Here’s an album that needs to live up to two different standards. First, since it is an arrangement of music from Phantasy Star Online, it needs to prove itself worthy of arranging such fine music. Secondly, since it is second in the “Premium Arrange” series (first being Dark Chronicle), it ought to have the sort of high-quality arrangements found on Dark Chronicle Premium Arrange. If you refer to my review of said soundtrack, you will notice that I absolutely adore that soundtrack.
So how does Phantasy Star Online Premium Arrange pan out in comparison to a stellar OST and another awesome arranged CD?
Unfortunately, this album was a true “hit-or-miss” soundtrack. Like the previous Premium Arrange, each song is arranged by a different well-known composer. However, unlike Dark Chronicle Premium Arrange, this soundtrack features a lot of the lesser-known composers (still big names, but not necessarily in the realm of RPGs). The biggest surprise, however, is that I’ve found that the lesser-known composers did a very impressive job and, in a few cases, really outdid the big names.
Though I could take the time to write out a track-by-track analysis of this CD, I believe it would be more appropriate to do an overall review, going deep into some tracks as I see fit.
For example, one needs to take some time to examine the opening track, arranged by Motoi Sakuraba with a vocal performance from Mio Sakuraba. Last time we saw the Motoi/Mio combination, it was on Star Ocean III: and it wasn’t the greatest song. However, this arrangement is a lovely and grandiose version of “The Whole New World”, and is in fact a redemption for Sakuraba from what I feel are some of his worst arrangements, the two songs he did on Dark Chronicle Premium Arrange. It’s a fair opening to the album, and everyone knows that a first impression counts for a lot.
Then, from here on out, the album is officially hit-or-miss, from track to track, and even within tracks. Shimomura and Ito, once Square-related giants composing such hit soundtracks as Legend of Mana and SaGa Frontier, put out mediocre work on tracks 7 and 12 (respectively). These arrangements are pretty, but no major improvement from the original tracks. In fact, I’d rather listen to the original version of “World With Me” than hear Ito’s arrangement. That’s usually a bad sign.
The boys of Sampling Masters (associated with SuperSweep) came to take on this album: unfortunately, the girl (Ayako Saso) couldn’t make it. Aihara, Sano, and Hosoe all put out some of their best (and most tonal) work yet on this album. While these three artists have found some measure of success in Japan, establishing a fairly large fanbase, many Americans loathe the style of music from these artists. Just for a refresher course, Aihara and Sano recently did the Drag-on Dragoon (a.k.a. Drakengard) OST, and Hosoe did the in-game music for Xenosaga II. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of those OSTs either. But let me tell you, I am in love with Aihara’s arrangement of “Silent Palace”, strangely attracted to Sano’s arrangement of “Jungle”, and mildly impressed with Hosoe’s work on Versus2. I actually sampled Aihara and Sano’s tracks, because I really thought they were doing something interesting. Silent Palace is moody/atmospheric with a fairly kickin’ drum loop. And Jungle? Well, Jungle is…you should probably just listen to it for yourself. Electronica-weirdness at its best, people.
The one composer that has never let me down, ever, continues to do fine work on this arrangement (though, again, I prefer his work on Dark Chronicle Premium Arrange). Noriyuki Iwadare busts out a jazzy groove on “Can Still See The Light” that, of course, makes me want to get up and dance. Don’t you want to dance when you hear Iwadare at his finest? I do. And this, my friends, may be the song that redeems the entire album. All those bland arrangements that I didn’t even care to talk about are left in the dust, and this fine song takes the cake for awesome arrangement.
The real disappointment, for me, was that a lot of the other “big names” in RPG music weren’t here. Sakimoto didn’t make it to the party, but two of the lesser-known members of his sound team Basiscape did make it: Iwata and Namiki. These arrangements are decent, but nothing like what I could imagine Sakimoto doing. And where is Mitsuda? Where is Hamauzu? Where is Miki Higashino (of Suikoden fame)? In my mind, these people could’ve replaced Furukawa (who founded Konami’s Kukeiha Club), Hiranuma, or Asai. I’m glad these smaller-named VGM composers had their crack at the bat with this arranged soundtrack, but the result was that this album didn’t sell as well as Dark Chronicle Premium Arrange, and that’s because, in the end, it is truly a lesser album.
And, as it compares to the OST, sometimes I think I’d rather just listen to the OST music than pull this CD out from the shelf. There are some interesting things happening on the arranged album, sure (I can’t emphasize enough how much I like what Sano did to “Jungle”!); but in the end, the OST is a much more consistent experience for the VGM lover.