When it comes to video game soundtracks, there are classics and then there are Classics, albums that transcend general classification and exist in their own vacuum-packed compartment of aural space and time. These musically amorphous soundtracks have only one point of comparative reference: themselves. That lofty intro brings me to Noriykui Asakura's timeless Tenchu soundtrack, a true pioneer of the Playstation era that has been unsuccessfully emulated over a handful of other soundtrack releases, both by Asakura himself and by several other composers over the course of the Tenchu series. When I hear the music on this album, I happily lose myself in my own headspace and experience an introspective journey that only powerful music such as this can facilitate. Asakura's distinct blend of acoustic instruments and warm percussion mixes seamlessly with ethereal ambiance and string swells that collectively cause me to ease back in my seat, close my eyes and affirmatively tell myself that this, this right here, is what music should feel like.
I had some interesting experiences while penning this review; when I attempted to write about the soundtrack I would completely lose myself in the music and would get completely wrapped up in the atmosphere of the disc, forgetting that my purpose was not just to enjoy the music (I can do that anytime and have been doing so for years), but to also put it into words and share it with you. But, there I was, almost an hour after pressing play, staring at a barren text file containing only two typed words. But, how can I expound on those two mere words and more fully share what the Tenchu soundtrack is all about, short of taking a biopsy of my brain and attaching it to this document? The answer is this: I must focus with the intentions and strength of a ninja. This is where I get to wear cool clothes and sneak around in my neighbors' bushes, or steal my dad's fresh fruit from the kitchen counter and eat it while hiding under my bed, eluding capture and hiding in the shadows. This is also where I should tell you that, thankfully, most of the album is performed with live instruments; aside from the drums and synth pads and a straggler here and there, this album is live, which was something that a Playstation game released in 1998 should be proud to have on its curriculum vitæ.
The album's opener, "add'ua (Opening Theme)" is the perfect epitomization of what you can expect from Tenchu. The first movement is spearheaded by female vocals, with a prominent bass guitar and percussion providing the backbone of the track; suspended synth swells float high above, giving the track a subtly unsettling ambiance before it breaks into a majestic section that foreshadowes the ethnic stringwork that Asakura implements so well during the course of the album. These all build upon one another and coalesce into the spacious final segment of the track, where an acoustic guitar tip-toes around the vocals, gently and beautifully riffing in its own space before the song gracefully fades. Asakura's blending of ethnic acoustics with driving, yet equally understated, bass lines and warm ambiance give the album its trademark sound, which should be patented. Following suit is "aminina (Tenchu Suite)", where stabbing strings and tense ambiance give way to a smooth vocal suite that showcases Asakura's talent for sliding clean, acoustic passages into just about everytheme on the disc. "Faraway (Ending Theme)" is more structured than "add'ua" and "aminina", works wonderfully as an ending theme and an album closer, and has some welcome warm diversity due in no small part to its acoustic interludes.
Asakura taps into feelings of desolation and desperation with "The Princess' Serious Illness", which somehow presents urgency in a completely non-intrusive an beautiful way; as the meandering acoustic guitar gives way to an open, strummed passage the track takes on another identity and right before the loop the mood changes yet once again. One minute you're listening to tense ambiance, and then the next you're hearing major-key guitar chords accentuating a lively drum beat; for one measure ethereal vocals and an upright bass comfort you with a smooth embrace, and the next you're aurally surrounded by loud horns and violins, completely shifting the energy of the track from one end of the spectrum to another. Part of the brilliance of the compositions is the way that the transitions never seem forced or abrupt; somehow Asakura makes these varied sections coherent and natural. Case in point: In "Invasion of the Southern Barbarian Pirates" Asakura fools the listener into thinking that the song is going This Way with calm sound effects of waves breaking and gently string swells, before taking it That Way by incorporating a highly melodic and energetic second section that elevates the mood of the song into another musical dimension. And then, the coy cat that he is, Asakura slows things down with a string-led interlude before the loop. I can barely connect dots without breaking into a sweat and this dude is seamlessly connecting genres and styles that would normally not exist on the same plane of music, never mind the same track, with unquestionable ease.
The walking bass in "Punishing the Corrupt Merchant" sets a lighthearted tone before opening into one of the best level themes on the soundtrack. Completely different from the other tracks on the disc, "Punishing the Corrupt Merchant" instills wonder and curiosity into the listener with its inspirational horn passages and prominent acoustic guitar riffs, and is the first theme that really immerses the listener into the world of ninja. "Crisis" is a fairly straightforward string-led action theme that sets the stage for many an epic Ninja VS Ninja duel. On the other side of the spectrum is the calm and wondrous "Rescuing the Captive Ninja", and the tensely spacious "To the Castle of Demon", the latter featuring some screaming electric guitar that is, somehow, subtly in the background. There are some dark and unsettling tunes on the disc, like "God of a Heretical Religion" and "To the Castle of Darkness", but even with those tracks Asakura finds a few measures to sneak in some memorable and melodic segments that keep the tracks from being too oppressive and allowing the listener to take a deep breath before diving back in. What strikes me as amazing is that while all of the songs on the album are very different and compositionally varied, they all carry Asakura's trademark Tenchu sound; each one is a piece of the cohesive whole without being overly similar to one another, and when you hear any one of these songs you know exactly where it comes from and where it belongs. That, to me, is part of what makes a classic soundtrack a Classic soundtrack.
Tenchu is an aural journey and is not an album you can just load up on your playlist and passively let play in the background. It's a soundtrack that not only deserves my full attention (and yours as well), but it affirmatively demands it with the gentle force of an invisible energy that flows with such presence that there is nothing you can do except surrender yourself, accept its company and comfortably bask in the great music. Let it surround you. I can say without hesitation that this is Noriyuki Asakura's best work, and is a truly timeless and inspirational album that proves that not only can video game music exist outside of the stereotypes of the norm, but that it can also provide an amazing standalone listening experience regardless of the listener's experience with the game in question. A CD truly like no other, Tenchu comes with my highest recommendation, which is a twenty-six out of ten. But, for consistency's sake, a ten out of ten will suffice.