Friday, September 7, 2012

22 - World of Warcraft

Despite the sheer number of people who play the game, I think WoW has one of the best soundtracks that nobody's ever heard, mainly because people turn the background music off when they play. That makes me sad, because it contains some incredible music, including one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard.

Drums of War

The legendary trailer for the game released in 2004 made me fall in love with the game, and it lasted for many years. This is one song that I can't really analyze out of context, because it's tightly synced to the trailer. Watching this again still gives me chills after all these years.


Man, this brings back many memories, of... well, of getting disconnected from the server mostly. I imagine most people probably associate this song with either getting disconnected or waiting in a queue, but despite these associations, it's a superb song. To diverge slightly, the mission of a composer in a game like this is a bit different from a console. You usually only get about 30-40 hours of gameplay from a console RPG (though I played Star Ocean: The Second Story for 200+, but that's beside the point). As such, they can afford to do more with the music, and be a lot bolder. However, in a game like WoW, you might spend hundreds of hours just in one of the capital cities, and if the music is too intrusive, you'll grow to hate it. With all this in mind, in my view, the mission of the login screen music is twofold:

1) Make the player excited about entering the game.
2) Don't overdo it, because filling them with too much anticipation can only let them down after spending 10+ minutes in a login queue.

They accomplished both of these goals admirably. Probably the main way they accomplished it was to never let a clear melody dominate the piece - all you really get are snatches of melody that are quickly dropped out, which means that the piece isn't too distracting. I'd be more effusive in my praise, but... the memory of that damn login screen is too traumatic. Sorry.


The mission of this song is one word - majestic. Dalaran is a magical city which was ripped out of the ground and floats in mid-air above the Lich King's domain, so the song is intended to portray the power and grandeur of the Kirin Tor, Dalaran's ruling council of mages. The main melody is carried by an unusual instrument, sounds like a cross between an oboe and a wailing spirit of some kind. Adding to the ethereal quality is the lead instruments floating in and out, and it pulls somewhat the same trick as the login screen music, never letting a single melody dominate.


Apologies to the Horde-inclined among us. Though I played Horde almost as much as I did Alliance, I've never been a fan of their background music, especially the capital cities. Stormwind, however, is one of the iconic songs of the series. The mission of the piece is to emphasize nobility and honor, and it does this well with a stately horn playing the lead melody. Unlike the previous pieces, which were relatively understated, this piece is anything but. It seems like it might be trending in that direction, but then 6:32 hits you in the gut. Easily my favorite part of the song, and it's over all too quickly.


The starting area for human characters, Elwynn is mostly relaxing, but still gives a mildly ominous vibe, which goes along with the starting area, as it's fairly easy while giving you an intro to the troubles that lurk unseen. 1:34 is a tiny snippet of a melody repeated a few times which I absolutely love. It doesn't do too much, but still manages to be memorable, and my favorite kinds of music are those which are just simplistic enough to convey whatever it is the composer intends.


Nagrand is a lush, spacious zone reminiscent of the African savannah, and the mission of this piece is clearly to convey a pastoral feel while never forgetting the slightly ominous tone present in pretty much all non-city zones, reminding the player that danger isn't far. A great example of this starts at 4:00. This loop starts with a creepy flourish, but then quickly opens up into a spacious-sounding tune played by multiple strings. Around 5:30 is another memorable moment that lasts for just a second. A single chord is struck by the orchestra, and it's very dissonant, yet somehow beautiful at the same time. I really love when composers are able to do this, as for an amateur like me, trying to stike and hold a dissonant chord just sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

Totems of the Grizzlemaw

Finally we come to Totems of the Grizzlemaw, one of my favorite pieces of all time, not just restricted to VGM. It evokes such an emotional response that I find I have trouble putting it into words, but I'll try. The piece starts right off with a majestic faux-vocal track underlying a delicate violin melody. The violin is joined by the voices, and the mood is sad, nostalgic, and yet majestic, hearkening to what the Grizzly Hills used to be before the Lich King stepped in.

The first standout moment of the piece for me happens at 1:14, where the melody stops and restarts itself, doubling up on emphasizing the sadness of the Hills. It gets me every time.

Abruptly, the piece shifts gears, and a Scandinavian instrument called the nyckelharpa takes over. Very sparse backing music is used at the beginning, highlighting the unusual sound of the instrument and the melody it plays, which ratchets up the feeling of nostalgia even more, though now tinged with a sense of joy at the remembrance.

Then we shift gears again to my favorite section of the piece. A horn (English horn maybe?) takes over and plays an overwhelmingly mournful melody which needs no accompaniment. Every second it plays solo strengthens the impact of the moment at 4:21, which is the second standout moment of the piece for me. The rest of the orchestra joins the horn, delicately embellishing the theme, and then the nykkelharp jumps in to remind us that while we can feel nostalgia, it's better to celebrate than mourn. And then suddenly, the piece is over.

I don't mind admitting that I teared up as I was listening to this piece again to review it. Truly epic.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

23 - Lufia 2

Lufia 2 is, I feel, an underappreciated SNES RPG. I really wish the composer, Yasunori Shiono, had done more soundtracks, but I guess Lufia 2 will stand alone as a work of genius. I enjoy the more low-key tunes on the OST, but this game was mainly chosen for the incredible strength of its two boss themes.

Start of the Journey

What strikes me about Start of the Journey is that the second segment (0:31) would normally bring in one or two more instruments to embellish the main theme. However, Shiono does just the opposite here, momentarily dropping instruments out of the track to emphasize the following passage. He only really embellishes the theme at 1:13 with a tiny harp-like arpeggio, which has an unexpected impact. The other thing that struck me about this theme is how it manages to sound so low-key and peaceful while being very disjunct - meaning the melody tends to jump around quite a lot rather than being smooth and flowing. Disjunct melodies usually have a jarring effect more appropriate for conveying, say, anger or fear, but this melody somehow does the opposite.


Labyrinth is an incredibly creepy piece of dungeon music. When the strings cut in during the second part of the song, however, it seems to somehow change the atmosphere instantly while keeping everything nice and ominous. What I find most unusual about the song is how the three sections, listened to together, seem to alter each others' meaning. Listened to in isolation, the first still seems creepy, but the second now seems merely sad, and the third seems full of mournful determination. Very cool effect.

The Earth

I have a weakness for woodwinds, and The Earth is no exception. It's a very odd melody, using slight syncopation and hanging out in a key I can't quite figure out. The simple ostinato (repeated underlying instrumental part) highlights a minor key, but I can't figure out if the melody itself is in that key or not. It's a haunting effect that stays with you after the song is over. The light horn embellishment of the second section seems to play a very, very different melody than the main string part, almost too different to properly harmonize, but it somehow works. This is not the kind of song you could ever learn how to compose solely by reading a textbook. Brilliant.

Peace of Mind

The requisite peaceful theme, Peace of Mind. A very odd collection of instruments - what feels like a steel guitar, a bass, and an oboe carry the first part. The strings jump in during the second, and the overriding melody makes you feel content, while still sounding slightly optimistic thanks to the jump leading into the third section (1:01). My only complaint is that the underlying chords being struck by the guitar could be doing a bit more.

Fight Against Sinistrals

This boss theme also serves as the final boss theme, and hits you right in the face from the get-go. The incredible main melody of the theme does a hell of a lot while not ranging too far from its lowest note. It serves as an interesting contrast to Start of the Journey - while that theme manages to sound low-key with a melody that bounces around so much, this theme is tense and exciting despite its melody being mostly smooth. Without question, my favorite section is 1:15 - 1:24.

Boss Music

My favorite song of the entire soundtrack, this is a boss theme that could easily hold its own with Dreadful Fight from FF4, Decisive Battle and Fierce Battle from FF6, or the perennial favorite One-Winged Angel from FF7. Few tunes make me feel as energetic and ready to fight as this one. The way the intro fades out by sliding downwards stands out, as does the rhythm electric guitar part underlying the second and third sections. To really appreciate this song, I recommend you crank it up as loud as you can tolerate.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

24 - Castlevania Circle of the Moon

Sinking Old Sanctuary

Sinking Old Sanctuary is obviously a song I love, being the namesake of this blog. It's really one of those songs I could listen to 100 times on repeat and never get tired of it. Believe me. I've done it. The version that appears on this game is a remix of a song of the same name that has appeared on Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness and Castlevania: Bloodlines, neither of which is nearly as catchy. The bass line carries the song without overpowering it, and gives the entire thing an atmosphere of danger and excitement, while the highly syncopated melody makes it feel like the song is about to fall off the rails somehow, making it all very unsettling - which is exactly the effect they're going for.


If Awake really is about waking up, it was probably being woken up by some kind of gunfire or something, because the first part does feel like waking up, then you're immediately thrown into an incredibly exciting melody. My favorite part of the song happens at 1:04, where the main theme of the game kicks in. I kinda wish that part would last a little bit longer. The bass line of that part is superb, but a little lethargic in the rest of the track.


Clockwork utilizes one of the best bass lines out of every track on the OST. I like the second segment (starting at :39) a little less than the first, but that segment ends incredibly strong. This track feels more urgent than the others, accomplished by the frantic bassline that's all over the map and very fun to listen to.

Fate to Despair

Fate To Despair is less exciting than the other tracks, and does a great job of emphasizing the majesty and grandeur of the castle. There's no strong bass line to speak of, which is only disappointing because I wish Tojima would use his ability to construct strong, driving bass lines on every single track. Though I guess he probably wanted to de-emphasize urgency on this one, and his bass lines seem to always add that quality. I love the sound of the various repeated instrumental lines layered on top of one another underlying the melody - try to listen to it several times, each time following a different instrument. Challenging and rewarding.


Probably the most frantic track of all, Aquarius rides on the razor's edge between exciting and overwhelming. The bass line at the beginning of the song is great, but as before with Awake, I wish he had done more with it. The melody, however, is good enough to overcome any disappointment I have about the bass. I love the syncopation in the melody starting at :55. Big Battle

Big Battle is the "Boss Fight" track, which is probably pretty obvious even if you've never played the game. Urgent and ominous. The accent at :35 is my favorite part.

Overall a brilliant soundtrack, doing more with the GBA sound chip than most later-generation consoles can manage with their advanced sound devices.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

25 - Xenogears

The Valley Where Wind is Born

Yasunori Mitsuda is a genius, and rest assured, we will be seeing more of him before this list is over. When I listen to VGM, it often serves as the soundtrack to my life - whether I'm going to sleep, working on something competitive or difficult, or just trying to maintain a mellow disposition. The latter is the state in which I find myself more often than not. As such, I love mellow, atmospheric songs, and The Valley Where Wind is Born is one of my favorites. When I listen to it, I envision sitting beside a lake or a pond, maybe even by a dirt path where the comings and goings of a rustic town whisk by me. If I had to narrow it down to one word, it would be "idyllic".

June Mermaid

June Mermaid is in a similar vein, but it radiates nostalgia and somber brooding rather than contentment. I'm not really sure why I love this song so much - given the choice, I'd rather feel content than sorrowful. But sometimes, it really can't be helped, and in those times, about the only solace I find is in a song like this, which makes me feel like someone somewhere knows how I feel. In a way, it almost serves as permission - a tacit statement that feeling this way sometimes is okay. Overall, this song makes me feel as though I'm beholding something so beautiful it is unreachable, and the emotion of the song is the emotion I feel as I ponder my inability to touch such beauty. 1:30 is the moment at which that realization hits.

One Who Bares Fangs at God

One Who Bares Fangs at God is the incredibly unusual final boss theme. Most final boss themes are energetic, chaotic, and a little bit scary - this accomplishes the latter, but in a very understated way. The underlying repeated pattern gives a creepy vibe to the entire piece. When the simulated vocals kick in, you start to feel the gravity of the situation, and during their second pattern, it hits you dead-on. Even as the different instruments fade in and out, the entire piece feels somewhat hollow, which makes things even more creepy. This seems fitting, as the final boss encounter in this game is one you fight alone.

Bonds of Sea and Fire

I always think of water when I hear repeated harp sounds like the ones in Bonds of Sea and Fire. This piece feels more contemplative than content, but peaceful nonetheless. I like to listen to it when I'm pondering something complicated. During the second segment, I feel as though the main melody is a bit too overwhelming for some reason, but the overall vibe matches how I want to feel when I'm figuring something out.

Faraway Promise

Faraway Promise is a wistful music box melody that echoes the main theme of the game's vocal track, Small Two of Pieces (sic). That's not a bad song, but I chose not to include it because for me, the awkward English translation is incredibly distracting, and the singer is too melodramatic for the tone of the piece. This piece is full-on nostalgia tinged with regret, and it makes me think of all the decisions I wish I had made, the risks I chose not to take, and the people I loved and left behind. I don't like thinking about those things too much, but it's important to remember every now and again...


Lastly, we come to Flight, a song which as I detailed earlier may be single-handedly responsible for starting my fascination with VGM. If you really need a song that makes you feel like you can accomplish anything, look no further. When the main melody kicks in, if you close your eyes, you might just feel like you're really flying. However, when the third section of the song kicks in at 2:23, it makes you think like you might fall, and that might be the most interesting part of the song to me, brief as it is. If I was the kind of person who had dreams, this song would make me want to go realize them.

Monday, September 3, 2012


Sinking Old Sanctuary

I first got seriously into VGM (Video Game Music) when my brother played a track for me which we thought was the flight music from the upcoming game Chrono Cross. That track totally blew my mind. However, when Chrono Cross came out, it didn't have any airships, so neither of us knew where that music came from. I was determined to find out, so I started searching the web, eventually happening across a few VGM channels on IRC. From there, I started trading music with people, and my love of VGM was born. As a sidenote, I did eventually find out what the song really was.


I will eventually review all of the OSTs (Original Sound Tracks) that I love so much, but to start, I will give my top 25 OSTs of all time, because, who doesn't love lists? Before I start, however, some caveats:

1) Not every great OST can be on the list. I won't be including some soundtracks widely agreed to be among the best of all time, such as Katamari Damacy, Shadow of the Colossus, and so forth. This is not intended as a slight against you, the reader - it's just my personal taste.

2) The list skews pretty heavily in favor of RPGs. Part of the reason was a desire to favor soundtracks which would appeal to people who are a little leery of VGM, and RPGs tend to have more orchestral songs. As much as I love the Batman, Axelay, and Mega Man 2 OSTs, they are also absent.

3) I thought about including OCRemix tracks, but ultimately it would make each entry too long, and I'm already agonizing at trying to cut enough tracks from the list to fit a review of the entire OST into a max of 2 blog entries. I'm definitely going to do a supplemental entry at the end about my favorite OCRs for each game, such as the brilliant Green Amnesia (I doubt it's much of a spoiler to reveal that Chrono Trigger is on this list).

Great? Great. Let's get started.