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Dragon Quest VIII Symphonic Suite :: Review by Juan2Darien

Dragon Quest VIII Symphonic Suite Album Title: Dragon Quest VIII Symphonic Suite
Record Label: Aniplex
Catalog No.: SVWC-7261/2
Release Date: June 22, 2005
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


The final Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite, for now at least, is here. There is only one recording of it by the Tokyo Metropolitan, so the enjoyment level of the music will be playing a larger role than ever. However, as you will see, this is the kind of recording where the performance and the enjoyment of the music are absolutely tied together. For the first seven Symphonic Suites, Koichi Sugiyama was, in a sense, trying to find his niche. I say this because many of his previous suites had such vivid orchestrations and experiments with colour and sometimes even melody. He experiments here a bit, but more than anything he allows himself to explore his previous experiments. There are more tracks on this album than any other Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite, so you can be assured that there will be some variety./p>

The format for the ratings of each track will be presented much like in my previous reviews for the Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites. There will be a rating for the music itself as well as one for the performance of the music based on technical skill, sound quality, and how the pieces are brought to life. However, since there is only one recording of this suite, I need not 'compare and contrast' recordings as I did before, therefore discussions of the performances may be somewhat intertwined in the analysis of the music itself.

Track-by-Track Reviews

Disc One

1) Overture

Here is the infamous "Overture". In the last Symphonic Suite, I praised the arrangement for, at last, trying something different. The melody was not carried by strings, as it had been before. The brass was more ballsy, the woodwinds and percussion more active, and the strings more bouncy. It was simply great. This arrangement is nearly identical to Dragon Quest VII's in the beginning. However, when the theme repeats, it uses Dragon Quest IV's arrangement. I will just say that this will never be the 'quintessential' "Overture" in arrangement or performance.

The Tokyo Met has had issues in the past suites with having too much reverb. It smoothed over some of the edges and orchestrations, making the pieces mere washes of sound. Here, even the opening trumpet fanfares are completely muffled. The intricacy of Sugiyama's orchestrations are completely lost in the mix. The winds don't so much as provide colour than simply exist. None of the elements of the piece come together, and the result is that the piece sounds very sloppy.

Scores: Enjoyment - 6/10 / Tokyo Met - 4/10

2) Traveling with Wagon

After a soft beginning for harp and woodwinds, a delicate violin melody emerges. A rather standard section for clarinet solo and solo horn in counterpoint brings the piece to a repeat. The orchestrations are probably very nice and colourful, but I just can't tell. The Tokyo Met has glossed over them again.

You get the feeling that this is a rather colourful piece whenever you can actually hear all the elements. The opening woodwinds are lovely until the strings come in and suddenly the winds are lost. Or consider the strings of this piece. The melody is light and very lovely, but the unnatural amount of reverb causes the notes to run into each other and blend into mere ambience. While on some tracks, this ruins the piece completely, the melody is actually slightly serviced by the resonance. There are traces of brass here and there, but they are just too weak to be heard. Overall, this piece ends up being about the melody, nothing more. The melody plays amid chord progressions, although we cannot tell, nor do we care what instruments they are sounded by.

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

3) Peaceful Town ~ Quiet Village ~ Alchemy Plot

The town themes usually contain Sugiyama's most vivid, cheerful writing. Here is no different, although not in the best of ways. The opening melody is very reminiscent of the obnoxious "Town" from Dragon Quest II. It quickly resolves this issue when the clarinets take the melody, and the piece slows down quite a bit. There is a somewhat typical buildup by strings, followed by some interesting interaction between the strings and the winds. The percussion here is just too overbearing. Whether it is the drum kit or the wood blocks, they just have too much presence. After a while, the drums disappear, thankfully, in order for the winds and strings to usher in a harp solo. The melody played here by the harp is somewhat predictable, and the accompaniment isn't that creative either. It just features arpeggios by the harp, at first, then the winds as the strings take the melody.

The next section is slightly reminiscent of Dragon Quest VII's "Screams from the Tower of Monsters", certainly not by quality (that piece was flawless), but by orchestrations and counterpoint. The harp and winds provide excellent interaction here, achieving a rather uneasy atmosphere before the harp leaves, and the complexity of the wind counterpoint begins to buildup. This section is then mirrored by the strings, modulating along the way, before reaching the rather unsatisfying conclusion. The problem with this piece is that there is really no memorable melody to latch on to. Other town themes had magnificent melodies and great colour, but this one just seems stale. The "Alchemy Plot" is severely uninteresting, yet it carries on for a good two minutes with hardly anything in the way of development.

The recording is atrocious. I said that this piece does not have good orchestrations, although now I reveal to you that it might. It very well might have some decent colour underneath all that reverb, but you'd never be able to hear it. I don't see why they had to take the absolute opposite route as before. Allow me to explain. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, when they were the sole performers of these suites, had a sound quality that was immediate and precise. Now, the Tokyo Met opts for a completely muddled sound quality making each piece more about ambience than melody or orchestration or any other term I might be able to toss out here. Sugiyama deserves better than this.

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

4) Strange World ~ Marching Through the Fields

After some arpeggios by the harp, the strings kind of force themselves into the piece at first before the melody comes in. Brass choirs and cello counterpoint provide some nice enhancement to the melody, first heard by strings, then winds. A trumpet solo comes in to take the piece away. It reveals itself to be pure Sugiyama when the true theme comes. It is heard by the strings amid pulsing brass chords, before an interesting section where the trumpet and winds trade off phrases. Then the piece repeats, and the strings enter in a bit more nicely here, unlike the punchy beginning.

The piece then shifts into the next section. It is essentially a variation on the main theme, but much faster and jazzier with different rhythms and Sugiyama's new best friend, the drum kit. The trumpet takes on the first part of the melody before some clarinet colouring transitions the piece into an almost cheery statement of the theme by powerful trombones and string counterpoint. Strong unison strings provide some interesting development on the theme before a brass buildup to the majestic climax. This is probably the best piece I've come across thus far from this album, with the previous three tracks being completely underwhelming. The first, soft section for winds and strings is the only flaw. It is not anywhere near as memorable as the glorious main theme. Even the jazzier variation on it works quite well, and the climax of the piece is probably one of the best that Sugiyama has ever conceived.

A piece like this needs to be heard with clarity, and the Tokyo Metropolitan seems unyielding to give us any. Actually, though, their work on this piece is better than their previous efforts. The orchestrations in the softer sections are horribly blurred, but when the majestic melody comes in, the brass commands total attention. It may not be as crisp as I'd like, but it's still a decent performance amid some truly ghastly ones.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10

5) Chatting

I'm not sure what this piece is. Perhaps a casino theme or yet another town theme, this piece is lively, with the tempo being constantly kept by the drum kit. I feel that Sugiyama is learning to lean on that instrument far too much. Whenever he needs a rhythmic device, he won't turn to the strings anymore, but the drum kit. After a quick blast of brass, a melody emerges on the xylophone, with a more developmental section provided by light strings. Then the winds come in to take away the melody, with each phrase by the flutes being mirrored by the strings. There are subliminal strings throughout the piece, sawing away, as well as some horns providing extra colour when needed. The piece repeats before building into a satisfying climax.

The Tokyo Metropolitan does pretty well here as well. The strings in the background are too smoothed over much of the time, and the only real way I know that they're even there is because they are heard at the beginning before the melody comes in. It's hard not to have a sharp sound when it comes to the xylophone, so it seems that the orchestrations here are part of the reason why the performance can succeed as it has. I feel that the winds are still far too muffled, but their role in the track is kept pretty low.

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

6) Cold and Gloomy ~ In the Dungeon Depths

After an awkward beginning for descending strings, the piece glides away with some dreary chords and little in the way of melody. There's quite a bit of trilling here by the strings, which are the main focus of the beginning part. Like I said, there's really no melody, making this first section all about the atmosphere. On those grounds, it fails miserably. There's nothing to keep the listener's attention, except for perhaps a section featuring the subliminal knock of a wood block separating these chords. Perhaps it was the silence between phrases that was ruining the piece because when the next section comes in, the material from the previous section is presented more steadily, and suddenly it actually sounds like a melody, or close to one anyway. The accursed drum kit comes in once again to keep the piece moving. There's some deep, growling brass under the melody providing some of the only colour while the strings are still performing the nondescript melody. The winds and brass have an interesting section of interaction before it's back to the same old tricks.

Now, this seems like the kind of piece that would be made by the Tokyo Metropolitan's excessive reverb. Unfortunately, it's not. It's a very hard piece to judge based on the performance. For one, the Tokyo Met probably does help to cover up the absolute shallowness of this piece, but still not nearly enough. To help assuage the Tokyo Met's poor quality performance here, I will offer the fact that it's really just the music. Not even the London Philharmonic could make this piece sound good. Sometimes Sugiyama's orchestrations are rich and thick and cluttered because of it; at other times they are thin and dull and lifeless. Only occasionally does he get the balance between these correct, but this piece is certainly one of the most thinly orchestrated, uninteresting pieces he's ever conceived. It's not the fault of the performers, because they do really instill a sense of dread in the piece. However, they're just not given enough to work with.

Scores: Enjoyment - 2/10 / Tokyo Met - 5/10

7) Healing Power of the Psalms ~ Friar's Determination

I'll just let you in on a secret. The beginning of this piece is predictable to the 10th degree, but that's actually not much of a secret when you hear those first notes. The brass and strings are mixed here to produce a rich sound while they take on an extremely predictable, slow moving melody. I cannot stress enough how thoughtlessly predictable this opening section is! The winds come in to take the melody to even more predictable heights. Now let's play a game. Count the amount of times I've used the word "predictable" in this paragraph, not including this one or the next, multiply that by five, and the answer you get will show you how predictable this opening section is. Why do I feel it necessary to stress this? Because the rest of the piece is actually quite good, but I always forget that and want to skip this track over every time.

The main melody comes in, however, after the winds. This next section is actually pretty good. It presents a nice, simple theme by brass, with some majestic chord progressions. It repeats with strings added to the mix to achieve some absolutely glorious results. The piece halts before the winds come back in to provide some interesting development on the melody. They are sprightly, and the writing here is very intricate. The strings take over for the winds before brass provides a minor-key variation on the main theme of this piece. Then it's back to the intricate interaction between the sections of the orchestra, with an interesting choice of orchestration being the duet between low strings and high woodwinds. The brass comes in every so often to play fragments of the theme in minor key, again, before a timpani roll brings on the next full statement of the theme by brass and strings. After this, suspended tremolo strings usher in the somewhat short-lived finale.

The Tokyo Metropolitan does their typical smoothing over some of the orchestrations, but not as badly as in previous tracks. They really do seem to be getting better, albeit not by much! The brass is majestic, and when aided by the strings, the sheer volume and sound they produce is admirable. Some of the intricacies of Sugiyama's writing are lost in the mix, although it never descends into being a mere wall of sound. The winds are a bit too light and have no real dramatic weight, as well as the strings, which are constantly flighty and have no edge. It's therefore the brass that is the saviour of this track. Because of the power the brass achieves, this may be one of the better tracks on this album (although the beginning thirty seconds are still inexcusable!).

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10

8) Over the Sorrow ~ Hurry! We Are In Danger

This is one of the most experimental pieces on the album and probably in Sugiyama's entire catalogue of experimental pieces. It's not so much that the pieces are experimental, but there are two interludes of surprising orchestration in the second half of the track. First things first, however, "Over the Sorrow" presents a lovely melody and a very interesting refrain. Amid soft washes of strings, with phrases separated by string arpeggios, an oboe carries the melody. The section leading up to the refrain is scored for flutes as a rising bass line brings the piece to the refrain. It features a lovely, melancholy phrase played by strings and repeated amid elegant chord progressions. Silence reigns in this section before returning to a near verbatim reprise of the material, except that the oboe part has been transcribed an octave lower. Then, after the refrain repeats again, the piece, without warning, explodes into "Hurry! We Are In Danger".

You have to know that this piece is going to be threatening, I mean just look at that exclamation point! I think that, while these two pieces are great by themselves, Sugiyama was just thinking probably when he put them together in a medley. After starting with a bang, this section presents a strange melody that pretty much just consists of string scales, ascending at first, then descending. Each phrase is separated by some typical brass blasts in quick succession. The drum kit is used here to obnoxious effect. It just won't ever shut up! Perhaps it is cruel to demean this track based on my dislike of the drum kit, although it's really not the drums themselves, but the way Sugiyama uses them. He just doesn't pull it off too well, since absolute Classicism suits him much better. Brass provides a constant pulse under the melody. After a repeat, the piece takes a different, more dramatic turn. It starts a very long buildup to the climax of the piece. First the strings, in contrary motion providing some extra tension. Then the brass comes in, gaining more and more power as it ascends the final scale. Then, after a blast of brass comes the section I mentioned earlier.

"Interludes of surprising orchestration", I said earlier. That hardly describes it, though. All other instruments drop out, and we're left with an extended interlude for percussion only. The bass drum provides a constant thumping while, in a very interesting choice of instruments, the cowbell gets some near-virtuosic passages. There's another percussion instrument in there, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what it is... at first I thought a timpani, although I'm not sure if the timpani can go up that high. Whatever it is, it punctuates the bell solo. The pitch keeps getting higher and higher until a quick brass glissandi comes in and meets up with the bell, leading to a repeat of the "Hurry! We Are in Danger" section. The next time we hear the percussion interlude, it is much shorter, and towards the end, it is integrated with the entire orchestra for the final brass blast.

The Tokyo Metropolitan, in my opinion, kind of botches the beginning section by smoothing over it with excess until nothing stands out, and it can be regarded as just another pleasantly ambient track. There are also parts where the strings seem to be a little off. The soloists aren't heard with the clarity they deserve, and the orchestrations sound rather nonexistent here. The second section, however, is much better. Since strings are present even in that part, it remains rather weak, and even the brass is much weaker than it was in the previous track. What saves this track, then? The percussion. The percussionists of the orchestra must have had a field day with this piece. Sugiyama has rarely, in Dragon Quest at least, experimented this much with percussion. The play those rhythmic bits with such enthusiasm, knowing that it's their only chance to be heard, that their joy with the music rubs off on the listener. The performance has so many faults that if it weren't for this section, this would be just another worthless track.

Scores: Enjoyment - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

9) Mysterious Tower

It used to be that Koichi Sugiyama could achieve an air of mystery through thoughtful chord progressions, inspired orchestrations, and unpredictable melodies. Now, he seems to think all he needs is some twinkling percussion, chimes, and bongos or congas or whatever drums they are. I enjoy this track, but I would enjoy it more if Sugiyama let the melodies speak for themselves without drowning out the sound with a plethora of exotic percussion, which, as good as they may sound, come across as a rather thoughtless attempt to add "mystery" to this piece.

The melody is decent, and the chord progressions are certainly not standard, but there's something extremely muted about this piece. The orchestrations are so thin that it seems Sugiyama could pull a fast one on the listener by adding all the percussion elements, as a mask for the shallowness of the arrangement. The thing is that the chimes and sleigh bells really do add a nice touch to the track. It's just the nameless drums I mentioned earlier that tend to ruin it for me. After the percussion beginning, an oboe comes in with the slightly jaunty, yet flowing melody amid soft, dissonant strings. The orchestrations change a bit throughout the piece, which is based specifically upon this theme, with the strings and flutes taking turns with the melody.

The performance by the Tokyo Metropolitan is very low key, to a fault in fact. The opening oboe solo is weak and can barely be heard above the percussion. That's actually one of the biggest issues. It's not that the percussion is too loud, because I doubt they can play it any softer than they already are. The problem is that the rest of the orchestra is too soft. They are just fine letting the percussion take the attention away from the melody, but we, as listeners, should get the whole picture, not just the percussion.

Scores: Enjoyment - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

10) Reminiscence ~ Go Topo Go!!

"Reminiscence" is rather standard Sugiyama. It begins with pizzicato strings and an overeager triangle under a soft bassoon solo, which turns into a duet between bassoon and flute. The strings come in playing a sprightly accompaniment for the bassoon solo, which trades the theme off to an oboe. It's actually quite a nice piece before the ending comes, bringing the piece to a rather lazy transition to the next section. Again, why does Sugiyama insist on using the drum kit during every other track? It does not work, especially with a playful piece. Also, this is one of those tracks where the enjoyment of the music can absolutely not be separated from the performance. There is a constant barrage of choppy strings and occasional woodwind chorales. There is somewhat of a melody played by piccolo duets, but because of the performance the recording quality, you can't tell what the hell the piccolos are playing. It sounds like squeaks, screeches, and shrieks and nothing at all in the way of actual music. It's as though Sugiyama is trying the same formula as Dragon Quest VII's "Magic Carpet" with the wind duets, but it fails miserably because of his choice to use the piccolos.

That instrument achieves nearly a shrill whistling sound as it is, and under the incompetence of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra on this piece, they sound horribly obnoxious. I suppose it isn't the performers' faults, since it sounds like they're hitting the right notes. The problem is the sound engineers or whoever is responsible for this mess! Sugiyama's orchestrations on this entire album are rather thin sounding, and adding reverb to cover up for this fact is not the right answer. If you couldn't already tell, this piece doesn't simply disappoint me. It angers me. I want thirty-two minutes of my life back: two for the duration of the "Go Topo Go!!" section of this piece and a half hour after that, because that's how long the after-headache lasted me. I'll be kind and give the piece a 2/10, but only because the beginning section is okay.

Scores: Enjoyment - 2/10 / Tokyo Met - 2/10

11) War Cry ~ Defeat the Enemy

I present a question to you. Has Koichi Sugiyama lost his touch? It seems that he is now incapable of making a threatening battle theme or keeping up the rhythm without resorting to the stale sounding drum kit. Actually, to be fair, this piece works much better than previous ones with the drum kit by truly embracing an almost intentionally sloppy, jazzy feel all throughout. After a chromatic scale for strings, the piece is off with a bang. A slow melody is played by the strings as the horns separate the phrases with almost reckless abandon. There are trumpet blasts in the same vein as Dragon Quest III's superb "Fighting Spirits" punctuated every few moments in this piece. After the trumpets take over the melody, the strings start to swirl, resulting in a descending chromatic scale, which then is followed by the same scales that opened the track. The piece repeats and then dies down after another descending scale. As is customary, it seems, with all Sugiyama battle tracks, there is a softer, more reflective moment in the piece that actually provides some nice development on the brass theme presented earlier in the piece, heard here by winds.

The next section is quite different from the first one. All the same elements are there, with the drum kit, the brass, and the choppy strings, but there is an extra sense of emotion here. The piece take on an almost sinister atmosphere, if it weren't for the flighty sections for brass and the xylophone breaking the tension. There is an ominous sounding sections for strings followed by what sounds like a trumpet variation on the "Go Topo Go!!" theme. The piece ends with a very discordant blast of brass. One thing that I noticed particularly with this track is the quality of the strings. Usually it's the violins doing all the work, whereas in previous Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, Sugiyama would utilize the entire string orchestra to achieve lush or grating tones, depending on what was needed. Here, it seems that the violins are the only instrument in the string section, and the writing for them isn't particularly complex or anything. It seems that after seven superb titles and orchestrations, Sugiyama has run out of ideas. Though I may complain that the orchestrations are not quite as thick or complex as they used to be, this is still a great track, and one of the only good battle tracks on this suite.

The playing by the Tokyo Metropolitan is, again, quite mixed. The brass is rather strong, but the strings still sound as if they are playing a frolic or something. This should be a big, bold piece of music, and I wish that Sugiyama's arrangements and the Tokyo Metropolitan's playing would suit up and take things seriously for once. Funny that I used to complain that they took things too seriously, in previous Symphonic Suites adding superfluous doses of dynamics and drama into everything, and now, all I wish is that they would return to the glory days.

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

Disc Two

1) Remembrances...

After a beginning featuring lush, romantic strings and the soft plucking of the harp, a short interlude for woodwind textures ushers in the main melody. The strings sway back and forth as an oboe carries the melody. The issue I have with the performance that I must mention right off the bat is the fact that the oboe is so undermixed that it can barely be heard above the strings. There is a technique used here that Sugiyama uses often. He has the strings playing the harmonies until the end of a phrase in the melody, when the strings play a slow arpeggio. The problem is that, here, the strings were already too loud before the arpeggio and crescendo. Just an unsatisfying mix here, but now let me return to the music itself.

A flute picks up the melody before the piece shifts tones. The strings play at a steady rhythm as the winds provide some light, almost playful development on the melody. Then, after a horn solo, unison strings take the melody amid brass chords and woodwind colouring. The piece repeats with the lush strings from the beginning, except winds take part in this also, providing richer orchestrations. The cellos carry the melody now with woodwind harmonies. The piece progresses as it did before, but with thicker orchestrations. There is a part for pizzicato strings in the repeat that prompts me to mention the performance again. The pizzicato low strings are so plucky and abrasive that it kind of ruins the whole feel of the piece, as well as makes me wonder why the rest of this recording can't be as clear. An ascending line for solo cello brings the piece to an end.

This is one of the only pieces where the smoothing over of the details works to its advantage. Most other tracks seem like they're doing this to try to make up for the thinness in Sugiyama's orchestrations. There are no such problems with this piece, as it is very expertly arranged. While I wish we would ever get to hear some of those orchestrations, the piece thrives on being silky smooth, and that is exactly what the Tokyo Met gives.

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

2) Majestic Castle ~ Gavotte de Chateau

Sugiyama has had great luck with his castle themes. The luck's run out. For whatever reasons, perhaps even subconscious, I simply cannot stand this track. It seems like it is constantly forced. What I mean is that there are sections of thoughtless predictability, and these are separated by phrases where all it seems Sugiyama is trying to do is get to the next predictable section. There's no real melody, and the piece really just constantly shifts between sequences, that usually follow in descending motion. The buildup to the authentic cadence is equally forced and does not flow. The beginning section has an odd rhythm that I don't particularly enjoy either. It seems that Sugiyama couldn't figure out what to do with this piece, so he merely wrote what he knew already worked and tried to glue these sections together with less-than-stellar original compositions.

The opening "Majestic Castle" is a strange piece because it features the brass section. I mentioned in my review of Dragon Quest V's "Castle Trumpeter" and even more so with Dragon Quest VII's "Echo of Horns Throughout the Castle" that I was amazed at how much colour Sugiyama was able to evoke with just a trumpet in the former and what sounded like a quartet of horns in the latter. Here, he has the bookend sections performed by the whole brass section, yet for some reason it hardly evokes any colour at all. It is bouncy and contains some rhythmic flair, although I feel that 'flair' comes off just sounding awkward, and the brass is strong, but somehow it still has little effect on me. "Gavotte de Chateau", as I said, is strings only and focuses its attention on predictable sequences that are pasted thoughtlessly together. There really is not much else to say about that part than that.

The performance is okay. The strings should have more edge, and perhaps I'd feel differently about the brass if it was also edgier and had more power. This track bored me, and I feel that the performance had a bit of something to do with that.

Scores: Enjoyment - 4/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

3) Poet's World

This is an interesting little track. After a slightly off-kilter harp arpeggio, the real material comes in. The strings are suspended and soft, but occasionally there is some pizzicato heard here and there. A single note is continually plucked by the harp, and the melody is provided by the glockenspiel. I think this is the kind of track that this suite should have more of. It takes some changes, especially by having the glockenspiel provide the melody, which is at times quite off-sounding because of Sugiyama's usage of creative dissonance. The string accompaniment is lush and mysterious, and the chord progressions are unpredictable. Suddenly, the glockenspiel takes a more supporting role with rolled chords and arpeggios as Sugiyama demonstrates that perhaps he hasn't lost his touch. The melody is heard again, first by strings with absolutely effortless transitions to the woodwinds. This piece is all about evoking atmosphere, and I cannot get enough of it. The same harp arpeggio that opened the piece is now heard by the glockenspiel to close the piece.

The performance is superb, and that may be the first time I've used that word in regards to the Tokyo Metropolitan this entire review! The technicality is much better than in many other tracks, as is the reverb. But the thing about this piece is, even more so than "Reminiscence", is that an ambient recording is just what it needs. I am continually more impressed with this piece every time I hear it. Just like I believe the Tokyo Met's playing contributed to my dislike of the previous track, I feel I owe them some of the credit as well for my enjoyment of this piece. The thing about the orchestrations is that they are quite limited, but the things Sugiyama does with that limited palette are so amazing, and the recording captures it perfectly.

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

4) Memories of an Ancient Ocean

Sugiyama follows up the absolute best track of the entire suite with a more lackluster one. Do you remember the lovely violin solo that started Dragon Quest VII's "Over the Horizon"? Well, Sugiyama tries to imitate that here with a slightly forced melody by the violins amid harp arpeggios. The interesting chord progressions are there, but the awkwardness of the opening melody overwhelms. Luckily, when the track takes off and becomes something closer to a standard Sugiyama ocean theme, it fares much better.

The string writing gets slightly richer for a few moments before Sugiyama provides an enormously satisfying chord change that arrives with brass chords and a cymbal crash. It is completely unexpected, but so lovely. High strings provide a new section of the melody on top of this. It is much better than before and flows quite nicely and logically. There are more brass chords and fluttering woodwinds providing nearly epic accompaniments. The melody repeats, but with thinner orchestrations leading up to the next, more playful section. It features an oboe solo amid pizzicato strings, before this short section modulates down and the oboe part is taken over by a clarinet. There is some great interaction between the clarinet and the flute here, as the piece seems it will keep modulating until suddenly we are back at the beginning. There is an undercurrent of brass here, but the melody still sounds quite awkward. When the playful section comes again after the repeat, it is considerably tamer with a flute solo and soft washes of strings. The piece ends after a harp arpeggio.

I don't know if it's just the performance or if it really is just the music that makes the opening melody sound so odd, but I do know that the Tokyo Metropolitan excels here as it did in the previous track. The results may not be quite as stellar, but they are still quite nice. The woodwinds are still having issues being heard properly, but the strings are spot on. On some of the London Philharmonic's recordings of the ocean themes, the brass was too prominent and cluttered up the track. Here, the brass is smoothed over to nice effect.

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

5) Stalked by Fear

The beginning of this piece certainly does inspire fear through its use of intense dissonance. After that, though, the piece really tames down a bit. It ends up sounding like just a standard dungeon track by Sugiyama. It consists completely of bleak strings, reminding me a tad of Dragon Quest III's "Zoma's Castle", except without the melodic content to keep it at all interesting. It ends up just being meaningless, meandering strings that are only meant to produce anxiety in the listener, which they fail at as well.

This is the kind of track that is hard to judge by performance. The music is just so bleak and so uninteresting that it would be hard to separate the performance from it. There's really nothing challenging here for the performers, except for perhaps the bookend sections of rather annoying dissonance. I'm at a loss here. I don't want to rate the performance lower because of the poor quality of the music, but at the same time I can't see how not to. I suppose they at least hit all the right notes. That has to count for something, right?

Scores: Enjoyment - 2/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

6) Ruins of Darkness

This track does a bit better than the previous one. After some sliding, dissonant string textures that open the piece, a horn solo provides some interesting, almost frightful, yet lovely sounds to counteract the lushness of the strings. A trumpet comes in and provides some almost heroic chord progressions before the piece takes a different turn. It gets jagged and harsh with edgy, punchy brass being separated by more lush string textures. The piece is odd in that it really doesn't go anywhere. There's no arc to it or anything. It just ends, which really isn't that satisfying. Actually, other than the beginning section for strings and the contrast between the brass and strings towards the end, there's little holding up the interest for this track.

The orchestra performs it quite well, though. The brass is punchy and sharper than I've heard from this orchestra on this suite. The horn solo at the beginning is magical and mysterious, and, again, the contrast between the brass and strings is wonderful. This performance actually outweighs the piece itself.

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

7) Sanctuary

For a name like "Sanctuary", you might expect a really nice and soothing, yet determined and adventurous piece. Well, you would be half-right. "Sanctuary" is not at all like what I thought it would be. It's bold, heroic, and very flashy. Beginning with trumpet fanfares, the piece makes great usage of all the brass instruments. The next section is for flighty strings before the trumpet fanfares come back in, followed by horns and then, in an interesting turn, winds. The strings then take on an epic tone, playing in unison amid brass chords. The fanfares come in to separate each statement of the melody, and each time the melody is heard, it is richer than before. The piece repeats after the same trumpet and horn fanfares, but the harmonies under the melody are now very smooth, with open chords provided by the cellos. More brass fanfares bring the piece to its climax. It is wondrous as the original trumpet fanfare continually modulates up until the final, glorious brass crescendo.

The strings are a bit too smooth in the Tokyo Metropolitan's recording, providing perhaps too great of contrast with the punchy brass fanfares. When those fanfares do arrive, though, the results are spectacular. The brass of the Tokyo Met has finally gotten its act together.

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

8) Heavenly Flight

Here comes one of Sugiyama's least inspiring, innovative, or interesting arrangements. I did not care for the original "Heavenly Flight", as heard on Dragon Quest III, and Sugiyama doesn't change it a bit here. I don't consider the original to be the 'least inspiring, innovative, or interesting arrangement', but I consider its verbatim inclusion here quite upsetting. Wouldn't this have been an interesting opportunity? An old classic piece from the beginning days of Dragon Quest receiving a new arrangement after all the years that Sugiyama has had to experiment and mature as a composer? Well, the opportunity is completely lost, and Sugiyama makes no attempts to add vitality to this piece. It is as trite as I remembered it, except even on the Tokyo Metropolitan's first recording of it on the Dragon Quest III Symphonic Suite, the sound quality was at least somewhat better.

Beginning with a flute and oboe solos amid harp arpeggios, the piece takes an overly dramatic turn with a great crescendo brought on by snare drum roll, suspended cymbals, and pseudo-epic brass. Nothing in this track seems sincere to me. It's not the melody, though, which is quite good. It's just the overly sappy arrangement that Sugiyama gave to it. This is another reason I lament the fact that it had not been arranged differently. The melodies are so nice and lovely, but the execution is awful. Whenever the piece gets over itself and stops being overly sentimental, the results are much better. There is a short interlude for pizzicato strings and clarinet solo that is absolutely delightful, and before that there's an interesting part for the cello section of the orchestra. All these parts are quite nice, but whenever it shifts back into lugubrious, operatic mode, it fails horrifically. The performance is competent, though. The opening harp is, as many things on this recording tend to be, quite muffled, but the opening flute solo actually gave me hope, hope that this piece may actually be made better by a completely dedicated performance.

The strings come in though, and the effect is ruined. The strange thing is that the strings should be perfect here. In previous tracks, I criticized the strings for not having enough dramatic weight. They are too flighty. Well, with a track name like "Heavenly Flight", the results should have been different. Maybe it's because the lower strings tend to be in stark contrast to the violins in that they actually do have the appropriate dramatic weight and edge, and therefore the mixture between the two causes it to fail... I really don't know. Apart from the opening flute solo, the winds do not have nearly enough presence. They are always resonant and ambient and sound like they were recorded from a hundred feet away.

Scores: Enjoyment - 3/10 / Tokyo Met - 5/10

9) Nearing Our Destiny

It seems like, as with "Sanctuary", Sugiyama got the track titles wrong again. You would think that this piece might be rousing and adventurous, but it is quite the opposite. Having never played the game I cannot say for sure, but to my ears, it is another dungeon theme. Beginning with deep tremolo strings, this piece thrives off of the punchy little interludes that punctuate the strings. The strings remain constant as short blasts of brass or flurries of woodwinds break the monotony. The chord progressions are quite dissonant, but strangely attractive, reminding me a tad of the far superior "Last Dungeon" from Dragon Quest VI.

Still, this track is a spectacular mood-setter. The sense of dread permeates every aspect of it. There is a very dissonant, almost atonal violin solo that actually doesn't quite fit in. It's grating, a characteristic I wish the strings had more often, but not here. The tempo picks up with a constant strings ostinato, still punctuated by swirling brass, but now something close to a melody emerges by the strings and the winds before it's back to textures and soundscapes. This piece is actually quite good in that it inspires a constant feeling of anxiety within the listener, yet at the same time it is quite attractive, even beautiful. The piece ends after some final growling trombones intrude upon the serenity of the strings.

The performance is another of the best on this album. The Tokyo Metropolitan takes this piece very seriously, as they should. The usual reverb is present, but it works here as the piece is very ambient and spacey. The brass and winds are wonderful as well, as they are present yet never grating. The only fault is the violin solo, and this fault lies with both the arrangement and the performer. It just is too edgy for an otherwise smooth, albeit unsettling listen.

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

10) Dormaguez ~ Great Battle in the Vast Sky

The final battle theme is here. Ah, in all of game music there have been quite a few great final battle themes, a few of those few achieving a legendary status. Unfortunately, poor Koichi Sugiyama is known for his battle themes in quite the wrong way. They are usually among his poorest compositions. Luckily, this one ends up being one of his strongest since Dragon Quest VI, due to some wondrous melodic experimentation in the middle. But I will get to that later.

First things first is "Dormaguez". If you remember Dragon Quest V's "Satan" or Dragon Quest VII's "Orgo Demila", then you know what to expect here. After a loud cymbal crash, the strings and brass play a two-note figure that grows old after a while. The trumpets provide something close to a melody, although it is far from memorable. Cymbal crashes and skittish snare drums punctuate the piece at seemingly random places. The piece quiets down and suddenly we're left with the chugging away of the brass and eerie, smooth strings. Then the strings begin an ostinato over which more fragments of a melody emerge. This part is actually quite similar in construction to the previous track in that the strings, or brass, whichever takes over the pulsing figures, are always steady, but are punctuated by blasts of brass and percussion. This part continues rather steadily, with some growling brass added to the mix before a more involving section emerges for string arpeggios coupled with the vibraphone. Then it's back to the same old with the steady, annoying brass.

Then all the sounds drop out except for the eerie strings once more, which bring in by far the best part of the track and one of the best in the album. "Great Battle in the Vast Sky" starts after a drum roll and a descending brass glissando. The drum kit makes its final appearance on the album, but it is quite welcome here. The thing that makes this piece so incredible is the thematic material. Maybe I was wrong about Sugiyama when I said it wasn't creative of him to leave "Heavenly Flight" the same as it appeared on previous albums. Here he gives us the best interpretation of that melody that I've ever heard. Who would have guessed that the soap opera-esque, drearily romantic melody would translate into one of Sugiyama's best battle themes? The brass begins by playing a jazzed up version of the theme in fragments, followed by the winds and vibraphones in conjunction again performing fragments of the melody. The orchestrations here are among the best on the album, with every section of the orchestra getting quite a workout.

Under swirling string figures, the melody emerges in full, again with a jazzy edge, by trumpets before a cymbal crash brings it to its fragmented self once more. The rhythmic ingenuity is something to behold. After a short reprisal of the "Dormaguez" material, sounding much better and more threatening than ever before, all the intensity drops out for the shortest moment while light strings play the "Heavenly Flight" melody over harp arpeggios. The effect is absolutely wondrous. Then it's back to old-fashioned Sugiyama goodness. The melody is played by the strings punctuated by rhythmic blasts of brass in the same vein as "War Cry ~ Defeat the Enemy". The piece then repeats after that until the grand finale. The melody becomes fragmented once again, but this time by lush, emotional strings, with more and more brass being added to the mix with each modulation until the glorious, major-key crescendo, the first occurrence of anything in the way of 'triumphant' in the entire piece.

This is one of the best, most well rounded and most colourfully orchestrated Sugiyama battle tracks in existence. I cannot lavish enough affection on it. I don't even mind the dull "Dormaguez" beginning when the real meat of the piece kicks in. Needless to say, the Tokyo Metropolitan deserves to be applauded with this piece. The mixes are all right with the woodwinds being heard when they need to, which is very rare in this piece, and the strings finally achieving dramatic power. The brass playing is spectacular here, being both emotionally intense as well as threateningly fun. My faith in the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra has more than been restored!

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

11) Sky, Ocean, and Earth

After a lovely harp solo in the same vein as Dragon Quest VI's "Ocean Waves", the main melody comes in with the strings and fluttering woodwinds. The bass end of the spectrum threatens to dominate here, but it still works quite well. The theme is sweeping and very emotional without, like "Heavenly Flight", descending into hackneyed territory. Again, Sugiyama proves that he hasn't lost his touch as an orchestrator. After the melody is heard in full, punchy brass brings in some clever modulations. After this, the piece lightens up quite a bit with lighthearted, lush strings before moving into the next melody. The strings take the playful, wonderfully rhythmic melody as, at first, fluttering woodwinds, then bouncy brass provide the harmonies. Then the original comes in again with this new playful guise leading to a repeat with richer, smoother orchestrations. Then the repeat of the original melody comes, even more powerful than before with much thicker brass writing and strings in unison.

After this, a strong buildup by brass brings in a more triumphant, adventurous section featuring the theme from "Sanctuary". The brass fanfares are there, even more powerful than in that previous track, and both melodies combine to form something quite epic in scope. The sound drops off until only swirling strings remain, which begin to build and build, adding brass to the mix, until the melody emerges once again, in fragments being traded from brass to strings and back again. A softer section for strings and wind solos builds until the surprisingly dark finale. Above suspended strings are powerfully dark blasts of brass, continually getting louder until the final one.

Needless to say, I was more than amazed by this track. It seems that after an album of lackluster results, with the scale tipping towards outright poor compositions and arrangements, Sugiyama shaped up for the final few pieces. This should surely go down as one of his best ending themes, right up there with my beloved "Eternal Lullaby". The playing is superb. The strings play the bouncy, lighthearted pieces with conviction, realizing that it is their only real break from the action. They simply thrive on these sections as a means of regrouping. When the more action-oriented parts come in, they are sharp, and in the more emotional parts they are particularly powerful.

The brass is equally sharp when they need to be, but also during some of the softer moments, they play their parts with such quirk and delight that it's hard not to fall in love with the piece. The winds have almost recovered from the undermixing that seems to plague their roles on most every other track. Luckily, their role here is kept to a minimum, so their flaws are quite muted most of the time. Congratulations, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Until about now, I was considering giving this album a nonexistent recommendation. But now, I would gladly recommend this album, even just for the last two pieces.

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


This is a strange album to sum up. The first disc was pretty severely disappointing, as was at least half of the second disc. The truly spectacular moments were very sparse, although there were some at least decent. Within the last few tracks, Sugiyama pulled his act together and produced two of the strongest pieces of his career. The performance by the Tokyo Metropolitan, until those final moments, leaves so much to be desired. One of the things about this is that, until those last tracks, there's really nothing new presented here. Apart from a few truly ingenious uses of percussion, most of the material here seems recycled from previous efforts.

With all of the other Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, there were at least two recordings of the pieces. With this suite, there is only one recording, making this, overall, a recommendation based on the material itself, not the performance. On those grounds, I would recommend this album very cautiously. The final 15 minutes are works of great beauty and craft, but can they outweigh the nearly 70 minutes of lackluster pieces that came before? Probably not completely, but those tracks certainly help to warrant the recommendation.

Overall: Enjoyment - 6/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10