Dark Cloud’s sequel, Dark Chronicle (or Dark Cloud 2 in the US) brought along with it a pretty standard RPG soundtrack: I’d say, in a few words, that it was above the quality of the average RPG OST, but not spectacular. But, as we all know, a solid arrangement featuring real instruments and musical elaboration can make a good song great!
Whoever came up with the great idea of doing an album like Dark Chronicle Premium Arrange deserves a medal and lots of money. What we have here is a collection of some of Dark Chronicle’s best tracks, newly arranged by some of VGM’s most prominent composers. Take a look at who we have working on this CD: Mitsuda, Shimomura, Iwadare, and more! And who would’ve thought the Black Mages (a collection of Square’s best and brightest, known for their Final Fantasy battle arrangements) would make a surprise appearance and do a killer boss battle theme?
Really though, I think that this album deserves the attention of a track-by-track review, since we have so many different artists bringing their own wonderful styles to the table. That said, allow me to start with the opening track, which is the opening theme for Dark Chronicle.
For this piece, Yasunori Mitsuda invites Eri Kawai to add some unique vocal work, and Gen Nagahara to do some of the best percussion you’ve heard in weeks. Auxiliary percussion, especially in common time (4/4), needs to have a lot of rhythmic complexity to be interesting: and Nagahara pulls through. The sample provided only gives the first part of the song, and as the song goes through the same melodies a second time, Nagahara’s drumming gets even more fast and furious, and it is wildly addictive. As for Kawai’s nasal vocals, which must have been recorded over five or six times to create the harmonies Mitsuda desired, I didn’t like them the first time I heard them, but they do tend to grow on you. The style and sound produced is very similar to that of Yoko Ueno, who has worked with Mitsuda on Xenogears: CREID and Miki Higashino on the Genso Suikoden arranged album “Orrizonte”. Considering the vocals and the percussion are the *only* instruments on this track, the result is pretty impressive indeed. This is one of my new favorites from Mitsuda.
The next track is the first of two tracks arranged by one Shinji Hosoe, head of SuperSweep, and an extraordinary composer/arranger in the field of trance/techno. I realize that many VGM fanatics have overlooked Hosoe because they simply due not like the style, but it works surprisingly well with Nishiura’s original melodies from Dark Chronicle. “Moonflower Palace” is now arranged with some ambient piano, the standard driving percussion, some unique sound effects, and some breaks featuring arpeggios across the board. This track is beautiful.
Moving on to what I feel may be the only letdown on the CD, Motoi Sakuraba takes a crack at one of the darker, moodier pieces from the game. I have to admit, I haven’t been the very enthusiastic about Sakuraba’s compositions since the glorious days of Star Ocean: The Second Story, so maybe it’s just my bias shining through, but I generally do not enjoy listening to this track. If you know Sakuraba, you should already know what to expect on this track: large brassy horns, drums out the wazoo, a flashy guitar solo, and a calm break somewhere in the middle featuring voice synths. The result is nice, but compared to the rest of the album, I’m not entirely impressed. Of course, if you’re a Sakuraba fan, you’ll vehemently disagree with me, and this may be your favorite track on the album. The point is, it’s more Motoi on this track than I can handle.
Yoko Shimomura, along with the recording aid of Matsueda’s side-kick, Takahito Eguchi, pulls out a piece that more than anything reminds me of Mitsuda’s work in Xenogears. “Sun” has more energetic auxiliary percussion, a simple piano line looping in the background, plenty of synthesized vocals (including one that sounds like it came straight out of Super Metroid’s Norfair: women on beat two going “awh!”), and some bagpipe-ish instrument carrying the melody at some points. Later in the piece, a drum loop picks up to give the song more of a techno-feel, and its placement is just perfect. This song is well-produced, and I didn’t expect something of this style and this quality from Shimomura: then again, we hadn’t heard from Shimomura since Kingdom Hearts, so she’s had some time to rest and come back with some fresh, new sounds.
Noriyuki Iwadare, I believe, was born with castanets in his hands. He knows where to put the castanets in any piece, but they are especially fitting in a tango. Much of the credit already belongs to Nishiura for writing a fairly catchy tango piece, but Iwadare takes it to the next level: everything that makes you think “Iwadare”: all those catchy tunes from Lunar and Grandia, they’re back! Packed into this one arrangement are some of Iwadare’s best trademark sounds and musical ideas. This piece is outstanding: probably one of my favorites on the album.
Kenji Ito, a true VGM veteran, arranges tracks six and eight: both are slow, both have piano as the feature instrument, both have synth strings, and both are beautiful. Ito has a way of making a hum-drum piece very beautiful and expressive. Yes, I think “expressive” is the keyword in describing Ito’s slower works, and such expression is key to the beauty we hear in these two tracks. Between the two, I think track eight is slightly more appealing, likely because of its more interesting chordal structure. Regardless, Ito is the one who takes the fast-paced action of DC Premium Arrange and slows it down, giving us all that much-needed chance to breathe after whirling with Mitsuda, bouncing with Hosoe, and doing the tango with Iwadare.
I almost forgot to mention track seven, Shimomura’s second track on the album. “Flower Garden” begins with some sound clips of birds chirping; and then we are treated to some piano and music box to carry the whole piece. A violin is added to bring out a beautiful melody. A harp also joins the mix, then after the first time through the melody, various soft percussion is added. When the melody takes a turn for a new musical phrase, flutes and recorders take the center stage. Shimomura brings us the disc’s third (and perhaps best) slow song on the album.
With an introduction reminiscent of that ridiculous rock song from Final Fantasy X, the Black Mages dish out a somewhat-simplistic but ultimately catchy rendition of Flame Demon Monster Guiltoni. The solo guitar is great, the drums are tight, and the synths fill in where fill-in is required. Don’t tell anybody, because a mob of FF and JDK Band fanboys might break my teeth, but I’m actually not the world’s biggest fan of these sort of “hard rock” arrangements. For what it is, however, it is top-notch. If you buy this album, you will probably love this track much more than the others.
Sakuraba comes back to redeem himself on track ten, this time arranging another piece with the word “Dark” in it. It’s already a strange, even atonal piece: but Sakuraba’s style seems to work better on this one. We have a change in rhythm at one point that is just too much fun for musicians like myself to try and decode, and the never-ending, pounding drums have your brain shaking before the one-minute mark has even been reached. And, at a good 5.5 minutes, this piece doesn’t disappoint. As I said earlier, I haven’t been impressed by Sakuraba for a long time now, but I have to admit that this piece is a very, very good one, and I think any VGM fan can appreciate it, regardless of their personal sentiments toward Sakuraba.
If Iwadare’s first arrangement isn’t my favorite track on the CD, this one is. Opening with an entrancing riff incorporating all sorts of mallet/pitched percussion (marimba, xylophone), then moving into the piece itself, featuring more beautiful synths and various dynamic changes throughout, this piece might be the best one. This song is actually nothing more than the original theme from the first Dark Cloud game, ported over to the second game to be used in a track called “Demon”. Well, regardless of the name, this song is generally bright and happy. The feeling I get when I hear this piece is a desire for adventure, along with some nostalgia for the days when low-end graphical RPGs were all we had, and our imaginations did the work from there. Oh my goodness, this song is just too good, and Iwadare really outdid himself on this track; it’s just too good for words. And of course, the castanets make the occasional appearance, just in case you were beginning to forget that this one is Noriyuki Iwadare material.
Dark Chronicle had an ending vocal piece entitled “Time is changing”, and there were three versions of it on the OST. Shinji Hosoe takes what was once a very bland vocal track and turns it into a happy-go-lucky, techno-rave extravaganza. People that doubted Hosoe will simply have to recant when hearing this fun-loving piece. It’s typical dance techno, but there’s something special that happens in the piece: when Hosoe reaches the chorus, some sort of wacky voice-patch was used to duplicate the vocalist from the original version: the syllables are in large part incoherent, but the effect sounds like a magic robot from the land of the brown-sugar-and-cinnamon pixies. You cannot help but fall in love with this piece, which clocks in at over six minutes!
I had a bear of a time picking and choosing which songs to sample, and I apologize that I didn’t sample any Sakuraba or the Black Mages track: I guess you’ll just have to buy the CD yourself to hear it, which is what I strongly suggest you do. This is one of the best arranged CDs I’ve heard in years, and it has in a very real way renewed my love for some of the great VGM composers out there. This soundtrack also proves that the great composers are also solid arrangers: Nishiura should feel flattered that the original work got ported over to these magnificent songs. Don’t miss out on this one: pick it up before it’s too late!