In recent years, GEM Impact has grown into a very successful company. Headed by Norihiko Hibino, it has garnered success with its various soundtrack contributions, such as those in the Metal Gear Solid series, the anime Blassreiter, and various arrange albums, mainly dedicated to the Etrian Odyssey series. In their most recent release, Ninja Blade Original Soundtrack, the composers at GEM Impact — Norihiko Hibino, Yoshitaka Suzuki, Takahiro Izutani, and Takehide Azuyawa — craft an album that fuses Eastern and Western ideas. Do they succeed? Well, Norihiko Hibino seems to think so. In the liner notes for this album, he stated that through team communication and the various talents of each composer, they were able to bring out the best in each other. The producer of the game, Masanori Takeuchi, also seems to agree. He states that the music also influenced, in part, the overall design of the game. Now, is this just hype or is there actually something worthwhile on the album?
Norihiko Hibino, while only contributing four pieces, of which two are arrangements, really shocked me on this one. Every single one of his works here are incredibly diverse and emotional. That can't be said without mentioning the main theme of Ninja Blade. The track begins with an Asian ambient feel, not dissimilar to his works from the Metal Gear Solid series. The piece quickly unfolds with some amazing saxophone work backed by some really peaceful strings. Again, the mood slowly expands downward, almost like you can feel things getting worse. Then the most amazing thing happens. The percussion goes into a frenzy and you hear your first glimpses of electric guitar. The saxophone comes back, playing a much creepier melody. As soon as you get entranced in that section, it all drops out for an ethereal experience with a flute and piano. The track then takes us into a section with the full orchestra, choir, and an acoustic guitar. The mood here has shifted again as well. You can feel a sense of hope, like there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just close your eyes, you will see it. Hibino keeps this up with the vocal piece of the album.
"Beanstalk" is probably one of the most emotional video game vocal themes I've ever heard. It's also one of the most different pieces I've heard. The track starts out very ambient, without a whole lot of instrumentation besides some echoing percussion. Yuki Koyanagi's voice fits this perfectly. The verses are in English, and the chorus is in Japanese. This makes for an experience almost anyone can understand and become a part of. Musically, the piece doesn't do a whole lot, but that's what makes it so emotional. Hibino is a master at crafting emotion out of ambience, and this track is the pinnacle of his experience with that. You will just have to listen, I can't really explain it any farther than that. He also takes this theme and arranges it twice for the album. The acoustic version is a jazzy rendition with piano and a string bass. It is nice, but I much prefer the next arrangement. The epilogue version of "Beanstalk" is entirely piano and acoustic guitar based. The end takes the jazz feel of the last arrangement, but there is something a bit more bittersweet about this one. The solo piano in the intro almost brings you to tears. With all three versions of this track, everyone can enjoy this amazing piece.
Takahiro Izutani was responsible for many of the action based themes that dominate this soundtrack. His first contribution, "In Skyscraper", sets the style of most of his compositions throughout the soundtrack. It's an intense action oriented theme with plenty of fusion, something recurrent on this soundtrack. The overall tone of the piece is very frenetic and dark, something attributed to the excellent use of string and brass harmonies. Through some nice percussion work, it manages to keep an excellent pace. The most striking part of the piece, in my opinion, is the use of the shakuhachi. The flittering sounds of the woodwind instrument help to fuse the idea of East meets West and provide some excellent accents to the string/brass led piece. Another one of the action based themes, "Speed Chase", focuses a lot of crisis string motifs. They are the driving force throughout most of the piece, though other elements really help to make a much more interesting and intriguing piece. At times, there will be some haunting vocal work, while at others, shakuhachi passages help give a nice contrast to the overall piece. The electronica beat and percussion also go a long way in helping to craft an exhilarating theme that manages to capture the essence of a chase perfectly.
"Surrounded" is another theme that focuses on string motifs and driving percussion. It's a very tense piece, filled with some exotic percussion lines, some grunge metal sections, and some interesting orchestral flourishes. One of the most striking touches is the inclusion of some foreboding piano. While the piano isn't anything complex, the very simplicity of it makes it standout all the more. The various electronic elements also manage to add a bit of chaos, as if something is shorting out and is after you. "Chaos" is probably my favorite of Izutani's action based themes. Featuring some excellent saxophone work and some piercing brass accents, it manages to convey a nice sense of urgency. While it's not extremely chaotic in nature at all times, there are a ton of elements that go into the piece. At times you'll hear some choir usage, at others electric guitar. In the end, it manages to be chaotic, mainly through the constantly shifting soundscapes. It's an excellent example of Izutani's work.
In addition to the action-based themes, he was also responsible for many of the game's battle themes, whether individually or cooperatively. The first battle theme of the album, "Shinjuku Battle", combines both Norihiko Hibino and Takahiro Izutani's talents. Starting off with some very foreboding brass and industrial beats, it instantly gives a sense of danger. Very suspenseful in nature, the major accomplishment of this piece is the string work, which works to heighten the atmosphere immensely. Small shakuhachi passages and some dramatic choral work serve to contrast one another. In the end, the fusion of industrial beats, strings, and brass help to create an excellent atmosphere for battle. It also reminds me a bit of Metal Gear Solid, no doubt due to Hibino's contributions to that series. The remaining Izutani's battle theme contributions are also quite good. "Boss Battle" manages to be even more exhilarating and suspenseful than "Shinjuku Battle". Unlike that one, this piece includes a much more prominent use of bombast. The percussion work is absolutely marvelous and really helps to create a nice sense of tension. In addition, the most of the piece features in your face brass sections that help to heighten this sense of urgency. There is some string and choir passages but they are very minimal in terms of the overall piece, but they do some nice contrast to the piece.
The last two battle theme contributions from Izutani are much more dramatic in nature. "Fatal Confrontation" is a very slow-paced battle theme that features some excellent distorted guitar work. In addition, the brass melody gives off a very epic nature, yet at the same time, it also gives a feeling of desperation. Throughout the piece, string work manages to help add a very suspenseful element to the piece, as do the dark, simplistic piano passages, similar to that heard in "Surrounded". This piece also carries a very MGS-inspired sound, but it is also one of the more impressive pieces on the album. Lastly, "Big Enemies" serves as the final showdown piece. This piece changes as it progresses. Starting off, it features some very foreboding percussion work that helps to create a tense atmosphere while the use of choir helps to create a sinister, yet grandiose, sound. As the theme advances, the focus on choir diminishes while sinister passages filled with dark piano and epic brass take the forefront. It's probably my favorite section of the theme. Eventually, it moves into a very calm section that focuses on subtle soundscapes, mainly electronica based, serving as one of those "calm before the storm" moments. Crisis string motifs also serve to connect various pieces of the theme. The last portion of the theme manages to combine the epic brass nature and the choir before ending with a final bell toll.
Izutani also managed to create a couple non-action themes, such as "Searching" and "The Lonesome Hero". "Searching," to me, is probably the weakest composition on the entire album, if taken out of context. It's a very dark, creepy piano piece that features some interesting electronic sound effects. It's a bit on the monotonous side, but does give this sense of being lost. It's probably extremely effective in game. "The Lonesome Hero," co-composed by Yoshitaka Suzuki and Takahiro Izutani, starts out very depressing. It features some solemn string work, which seems to give off this feeling that the hero is alone in this world, whether by choice or by events forced upon him. It's a very dramatic piece, filled with a variety of emotions. At times, you'll feel pangs of sadness, while at others, you'll feel rather tense as the solemn string work transforms into a more action oriented theme brim full of Asian soundscapes and electronica. It seems to give the listener this feeling that the hero's quest isn't quite over.
Yoshitaka Suzuki is probably the most emotional composer on this album. While everyone else showed a variety of their talents, Suzuki stayed in the back composing all the tracks that were meant to get to us. "Opening" is a prime example of this. Throughout the piece, there is this sense of mystery; however, as it progresses, the piano carrying the string section into the epic full orchestral closing really excels in showing you that this is going to be a deep game. "Kuroh's Betrayal" has the same effect on you, if a bit stronger. This piece has quite a few elements thrown into the mix to create a strong sense of ambience. The acoustic guitar and piano in the intro have somewhat of a sad sound, and when combined with the haunting vocals, leave the listener in a sense of profound awe. Even with the orchestral flourishes and developments that are found throughout the piece, it still manages to hold that ambience for most of the piece. It's truly a sad theme, as someone close to the hero has betrayed some sort of trust between them. It really is an incredible piece that everyone should check out. "Debriefing," serving as a portion of the ending theme sequence, manages to tie together the East meets West. The sense of hope that is instilled upon the listener through the strings and acoustic guitar also help to accentuate the sense of freedom that is portrayed by the flittering shakuhachi passage. This track is a wonderful conclusion to a battle I bet was filled with emotion and unrest.
The rest of Suzuki's pieces are mostly ambient area themes or scenes that don't do a whole lot. That doesn't mean they aren't good though. Sometimes ambience is the perfect way to paint a picture in the listener's head of what the track represents. Before departing from Suzuki, I would like to mention his battle theme contribution, "Sudden Confrontation". Presumably, this battle theme is when the hero faces off against Kuroh. For someone who didn't take many of the action themes on the soundtrack, he does a fine job at crafting a sense of urgency during battle. The brass and string sections manage to create a tense atmosphere while the percussion and electronica combine to create a creative driving force for the piece. Even through all of this, it manages to maintain a bit of a slower dramatic flair at times. It's one of Suzuki's greatest contributions, if you ask me.
Takehide Ayuzawa's lone solo contribution on here fits that bill perfectly. "Big Father" is a slow progressive piece, mixed with Asian strings and looming percussion. Later on, however, the track takes a turn from the peaceful ambient sound and brings the orchestra out in full force. The track comes to an end with a solo shamisen improvising the main melody into the close. In addition to his solo contribution, he also helped contribute to two other themes, "Ninja Story" and "Kuroh". The former is definitely a piece that can sum up the entire style of the album in one composition. Hibino's saxophone work helps to craft this dark, moody atmosphere, like those found in a smoky bar. It works fantastically with the electronica and orchestral elements found throughout the piece. It's a very diverse piece, with slower and more upbeat sections, that manages to combine both Eastern and Western elements. Aside from the main theme, this piece is definitely a representation of the overall sound of the album. "Kuroh" also manages to throw in the jazz influence heard in "Ninja Story," but does so in a much more foreboding manner. The deep bass line, combined with the brass, creates a very sinister soundscape in the first portion of the piece. As it progresses, it becomes a bit more action oriented, with deep percussion beats, almost tribal in sound, combining with electronica elements. At the same time, it manages to throw in some Eastern influences with the shakuhachi and shamisen. It's a very nice fusion of sounds and just hearing this piece, one can tell that Kuroh is probably not so nice of a person, if the hero knows him.
While I have always had high hopes for GEM Impact and their future, I never expected anything like this. While a total of four composers worked on this, their styles intermixed perfectly. Hibino was able to express himself in his native jazz style and managed to craft an evocative vocal piece and subsequent arrangements. Izutani made it clear you can have rockin' battle themes without actually using any rock elements, yet he was also able to craft some more ambient pieces, such as "Searching". Suzuki showed us there is beauty in ambience, while also crafting some emotional themes and a stunning battle theme. Ayuzawa proved to us you don't need a lot of exposure to let your name be known. He managed to use his strengths to help fortify the other pieces in which he helped co-compose. Every composer had their own goal here and they all came together to give us something that borders on perfection. Anyone who is a fan of GEM Impact or is just looking for something that raises the bar for future VGM needs to pick this up. I don't think anyone will be disappointed here.