If you are a video game music aficionado, then you have very likely heard of Falcom. Falcom is the company responsible for the Ys series on the Turbo Duo console, which is famous for its music. The games used Redbook audio to yield CD quality sound and you could even put the game disc in your CD player to listen to the music. This format was ahead of its time. When most folks were enthralled by the MIDI blips and bleeps from the SNES's soundchip, Duo fans were enjoying CD quality audio in their RPGs.
Expertly composed, guitar driven hard rock is the dominant style of choice for the Ys games. Said style is not one you hear much in most RPG soundtracks, and even when present, it is the exception rather than the rule. I've been a fan of guitar-driven hard rock for a long time and am always tickled pink when I hear that type of music in RPGs, as long as it's well done.
There have been many Ys and Falcom soundtracks released over the years, many of which are difficult to find. One of the more readily available ones, as of this writing, is the "Falcom Classics" soundtracks for the Saturn game of the same title. The soundtrack features tunes from the games Xanadu, Dragon Slayer, and Ys. Of those games, Ys is the only one I have any familiarity with, and even then it's only a passing familiarity. I have never played a Ys game on the Duo and have only briefly played Ys and Ys 3 on the Sega Master System and Sega Genesis respectively. Therefore, I'm listening to this soundtrack outside of the context of the games and have no locations, events, or general nostalgia to associate the tunes to. So for someone wanting to get into Falcom music, how does this CD fare? It fares quite well, actually. In fact, while there is some nice guitar work in this album, there is a wide variety of other styles and instruments used throughout, making for a ve ry enjoyable album. The majority of tracks on the album are distinct, and thus the album never gets boring.
The following is a track by track analysis:
The CD comes out fighting with "Xanadu" performed by Anthem. It's a hard rock piece with a 1980s metal sound. Now, I know many of you think of the cheeseball hair-metal garbage when I say 1980s metal, but "Xanadu" doesn't give off that cheeseball vibe to me. I guess it's another case of the Japanese taking an American idea/concept and making it better. The vocalist has a decent singing voice, even if it is rather generic sounding and sometimes gets overpowered by the guitars. At least he doesn't screech or bark. Screeching or barking vocals are common in US hard rock and metal and often sound quite annoying to me. The middle of the song has a quieter interlude which offers a nice break from the overdriven guitars, which promptly return to finish off the song.
"La Valse Pour Xanadu," an instrumental piece performed by David Matthews is a wholly different flavor with a jazzy vibe. Trumpet and saxophone sounds are dominant in this track with a nice synthesizer beat in the background. There is a saxophone solo, a trumpet solo, and a guitar solo in this piece. While all are nicely done, the trumpet solo stands out the most. The trumpet has some kind of mute in it (a wah-wah mute perhaps?) and it gives the trumpet a very unique sound. The solo also goes into the upper register quite a bit, which I liked.
"Star Trader" is also an instrumental piece, and is performed by Keiichi Oku. This is one of my favorite pieces on the disc, and I find myself bobbing my head to it every time I hear it. It has a feel that reminds me of various action anime I've seen. The track has mostly keyboards and synthesizers playing the melody, and the guitar is used sparingly. However, whenever the guitar does come in, it's nicely blended. The guitar solo in this piece is interesting. It seems somewhat freeform without a dominant hummable melody, but does showcase some deft fingerwork.
"PrePrimer," performed by M-Fujisawa Pre-Project, is a very haunting piano piece. No frills, just a single piano. There is no filler in this piece, which allows it to breathe. It is a wonderful change of pace from the more involved tracks throughout the album. I don't have much more to say about Pre Primer except that it's good and I like it a lot.
"Go Fight" is another piece with a vocal and is performed by the JDK Band. It starts off slow, but soon the synthesized trumpet hook comes in. The piece has a synth-rock feel to it that I feel is distinctly Japanese. The guitars are not very prominent in this piece but are present. The vocalist has a rather generic sounding voice that sometimes gets overpowered by the instruments, but it's still better than screeching or barking. "Go Fight" is an appropriate title as the piece definitely had the "preparing for battle" feel.
"Provincialism Ys" is one track I have very mixed emotions about. Performed by JDK Dulk Factory, it is both brilliant and awful. This 15 minute track features a collage of various Ys melodies remixed and served over various techno and hip-hop beats. The melodies of the Ys music are expertly composed, but the techno and hip-hop beats in the background are too busy and often overpower the good stuff. Said backgrounds often sample cheesy and downright bad American pop music. For example, the repeated sampling of some annoyingly voiced hip-hop guy saying "YEEEEEAH BOYEEEEEE!" was very annoying and unnecessary. I would have much preferred having all those excellent Ys pieces served to me without all this extra mumbo jumbo. I want to hear Ys music; not overpowering background noise sampled from bad American pop. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy techno and hip-hop music, but in this track it was all wrong. There isn't much guitar in this piece, which was also very disappointing. To Provincialism's credit, it never loses its momentum and never gets boring over its 15 minute course. Bottom line: Good idea, bad execution.
Quiet Tower is a very classic sounding piece that I would definitely associate with a medieval RPG tower or cathedral. It starts out setting the scene but later evokes images of a hero bravely stepping forward to face the perils within. The strings and woodwinds sound great, but it's the parts when the brass instruments and horns come in that the piece just opens up and sounds larger than life.
"Kaaru Kyaresu" is performed by T. Terashita with the JDK E. Orchestra. This instrumental piece is very guitar driven and almost reminded me of the stylings of Iron Maiden. There are some keyboards in this piece, but they complement rather than oppose the guitars. There is little soloing, so the guitars are mostly distorted or overdriven. This piece was definitely rocking, and I was nodding my head to it.
"Lilia" was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and is easily the best track on the CD. Words cannot describe how much I love this piece. The piece has it all from a single flute and single oboe with intertwining melodies, to the bombast of layered brass and strings. There are many flavors in this piece and it almost seems to tell an epic story. This is one piece where if I played it blindly for music aficionados, no one would guess it was composed for a video game. Excellent excellent stuff. It must be heard to be believed.
After Lilia, there are five bonus tracks, which I believe are exclusive to the CD.
"Falcom Classics/ Game Select" is a very majestic piece whose instrumentation, featuring church bells and often sparkling synthesizers, brings about visions of a snowy kingdom . It's hard to imagine that such an excellent majestic piece is merely a game selection piece.
"Dragon Slayer/ Opening" is the next track and it has a very smooth sound. It starts off calm, like a village waking up, but once the drums come in, it's like the village comes to life bustling with the morning activities. A stray guitar lick finds its way into the smooth synth sound, but is quickly cut off by the 'calm' which I thought was a nifty way to get my attention.
"Dragon Slayer/ Field is an enjoyable piece. Flute and trumpet are the dominant instruments here and both sound very smooth. The flute dominated sections have a more traditional RPG feel while the trumpet dominated sections have an almost Spanish melody. The piece is definitely upbeat and brings to mind images of exploring the wide green fields on a sunny day.
"Dragon Slayer/ Ending" is a very triumphant sounding piece with classic RPG ending melodies. Flute and trumpet are the instruments of the day again, and are smooth. The background music complements the dominant melodies nicely. It definitely seems Dragon Slayer's music is fond of flute and trumpet sounds.
Capping off this soundtrack is "Falcom Classics/ Total Ending" which starts off with an Asian wooden flute over some modern sounds. The background is understated, letting the flute breathe. The piece soon hits a climax and we hear some distinct guitar sounds. I can't really describe the effects used on them, but they certainly were cool and the fingerwork was deft.
As a sidenote, I was not very able to discern the lyrics in the two vocal pieces ("Xanadu" and "Go Fight"), so I cannot comment on whether they were well-written or not. At first I thought to myself, "Wait a second, I understand some Japanese. I should be able to pick stuff out." But then I realized that I have trouble discerning the lyrics of many rock singers who sing in English, so I didn't feel so bad. However, "Go Fight" did have a noticeable amount of words sung in English, but I'm not sure how much sense they made in the context of the song.
So at the end of the day, Falcom Classics is a very enjoyable album. Even though "Provincialism Ys" wasn't a great track, it did not diminish my enjoyment of the album any, and I do recommend it to fans of good video game music. My only gripe (if you can even call it that) is that there wasn't enough guitar in this album for my tastes. I fell in love with Ys music because of the searing guitar work, and I didn't get enough of that. But even with the de-emphasis of guitars on this album, it's still great and is one video game soundtrack I listen to frequently. The music stands up wonderfully outside the context of the game. I'm sure there are better Falcom CDs, but many of them are out of print and may cost an arm and a leg on Ebay or other online auctions. So if you have yet to experience Falcom music, then this CD is a good place to start, since it is readily available from gamemusic.com and is only about $20 (as of this writing). So grab this CD while you can, befor e it goes out of print too. However, if you already have a sizeable Falcom music collection, there really isn't anything on Falcom Classics that you probably haven't heard already.
Reviewed by: Neal Chandran