With the Xenoblade Chronicles X OST being my only notable exposure to his work, my impression of Hiroyuki Sawano is that he’s a madman. It’s one thing to make four discs of great music, but it’s another thing entirely to ignore traditional expectations of structure, instrumentation, and genres. The result is a wealth of music that oozes ungovernable creativity. At a point in time where composers like Revo are synthesizing decades of video game music into outstanding albums, Sawano has stitched together radical new ideas with a unique style that defies definition.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this is the most dynamic OST I’ve ever heard. While Sawano does lean heavily on electronic instruments, with nearly every song featuring digital drums and synth arpeggios, he’s careful to vary them greatly from track-to-track, and he’s not afraid to forgo them entirely when appropriate. Alongside all the digital sounds, Sawano also makes good use of traditional instruments from all over the world, featuring koto, shamisen, shakuhachi, guitars, brass, strings, bongos, congas, and even a didgeridoo. The juxtaposition of these with Sawano’s style of electronica is so effective that some tracks achieve a palpable other-wordly feel. Vocal parts cover various aboriginal styles, rap, vocoder-driven pop, and even Americana; there really doesn’t seem to be anywhere this OST won’t go.
The real shocker for me was that nearly this entire album is thoroughly composed. Even with most tracks clocking in at over five minutes, there are barely any repeated parts and even less filler. While some phrases are called back throughout the discs, they’re framed and presented so uniquely that you might not even notice. Clever uses of caesuras, beat dropping, and electronic breakdowns are used to construct individual movements within songs. Other than providing an engaging listening experience, I imagine this will work wonderfully with the long run-time of the game itself.
While the electronica elements may turn some listeners off at first blush, I would encourage them to give this some serious play time before writing it off. Sawano is quick to weasel a moving, traditional melody on top of a bed of bit-crushed beats in a way that displays everything right about modern music. Similarly, a crunchy guitar can get swapped out for a pounding brass section at the drop of a beat. Here in Michigan, we have a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes,” and it can definitely be applied here. If you’re not feeling this OST at any given point, it’s likely that it’ll come around in a matter of seconds.
I’ve always felt that one of the common failings of techno music is its tendency to lose sight of the overarching melody, a problem I was delighted to see nearly every song here avoid. In fact, much of the time, the melody line is stringing together all of Sawano’s crazy ideas, and it’s presented powerfully enough to shine through. Every morning over the course of this review process, I woke with a different melody playing in my head, and as I chewed on them for a bit, their accompaniments would always start to chime in too. As scattershot as these tunes might seem at times, they’ve managed to strike me as a cohesive experience.
I’m sure it’s clear at this point that I’m more than a little smitten with this album, but that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of its shortcomings. For one, there was quite a bit less emotional impact than I expected from an OST with “Xeno” in the title. Although I would argue that it saves its punches for when it needs to hit hard, it’s difficult to deny that the lion’s share of these tunes are targeting an engaging, kinetic experience rather than a thoughtful, emotional one. It could also just be that the percussion work is so damn good that it frequently steals the show.
More damning to me was the lyricism. Sawano has gone on record saying that he prefers German and English lyrics, and since I don’t speak the former, I’m blissfully ignorant to their quality, but the latter is the culprit behind almost all of my low points here. It wasn’t enough to turn me off of the songs, which are really quite good, but lyrics like, “I need a bigger gun!” and, “This world sucks!” add a level of immaturity not found anywhere else in the OST. Fortunately, there are quality instrumental versions of almost all of these songs available if they prove to be too much for you.
On the other side of the spectrum, the fourth disc here contains three stunning piano tracks that took me by surprise in the context of the OST. Absolutely brimming with introspective melancholy, these are a great way to cool down a bit after a few hours of Robot Face Punching Jams. I’d very much like to see more of this side of Sawano, but I don’t think I’d be willing to sacrifice any of his unique, modern style to get it.
If it feels like I’ve been using broad strokes here, it’s because I feel like I have to. These discs nonchalantly jump from blues to house techno to epic hybrid orchestral/electronic spectacles, and let me reiterate, almost all of it is thoroughly composed (does Sawano even know what a repeat sign looks like?!). On top of the variety and all the musical pioneering, almost everything here is insanely dense, with layer after layer stacked on top of moving lines. I can see how this work would be polarizing, but it’s so damn unique and interesting that I really have to implore any music fan to give it a good, long listen before deciding on which side of the fence they fall.