It’s been awhile! After three fairly decent Sakura Taisen vocal albums, Sakura Taisen 4 skipped the vocal route and just had a skimpy OST. So, four years since Sakura Taisen 3’s very decent vocal album, we are treated to the Sakura Taisen V vocal album. I have a lot to say about this one, but if you don’t feel like reading the whole review, just let me say this now: no matter how cheesy the songs get, they’re executed so well (and there’s so much variety in style) that I can’t help but enjoy them.
The opening track, “Surface Warriors,” which is also the opening theme for the game, is extended from the in-game version to a solid four minute piece. It was difficult for me to part ways with the traditional “Declaration! Imperial Floral Assault Group” and “Under the Imperial Flag” theme songs, but this new song was enough to win me over. Using the entire new cast of characters, and featuring incredible horn-blasting intro/outro (like the other Sakura Taisen themes), this song really knocked me off of my feet. The chorus has that epic/imperial feel, but the verses are simply groovy, indeed sounding as though they came from the disco era. Kouhei Tanaka and crew are all geniuses.
Tracks two through six are character-specific theme songs, and while some are better than others, they all achieve a distinct feel that makes the character her own. “My Dream” is a fun and catchy piece, reminiscent of the sort of light-hearted character themes from To Heart or Tokimeki Memorial. The ending refrain, which is repeated over and over for the last minute of the song, is incredibly memorable. Sometimes I can’t seem to get it out of my head. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the listener I suppose.
“Downtown Heart” is a gospel song. Yeah, you heard me. Think civil-rights-era African-American congregation singing their hearts out: but now replace them with a bunch of Japanese people. That’s about how Downtown Heart goes. We have a nice organ sound, male and female choirs, clapping on 2 and 4, people saying “uh huh” and “hallelujah” in the background…it’s a fairly convincing performance. Its one downfall is the Engrish word “Rord.” In the sheet music book, the line is printed in English “Hallelujah Children Your Rord.” How it is that they could spell hallelujah right but mess up Lord is beyond me. Also, it sounds really hilarious. Putting this one glaring error aside, the rest is really brilliant. I didn’t know it could be done, but Tanaka and Kishimura proved me wrong. This song is in the top three list for me.
“Bounty Hunter Rika” takes us south of the border (or at least to the local Mexican restaurant) for a little bit of Latin fiesta fun. Instrumentally, the traditional percussion instruments and the horn section are really what make this song stand out. Vocally, Rika’s cute childish voice sticks out like a sore thumb, but in the end, it’s still quite adorable. This isn’t one of my favorite songs, but again, the excellent execution turns it from a mediocre song into a decent song. In a world of subpar vocal VGM albums, Sakura Taisen once again shines like a diamond in the rough, and even with this silly song, we can see how wonderful the album truly is.
“Look to the Blue Sky” is a lovely jazz lounge ballad, opening with piano, then the vocalist’s rich voice coming through, and finally the band joining in to take the song to new heights. Speaking of heights, the high note the vocalist hits in the chorus is simply stunning. It sounds startlingly elegant every time she hits it. These character vocalists are no joke: I am truly impressed. Also, I cannot emphasize how much I like the piano, the horns, and the strings on this song. There is so much dynamic variety that the song never becomes boring.
Track six is probably the most interesting song on the album: “Shining Constellation.” Arranged by anime and VGM veteran Hayato Matsuo, the song uses strange synths to create a spacey-cosmic feel, but the piano and strings bring you back down to earth to enjoy the vocalist’s enigamtic performance. Halfway through the song, behind the vocalist’s lovely voice, there is a section where the pianist pulls out some really light and interesting musical ideas, and then the pianist takes over for what can only be called a breathtaking solo performance. Once the piano takes the backseat, the vocalist comes back with her soft and haunting voice to finish the piece. I don’t know whether to cry or just drop my jaw; I would love to hear this song performed live.
For me, the least interesting song on the album is track 7, “Samurai Spirit,” and that’s only because I’ve been familiar with it for so long. This song was taken pretty much directly from the STV Episode 0 soundtrack; and what’s worse, it’s the light-hearted country version instead of the orchestral opening version. I’m glad they were able to work in a country song, but Samurai Spirit just never does it for me. The one thing I like about the song is the walking bass, and even that isn’t impressive, it just has a nice timbre.
Track 8 is an a really wonderful song, even with a male vocalist pairing up with the females to take major sections of the song. Generally I have a hard time listening to Japanese male vocalists, but this song is really something else. Melodically, it’s a combination of two songs from the STV Music Collection. The first is a typical sort of stage performance piece, entitled “This is Paradise.” The other, the “Little Lip Theater” theme song, sounds like something that could either be performed on Broadway or in a sleazy New Orleans bar during the prohibition era. Tanaka and Negishi teamed up to write one really brilliant song, one that really captures early 20th century American composition well. And considering that’s exactly the setting for Sakura Taisen V (1920s New York), this song is even more fitting (as are all the others).
I mentioned earlier that “Downtown Heart” was in my top three. Also in the top three are “Surface Warriors” and “Kiss me sweet.” And among the three, I have to be honest with myself and say that “Kiss me sweet” is truly my favorite. First of all, it’s the longest song on the album, running nearly to seven minutes. Secondly, it features the entire female cast, trading off from one vocalist to the other, then allowing for some duet work, and finally bringing them all together for the chorus. Third, the soft and simple melody is enough to melt anyone’s heart after a long hard day of work. The string part is striking and beautiful, hearkening back to a younger day in musical taste. The soft snapping that carries throughout the whole song is simple and catchy, keeping the song from becoming too serious. The chord progression is something of a standard jazz ballad, but it is top notch: Kouhei Tanaka’s 25 years of compositional experience shine strongest in this one song. The vocalists’ performances are strong and memorable. I only wish you could hear the entire song. Well, there is one way to remedy that…
Go buy the album. Play Asia, CD Japan, and other stores ought to have it in stock for a few years to come. Get it while you can. Use the karaoke track to indulge in your secret fantasy to be part of the New York Kagekidan. Even though the album doesn’t reach 50 minutes, the quality of the songs warrants the steep retail price ($30). I haven’t heard a vocal album this good since the Final Fantasy “Pray” and “Love Will Grow” albums. The production is great, the vocalists are memorable, and the arrangers knew what they were doing from square one. Whether you’re a hardcore Sakura Taisen fan or you don’t even know what Sakura Taisen is, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.