In the past half-decade, there have been two different VGM concert series that compete for “top spot” in the niche market. One is “Video Games Live,” led by game music veterans Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall. The other, led by conductor Arnie Roth, is “PLAY! A Video Game Symphony.” The latter takes the more traditional, orchestral approach, whereas VGL is happy to include rock band ensembles and synth instrumentation alongside a choir and orchestra. Which is the greater venue? With the release of this CD, it will now be far easier for people to make this decision for themselves.
You see, the CD “Video Games Live Volume 1” was released awhile back, but Roth and crew had not followed suit with a recorded release of their own. But now, finally, the PLAY! CD is here. And I’ll make no bones about it: this album is quite good.
Like all its live performances, the CD opens with the PLAY! Opening Fanfare, an original piece of music composed by Nobuo Uematsu himself. After this piece is finished, and the applause dies down, the orchestra begins its 11-part descent into the history of game music. Indeed, if you look at the track order, it is fairly chronological in nature, starting with the true classics (Commodore 64 medley), going through the Sony-dominance era (PS1 and PS2), and right on to the MMORPGs that are still wildly popular today.
If you know your C64 tunes, you’ll love this 8 minute medley. If not, you may not see what’s so great about it. Regardless, the arrangements and performances on this track are excellent. Moving forward into the 8-bit era, we hear some classic Castlevania themes, decidedly distinct in performance when contrasted against VGL’s guitar-centric arrangements. Then, after a decent Sonic medley (featuring Spring Hill and Marble Zone themes, among others), we reach what is, sadly, the biggest letdown on the album. This Chrono Cross “medley” consists of two pieces, hurriedly transitioned, and lacking in rhythmic accuracy. They took the easiest and hardest songs from Chrono Cross and decided to perform them in succession (why Chrono Trigger wasn’t included in this recording is beyond my comprehension). The former is “Opassa Beach,” a piano piece where the orchestra serves as a simple, measure-by-measure harmonic background element. As soon as this performance is over, they rush into “Scars of Time,” the incredible (and incredibly difficult) opening song from Chrono Cross. They attempt to accurately perform one of Mitsuda’s most rhythmic pieces. And, sadly, they fail. It seems no one can get this right. A number of months ago I reviewed Michael “Piano Squall” Gluck’s album GAME, and he attempted a piano solo arrangement of Scars of Time. He, too, failed to accurately perform the piece in accordance with the rhythm Mitsuda designated for the piece. Here, I think the arrangement might be right, but the performers themselves continually trip on the difficult and frantic syncopation, even though it’s a simple common-time piece. A little more rehearsal would’ve gone a long way. This is the one great blemish I’ve found on an otherwise excellent recording.
Redemption comes quickly with the Silent Hill 2 music. Interestingly enough, the harmonic structure for this piece has some things in common with Scars of Time. But the performance is now veering towards that of Tallarico’s group, since they add an incredible electric guitar part (which has been performed live by Akira Yamaoka at many PLAY! Concerts) as well as a trap set and other non-traditional instruments to play alongside the orchestra. In terms of performance quality, this may be the best track on the CD. It’s not my favorite, but it’s a very strong track. Silent Hill fans will definitely fall in love with this performance.
I’m going to refrain from commenting on Halo. It’s Halo, you know what it sounds like: the choir, the guitar part…you get it. The performance is great, if you liked the music in the game you’ll be sure to love this performance, etc. Let’s jump over this track and talk about what is, surprisingly, my favorite track on the album. The Kingdom Hearts “medley,” if you can call it that, skips over some excellent potentials (most of which were covered on Shimomura’s “drammatica” CD release). But what we find here is still beautiful. Specifically, the orchestral performance of Passion (Sanctuary), which dominates the medley in terms of track time, is truly stunning. The orchestral version found on the Kingdom Hearts II OST doesn’t hold a candle to this recording. Having a live recording seems to make all the difference. Kudos to Roth and the performers for doing this one right!
The “Battlefield” performance is memorable, but mostly due to the guest performer. Rony Barrak exhibits some incredible talents by adding tons of powerful auxiliary percussion to this performance. I don’t know much about the series or its melodies, being an FPS (and me being an RPG kind of guy), but the performance is quite good.
The album ends with a three-part Western RPG experience that, for most PC gamers, should resonate strongly in their hearts. Ten million strong, the player-base for World of Warcraft would certainly enjoy a performance such as the one recorded and published on this CD. The 7 minute medley makes full use of the orchestra and the choir; it is one of the few medleys on the album that manages to capture a full range of melodies and themes. It is truly “epic,” and would serve well as an end credits theme (if such a thing could exist for an MMO…). The female vocal soloist delivers one of the most shocking performances found on the CD. You have to hear it for yourself to understand.
Coming in at just over 9 minutes, the longest track on the album is the Oblivion medley. Though I personally prefer Soule’s work in Morrowind to Oblivion, I was not at all let down by this performance. There’s no question in my mind that the arrangement and orchestration that went into this was painstakingly developed. The result is a sound so mature, and so right, that it makes the Castlevania and Sonic tracks feel like circus music in comparison. However, I will note that on this track, the recording picks up some unwanted noise; I heard someone cough, as well as some page-turning, at different points in the track. Whoops!
To end the album, we get even more Jeremy Soule. The free-to-play MMORPG that bears many of Soule’s best compositions, Guild Wars, takes center stage for the album’s ending. And quite frankly, I couldn’t have been happier with the choice. Not just to have Guild Wars at the end, mind you, but the melodies chosen for this 7 minute medley were perfect. Again, I find myself wanting to use the word “mature.” The music seems more powerful, more important, than most game music (or even film score). The music truly exists for its own sake, and the performance brings something in me to life. Much of this is probably due to the excellent use of pentatonics. There’s a distinct Oriental flair amidst an otherwise “Western” orchestral performance. Great, great work on this piece.
So, what’s the verdict? Is PLAY! better than VGL? That’s up for you to decide. Being a man who loves his RPGs, I dare say PLAY! wins just for having more music from RPGs…but then, the Chrono Cross performance leaves me with no choice but to mark a point against Roth and the crew. For now, in my own mind, I leave it at a tie, and I hope that a potential VGL Volume 2 prompts a sequel to the PLAY! album as well. Certainly, there is more than enough source material to bring these possibilities to fruition.
One final note: the album’s retail price, during its eight month-long preorder campaign, was 35 USD. A lot of people felt the CD (and the bonus DVD) were not worth the price, especially considering the slipshod packaging (looked amateur, as though it was made in a kid’s basement instead of being professionally printed). Seriously, it’s just CD-R and DVD-R with printed labels. The bonus DVD doesn’t have much in the way of content either. So despite the great music, it seems JMP Productions needs to learn a thing or two about publishing a quality product.