I loathe multi-volume soundtrack nonsense. It makes sense if the game itself is being developed and published over time, but if you release one PS2 game in 2003, you don’t get to span your soundtrack across two volumes.
Unless, of course, you do just that, presumably to make more money. It’s nonsense though! Who in their right mind only wants one of the two volumes? If you like the Drag-on Dragoon (or “Drakengard”) soundtrack, you want the whole thing, not just one half divided at the game’s chronological midpoint.
Fortunately, Square Enix decided to rectify this problem. The old prints, released by Marvelous Entertainment in 2003, were long out of print and out of stock wherever you’d look. And, after NieR’s musical success in 2010, S-E had reason to help jog fans’ memories of the franchise’s musical heritage. And so it came to pass that, with this reprint, both volumes would come together as one full OST.
And there was much rejoicing.
Now, beyond this point, it would be easy enough for me to refer to our old reviews of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by my friend Luc (aka “Dragon God”), and be done with it. But a full 12 years have passed since Drag-on Dragoon was published and a slow-growing franchise was born. I think it’s time to take a good, hard look and listen to the strange and wonderful soundscape created by Aihara, Sano, and the folks they sampled with the help of Tokyo New City Orchestra.
Yes, I said “sampled.” You see, Takayuki Aihara and Nobuyoshi Sano were Sampling Masters. Don’t believe me? See for yourself: they even operated under that name alongside Shinji Hosoe and Ayako Saso in the ’90s for the Ridge Racer series, and the four of them went on to produce a series of original “sampling masters” albums. They were, and are, experts at taking audio of any kind and turning it into strange and new forms of music.
But while these past works generally used ambient audio, vocals, and solo instrumentals as raw “samples” to create new music, Aihara and Sano set out on an ambitious project to use large orchestral works by some of the greatest composers from the late 1700s to the early 1900s to create something incredibly new and different. See the list of composers above? Besides Aihara and Sano, the list of composers are the long-dead masters of classical, romantic, impressionist, and early modern symphonic orchestra. A non-exhaustive list of sampled works throughout this OST include: Debussy’s “La Mer,” Mozart’s “Figaro,” Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” “Nutcracker Suite,” “1812 Overture,” Wagner’s “Gotterdämmerung” and “Flight of the Valkyrie,” Holst’s “The Planets,” Dvorák’s “From The New World” symphony, and Bartók’s “The Miraculous Mandarin.” That’s some wild and exciting work. Most of it is perfect for the dark, absurdist setting of the Drakengard universe. I can’t help but wonder if Yosuke Saito and the other visionaries for Drakengard hand-picked some of these orchestral works for Aihara and Sano to use.
The process worked as follows: Aihara and Sano selected small portions of music from each of these works, and then asked the Tokyo New City Orchestra to record them. After receiving the recordings, the duo would sample these fragmented recordings, doing as they saw fit to them, creating insane cacophonies and somehow turning minimalism into a complex experience.
And then, you hear it in the game and your brain explodes.
Let me clarify that last bit of hyperbole. Normally, when we talk about “brain exploding,” we mean that the amount of sheer pleasure and goodness from whatever multimedia we’re describing is mind-blowing. Not in this case. I’m not saying the music can’t be enjoyable. At times, it is. What I do mean is that it is overwhelming to the senses. For some of the orchestral pieces, the original works were already overwhelming; dizzying, even. Whatever powers those pieces had, Aihara and Sano (usually, more Aihara than Sano) would take the essence of those pieces, their climactic moments, and then loop those portions up against rhythmic repetitive sections from earlier in the work, or from another orchestral work entirely! Warning: may induce headaches, or even mild vertigo.
It’s not all bombast, mind you. There are plenty of softer, more ambient tracks (check out Fourth Chapter – Sky as an example). Generally, Sano (who wrote 4th-Sky) handles the softer stuff, and Aihara does the wild stuff. But in any case, regardless of how much intensity a track possesses or lacks, they all have this in common: when a sampled orchestra is cut off at the end of a measure only to have itself repeated, and you don’t let the instruments’ timbre/reverb/echo naturally fade, it sounds like someone is turning off your stereo every 2 seconds, only to put another song on simultaneously. This is, truly, the most jarring thing about the soundtrack: precious few sounds resolve naturally. It’s like playing spoken word in reverse: the usual hard start and soft trailing is then turned into a weird fade-in followed by a hard drop. It feels wrong, somehow, to the point where very real people I’ve met believe that listening to any kind of reverse audio is an evil, Satanic practice. (No, I am not kidding.)
If those fundamentalist acquaintances of mine are right, however, it’s interesting to note that these sampling masters managed to pull off the demonic soundscape without resorting to reversed audio, human voice or otherwise. They just sampled some orchestra tracks, and suddenly the music was perfect for slaughtering hundreds of violent humanoid critters from the sky or on the ground.
Speaking of characters, how about those three special character chapters? There’s some great music accompanying these characters’ special sub-missions. Among them, I find myself most partial to “Arioch’s Strangeness” (both songs). She is a crazy, crazy woman, and her special subplot ending within the game is absolutely unforgettable. Aihara-san’s music accompanying her journey is spot on.
I would like to note, finally, my absolute favorite song here, the vocal closer. The game has five endings, the second of which is the “canon” ending that leads to Drakengard 2 (for the record, C leads to D which leads to E, and E leads to NieR). The canon ending credits music, “Exhausted,” is one of my all-time favorite vocal tracks. The fast 3/4 string repetition can get irritating, I’ll grant you that. But the vocal performance and the mixing of said vocals? Brilliant, I say! Absolutely brilliant!
Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that up to 2003, no one had done this kind of music for games before. And I’m pretty sure no one’s done it since. Not across a full OST, in any case. There’s probably a good reason for that! While this was a great idea on paper, something that definitely matched the entire aesthetic of the game, the end result is something that is, at times, unlistenable. I love this soundtrack, but even I cannot listen to the whole thing in one sitting anymore. Not without migraine medicine handy, just in case. There is something very academic and cerebral about the soundtrack as an exercise. And, even when it does evoke or provoke emotions, they are all on the side of anger, frustration, a sense of madness and futility. One can only wade in those waters for so long. This is one you’re more likely to “appreciate” than “enjoy” in the long run.