It's hardly a surprise when it comes to Rockman music the instrument most listeners associate it with is the electric guitar. This isn't to say Rockman music is one dimensional, but it really goes without saying most arrangements in Rockman games easily lend themselves to the sound of a guitar. Fans can probably testify to melting in their chairs listening to just about any fan-produced guitar remix of "Dr. Wily Stage 1" or "Flash Man Stage" from Rockman 2 they stumble upon. As for guitar-induced chaos in the X series you need not look far: from "Storm Eagle's Stage" (X) to" X vs. Zero" (X5) to Akemi Kimura and Yuko Komiyama's latest guitar fest in X8. Beyond the original and X series, Ippo Yamada and crew have taken these underlying ideas and crafted a similar yet altogether different experience for the Rockman Zero series.
Rockman fans have really gotten their piece of the musical pie since 2002 with loads of official soundtrack releases coming their way, replacing the game rips they relied on for all those years. However, unlike other big name franchises, remix and arranged CDs are still quite uncommon. While some may say the Power Battle / Power Fighters and Remastered Rockman Zero albums fit into this category, this area is still left up to what fans can create and dig up themselves. These remixes tend to favor the rock 'n' roll side of the Rockman formula than anything else — which I have no problem with — but few take on more adventurous waters above and beyond the series' typecast guitar.
It is these "adventurous waters" one should be concerned with when looking into the one of the few true arrange albums any Rockman series has ever seen. From the outset, Rockman X Alph Lyla with Toshiaki Ohtsubo resists and shuns any attempt of offering fans simple and safe updated synth arrangements of in-game favorites. The disc boasts a live band and most of these arrangements are far from no-brainer upgrades and what would be considered "too safe". In fact, some of these tracks are so re-arranged it's damn hard to find the original melody!
The disc opens with "Prologue - Awakening Road ~Opening: Highway Stage~" which is a take on "Opening Stage", a number I've never held too high of an opinion for outside its nostalgia/in-game use factor. While the original was quite brash in its instrumentation, this version chooses to slow things down. The instruments take turns performing the track's trademark hook and weave a pleasant yet meandering musical path between its multiple appearances. The track does lose some of the identity the original holds: it's rather hard to imagine Sigma's forces wreaking havoc on the city highway when listening to this as opposed to the original. This isn't an error as it is artistic interpretation and exploration.
"Welcome to Mechanical Forest ~Forest Stage~" will be a love it or hate it affair for most listeners. Comprised mostly of guitar backed by techno beats and an angelic/heavenly voice-like synth line emulating Sting Chameleon's theme, this track tends to be more interesting than it is good, but I can appreciate the diversity it brings to the table. "Take Back the Tower ~Tower Stage~" is the first instance where I simply cannot decipher the original melody or isolate it to a single instrument. I tend to think Boomer Kuwanger's theme inspired this jazzy arrangement more than being directly based on it, yet it comes off beautifully with the drums, guitar, and saxophone really pulling together and working as one. Listening to this piece, I can imagine being lost inside the huge apartment complex just wondering which way is the right one (granted that complex may not be armed to the teeth like the tower in the game).
The arrangement of Chill Penguin's stage "Night in the White ~Iceberg Stage~" offers something really special. This serene ambient piece almost makes you forget you being chased by mechanical bats (ah, there're everywhere!) and makes you feel as if your really in a cavern surrounded by ice and your own reflections. The play between the instruments — how the keyboard playfully mimics the piano and later how the saxophone plays over both but doesn't mask them is perfect — creates a very fitting and fulfilling piece. "Scrapping Beat ~Factory Stage~" takes its cue from "Take Back the Tower ~Tower Stage~" but tweaks the instrument usage to make it more representative of a industrial setting; you can almost feel the grind of a long, hard day on the line coming to an end and the repressed hell your going to raise in the city that night after once your shift is over. Again, the original melody is hard to decipher here (can you find Flame Mammoth's stage theme in there?) and the instrument usage is more rigid here than in previous pieces, more or less taking turns than working together.
Track six, "Get Through the Dark ~Tunnel Stage~", is the track most listeners will find to their liking immediately. Unlike the tracks before it, this rendition of Armored Armadillo's theme isn't a completely new build in that it retains that which made it great in the first place. Even though it's predictable, I honestly wouldn't want it any other way. The horns and guitar join a whimsical yet solid beat to make an extremely pleasant and welcome composition. "Spark and Shadow ~Power Plant Stage~" follows in the vein of "Scrapping Beat ~Factory Stage~" but falls short on many levels. When I think of a power plant or of Spark Mandrill in general I think the composition needs to be just a little "rougher" and "edgier" than it is smooth; it doesn't need to be a full out rocker since nothing on here constitutes as such, but it still you wondering what could have been.
"Again ~Underground Stage~" is a combination of two tracks: "Sigma Stage 1" for the duration and "Demo" at the tail end. Much like "Night in the White ~Iceberg Stage~" this track lives and breathes off that empty and hollow feel. However, execution differs as the piano takes center stage for the entire composition. I really can't say how beautiful this version of "Sigma Stage 1" is — if you thought the in-game version underscored X's trials and tribulations in overcoming the loss of Zero on his way to stop Sigma's war, you'll want to hear this. "Reploid King ~Vs Last Boss Stage~" preserves its original melody and, like the previous track, is a combination of two tracks: "Sigma 2nd" makes up the core while "Sigma Stage 4" acts as an interlude at various points. The small interludes consist of shallow beats while the core of the composition is lead by a violin that really conveys the cruelty held within Sigma's every cell (or circuit in this case). The rest of instruments commit themselves to an upbeat jazz backdrop which sounds awkward for a composition such as this but works quite well. The disc closes with "Epilogue - The Transient Silence ~Ending Stage~", where the horns and saxophone come out in full force yet every instrument gets its chance to shine. It is a spirited piece and extremely fitting ending to an equally impressive CD.
In the end, I'm glad I took the time to dig up a copy of this CD (well, it more or less fell on my lap by chance so I didn't do much digging) and I would suggest any serious Rockman/Rockman X fan who is accepting of musical influences outside those common to the series (which shouldn't be a problem for VGM fans in the least) to at least give this a listen. While casual fans will be better sticking with the Rockman X1 ~ X6 box, I would personally like to see more albums like this because, even though I grew up listing to the in-game versions of these pieces all these years, it's always nice to hear a new take on classic themes, official or fan made. Before I wrap this up, I feel the need to mention the packaging for this album. Each arrangement has its own specific artwork upon two facing pages within the thick, high-gloss booklet along with development sketches/notes, in-studio snapshots, and a sticker of the Rockman X logo. Anyway, if you're a big Rockman X fan and want to hear something that is familiar yet altogether different, I'd recommend finding a copy of Rockman X Alph Lyla with Toshiaki Ohtsubo.