up for the fact that the melody is far from memorable.

The segue into "Mysterious Sanctuary" is nonexistent. The piece literally just stops and shifts into the second part. Brass carries this first part with much dissonance eventually resolving into consonance through some very clever chord changes. The piece then begins to build until the main melody of this section is heard in full by the strings and the brass in unison, although the harmonies are still a bit off-kilter. The problem is that this melody is even less defined than the previous section's. Therefore, that means that "Sphinx" is the better part of the piece. So, since "Sphinx" isn't particularly good, that means that the piece fails. The problem with "Mysterious Sanctuary" is that all the dissonance in the beginning never goes anywhere. It resolves to a consonance briefly before moving back into dissonant territory. Perhaps it was because of a false expectation that the piece would move into majestic territory, as Sugiyama has done in the past, but I was very unimpressed with this piece as a whole.

Sugiyama's orchestrations are as thin as ever in this piece, and the London Philharmonic recording brings out the worst of this. At least their playing is sharp and precise, though. The Tokyo Metropolitan seems to be consistently be butchering these pieces. The string melody of "Sphinx" seems a bit slow, not keeping up with the tempo. The quirky brass interlude is, here comes my favourite word, smoothed over as most everything is any of these pieces for them. Their recording is so muddled that, in "Mysterious Sanctuary", even when the consonances arrive, you cannot hear them because everything seems to just meld together. Nothing stands out, as if the piece was one big wash of sound. The London Philharmonic may bring out the worst of the orchestrations, but their performance is at least competent and has some structure to it.

Scores: Enjoyment - 5/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 5/10

12) Aboard Ship ~ Pirates of the Sea

After a delightfully quirky beginning for pizzicato strings and bassoon duets, the main melody comes in. It is soft and intimate while still giving the impression of something much greater, an adventure perhaps. It is heard at first by an oboe amid string and harp arpeggios. After those first initial phrases, the flute takes over, followed by the clarinet, the melody with some string trills providing extra colour in the background. The flute enters a playful section where the music is constantly ascending, as if building to something. Then the strings play the first phrases of the melody before a drum roll brings in brass fanfares and suddenly the melody has departed on said adventure. Powerful brass takes over the melody, while the strings and snares play the harmonies quite rhythmically. Soaring strings play the refrain of the melody, followed by the trombones amid fluttering clarinets. The piece repeats after the same trumpet fanfares. When the fanfares come in, they keep building until the explosive and rewarding climax, complete with lush string accompaniment and woodwind trills. The final chord contains a surprising extra dissonance, but it works tremendously, somehow.

Ah! The sheer orchestral power that the London Philharmonic is able to produce with their brass section is astounding. They get the jaunty beginning down and the soothing woodwind melodies, but when the brass comes in, I am always amazed. The recording quality does this piece absolute justice, with the brass being as present and sharp as you'd expect for a piece like this. It's pretty obvious that the Tokyo Metropolitan will be the weaker recording, but can they at least come close to the London Phil's glory? Their strings are much sharper, somehow, than the London Phil's during the beginning section, and when the brass fanfares come in, they actually fare rather well. After that, though, the brass melody just does not add up at all to the London Phil. Strangely, since the strings were so clear before, in this section they sound considerably muddy. Still, the Tokyo Met gives a noble effort here.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 9/10

13) To My Loved One

Sappy, trite, hackneyed, banal... let us see what other words I can think of for the beginning of this piece. It begins with a phrase by violin solo, repeated amid some rather predictable and totally overly sentimental chord progressions. Thankfully, after this, it moves into more familiar Sugiyama territory with a lovely flute melody. The refrain is pure Sugiyama goodness, however, complete with soaring string melodies, winds and chimes providing colour, and intricate string counterpoint. The beginning section is repeated, but with a flute and clarinet duet, which somehow takes away the banality. Then the strings get to have a field day with some lush counterpoint as the cellos carry the melody and the violins provide some very elegant, classy harmonies. The refrain repeats nearly verbatim before the flute comes in, providing some variation on the opening motif. The piece ends with the strumming of the harp amid soft strings. Apart from the beginning section, which cries 'cheap soap opera', the piece is actually quite good. The orchestrations get a tad thick and cluttered in the middle sections, but even then, it's hard not to marvel at the intricacy of the piece and the wonderful colour Sugiyama provides.

The Tokyo Metropolitan fares better with the opening violin motif by playing it very steadily, while the London Philharmonic uses excessive vibrato. The Tokyo Met actually does quite well with the whole piece, smoothing over some of the cluttered orchestrations and allowing the piece to flow much better. The London Phil's dedication to the emotional impact of the piece, however, cannot be denied. Their dynamics are surprisingly good here, and, of course, the transparency of the recording quality makes it very easy to, as I said, 'marvel at the intricacy of the piece and the wonderful colour Sugiyama provides'.

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / London Phil - 8/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10

14) Screams from the Tower of Monsters

Are you ready for this? "Screams from the Tower of Monsters" is the most experimental and most rewarding piece on this album. It should be regarded as another of Sugiyama's finest creations, right up there with Dragon Quest III's "Fighting Spirit", Dragon Quest IV's "Comrades" medley, and Dragon Quest VI's Williams-esque "Eternal Lullaby". It begins very unnervingly with an interesting combination of harp, vibraphone, and pizzicato strings. The harp and vibraphone are heard in unison, with the harp providing the notes while the vibraphone provides eerie resonance. The pizzicato strings are very dissonant. The melody itself is one Sugiyama's best simply because it is strangely and mysteriously beautiful, while the beginning arrangement changes it into something quite frightening. Versatility is key here. The last section of the melody is the only part that doesn't quite mesh with the rest of it because it seems to change keys and is incredibly dissonant. Regardless, it still flows quite nicely, first being heard by the vibraphone as the harp provides some odd arpeggiations. The next section expands on this final part of the theme with smooth strings contrasting with more choppy harmonies and dissonant wind arpeggios. After a dissonant cadence, the piece really takes off.

Soft brass chords usher in the ultimate statement of the melody. Simplicity works quite well here with a straightforward harp accompaniment while the clarinets play the melody. These are probably the best orchestrations that Sugiyama has ever done, not necessarily because they are rather experimental, but because they are neither too thin nor too thick. In short, they are of perfect density. For the first section of the melody, the phrases are separated by string trills; the next section features string arpeggios between phrases. A three note phrase is repeated at varying volumes throughout the next part of the piece before the final section of the theme is heard in all of its ominous glory. Each of these statements of the theme are separated by soft, pulsing brass chords. This section repeats before heading to the final reprisal of the uneasy beginning material. The harp and vibraphone play essentially the same parts, but the pizzicato strings have fallen into line with some nice consonance, making the end of this piece very rewarding... well, almost. While I will still inevitably give this piece a perfect score because of the middle, developmental section, the end brings in the strings for a final, major cadence that just does not fit with the rest of the piece. Even still, there is no more experimental piece, nor is there a better piece on this album. It is the absolute finest of the suite.

"Why did you have to RUIN my favorite piece of the album, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra?" The play the piece much faster than the London Philharmonic does, and the beginning harp drowns out all of the other elements, which might be fine if the harp didn't have that tinny, almost shrill sound. It's not the smooth sound you would associate with a harp, but rather an overly plucky, twangy sound that just ruins the beginning section. In the developmental sections, where the orchestrations are appropriately thin, the Tokyo Met blurs everything together. The string flourishes separating each phrase of the melody are almost shrill because of the tempo they're playing at, and they are horribly mixed, sounding stale and not having enough presence. It's up to the London Philharmonic to restore my faith in music, and boy, do they deliver! Their performance is technically flawless, as is the recording quality. The sound is so precise and clear that Sugiyama's orchestrations are given proper justice. The dynamics of the strings are much better as well. During the string flourishes, they can start off soft, yet still prominent, and gain volume, yet somehow they never overbear the melody.

Scores: Enjoyment - 10/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

15) With Sadness in the Heart ~ Safe Haven

Here we have yet another sad piece. After a string beginning and some interesting dissonant chord progressions, the main melody comes in by the oboe over swaying strings. The melody is repeated in a different key by a flute, which leads seamlessly into the refrain for soaring strings and brass chords. The resolution of this section is somewhat unsatisfying because its beauty is followed by some very somber string writing. The melody repeats, nearly verbatim, but the cellos carry the refrain this time with some lovely tremolo string flourishes along the way. The transition section here is much richer, with fuller orchestrations, and the cadence is delayed before the piece fades away.

Alas, it picks up again with a section that does not seem, at all, like it belongs. This is "Safe Haven". While it does give the impression of a safe haven, it just does not belong. It begins with an oboe duet playing the downright cheery melody amid strings. The melody ends with a trill, ushering a sprightly section for strings containing some rather standard sounding, for Sugiyama, chord progressions. This repeats once before the piece ends. Not only is the contrast between these two sections great, but also I don't think that "Safe Haven" is particularly that good of a piece. The greatness of "With Sadness in the Heart" is broken by the utter cheerfulness of "Safe Haven". Luckily, the first section is about a minute longer!

The oboe solo in the Tokyo Metropolitan recording is very undermixed and can barely be heard above the strings. For the refrain of the melody, the strings of the Tokyo Met gives a performance not better than, but comparable to the London Philharmonic. During the repeat, however, the violin flourishes can barely be heard, and whenever the harp sounds, it still has that awful, tinny, almost out-of-tune sound to it that attracts negative attention whenever it's heard. The Tokyo Met plays "Safe Haven" much faster than the London Philharmonic, and, again, the winds can scarcely be heard above the strings, which is a shame since they are the focal point of the piece. They do, however, get down the flighty, carefree nature that the strings should possess in this second part. Whatever strengths the Tokyo Met has, the London Philharmonic has more. The sound is clear and immediate, and the mixing is superb, with every instrument being heard with clarity while also making up a definite whole. The strings are clear and emotional, and the woodwinds are passionate (or quirky, depending on which section you are listening to).

Scores: Enjoyment - 6/10 / London Phil - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

16) Magic Carpet

I mentioned early on in the review that Sugiyama did some great things with the woodwinds in this suite. Well, "Magic Carpet" is the culmination of those great things and one of the best tracks on the album. The entire piece is very fast-paced. It begins with a rhythmic flute duet before moving into the main melody. The strings are bouncy and relentless while the flute is soaring and lovely. Each phrase seems to end with a trill by the flute, with one phrase featuring a duet between flute and bassoon. These seem to be some of the hardest passages ever written for the flute in all of game music, probably rivaling some pieces in the Classical world as well. A quick section for flute duets, culminating in another trill, leads the piece to a smoother section for strings. The flute comes in here as well, but as more of a supporting role, although the passages are no less difficult. There is a surprisingly fluid section of the piece before the strings start up again, and the flute is off to the repeat. I don't particularly care for the ending of this piece. It features another flute duet, but it seems to drag at times before finding its final cadence.

This is not the kind of piece that can afford smoothing or dulling by the Tokyo Metropolitan. The flute solos here are too smoothed over, making them blend with the orchestra to create just a mass of sound than anything coherent or musical. The London Philharmonic has a field day with this track. The flautists of that orchestra are more than up to the task, providing superb dynamics and, here comes my catch phrase for this orchestra, technical precision. The orchestrations are quite sparse here, although never shallow sounding, consisting of strings and the wind solos, so the London Philharmonic's crystal clear production does this piece the proper justice it deserves.

Scores: Enjoyment - 10/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

17) Over the Horizon

Here it is, the ocean theme of Dragon Quest VII. I believe I mentioned in my review of Dragon Quest VI Symphonic Suite that Sugiyama's ocean themes were sort of hit-and-miss pieces, with IV's and VI's being particularly noteworthy. Those two pieces were sweeping and romantic, and so is "Over the Horizon", although in a different vein. Beginning with a solo violin providing the main melody above a harp solo, the piece starts off with an elegance not heard in any of the previous pieces on this album (with the exception of maybe "To My Loved One"). After this, the piece suffers from the same ailment that plagues many of the pieces on this album: over-orchestration. There are simply too many layers here, such as the percussion rolls leading up to crescendos, the violins carrying the melody, the intricate brass counterpoints, and the fluttering woodwinds, not to mention the harp arpeggios. Luckily, this statement of the theme lasts only briefly.

Subsequently the track shifts to a different tone, after some swirling string and wind figures. This section is one of the most beautiful, however short, featuring the cellos performing a very enigmatic motif before more swirling textures bring the piece to its next section. The orchestrations here are quite thin, but not shallow in that Sugiyama seems to intend for silence to play a large role. There is a brief, Classical waltz section that leads to some pastoral winds before the melody comes back in with the oboe amid tremolo strings and harp arpeggios. The strings take over the refrain while winds provide additional colour. The same swirling technique comes in to take the piece to a reprisal of the most beautiful section, this time scored for a cello solo, which ends the piece.

The violin solo on the Tokyo Metropolitan recording sounds a bit stuffy, and the harp suffers, again, from the strange tinny sound that has already ruined some of the better tracks on the album. You would think that the Tokyo Met would get the next section right, however, because of the thickness of the orchestrations. You would assume that their typical smoothing over said details would result in a superior performance, and well it might have if the violin melody had not been lost in the mix. Under the Tokyo Met, the midsection of the piece comes across as lost and without a shred of structure. The London Philharmonic, with all their precision, seems to have found the key to Sugiyama's usage of silence as a musical device in this track. They play the middle section with a sense of purpose and flowing emotions.

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / London Phil - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

18) Orgo Demila

Aha, the boss music for Dragon Quest VII. Dragon Quest V had "Satan, and VII has "Orgo Demila". After a booming, almost regal beginning for brass and percussion punctuated by shrill woodwinds, the next section comes in with a steady beat kept by the brass while the strings play a choppy, discordant motif. Sugiyama uses silence to great effect here, with the orchestrations being incredibly dense at time, then, with the pounding of the bass drum, all but the strings drop out. The "Shadow of Death" motif is heard briefly, sometimes fragmented, all throughout the piece. After the final, more richly orchestrated and full statement of the "Shadow of Death" motif, the piece repeats verbatim. A huge brass crescendo presents the final fragment of this motif leading up to a typical discordant climax.

I have a recording of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps by a wonderful Finnish conductor and a world famous orchestra. That piece is brutal and incredibly dissonant, two words and phrases that could well describe this piece. The problem is that this conductor interprets the piece with a lightness of touch that may suit Ravel, but not Stravinsky. What results is a technically sound performance that lacks any gravity. Why did I just tell you this? Because the Tokyo Metropolitan has the same issue. Continuing their streak of buffing out all the edges, the piece may not come across as smooth as the Rite of Spring recording I just mentioned, but all the musical brutality and the threatening weight of the piece has been removed. The strings all blend together, and only the trombones come across as almost threatening. I could go into detail about how wonderful the London Philharmonic and reuse the same phrases I have been throughout this entire series of reviews, but that would do no good because we all (should) know what to expect from them. Technical precision, raw emotion, etc., etc., etc. The blasts of brass are powerful, and the strings are harsh and grating, as they should be.

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

19) Triumphal Return ~ Epilogue

We have finally arrived at the ending theme. These tracks are usually quite spectacular with Dragon Quest VI's being an absolute showstopper,and overflowing with real emotional power. After a strong beginning for unison strings and brass counterpoint punctuated by orchestral hits, this magical piece begins. One thing you might notice about this track is that it very nicely sums up many of Sugiyama's abilities and techniques, making it, in a way, the quintessential Dragon Quest piece (although certainly not the best). I get to use a new word here to describe the strings, although they compel me as I find it wholly appropriate. The strings swoon amid lush brass choirs and gliding harp before a solo horn comes in with a soft, almost somber melody. Then the piece takes a drastic turn for more adventurous territory. The melody here is heard first by strings, then by strong brass amid constant snare drums. There is an interesting buildup for brass with a single not sustained by the strings before a much lighter section comes in with the strings providing the melody while brass and winds trade off with pulsing figures. This section repeats, as is typical with Sugiyama, with more stronger, fuller orchestrations, yet remarkably never becomes cluttered. Soft cellos take over the melody before some harp strumming leads the piece to its beginning unison strings.

There are so many great things about this piece, but I find that the next section is the best. Lush strings and soft horns usher in a lyrical oboe solo with some very attractive chord progressions and dissonance. Some woodwind flourishes brings in the repeat of this theme by more unison strings amid brass chords. This melody goes through some interesting development and fragmentation leading to a familiar sounding section for woodwind solos on top of plucky, pizzicato strings. The melody then repeats with the oboe and strings before delightfully lush strings and gliding harps bring the piece to its final chord.

The London Philharmonic hits this one out of the park with a performance that could rival the Tokyo Metropolitan's work on Dragon Quest VI's "Eternal Lullaby", which I consider to be the most perfect in every way performance of any of Sugiyama's pieces for the Dragon Quest series. The strings at the beginning are strong yet vulnerable. The orchestrations have been contained here and don't let clarity ruin the atmosphere. The woodwinds are soft and evoke great emotion, as does the brass in a much different way. Brass proves to be a very versatile section of the orchestra, blasting their way through the more bold and rousing sections as well as nailing the softer, more reflective moments. In the second part of the track, there is a great flow in the London Philharmonic's recording. Each phrase is logically placed, although it never descends into being predictable. Sometimes the strings are so strong that you wonder if they have been enhanced in some way. At other times, the London Phil's strings reach volumes so soft that they almost make you nervous because you know now that the crescendo can be even greater, and they are. Like I said before, whether it be the winds, strings or percussion in a brass dominated section, each detail is precise and apparent, although there is also a great sense of structure and atmosphere so that the richness of the orchestrations never becomes an issue, as it has in some other tracks.

How can you compete with perfection? You cannot, but you can at least try to match it. The Tokyo Metropolitan tries taking this idea of having the entire piece flow to a new level. The soft brass solos are every bit as strong as the London Philharmonic's, but the strings are far too resonant and lack dramatic weight. The rousing brass sections are strong, but not nearly as sharp as the London Phil's. Actually, considering the awful jobs that the Tokyo Met has been doing of the preceding pieces, this one is actually the closest the orchestra comes to the London Phil's greatness. What I said earlier, though, about it flowing too well is that during the softer sections featuring wind solos, the strings tend to blend together a bit, but not nearly as badly as usual. Technically, the Tokyo Met does a great job of keeping up with the London Philharmonic, but as far as emotional content goes, the Tokyo Met just does not immerse itself in the music as apparently as the London Phil does. The dedication of the performers is certainly there, but they always feel like they're holding something back, even in its smallest measure. The winner is obvious, although the opponent certainly put up a good fight.

Scores: Enjoyment - 10/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 9/10

Bonus Track - Sacrificial Dance

This track had me greatly worried. It is the 'bonus' track that is only available with the Tokyo Metropolitan's recording. In all of the only other four Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites to feature an additional track on the Tokyo Met recording, the bonus pieces were so completely dull, uninspired, boring, and simply bad that I was expecting much of the same thing. What a delight to find that, while this piece won't go down as one of Sugiyama's best or most creative efforts, it is actually quite good. One issue that Sugiyama had with those previous bonus tracks was with the orchestrations. It seemed as though he had lost all his talent altogether or else was just so rushed that the efforts ended up being mediocre at best (and even that's being far too kind to those pieces). If a green thumb makes you good at gardening, what kind of thumb do you have to have to be good at orchestrations? Whatever the answer is, Sugiyama has reclaimed it!

Beginning with soft strings, strumming harps, and chimes, the melody is presented by a flute, with each phrase ending with a trill. There is even a subtle vibraphone that can only be identified by its eerie resonance. Soft violins take over the melody with woodwinds and pizzicato strings providing additional counterpoint. The one thing I admire about the melody is that it flows so easily into the repeat. The phrasing is spectacular, with each part flowing logically into the next, and, as I said, that includes the repeat making it a very well rounded melody. It could continue forever, I feel, and you would never notice when it looped.

Then, after this somber beginning, it really picks up. The tambourines and other exotic sounding percussion come in along with choppy strings. A trumpet solo provides the new melody with some woodwind counterpoint and flourishes. The orchestrations here tend to blur a bit, but the chords are still very well heard, and they are very interesting in the way they progress. The melody is then taken over by the strings as the piece increases even more in tempo before the piece comes to a nearly complete halt and ends rather quickly with the harp and clarinets in unison providing one final arpeggio. The playing by the Tokyo Met could be sharper in the final, faster sections, but overall they play this piece with confidence and enthusiasm. I feel that it would be better if the mixing was better, placing more attention on the melodies and less on the percussion, but this is the only recording of this orchestrated piece, so what can you do but learn to love it, which is not hard because of the quality of the music.

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10


As I said before, while Dragon Quest VII does have a bit of thematic continuity, it is overall a much less coherent album than even the stylistically mad Dragon Quest IV. Some of Sugiyama's most daring experiments in orchestration are present here, such as the magnificent "Screams from the Tower of Monsters", and many of them pay off. This is a very varied listening experience with hardly a single bad track.

The performances are quite mixed in that the London Philharmonic has hardly a weak piece while the Tokyo Metropolitan having a kind of half-and-half performance quality. After hearing the Tokyo Metropolitan's work on Dragon Quest VI, I was permanently on the edge of my seat when waiting for their take on Dragon Quest VII to arrive. I thought, "wow, they keep improving. Soon, they'll be better than even the London Philharmonic." That was, apparently, incredibly naïve of me, as this suite has proven. After their superiority on the Dragon Quest VI Symphonic Suite, they now have delivered their most inconsistent take on Sugiyama's music yet. The Tokyo Met does deliver on a few splendid occasions, but on the whole, I would recommend the London Philharmonic recording first and foremost.

As an extra bonus for the London Philharmonic Orchestra's recording, the entire original sound version from the game is presented after the Symphonic Suite. One annoyance I have with it, which isn't important at all, is the fact that "Triumphal Return ~ Epilogue" was put at the start of the second disc with the original sound version. It would have easily fit on the first disc and breaks up a stellar listening experience by a bit. There was a separate SACD version published that corrected this problem but removed the original sound version. However, very few people listen to SACDs. The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra recording features a good bonus track, but a weaker performance and no original sound version. As a result, I cannot deny the London Philharmonic CD recording is the definitive album.

Overall: Enjoyment - 9/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10