VGM Review #6: 'Suikoden II' OST, Part 1

The other week I had posted a link to a great interview with VGM composer Miki Higashino, the mastermind behind the soundtracks to such titles as Gradius and SuikodenI and II.  When I stumbled across the interview I put it on the backburner; I hadn’t heard of Higashino before and just saw it as an opportunity to introduce myself to a composer after I had finished whatever else I was doing.  After reading it months later, I started to expedite that listening in my to-do list, and then fellow VGM blogger Steve Lakawicz of Classical Gaming’s comment about Suikoden II pushed it to the top.  Turns out that I started with Steve’s link to the opening video of said game and have since listened to the OST cover-to-cover twice (with some tunes getting quite a few extra replays).  Take a listen to the track that threw me into the fray:

There is so much to love about this opening (and I’m a sucker for awesome opening FMVs).

For the first minute of the piece we get a powerful choral number that sets up the visuals of a burning village, armies, and a mad knight standing atop a mound of dead bodies.  What I like about Higashino’s work here is that she doesn’t give the listener a run-of-the-mill “ominous choral piece,” which is so common in pretty much every form of visual media in need of a soundtrack today.  If you’re like me, you roll your eyes at the overabundance and flatness of this what-now-is-a stereotypical device.  The last one I can remember being affected by is John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates” from the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace soundtrack, which – aside from being awesome because of the scene and because of Darth Maul – is great because of the integration of both strong choral and instrumental writing.

Returning to Higashino, though, one of my favorite parts of the whole opening exists right at the beginning.  Above the chorus shrieks this very, might I say, exotic ethnic voice whose timbre is so stark in contrast with the voices behind it that it’s almost alarming.  It reminds me of when I saw the Republic of Korea Traditional Army Band at the Virginia International Tattoo in 2010, before I worked solely for the show.  I remember thinking how terrified I’d be if I were in an army who went up against a Korean one that played the instruments that they did (namely the taepyeongso) due to how, to my uncultured American ears, unnatural and almost demonic they sounded in that context (read: awesome).  The contrast between Korean traditional instruments and European ones is comparable to the sound of that voice as compared to the smoother European-style chorus.  Its timbre combined with its melody and foreign rhythmic “hiccups” makes it razor sharp, especially when the part sounds like it splits via multiphonics at 0:21 (note that there are two voices, but their combined timbre makes me hears them in a way that’s comparable to saxophone multiphonics).  Simply the idea to include that kind of voice was great, but its place rhythmically and harmonically amongst the more traditional Western chorus furthers its effect on the listener.

Next comes the dark choral-centric part that could have so easily been generic.  There are a couple things that really sell it to me, namely how both the pitches and rhythms of the choral melody are atypical of what I would expect and how much the accompanying instruments’ parts add to the overall piece (like they do in “Duel of the Fates”).  Until I reach 0:59, I feel like I’m foraging uncharted territory because I’m continuously surprised at what I hear due to an ever-changing musical terrain.  While my focus up to 0:29 is on the ethnic voice, the underlying chorus breathes a sense of openness and space into the scene that is created.  After that, though, the scene becomes chaotic with the entrance of the orchestral instruments and with the new direction the chorus takes—one that turns the chorus into harbingers of destruction.  These harbingers’ once smooth legato tongues have suddenly become forceful and accented; they abandon their long tones to dictate at a march-like pace.  Meanwhile, the strings fly by wispily – they’re light, quick, and have drastic shifts in dynamics over a very short amount of time – and the trumpets all but scream “charge!” upon their entrance for the first time.

Only briefly mentioning the strings doesn't give them justice.  They fly by so erratically that the sense of chaos is exponentially heightened.  They're akin to the flicker of the flames in the burning village; they have dynamic peaks and valleys, and each peak and valley are different from the last in terms of content.  If the listener studies them, s/he can hear similarities between the lines, but if s/he doesn't focus on them they seem to be wild, lacking organization until 0:40.  The lines and idea behind them are nothing short of brilliant.

Take note, too, of the snare drum part.  One may say that it has this strange lack of authority in the beginning.  It sort of flutters and then is almost inaudible until we see the soldiers run by on screen.  Only then does it give a strong roll, as if it was teasing a military being behind the destruction at first and then being assertive only when the viewer sees the soldiers themselves.  Moving forward it doesn’t come in much, but when it does it keeps that revealing assertiveness.

I love at 0:34 when the voices split.  Suddenly, added to the piece is a new, different sense of urgency, as if the low voices indicate the devastation in the village shown just prior and the higher voices represent a different outlet of malice—that malice which comes from above in the pictured castle, from the higher rule, that falls beneath a blue sky tainted with a hazy grey.  The low brass and horns boldly enter at 0:38 after a snapped syllable by the chorus, using their large, round tones to push the music forward to counteract the choral halt.  It, in fact, pushes right into quick rising runs by the flutes that end with a cymbal hit and the entrance of some more quick, pointed notes by the trumpets.

It doesn’t take long before the breaks are put on.  The triplet the trumpets play at 0:46 jumps right into a big bass drum hit and a choral explosion.  The trumpets continue to add to the energy of the chorus, as does the percussion, and there is a huge ritardando into 0:52 as we stare into face of the maniacal knight.

All of the above has taken place within just the first minute of the opening.  That’s a lot of juice.

The rest of the tune has a completely different energy.  Beauty befalls the next thirty seconds, and it is capped by the resurgence of the solo female voice (it actually might be a child's voice; regardless the effects are the same).  This time, however, the voice has been affected by the devastation of the village that the viewer sees on-screen.  The moaning and weakened energy produced by the voice is, like the instrumental part, a huge contrast to its earlier self.  Once again Higashino has brilliantly used the solo voice to accentuate the other parts of the music.

The rest of the tune is of an extremely lighthearted, heroic nature.  The strings, woodwinds, and brass alike are highlighted at different times, erasing their previous selves, giving way to this new breath of fresh air.  Of course, to go along with the mood set by the music the viewer sees flowing plains, smiling people, and those who seem to be friends.  The strings give a sense of elegance, the flutes and triangle playfulness, and the brass glory.  There are even combinations of the instruments at times, such at as 1:58, and their pairings with the visuals display an apt combination of the qualities that they represent, giving way for the viewer to assign more potential archetypes to the characters on-screen.  From laying the groundwork for the heroic characters to fueling energy by way of powerful melodies and explosive dynamics, the music of the last minute gets the gamer ready to play and triumph over what s/he saw in the first half.

All in all, Higashino wastes no time in the OST.  She sets up the story by composing a track with a sinister beginning and heroic end, complete with a huge orchestral sound that holds no bars and is not lacking for any kind of depth within its parts.  She expands the chorus past any kind of run-of-the-mill expectancies by having it interact strongly with the other instruments and by utilizing and highlighting a unique voice atop it.

The best part is: the opening is just a taste of the greatness of the complete soundtrack.

Continue on to Part II!