Funomenal Rear-view Contemplation: Best of Film & Game Music 2018

I think the cinema I frequent owes me some sort of recognition…looking back at my ticket history: hundreds of films over the past four years. I even have my favourite seats for each of their venues.

2018 for me was a bit like watching a disaster happen in slow motion, except I’m observing my own disaster, being too lazy to do anything about it. As my university workload increased, my procrastination tendencies intensified, so much so that I finally had to confront the fact that I have lost large chunks of my attention span: I finished watching far less TV shows than ever before, I failed my own Goodreads reading challenge of 30 books in one year (particularly shameful one, this), aaaaaand I handed every one of my assignments in with minutes to spare. When you procrastinate on things that are supposed to be relaxing (i.e. watching TV shows, gaming), and would instead wind up scrolling through random Twitter, reddit and YouTube feeds, you know something is wrong, and that I needed to do something to – for one – get my blogging game back up to speed again.

Which leads me to this upcoming blog post – the fourth entry into my celebration of all things OST. To address the inevitable issue of having good music slip by me as the years go by, I decided to add a new segment to this publication, namely an ‘off-year listing’, where I would highlight soundtracks from previous years that I discovered in 2018 (and every subsequent year going forward) that I really appreciated and would’ve made the yearly top rankings had I discovered it earlier. And I am premiering this segment with a BANG.

Off-Year Highlights

Gravity Rush & Gravity Rush 2 | Kohei Tanaka

I suppose it is a surprise that it took me this long to introduce my readers to Kohei Tanaka, as it is very likely that his music has graced some of your favourite 90s anime classics. Then there’s the reality that he also composed the music to the 2012 anime TV series, Hyouka, which still stands amongst my favourites of all time.

A self-proclaimed ‘Anime-and-Game-Composer’, Tanaka stands amongst the likes of Michiru Oshima and Akira Senju in being one of the most respected composers in the business. He rose to prominence scoring Gunbuster, and continued his career stamping his signatures on iconic franchises such as Gundam (Fighter G Gundam, The 08th MS Team), Patlabor alongside Kenji Kawai, Dragon Ball and One Piece. An impressive portfolio to be sure.

So what does it mean, for Tanaka to be given a game world as wacky, unhinged and colourful as Gravity Rush to work on? An insane mosaic of genre and thematic interplay that fuses classic Tanaka symphonic neo-romanticism with confident sketches of French jazz, heavy metal, alternative electronica and even touches of Gothic horror and Spanish salsa, because why not. Imagine a five hour+ experience that somehow manages to coherently combine every style of musical identity that is associated with the anime franchises mentioned above (and more), and you’d come to a more or less accurate description of what Gravity Rush has in store for you.

Do not be caught off-guard however: Gravity Rush is very much a massive gamified superhero/magical girl narrative that is stuffed to the brim with a charmingly (…?) Japanese sense of deterministic nihilism, and contrasting it with a spirited heroic rebellion that brings the forces of hope head to head with fated doom and destruction. As it so happens, a story of such grand ambitions is given a musical anchor that finds every opportunity to leave an impression.

The player is introduced to the world of Gravity Rush with a descending ‘falling apple’ theme: a seemingly humble tune that is to be a key to the heroine Kat’s destiny (not to mention a graceful nod to the game’s central mechanic of gravity manipulation, as well as Kat’s mysterious past). Too fitting then, for this melody to be a diegetic anchor that is constantly developed alongside the story, eventually concluding as the end titles song for the second game. The charming French flavour of this theme was only hinted at in the beginning of the first game, with touches of accordion giving the track ‘Discovery of Gravitation‘ a sense of eccentric melancholy, while also hinting upon the otherworldly horrors Kat will face, as the track effortlessly works in elements of Gothic mischief with an organ-led circus waltz. Upon capitalising on the game world’s fictional language (a peculiar mix of French and Japanese, a nod to the game’s aesthetic inspirations from bande dessinée [French comic strips]), the end titles song ‘A Red Apple Fell From The Sky‘ leans completely into French jazz with a band of piano, accordion, guitar, clarinet and syrupy female vocals, taking upon the ‘falling apple’ theme as the central motif.

From melancholic French jazz, Tanaka leans further still into the realm of the devil’s music, serving up not only a energetic swing-inspired number for the game’s Vegas-inspired ‘Pleasure Quarter’ area, but another deceptively catchy end titles song for the first game: ‘Douse Shinundakara‘. With a foot-tap inducing rhythm, flirty female vocals and a fun-loving piano, the song would find a perfect venue in a Victorian French cabaret. One side note however…the song’s title literally means ‘We are going to die anyway’, and the vocalist sings of a nonchalant attitude towards life, where no favours should be done or owed, where no sentiment nor sympathy can be afforded, because the world is doomed and hopeless. Didn’t I mention ‘deterministic nihilism’ earlier? Indeed, ‘Douse Shinundakara’ serves as an antithesis to Kat’s worldview; that all life is sacred and thus should be fought for, while disguising itself as a fun musical theatre number.

From there, Gravity Rush’s music pallete shifts more towards the conventional, considering the genre it’s occupying. Tanaka’s work on both games’ main titles pieces takes into account Kat’s identity as a magical girl/heroine who protects the innocent. The first main titles focused on the superhero persona, with a rousing brass fanfare that urges the player forward. The second main titles pivots its personality towards a more graceful Viennese waltz, counterpointed with a swashbuckling and adventuous Spanish vibe, thanks to a snazzy brass section and a calling trumpet solo by the prolific Eric Miyashiro (who also recorded for the first game), no doubt inspired by Kat’s Zorro/vigilante tendencies.

This seamless genre fusion can also be seen elsewhere in the battle tracks: ‘Resistance and Extermination‘ is a rousing call to action, sporting an unmistakable resemblance with cinematic superhero fanfares. The game’s roots in JRPGs is also addressed, with Tanaka utilising the raw power of a rock band fused with the grand scope of the symphony orchestra to great effect. Players might crack a smile at the rhythmic references to Pokémon battle themes in ‘Storm and Triumph‘ with its three-note leaping motif, and Raven’s theme taken to its extreme in the badass ‘Night Gale‘: a growling saxophone takes the centre stage as the rock band jams alongside the orchestra. The unrelenting drive that defines JRPG battle tracks is exemplified here, but angular brass section note progressions and the ascending & descending strings section also alludes to the iconic soundscapes of John Barry/David Arnold-era James Bond, giving the track yet another level of alluring excitement.

Believe it or not, what I’ve outlined only scratched the surface of Tanaka’s Gravity Rush. The game franchise has gained status as a cult classic, with its grand ambitions perfectly showcased by the sheer number of genres, styles experimented with by the music. There is something here for music lovers everywhere, and possibly enough ripe inspiration for listeners to discover something new they couldn’t imagine themselves enjoying before.

Best Scores of 2018

10. Color Me True | Norihito Sumitomo

The relationship people have with the cinema experience is fleeting, and Color Me True sets out to honour those who have continued nurturing their love and devotion to the art form.

At the centre of the film, there lies a love story of the most unlikely: a princess from the monochrome world of a forgotten film and a humble filmmaker. Such a fairy tale is undeterred by the sickeningly sweetness of sentiment and nostalgia, as composer Norihito Sumitomo provides the film with a yearning romance score to match it.

To its credit – and somewhat also to its detriment – Color Me True’s score picks one lane and sticks to it absolutely. The foregrounded presence of a rich strings section is peppered with light-fingered woodwinds and piano, alluding to the Broadway and Disney musicals of old. The film’s single main theme is sweet and passionate, and is showcased wherever possible, concluding with a crescendoing bang, as the love story ends and the curtain falls.

This is a film score that truly tests one’s love for melody-driven, syrupy film music whose sole purpose is to be as emotionally manipulative as possible, so no pair of eyes leaves the cinema still dry.

Ending of the Scenario, Scenario Hunting

9. 11-11: Memories Retold | Olivier Deriviere

Released on the centennial of the World War I Armistice, 11-11: Memories Retold tells the mirroring stories of a Canadian photographer and German technician as they navigate the hellish landscape of the Western Front.

To maintain the strict authenticity of the era, composer Oliver Deriviere crafted a game score that forgoes any obvious resemblance with contemporary game scoring techniques, opting instead for a impressionistic palette that the composer claimed to be directly inspired by the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Faure. As such, the soundscape is completely symphonic, with almost no hint of electronic manipulation. However, an interesting deviation from the usual orchestral palette is the lack of a trumpet section (usually three to five players). Instead, Deriviere exclusively writes for a solo trumpet, a nod to the significance of the instrument in military personnel and remembrance.

Harry’s Voyage

8. God of War | Bear McCreary

Composer Bear McCreary’s process of writing for God of War involved inventing a theme for the titular character Kratos, whose requirements he identified as ‘Age, wisdom, power, masculinity’. What he ended up with is a deep, brooding melody that is primarily performed by the bass brass section and a male choir chanting in old Norse. Breaking it down to its essence, God of War was formally introduced to the PS4 player base with a live orchestra performance of Kratos’ theme, the beginning three notes alone perfectly exemplifying the entire character.

The game franchise before the 2018 entry had long provided McCreary and his team with a baseline from which to continue building the tapestry of the world’s musical soundscape: gigantic choral work, ear-splitting brass and stampeding percussion. As such, through the addition of old Norse as the primary choral language and speciality Scandinavian instrumentation alongside the conventional western orchestra, God of War 2018 is a fitting maturation of the game franchise’s musical foundations.

Deliverance

7. Yuru Camp | Akiyuki Tateyama

In what the western anime community has collectively dubbed ‘the most comfy’ anime of the year…I like to think that music has had a huge part to do with the show’s reputation. One of Yuru Camp’s many highlights is a mundane sequence of landscapes cycling through the sights of a camping ground, as the tiny speakers of a handheld radio played the charming end sequence song ‘Fuyubiyori’, with the radio host’s friendly voice recommending listeners to dress warmly for the chilly morning to come. The calm, intimate atmosphere of a tent, with the raspy audio from a tiny radio as your refuge from complete silence…the comfy-ness of such abstract ‘moods’ is indeed difficult to properly describe.

But, that’s beside the point: Yuru Camp’s soundtrack is an exercise of tasteful mundanity and eccentric wackiness: the intimate ensemble it utilises for most of its runtime means that the soundscape is decidedly small-scaled and folky, but it is without its extroverted and grand moments.

Primarily, Yuru Camp’s themes are location and mood-based, with two themes dedicated to the activity of camping, and a slew of suites acting as background tracks for each of the camping sites that the characters visit. The main instrumentation utilised here are acoustic guitars, solo violins, recorders, penny whistles, bamboo flutes as well as curious choices in kazoos, banjos and a slew of percussive textures (amongst them: squeaky toys and bike bells). One might imagine a band of travelling friends jamming out these pieces as they hiked up a mountain.

But what exactly elevated this score to the top ten list? Put simply, it’s the ending moments of every camping site; a joyful book-ending to each trip that is exemplified by an event or experience that will be remembered forever, whether it be seeing Mount Fuji below a full moon, a sunrise behind the foggy mountain ranges, or sharing a photo of a star-filled sky with a friend, who’s also camping on the other side of town. The soundtrack sought out those moments, crescendoing to blinding heights of simplistic but genuine grandeur.

Needless to say, Yuru Camp’s soundtrack is one that requires one to experience in context, to truly appreciate its humble achievements and championing of the simple things in life.

Solo Camp Recommendation, Field Time Chit-Chat!

6. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 | Yasuori Mitsuda, ACE, Kenji Hiramatsu, etc

One of the biggest JRPG titles ever to be released on the Nintendo Switch system, it is obvious that the music needs to match the game’s ambitions.

If the Gravity Rush franchise; helmed by an industry legend, is any indication of what is expected…the music production for Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a worldwide ordeal, with recording sections with the homegrown Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra, Irish choral ensemble ANÚNA, the Bratislava Symphony Choir, as well as American pianist and composer Ivan Linn. The team, led by industry veteran Yasuori Mitsuda – who joined the production at the last minute, whose earlier reservations were due to seeing new talents already being booked for the project, and not seeing how his involvement is even needed – sought out an approach that is akin to ‘everything but the kitchen sink’: the game’s stories of intimate, comical, political, philosophical and biblical natures all need catering to, after all.

As a result, what you will find in the six (!) disc extravaganza of an soundtrack album are grand symphonic sketches of a world above the clouds, ethereal choral performances that should grace the biggest cathedrals, powerhouse rock bands and electronic onslaughts that bring their A-game in raw anticipation and unchecked destruction.

The JRPG ethos is a love of unhinged creative drive – a desire to create an experience that places ultimate emphasis on entertainment and emotional catharsis. What is achieved here is nothing short of that.

Mor Ardain, Forsa Myma, Praetor Amalthus – The Acting God

5. Pode | Austin Wintory

Claiming it to be his first project where improvisation is at the centre of the production process, composer Austin Wintory talked in length about his desire to surrender completely to the cultural anchors of the puzzle exploration game Pode, whose story compels the players to help a fallen star find its way home. With game mechanics that is driven by player cooperation, Wintory saw fit to compose the score in skeletal sketches, and having his musicians and soloists fill in the rest with improvised streams of musical consciousness, relying on their performative energies to find a tone that is ‘meditative and ethereal’.

All the while, the Norwegian folk-lore inspired artwork and narrative of the game drove the unique instrumentation of the score, with the utilisation of Hardanger fiddles. However, it may not be stretch to claim that Pode is a natural continuation of his work on Journey and Abzû.

Heat, felt

4. Solo: A Star Wars Story | John Powell

As the third composer to join the astonishingly exclusive club who have contributed to the musical tapestry of the live-action Star Wars universe, John Powell was given the unenviable task of maintaining his own voice, as he worked within the confines of a matured cinematic language, as well as a main theme for the titular hero that John Williams himself wrote.

But unlike Michael Giacchino, who was dealt an even worse hand of being a last-minute replacement with less than a month to complete the score to Rogue One, time constraints is (somewhat) of a lesser concern for Powell, as he confidently gave his all to Solo: Alongside Williams‘ theme for Han Solo, Powell also wrote themes for his confidant Chewbacca, the love interest Qi’ra, the heist crew, and – perhaps the most impressionable of all – a primal female choir-led chant for the Marauders’ theme. As if that wasn’t enough, classic themes from the 40-year old original trilogy were also brought back seamlessly for what Powell cheekily referred to (and even dedicated as a track title) as ‘Reminiscence Therapy’. The composer’s clearly matured voice post-sabbatical is on full display, marrying his complete control of the orchestra with exotic choral work, signature percussive texturing and sheer enthusiasm, resulting in a Star Wars film score that is unmistakably Powell in its stylings, but also fit snugly into the Star Wars universe.

Into the Maw

3. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald | James Newton Howard

You’ve gotta respect James Newton Howard for having the balls to fight for his art: from the onset, Howard was adamant about building an entirely new musical universe for the Fantastic Beasts franchise; one that is parallel to what John Williams built for Harry Potter, but distinct on its own right.

As a result, Fantastic Beasts is a product of defiant but respectful differentiation: there is little evidence to suggest that Howard was willing to sit in the shadows of the past, and so for the first film, he – somewhat haphazardly – jumbled together a library of themes and motivic ideas that represented the world of witch and wizards, almost a century before the events of The Boy Who Lived. For the second entry, we see a clear maturation on Howard’s part, as he thinned the fat around his ideas and solidified his vision, resulting in a film score that is confident in itself, emotionally resonant, and of vintage James Newton Howard mastery of the cinema.

Unfortunately, the inevitable consequence of the streamlining and maturation of a vision means throwing out several attractive ideas from the first film – namely Kowalski’ bumbling theme and Newt Scamander’s ‘quirky’ theme.

Matagots, Wands into the Earth

2. Violet Evergarden | Evan Call

Perhaps THE most discussed and – controversially – beloved anime series of 2018, Violet Evergarden was blessed with a inspired production that saw a pool of talent converging to create a singular product that may be resonant with a worldwide audience – a vision that is made apparent by the multi-lingual promotion material, and the early premiere of its first episode at 2017 Anime Expo in Los Angeles.

Composer Evan Call is certainly a rarity – an American-born composer who sought out composing work in Japan, and ended up working primarily on J-Pop albums and TV anime soundtracks. But Violet Evergarden will likely be his big break, as it is evidently popular with the audience, and has captured a collective fanbase who relishes in its proudly melodramatic disposition.

Amassing a live recording orchestra, speciality soloists and vocalists, Violet Evergarden’s music production is among the most ambitious in recent TV anime history, and Call’s orchestrations (for both the score and several songs) thankfully did it justice: lush melodies, lively performances and a competent adherence to leitmovic composition techniques that string together a musical narrative to follow the story of Violet and her encounters.

Across the Violet Sky, An Admirable Doll, Back in Business

1. Mary Poppins Returns | Marc Shaiman

Talk about the perfect antidote for the times. It must be said that I only knew of the Mary Poppins character through parodies and conversation – namely a Simpsons episode I vaguely remember. So for Mary Poppins Returns to be my cinematic introduction to her would surely to leave an impression.

The Hollywood/Broadway musical – like any other genre of music – is defined by a distinct set of personalities and telling ‘signatures’…and it is rather appropriate that for a self-proclaimed ‘nerd-in-training’, I should begin delving into this universe with a musical palette that is as life-loving and joyful as this.

The ‘signature’ of a grand Hollywood musical is a giant jazz band-augmented symphony orchestra, huge chorus and of course the industry’s biggest names belting out songs and dance numbers at the most inopportune times possible, and musical veteran Marc Shaiman gave us just that, nothing more, and thankfully nothing less, because there is no such thing as ‘too much’ here.

And GOD is it nice to have an actual instrumental overture to kick off a film again, a chance for the music to introduce itself without concern for dialogue. Because BOY do Star Wars (and Mary Poppins herself) need to have a word & song with you, if you think overtures are something to scoff at.

End Title Suite

(The post continues in the next page. You can find the page numbers under the ‘related articles’ section.)

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