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Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite :: Review by Juan2Darien

Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite Album Title: Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite
Record Label: King Records
Catalog No.: KICC-6332
Release Date: February 10, 2010
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


The last Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite was somewhere between four and five years ago. This could have meant one of two things: the anticipation and expectations were very high, or, unfortunately the one I feel the most, some had nearly forgotten about the series after such a long wait until seemingly out of nowhere, the Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite was released. Unfortunately for the series' music, Dragon Quest VIII Symphonic Suite was a huge disappointment. There are five tracks out of 22 to which I still listen (although those five are pretty nice). All this is just meant to say that my expectations for the present album were almost nonexistent. That may be a bit harsh, but it's important because, again, one of two things could have happened: it could have therefore exceeded my expectations, which would be most likely, or it could still fall beneath them. Unfortunately, again, the latter is true.

As you will see, this is perhaps Koichi Sugiyama's most uninspired Symphonic Suite, containing melodies with no drive, no punch, and no hook of any kind to make them memorable. It also features redundant orchestrations and little if any of the kind of experimentation that made Dragon Quest III through VII such wonderful symphonic suites. The performance by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is serviceable at best; they seem as bored by the music as I was, with a few tracks being exceptions. With my other reviews of the other Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, I gave multiple scores: one for the music and one (or more, depending on how many recordings were available) for the performance. Since this is the only available recording of this suite, and the enjoyment of these tracks is, at times, linked so thoroughly with the quality of the performances, only one score per track will be given.

Track-by-Track Reviews

1) Overture IX

Ah, the Dragon Quest Overture. Even if I had looked forward more to this album, I doubt I'd ever look forward to this track. Why? Because Sugiyama hasn't altered the arrangement of this piece since Dragon Quest IV. Well, I was given quite a shock when Sugiyama starts the piece off in a new way entirely: the opening fanfares have been replaced with something much more dramatic and flashy, and, unfortunately, it doesn't fit in with the rest of the piece at all. Even still, it was nice to have that variation before it becomes the same old theme again. Since the beginning of Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, Sugiyama has used one of two 'accompaniments' for the theme: trilling winds or racing strings. By having the theme repeat, he can include both in this arrangement.

The performance by the Tokyo Metropolitan of this first track bodes poorly for the rest of the album. They hit the notes, but do little more. There seems to be little feeling or sense of adventure in the music. They seem to be as bored with this piece as most of us are. (6/10)

2) Angelic Land

This track showed incredible promise. It had a nice melody, first played by the oboe with harp accompaniment, then flute, then strings, then strings again, then back to oboe... And surely you have figured out why the track fails to deliver. This could have been a wonderful two-minute-long track, but Sugiyama makes it into a five-minute piece that just does not have enough variety to maintain interest over that long of a time. The melody is lovely, and will recur in the score, as I said, but even still, I don't believe it holds up to his other melodies in the memorability-department. This is no Dragon Quest VI where he churned out beautiful melody after beautiful melody. And this is no Dragon Quest VII, where, in "Screams from the Tower of Monsters," he showed radically different variations with a single, simple theme.

The performance seems elegant enough.. It's a bit too glossy, though, as if recorded from a distance. Either that or it was edited in a way that makes it impossible to hear changes in bowing of the strings or vibrato or anything that would lead us to believe that this was performed by human beings. What I mean to say is that the recording is too polished and comes off sounding strangely artificial, in this piece, anyway. We'll see how the rest of them fare. (5/10)

3) Destiny ~ Prologue to Tragedy

This piece, driven almost completely by the strings, is a bit of a bore. There are some interesting dissonances, and I'm assuming it's the funeral / sanctuary theme. Sugiyama, with "Noble Requiem" of Dragon Quest V, showed how he was able to present a dreary atmosphere with strings only and still maintain interest through counterpoint and a haunting melody. This piece seems so stagnant and aimless that, even when it reaches a cadence, it hardly feels like an arrival point at all. The second half of the track is a bit strange in that Sugiyama doesn't seem to prepare it too well: it just segues into a more upbeat section with a fluttering flute solo and bouncy string and harp accompaniment. Actually, Sugiyama's been guilty of doing this before, where he'll just switch gears abruptly, but I'm guessing the reason it bothers me this time is because I don't like either half of the track.

The Tokyo Metropolitan sleepwalks through this performance. I'm wondering if I should start blaming the conductor, who I believe is Sugiyama himself, for their performance. A good orchestra is one that is responsive to their conductor, and thus far, they've shown a kind of boredom that is not reassuring at all. This piece could potentially have been heartbreaking if they'd have done more with dynamics and really felt the music. Who knows? But in its current guise, it is underwhelming. (3/10)

4) Oboe Melody in the Castle

Ah, a castle theme. With these, you pretty much know what you're going to get: a pretty melody, usually in a solo instrument ("Heaven" had a clarinet, "Castle Trumpeter," "Unknown Castle" had a solo violin, "Echo of Horns Throughout the Castle," etc.), with a simple accompaniment, although the simple accompaniment is rather new. Do you remember back at DQI's "Chateau Ladutorm," where Sugiyama presented us with wonderfully fun and intricate counterpoint? Those days are largely over. Speaking of that theme, there's a section of this piece that is remarkably similar to that theme. "Oboe Melody..." is pleasant enough, but it doesn't have the same sense of drive or structure, nor is the melody as memorable as previous castle themes.

The performance finally shows a bit of fun, but not nearly enough to compensate. I suppose in this piece, a restrained and technically precise performance would be more accurate in keeping with the Classical-era feel of the piece, so I can't entirely fault them for that one. (6/10)

5) Beckoning ~ Dream Vision of Our Town ~ Tavern Polka

Here is one of the reasons the album does not warrant a purchase, in my opinion. Starting with staccato woodwinds, the melody here is about as simple and standardly-Sugiyama that you hardly get the impression that he tried at all when he wrote it. The progressions, the flow, just everything, sounds recycled from previous Dragon Quests. I don't want to sound too harsh on the melody itself; it's lovely and enjoyable, but boring because it doesn't have any punch or surprise.

Also, this track is the first to show another problem Sugiyama has with this Symphonic Suite: bad transitions. In previous Symphonic Suites, his transitions between sections of a medley were lovely, discrete little pieces all by themselves that helped further the musical drama. Here, he just switches gears very abruptly. The theme goes through two more guises: the first of these is very calm and soothing, but uneventful. The second at least warrants some talk: it has a wonderfully fun percussion element, but it also contains a section that doesn't seem to belong. Like with his new arrangement of the Overture, this piece contains a very brief, but very strong brass element that just doesn't fit in with the rest of the playful whole.

The Tokyo Metropolitan can't be faulted for this track. In fact, they seem to finally be having fun, which makes even the most banal of arrangements jump out at least a little bit. (5/10)

6) Hills and Meadows ~ Together in the Fields ~ Soaring in the Sky

The opening melody is lovely, carried by strings with plucky brass accompaniment, before it's given over to winds and eventually developed by the xylophone. Overall, it's fun, one of the best tracks thus far. The next section is a bit thin, orchestrationally, but that is not necessarily a fault. It gives it a delicate sound that also features some interesting orchestrations, for once.

The transition here to the next section is, like the previous track, abrupt. He literally just throws you into the next piece. Here's where the arrangement gets a bit boring. Unison strings and the same plucky brass rhythm from earlier in the track characterize this section, although there is an interesting section with clarinet arpeggios being separated by one of Sugiyama's favourite techniques: the brass downward glissandi. I can think of several pieces he's used that technique in (and a few in this particular Symphonic Suite). The abrupt switch to the repeat of the first section is a bit jarring and unpleasant, but the material's still the same, and therefore very pleasant.

The performance is overall very good. The performers seem committed, enthusiastic, but during some sections, the more robust ones, they lose that passion and seem to be only playing loudly. But this isn't necessarily too big of a problem because their performance is still spot on. (7/10)

7) Village Bathed in Light ~ Village in Darkness

From the title, you'd think this was a beautiful, uplifting track. Well, you'd be wrong. It features yet another simple, standard melody with those chirpy woodwinds that do absolutely nothing for me. The strings provide a bit of light drama to counteract the overly cheerful wind figures, but they don't even stand a chance when the flutes come in trilling. I don't want to sound like I just hate all cheerful music, but there is a quality about this that is just too sweet, bordering on saccharine. Sugiyama's made melodies like this interesting, though, with the use of interesting orchestrations and harmonic surprises here and there. There are none of those in this portion of the piece. What is surprising is how Sugiyama transitions to the next section: an extended bassoon solo.

It's a blast to hear because Sugiyama has never used the bassoon as extensively (or potentially virtuosically) as this. It has such surprising twists and turns with its material, getting turbulent, dramatic, almost harsh, and then... it's a reprise of the same theme the first section, and therefore the track goes downhill. Also, oddly, the piece, which was so upbeat and cleanly orchestrated and simple, harmonically, ends on a lush, jazzy chord that just does not fit.

The Tokyo Metropolitan here wins brownie points for their bassoonist. Also something I noticed with this piece is that the sound quality has improved greatly since the Tokyo Met recorded Dragon Quest VIII Symphonic Suite. In that album, there was so much resonance that everything blurred together. Here, there is still enough resonance, but, as with the bassoon solo, the sound quality can be razor-sharp and transparent. (5/10)

8) Build-Up to Victory ~ Confused Ambitions

Sugiyama's battle themes have never been his strong point, and especially when he just goes on autopilot, they tend to turn out surprisingly dull. When he experiments, as he did in Dragon Quests V and VI, the results are fantastic. With this, he is again following a formula. Also, the hocket-like texture of the music does it no justice, with Sugiyama at times transferring the melodic material from strings, to brass, to percussion (which, I'll give him this one, was a cool choice) to winds. But overall, the string ostinatos below punchy brass and my least favourite of all Sugiyama staples, the drum kit, just make for a standard-sounding piece that lacks urgency or surprise.

The next section is a bore as well. It is so rigid in its rhythmic makeup that it loses urgency more quickly than the last section did. It is repetitive, and the Tokyo Metropolitan here seems to be making no efforts to do anything with the dynamics. They seem uninterested with the music again, and the piece suffers for it. The one fun thing about this piece is that it ends on a very long downward brass-glissandi. It's a fun sound to hear, no doubt about that. (4/10)

9) Gloomy Cavern ~ Dungeon Waltz ~ Atmosphere of Death

Dungeon themes, having to do with gloom and doom and unease should, in theory, be dull musically. But Sugiyama has repeatedly made these tracks among the most enjoyable. Think of Dragon Quest IV's, V's and especially VII's. They were among the best tracks of their albums. Then Sugiyama started developing these Dungeon themes into something a bit less interesting. The opening material sounds almost like a Funeral theme before the piece turns into a series of random musical statement, usually by the strings (occasionally reinforced by the brass). This kind of writing has its roots in Dragon Quest VI's Dungeon theme, but that one was a success because Sugiyama was being very harmonically adventurous using many dissonances as well as daring in the orchestrations. In this one, we have strings pretty much by themselves.

The next section is very lovely and helps the piece tremendously. "Dungeon Waltz" is delicate and contains some interesting chromatic embellishments on an otherwise straight-forward melody. It is rhythmically varied enough to hold attention. If it has a fault, it is that Sugiyama doesn't do much with the orchestrations, but here he doesn't have to: he's given himself a long, flowing melody, and it would be wrong to break it up among different instruments. The next section is a bit like the first and about as interesting. It does contain one interesting effect: 'whimpering' horns. They literally sound like they are weeping or something. Then the piece becomes rigid with a string ostinato giving way to some of Sugiyama's favourite jazzy, registrally expansive chords in the strings.

While the Tokyo Metropolitan seems to be rather uninspired by the bookend sections, they do lavish the waltz section with emotion and beauty... unfortunately, that section is by far the shortest. (5/10)

10) Gathering Place ~ Altar of Change ~ Sadness of the Heart

This threw me off at first: it is the Overture theme, being expanded by the use of an almost fugal texture. It's rich in counterpoint, something that has been missing from the music in pretty much the entire Symphonic Suite up until this point. Unfortunately, which is a word I've used far too many times already in this review, it is still just the Overture theme which many of us have come to hate because it has been so over-exhausted over the years. There is a lovely violin cadenza functioning as a transition between sections. It is pretty much just a lovely show-offy section, and I can't fault it for that because it is still beautiful to listen to and shows absolute technical prowess of the violinist of the Tokyo Metropolitan.

Then, in a seemingly out-of-place turn, the next section takes over, and it confuses me: It begins the same as a melody from Dragon Quest VIII before branching into some new material. Is it meant to be an extension of the original material or is it just lazy new material that unintentionally retreads another piece by Sugiyama? I don't know, but it shows, once again, that Sugiyama can present a beautiful melody and let it fail by not doing anything interesting with it. The next section is standard Funeral music for Dragon Quest, in the same vein as Dragon Quest II's "Requiem," with strings playing at a single dynamic level, without much musical interest.

The Tokyo Metropolitan again wins brownie points for having such fabulous soloists, but overall, this track contains three sections that don't seem to have any business occupying the same medley, and none of them are particularly interesting, for their own reasons. The Tokyo Met seems bored with the final section, too prickly and rigid in the first section, decent in the second section, and having way too much fun lavishing in the wonderful violin cadenza (the final point is not a fault, though). (5/10)

11) Sandy's Theme ~ Sandy's Tears ~ Sandy's Theme

If you've read my other reviews of Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, you should know by now that I find Sugiyama's usage of the drum kit to be just horrendous: it's like he's trying to use a gimmick to inject 'fun' and rhythmic urgency into his pieces. Well, poor Sandy has a lot of drum kit. In fact, the drum kit tends to dominate, although that could be the fault of the performance. The melody, I'll just say, contains the same problem I've had with many melodies of this album — it's similar in its tone, however, to Dragon Quest II's "Town" theme. A brief, somewhat solemn middle section for oboe solo offers very little respite from the overly bright and cheery bookends.

The Tokyo Metropolitan gives an inconsistent performance. Not necessarily bad, but in the beginning section, they are so bright and charming sounding and technically, rhythmically, etc., spot-on. In the middle section, they seem to really be pushing and pulling the phrases around, making it rather beautiful, but it doesn't seem to fit with the plucky and precise nature of their playing in the other sections. (4/10)

12) Pathway to Good Fortune ~ Cathedral of Emptiness

Ah, here we are at the final dungeon theme, or so I assume because of the tone and placement on the album. While writing this review, certain issues that I couldn't place before become nameable, and one that I am definitely having with this track is that it lacks structure. It doesn't seem to have any kind of flow to it: it's all just washes of dissonant, occasionally beautiful strings. The atmosphere is bleak, but at times, it is incredibly lovely or unsettling, and it is at these moments in the piece that it is at its best. But unfortunately, these points, as I said, don't seem to be connected. They exist, and nondescript string textures exist between them, but there's not much of a sense of unity. I think I've driven that point home, so why I don't I get to the next section of this medley.

It is the same theme with different orchestrations. The orchestrations remind me a tad of the dungeon theme from Dragon Quest III. Expansive yet soft strings, punchy and dissonant brass chords and quirky clarinet figures. It creates an interesting atmosphere. Who would have thought that one of the most bleak pieces on the album could give such intrigue?

The Tokyo Metropolitan plays this as it is written: they revel in the beautiful and the dark moments, but they don't seem to know what to do in between, with the result being a loss in direction of the piece, as I said before. But it is still comforting to feel through the speakers that the performers aren't just playing the notes: they're feeling them, for the most part. (7/10)

13) Final Battle

Sugiyama's final battle themes are wildly inconsistent. Dragon Quest IV, though it seems to be a fan-favourite (if I've done my homework correctly), left me uninterested. VI's were downright brutal in the best of ways. VIII's was thoroughly enjoyable in its usage of thematic material in a completely different guise. How does this one fare? Not well, I'm afraid. The beginning is absolutely promising, with pounding percussion and ominous brass chords followed by the Sugiyama staple: descending glissandi. After that, the drum kit comes in and diminishes any chance of the piece being threatening. That skittish little drum kit makes it sound almost playful and jazzy when the rest of the piece seems to be threatening. We are given the typical Sugiyama brass clusters he's used over and over again, and rightly so because they are very effective, but the drums undermine it.

And then Sugiyama gives us a kind of interplay between the "Angelic Land" theme and the "Overture" theme. It's at least interesting to hear the two interact since they are both very important for this particular entry in the Dragon Quest series, but they, too, break the mood. That is my biggest problem with this piece: it cannot decide whether or not it wants to wink out at the listener and say, "this is fun," or whether it wants to sound heroic, or whether it wants to sound oppressive and threatening. And also, the piece pretty much repeats verbatim before the end: no variation, just a clean repeat. It would have been interesting to hear how Sugiyama may vary his material. Do you remember when he used the "Evil World" theme in Dragon Quest VI's final battle theme as a kind of rhapsody for bassoon solo? There's nothing like that here. Just a brief strings-cadenza consisting of scales and arpeggios. The final note is even dissatisfying. I have grown weary of those huge, wailing brass chords that Sugiyama has ended too many of his battle themes with, but I would even welcome those over what we get: a brief trombone blast.

The Tokyo Metropolitan, unlike the last track, sound like they're finally just playing the notes. The beginning is truly threatening, but then they back off, and it becomes stale playing. OK, that's probably a bit harsh, but it sure doesn't sound like they're really getting into it (and, if you've heard other Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites performed by them, you'll know what it means when they 'get into it.' Just listen to the last several minutes of VIII's glorious final battle theme). (6/10)

14) Journey to the Star-Filled Skies ~ Defender of the Star-Filled Skies

Ending themes are usually always hits with Sugiyama. They keep getting better and better, well, until Dragon Quest VI when he reached his peak. But even after that, he consistently delivered emotional and rousing finishes to his Symphonic Suites. Therefore, in a way, this was probably my most anticipated track on the album. I listened to it cautiously the first time because of all that had come before, and I listened to it again and again to know what exactly it made me feel: Good. It may not be up to the ridiculously high standards Sugiyama has set with his ending themes (even Dragon Quest VIII had a spectacular finish worthy of the price of the whole album... almost).

A very fantastical beginning for flute and harp brings in our favourite recurring melody of this album, "Angelic Land." There seem to be some subtle harmonic differences between this statement and its first statement on the album. It varies tone from longing to cheerful seamlessly before brass comes in to get you all roused up. Then comes elegant string writing in the way that only Sugiyama can write, with interesting orchestrations (finally), such as the melodic material being transferred between wind instruments. A rather unexpected outburst of percussion and brass ushers in a new section that is thoroughly exciting. This is the best track on the album, hands down (although, unfortunately, that's not too great of an accomplishment considering what preceeded), and perhaps a step below Dragon Quest VII's "Triumphal Return ~ Epilogue," but still not close to the greatness of Dragon Quest VI's "Eternal Lullaby," nor Dragon Quest VIII's "Sky, Ocean and Earth."

The performance by the Tokyo Metropolitan is polished, yet emotional. This is the kind of playing I had come to expect from the London Philharmonic, back when they were Sugiyama's go-to orchestra for these suites, and it is great to hear them sound so bright and enthusiastic with a composer whose music they've performed many times. Bravo. (9/10)


This is going to sound like a sharp contrast after I just praised the final track of this album, but, overall, I was very disappointed by this album. In this review, I tried to make a point of comparing the pieces of the Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite with comparable pieces from other Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites. The purpose being a rather sad one, for me: This is the first Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite that I find such little merit in that it carries no recommendation from me. One track is pretty great, and another is pretty good; that's about it. I pointed out that every piece that has a counterpart in another Symphonic Suite has been done much, much better before in those previous installments. If you own Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites III through VII, and that may even extend to the other three, then you have no reason to purchase this one.

Sugiyama has written so many great melodies that you would think he could write them in his sleep, and perhaps this is what the result would be if he tried that: characteristically Sugiyama-melodies without any of the punch or surprise that I loved so much about his previous installments. His orchestrations, which almost took the front seat in III through VII making those installments wonderful to behold, are severely lacking in creativity. His bouncy melodies are given to the high winds, with simple rhythmic string accompaniment. The violins get the long, dramatic melodies, etc., etc., etc. The writing is very idiomatic for the instrumental groups, perhaps to a fault, making them predictable. Remember in Dragon Quest VIII when he brought in a harp and string combo in the middle of a battle theme? You'll find nothing that shocking here.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra is a great orchestra. I've heard them tackle Sugiyama's music before with incredible ease and emotion, but here, they just wander through the music seemingly without feeling except for a handful of pieces (among them some of the better pieces on the album). All of these points lead me to the final conclusion that I would not recommend this particular Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite.

Overall Score: 4/10