Yasunori Mitsuda Myth: The Xenogears Orchestral Album

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The list of memorable soundtracks, in my opinion, is a short one. Many times they’re haphazardly thrown together with a few big name bands writing a few original compositions in order to cash-in on some lame movie. I suppose there might be some correlation between how commercial a piece of art is and how awful the soundtrack will be. The more artsy the film, the more likely you’ll find a decent soundtrack.

Think more Rushmore and less Twilight, and you’ll get my point.

A good soundtrack reminds you why you loved the source material in the first place, and it’s no different in the case of video games. Yasunori Mitsuda (the second greatest video game composer of all time behind Nobuo Uematsu) has put together his fair share of memorable tunes, and his work for Xenogears–the 1997 PlayStation RPG in which the final boss you kill is God–is arguably his greatest work. There isn’t a bad song among the 40+ tracks that comprise the original soundtrack.

Xenogears, as a game and a series of soundtracks, is an anomaly. The game itself dealt heavily with religious themes that largely made no sense at all, and it eventually inspired a series of prequels that led nowhere. The music from the game is undeniably brilliant–so brilliant in fact, that it spawned not one but two arranged albums. 1998’s Creid was yet another odd excursion into genre exploration (the first being 1995’s Chrono Trigger Arranged Version: The Brink of Time which was some weird collection of jazz, fusion and awful) that felt more like an exercise in world rhythms than a proper arranged album. The second arranged album, Myth, is more along the lines of a traditional arranged album and it delivers almost impossibly some 13 years after Creid was released.

The fact that Myth even exists is an anomaly; how often does an arranged album pop up some 15 years after a game’s release? Answer: never (if I’m wrong, please enlighten me in the comments section below). But here it is, with all the bells and whistles of a properly orchestrated arranged album. They’ve selected the best tracks from the original soundtrack in my opinion save for the brilliant “Blue Traveler”–but you can’t have everything in life. The arrangements themselves are sharp and poignant; “Cage of Remorse and Relief” is a brilliant vocal rendition of the original’s “In a Prison of Remorse and Contentment” (why they have different titles is beyond me), and just as nearly breathtaking is the opener “Dark Dawn” which devotees will remember is the song played during the opening FMV.

As soon as I gleefully trudged through every last second of its 53 minute and 11 second run-time, I immediately booted up my copy of Xenogears, but I soon learned that the game itself is better left as a memory. I’m older now, and I probably don’t have 60+ hours to devote to a video game that I’ve already played, but if I’m feeling nostalgic I can blast Myth from my car speakers and remember fondly what it was like to be 17 again.

Grade: A

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The Passion’s Gone: R.E.M.

When I was young and full of grace
and spirited, a rattlesnake.

– “I Believe”, R.E.M.

R.E.M. has been a thing of the past for nearly 15 months now and any time I hear one of their albums it still seems a bit sad to me.  It’s not as if there was a death in the family, but it seems like a part of me died with them.  As many people who listened to them, I was in my formative years when I first heard their music.  I remember a vivid night as I looked out at all the small houses below while standing on a mountainside park with a girl I knew at the time, thinking of “Nightswimming”.  I remember spending an entire summer listening solely to Automatic for the People, part of the time trying to decipher the chorus to “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, part of the time learning how to play “Find the River” on guitar.  I remember listening to “Fall on Me” and actually feeling that this world won’t last forever, that we are destroying it one tree at a time.  And I remember playing “Country Feedback” over and over again one night around 4AM, each playback hitting me harder than the last.  “Crazy what you could have had.”

R.E.M. was so ingrained within the culture of my youth, both as a popular act and as a comfort during my own introspective moments that without them, it seems that that youth is now, officially, over.  There is no fall back anymore.

However, if I am honest with myself, R.E.M. stopped being R.E.M. a long time ago.  Their string of success lasted for an absurdly long time given how out of place they were with the musical culture through most of it.  For starters, you could hardly understand their lead singer in their first few albums.

Case in point:

As time went on, they gained a cult following through their work on the independent label, I.R.S.  This included a nearly unparalleled string of successes, each album a bit different than the last.  Lifes Rich Pageant was clear statement on environmentalism, while Document was more geared towards the politics of the working class.  On and on they went, until they finally switched over to a major label, Warner Bros., leaving people skeptical.

The 90s for R.E.M. started with Out of Time, which was a good, but not great album.  It had “Losing My Religion”, which I honestly cannot stand any more.  It also had “Shiny Happy People”, which to this day I believe is some kind of deeply ironic statement on something.  I just don’t know what.

Then came, in my opinion, their best album, Automatic for the People.  The album was centered on mortality.  Dark, morose ballads were the centerpiece of this group of songs.  As a popular album from a majorly popular rock band in 1992, Automatic for the People was a bold release.  Think about it.  1992 was when grunge exploded, Kurt Cobain hadn’t killed himself, U2 was on their Zoo TV tour, and electric guitars and defiance was at the epicenter.  R.E.M.  went completely in the opposite direction.  And it worked.  It was that rare album that sold millions, yet also was deeply personal to each listener.  The last three songs (“Man on the Moon”, “Nightswimming”, and “Find the River”) are still the best group of closing songs I’ve ever heard on an album.

From there on, the group shifted again to two rocking albums: Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi.  Of the two, the latter is the one to invest in.  However, the latter was also the last with the whole band.  Bill Berry, the band’s drummer, left after the conclusion of the following tour.

But the band played on.

Instead of continuing in the same musical vein, they shifted again to a more electronic, quiet sound.  This led to Up, Reveal, and Around the Sun.  And after Around the Sun failed spectacularly, they finally took a step back to find their well worn bag of tricks.  This led to two good, but only good, albums: Accelerate and Collapse into Now.  Both played the nostalgia factor to perfection.  Neither had a new idea to speak of.

And then it was over.

In looking back, after Bill Berry left, the band was never the same.  The edge was gone.  The moment was gone.  R.E.M. was over before the band knew it.  Band’s have a shelf life and R.E.M.’s lasted from 1980-1996.  It was a great run.  Their last moment of relevance was the last lyric on “Electrolite”, the closing song on New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

Your eyes are burnin’ holes through me
I’m not scared
I’m outta here

– “Electrolite”, R.E.M.

Should this Man be Arrested: Bruce Springsteen

“Should this Man be Arrested?” is an on-going feature that examines the minds of various songwriters through their lyrics. As lyrics are always 100% literal translations of a songwriter’s thoughts, we believe we can use lyrical snippets to answer the following simple, yet crucial, question: should this man be arrested?

Subject:

Bruce Springsteen – just your regular run of the mill American blue-collar middle-class multimillionaire, aka “The Boss”

Evidence:

“From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska with a sawed-off .410 on my lap
through to the Badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path.”

“Nebraska” (from Nebraska)

Thoughts:

I’m conflicted.  At first, it’s obvious.  The man is guilty.  He states outright that he “killed everything in my [his] path”.  Seems like case closed and job well done.  But then, when looking in detail things get a bit trickier.  Springsteen is driving through the heartland of America, namely Nebraska.  The first question you need to ask yourself now is…have you ever been to Nebraska?  I have.  Let me tell you, it’s a tough place to NOT kill everything in your path.  I mean if he were on a rampage in California or Boston or New York then sure, lock him up and throw away the keys.  But, after keeping in mind human decency, how can you expect someone driving through Nebraska to NOT lose their minds and kill everything.  I’m not condoning murder of any sort, but I’m human too…and I understand.

Verdict:

Innocent.  He may have killed everything in his path from Nebraska to Wyoming, but this is Nebraska and Wyoming.  Besides, how many people would actually be in his path in these areas.  Who even lives there?  And once again, we’re talking about Bruce Freaking Springsteen here.  Are we really saying after making “Born in the USA” he can’t go on a weekend killing bender and not still be the heartbeat of America.  I think not.  That’s not the America I believe in.

Also, it was Nebraska.  I rest my case.

Is It Still Any Good: Bush “Swallowed”

“Is It Still Any Good?” is an on-going feature dedicated to examining pop-culture artifacts in order to determine if they still have any sort of relevance in the present day.

“Swallowed”

Remember Bush? Apologies for stirring up bad memories, but I was up late last night trudging through YouTube in a nostalgic and masochistic mood and I stumbled upon a few of their old videos so now you will have to feel my pain. Accept it. The year was 1996, and Bush was already lame. Their first album made me hate Nirvana as much as Nirvana made me like Nirvana. Now two years removed from their first abortion, Bush–for reasons unknown–decided to release a sophomore effort even more esoteric and alien than its predecessor.

I suppose if you’re going to rip-off a hugely-successful band, you may as well go all out. It’s remarkable how similar “Swallowed”–the lead single from Razorblade Suitcase (Jesus, seriously?)–sounds like the genre-defining “Heart-Shaped Box” from In Utero except that “Swallowed” eschews drums entirely during the verses in order to one-up Nirvana’s formula by way of some retarded pop-song derivative calculus.

The lyrics are really the high point here. Gavin Russdale Rashdale Rushdie, bless his heart, never quite grasped the concept of surrealism, and as a result listeners are forced to decipher lyrics that literally make no sense whatsoever (remember “Glycerine”?). Reading Gavin Rushdie’s lyrics gives me the impression that listening to him speak would be like listening to a martian approximate what it thinks English sounds like.

So, is it still any good?

It’s a question without an answer. It wasn’t good to start with.

Bob Dylan, Tempest

Tempest

With every new Bob Dylan album comes a rearrangement of his oeuvre in order from greatest to worst. Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and eleventh-hour classics like “Love and Theft” and Time Out of Mind rank high on any half-assed best of list and so the question must be asked: where does Dylan’s latest opus rank among his highly-venerated past?

The answer is sorta tricky. Tempest is his late-period Desire–a would-be contender held back by a few missteps. There are a lot of great moments on Tempest; at its best it’s a slightly more focused iteration of Modern Times, however, at its worst it’s Dylan on auto-pilot trudging through tired cliches while occasionally delivering the classic one-line zinger hipster-neophytes and old-timers alike adore.

Dylan’s greatest late-period album may be Time Out of Mind–and oddly enough Tempest makes a strong case for it. Produced by Daniel Lanois, Time Out of Mind featured a word-weary grittiness that perfectly meshed with Dylan’s scowl and bitter odes to love gone wrong, and while every album after Time Out of Mind has found Dylan rummaging through the same old-timey, washed-out, blues-tinged song cycles, they simply haven’t matched Time Out of Mind’s gloriously triumphant sad-bastard sonic landscapes.

There’s a certain Phil Spector-esque sheen that has pervaded Dylan’s work ever since 2001’s “Love and Theft”; the end result sounds a little too clean; a little too polished. The late-night-dive-bar murkiness that defined much of Time Out of Mind has long since been eradicated in favor of a cleaner, brighter, sometimes hard-rocking, but ultimately suffocating sound that sounds more like a static template for Dylan to ramble on about topics ranging from crazy women to John Lennon to–of all things–the Titanic.

Tempest is at its best when Dylan puts on his best Dirty Harry impersonation and calls for bloodshed–but not his own. The rocking numbers (basically every odd-numbered song on the album) are truly great; it’s the ballads that drag. The album’s even-numbered tracks fail to reach the seemingly impossible heights of classics like “Not Dark Yet” and “When the Deal Goes Down” while the “Desolation Row”-esque title track falls short of its 14-minute plus ambitions.

While the first half provides a few memorable numbers, Tempest remains a curiously innocuous album that finds Dylan further settling in to his late-period formula of vintage old-timey sound, trading rockers with ballads through a 10-song cycle largely devoted to the same themes he’s been harping about since 1997. Dylan’s raspy, angry vocals are as raspy and angry as ever; it’s just a shame the songs themselves lack any sort of bite.

Grade: B –