After scoring Gradius, Yie Ar Kung Fu, and Knightmare, Miki Higashino tackled her fourth solo score, the 1986 Gradius series Arcade spinoff Salamander. The score maintained the upbeat and melodic flavour of Gradius, but was far more refined musically and technologically. It thus stands as an intermediate between Gradius and Gradius III but still establishes a curious character of its own. Ten years later, the series was revived but Higashino, busy with the Suikoden franchise, didn't return and was replaced by Bemani artist Naoki Maeda the little-known Yo Takamine. The result was one of the greatest shooter scores ever created. Both scores were commemorated in 2003's Salamander Arcade Soundtrack after the successful equivalent release for the Gradius series a year later. The result is an excellent and accessible album that has a few problems where the decision of 'to purchase or not to purchase' is concerned.
The immediately striking aspect of Salamander's score is the way it cuts straight to the chase. Only ten tracks long, Higashino dives into the stage themes rather than offersing introductory themes equivalent to Gradius' "Morning Music". However, the meat is nothing as wild, enthusiastic, or frenetic as Gradius' stage themes, as Higashino takes a more focused and restrained approach. The 1st stage theme "Power of Anger" is not as emotionally extravagant as the title might suggest; the power is in the triumphant shape of its scalar runs, the anger in their frustrating suspensions to mild discords. The composition is nevertheless attractive on a melodic level meaning its emotional subtlety doesn't detract from one's enjoyment. "Fly High" suits the game's vertical-scrolling 2nd stage with its largely ascending arpeggio patterns. It's very lyrical and wholesome in its simplicity and innocence.
The 3rd stage music, "Planet Ratis", seems to be constructed from a chord progression rather than a distinctive melodic idea meaning its focal point is a little vanilla despite the pleasing harmonic substance and variety. "Starfield" for the 4th stage takes a similar approach and ends up being probably the weakest of the themes. The chord progressions are very transparent here, but the melodies hardly stray from them giving an obligatory sound. Its sole merit is the pleasing contrast in character between its two main sections. The 5th stage's "Burn the Wind" employs use of more buoyant ascending arpeggio patterns in its initial phrase but powerfully answers it with a series of unpredictable suspensions. "Destroy Them All" for the final stage is most reminiscent of the unrestrained boldness and eccentric development of some of Gradius' themes. The persistent beats and arpeggiated accompaniment add a sense of urgency. The agitated chromatic progressions and wild melodies maintain the impact. The result is another great theme with underlying coherency.
As for the boss themes, Gradius' made a then-unexpected return in "Aircraft Carrier" ensuring its status as an immortalised theme. It's still a nine second chord progression repeated again and again and sounds even more thin and bland than unusual here. Fortunately, the original boss music for Salamander, "Snake Poison", achieves intensity and is quite memorable. Like some of Gradius' stage themes, it imposes itself upon listeners through revolving between two notes at an awkward interval from each other. Rhythm and tension is attained before a somewhat triumphant resolution occurs. The ranking theme "Peace Again" creates a calming youthful sound with classically-oriented phrases created on crystalline synth. For the many who failed, the similarly styled but more repetitious "Crystal Forever" reassures at the game over screen. Overall, the Salamander score proves to be a significant improvement upon its predecessor with some stellar stage themes.
Interestingly, three tracks from Salamander were replaced for its Western adaptation Life Force. I didn't think "Fly High" should have been changed to the altogether more busy "Slash Fighter". The new composition has a rock flavour influenced by Motoaki Furukawa's various Gradius 2 works; while highly enjoyable and appealing to overseas fans, it is perhaps too intense for the 2nd stage. More appropriate was the change of "Starfield" to "Slash Fighter", a harmonically dynamic and melodically pleasing upbeat rock composition. However, the change of "Burn the Wind" for "Combat" seems to disrupt the dramatic buildup of the soundtrack further. The new composition uses very cutesy synth and has some obnoxious whiny qualities. It's one-dimensional and inappropriate for the penultimate stage. Overall, the Life Force additional tracks swapped two good themes and one average one for two excellent ones and one bad one. The rationale behind some of the changes seems dubious, but the alternative versions only enhance the content and diversity of the Arcade Soundtrack so are welcome out-of-context of the game.
After a brief but well done orchestral introduction, Salamander 2 dives straight into the stage themes. Though the 1st stage's "Silvery Wings Again" doesn't exude with excellence, its pronounced melody and rhythmical accompaniment set the scene for some exceptional works. "Sensation" features the catchiest opening figures of the score while evoking an otherworldly floating feel with its mesmerising synth lead. "All Is Vanity" offers a delicious and brooding soundscape only possible through the score's superior technical capacity, maintaining it with exemplarily timed additions of keyboard licks and orch hits during its extensive development. The score further intensifies with "Serious! Serious! Serious!", a fine blend of crisis motifs and triumphant fluorishes, not to mention derivation and individualism; similarly, the beat-heavy "Speed" is full of impetus in its introduction and danger in its development with just enough melodic fragments to provide a jubilant undertone. The straightforward melody and exacting pace of the final stage's "Dear Blue" makes its pre-loop turn wonderfully sinister.
Unlike other games in the Gradius / Salamander franchise, Salamander 2 features multiple boss themes. There are four altogether, some used only once, others used for several stage bosses, creating a decent variety. The 1st stage boss theme "Theme of the Gorem" is an excellent arrangement of the Salamander's boss theme. The first section sounds alien on the synth presented while the more melodic passage is very fulfilling. The even stages boss theme "Theme of the Mechanical Boss" is a percussion and synth fest surely fitting for the enemy depicted while the 3rd and 5th stage's "Theme of the Living Boss" exudes an incredible sound through its fusion of synthetic instruments. The final boss theme "Giga's Rage" is climactic, dominated by crisp furious scalar synth runs and, in moderately anthemic passages, dramatic ascending chord progressions. This is the most intense music I've heard in the Gradius / Salamander franchise and makes it all the more clear that Yo Takamine and Naoki Maeda have excelled where even Motoaki Furukawa and Miki Higashino have disappointed.
But that's not all! Naoki Maeda offers three arrangements of some classic Salamander series themes. The Arcade Salamander's 1st and 3rd stage themes, "Power of Anger" and "Planet Ratis", are arranged. The former maintains all the catchiness of the original but makes it more outwardly emotional and powerful due to fuller synth and plenty of frills in the accompaniment. "Planet Ratis" is another accomplished arrangement featuring a hard rock bass line but a lighter melody. The other addition is an arrangement of the MSX Salamander's bonus stage theme "Last Exit". This trance-infused arrangement is very enjoyable even without familiarity with the little-known original. The final Salamander 2 themes are the ecstatic synthy ending theme "Beginning from the Endless", the groovy naming BGM "What's Your Name?", and some concluding twiddles to accompany the game over screen. Nothing exceptional, but a pleasant conclusion to a memorable, emotional, and technically accomplished soundtrack. Overall, Salamander 2's score is outstanding.
Salamander Arrange Version
The arranged version for the Salamander Arcade Soundtrack is limited to two arrangements from Motoaki Furukawa. This a disappointment given the breadth and quality of the arranged section for the Gradius Arcade Soundtrack, though at least there isn't a shortage of Salamander series arrangements elsewhere. They're both treated with guitar-led smooth jazz-rock fusion music one would come to expect from Furukawa. "Sensation" is a straightforward arrangement that stimulates one's senses despite an overall insufficient harmonic support and some dragging moment. "Slash Fighter" is a slight diversion from his usually style since it aims for a more sleazy sound with its bluesy piano chords and some 'oohs' from some vocal sample library. The production values are really superficial here, especially the sporadic vocal samples, though the groove is quite nice. Overall, I'm not a fan of Furukawa's work since he left Konami and these two arrangements are just further examples of his mediocrity on auto-pilot.
I'd strongly recommend anyone familiar with the Gradius series to check out its spinoff's music. Salamander is a far stronger and more consistent effort than Gradius despite being made just a year later. Salamander 2 surpasses all four main Gradius scores musically and technologically, in my opinion, remaining my favourite of Konami's shooter scores. This set documents both in full and, though the arranged section disappoints, it's still just a bonus. For those not familiar with the Gradius franchise, it's easily possible to appreciate the Salamander Arcade Soundtrack out-of-context, though I'd recommend the Gradius Arcade Soundtrack as your initial purchase as it's more historically significant and a better purchase. Overall, the Salamander Arcade Sountrack is not quite a definitive purchase for a game music fan, but still very highly recommended.