Dragon Quest IV: Guided People was one of the most unique RPGs for its time when it was released for the Nintendo in 1992. It was the last game in the Dragon Quest franchise to be released on the NES and the first game of the Heaven (Tenku) trilogy. The game itself actually has been remade for PlayStation in 2001, but unfortunately, the developer, Heartbeat, terminated all of its game development operations. We may never see the English remade version of this epic game. The PlayStation game music was nonetheless released with a remastered version of the 1990 Symphonic Suite by the NHK Symphony Orchestra under the catalog number SVWC-7112/3 and is discussed in a latter part of this review. Initially, though, I'll discuss the Symphonic Suite itself.
I must honestly say, Dragon Quest IV's Symphonic Suite is my favorite of all Dragon Quest's numerous albums. Deserved of being described as a masterpiece and one of the most important work in Koichi Sugiyama's discography, it has sustained six reprints and has been interpreted by four different orchestras — NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, live by the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra, and, of course, most famously, the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The strength of its melodies are reflected by the heavy inclusion of Dragon Quest IV themes into mixed albums, e.g. Best of selections or the recently released Brass Quintet and String Quartet albums. It also introduced the theme of Torneko (aka Taloon), the big-bellied merchant that has appeared in several spinoffs; those who played Torneko: The Last Hope will note just how many variations of Torneko's amazing theme are available.
The CD is introduced with the classic "Overture," which appears at the start of most DQ albums to suitably set the scene; there isn't anything special here and no significant variations from the interpretation heard of the theme in Dragon Quest III's Symphonic Suite. The "Menuet" is where the unique experience begins and is one of the my favourite castle themes from the entire series. Dark, fairly complex, dominated by strings, and written in the style of a Baroque minuet, the arrangement sees emphatic violin passages be contrasted with a mixture of lighter and more beautiful sections, resulting in an amazing array of colour overall. The other setting themes are also strong. The slow-paced and cinematic "Mysterious Dungeon" works beautifully in conjunction with the melancholic "Elegy" that appears in the same track, even if it's not exactly to my taste. "Frightening Dungeons ~ Cursed Towers" is a strange whimsical duo of themes that distorts melodies and features plenty of chromaticism, though is fitting and charming nonetheless. Most impressively, "The Unknown Castle" radiates with warmth thanks to its subtle instrumentation use and gorgeously shaped violin melodies. It also offers complex interludes featuring mysterious chromatic buildups, sudden bursts of dissonance from brass, and playful sections dominated by cross-rhythms, which builds back into the original section with amazing richness.
The centrepiece of the Symphonic Suite are two large medleys. One, "Comrades," is an excellent medley of all the Dragon Quest IV character themes and amounts to over 10 minutes in length. Opening with the simplistic "Interlude," it transitions into the proud yet serene "The Warrior Conquers Alone," the lyrical and uplifting "March of the Capricious," and the famous Torneko's theme before reaching its apex with the rendition of the gliding "Gypsy's Dance" and its mysterious counterpart "Gypsy's Journey." It concludes with a brief reference to "Interlude" that sounds a little out-of-place, but bring the theme back to its starting point like most of Sugiyama's medleys do. The town themes are also well-arranged into a medley. Opening with the cheerful and dainty "In a Town," the theme transitions into the highly enjoyable ragtime-influenced "Casino Rag" at around 1:19 (depending on the recording you're listening to), which is one of my favourite interpretations of the piece, despite my overall preference for the piano rendition. Also included is a grandiose rendition of the Colosseum theme and a recapitulation of the original theme to finish. These medleys both expose the melodies excellently, encompass a wide range of styles and moods, and feature seamlessly crafted transitions. Though fine highlights, some will find it disappointing that the individual themes were not arranged separately, but the medleys do add coherency to the disc.
A few tracks on the album have experimental tendencies, but nonetheless sustain the high quality of the disc. The two travelling themes, "Balloon's Flight" and "Sea Breeze," are both quite discordant, appearing on the same track in the NHK print of the album, but separately on the four other prints. "Sea Breeze," my favourite of the two, plays while riding the boat and is very beautiful. It may, however, initially baffle people because there is an improvised section at 1:42 and the dissonant trombone melody at 2:04 sounds a bit inappropriate on first listen. When the track is listened to as a whole, though, everything comes together well and it's evident the improvisation was necessary to represent the effect of ocean waves. The penultimate track on the album, "Battle of the Glory," features the most powerful and melodious battle music of the Dragon Quest series, and are arrangements of various themes from Sugiyama's 1989's score to Godzilla vs. Biollante. Invigorating and accessible, the best part comes with the rendition of the boss theme circa 2:56. Though I've usually found Sugiyama's battle themes to be quite weak, this 8 minute medley of battle themes is an exception; while still atonal, it isn't jarringly dissonant. After all the tension built up here, the album comes to a close with "Ending," a 5:11 masterpiece that can take your breath away. The music is very majestic and grandiose, and a perfect way to close the music for this saga.
Disc Two of the fourth print of the Symphonic Suite, represented by the catalog number SVWC-7112/3, is the soundtrack for the PlayStation adaptation of Dragon Quest IV that was released in 2001 in Japan. I don't have a lot to talk about the second disc since the tracks are just the same as those of the original NES version except with improved synth. But I must say that the sound driver they choose for Dragon Quest IV is poor and actually the same sound driver as Dragon Quest VII's soundtrack. It is greatly inferior to the Dragon Quest VI sound driver, which maximized the potential of SNES music to the limit, though it's really not a problem since Sugiyama's music is good on any sound driver.
It's worth adding that there are a few new arrangements here to represent settings at night. "Nighttime Menuet" is the "Menuet" theme performed on synthesized harpsichord. It's a nice arrangement, though should have been performed at a faster tempo. "Nighttime In a Town" is also good — a slow arrangement of the spiritful original town music.
As a whole, Dragon Quest IV's Symphonic Suite is unmissable. All the arrangements are finely done in a classically-oriented style and many reach epic heights. Though I usually skip "Elegy" and "Balloon's Flight," simply because of personal taste, I frequently listen to everything else on the album. I like Dragon Quest IV's music the best and it seems that Sugiyama does too. It's an excellent starting point for those wanting to be introduced to Sugiyama's music and a must-have for the composer's fans. All prints have their value, though the recent Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra or initial two London Philharmonic Orchestra prints offer more value for money than SVWC-7112/3 with its potentially missable PlayStation version.
In my last three reviews, I was constantly mentioning the takeoff of the Dragon Quest series, musically, when Sugiyama embraced musical experimentation. Well, that takeoff has arrived. Dragon Quest IV had the most musically rewarding, richly orchestrated, complex, and interesting music of the series upon its release. Sugiyama takes a few great chances, as you will see with the epic "Comrades", and most of them come out sounding spectacular. On the other hand, towards the end the quality of the music begins to severely slack off, but only for a few pieces.
This review will be structured the same as my other reviews in this series. I will review the music itself followed by a comparison of two of the recordings, one by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and one by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, which is the most recent recording. After that, I will review yet another recording, focusing on it by itself. Why not in conjunction with other two releases? Because those other two recordings are more readily available, and the one by the NHK Symphony Orchestra is very difficult to find. I won't focus on the Dragon Quest IV Concert Live in 2002 recording, even though it is considered an official print, for obvious reasons.
For the first time, Sugiyama spices things up a tad with the Dragon Quest "Overture". Instead of the same, bouncy brass beginning of the previous overtures, Sugiyama gives us brass fanfares with some interesting chord progressions before the piece leads into the "Overture" that we all know. The arrangement here has some constantly chugging string work as brass take on the theme.
The Tokyo Metropolitan gets off to a poor start with this track, with the opening trumpet lines not having quite enough punch. The main issue is quite surprising because both the London Philharmonic and the Tokyo Met have the same problem. The brass is not nearly strong enough in either. The theme should be bold and powerful, but the Tokyo Met has too much resonance, making things blend together slightly. For the London Phil, the brass simply isn't loud enough.
The NHK Symphony has the same issue that the Tokyo Met had. The beginning is weak, and the trumpets sound strangely artificial. Actually, one issue that seems to plague most of the tracks on the NHK Symphony version is muffled sound. The brass sounds rather foggy, and the strings sound a tad tinny, and the percussion, particularly the cymbals, are weak. Nothing really stands out in this recording of the famous "Overture".
Most all of Sugiyama's castle themes are Baroque-inspired. Here is no different. "Menuet" has a very interesting theme in that it consists of a slow, ascending arpeggio followed by faster descending figures, leading to the next phrase with a descending string arpeggio followed by an ascending scale. There is a quicker, more playful section right before the theme repeats. Then a developmental section brings in some nice dynamics and a sweet violin solo before the theme reprises once again.
The London Philharmonic achieves something great with this track. Their technicality is absolutely perfect, but they also have the dynamics down, with the softest pianos giving way, at times immediately, to some strong fortes. The Tokyo Metropolitan performance has too much vibrato. I usually don't notice that sort of thing in performances, but here, when the opening strings of what should be a very steady piece, the strings sound like they're trying to bring too much emotion to this piece. The violin solo in the middle contains too much legato. There is also an issue with the violins being too soft and airy. Their notes are not sharp, but rather far too flowing, and they also lack volume.
The NHK Symphony takes "Menuet" at a tempo far faster than either of the other recordings. At times, when the string writing is rather thin, this helps to move the piece along into the more complex sections, but most of the time, it just seems too rushed, especially during the violin solo. However, the dynamics are fantastic and the performance is technically sound.
In a way, I've both been dreading and looking forward to reviewing this track. On one hand, it is one of my favourites of the entire Dragon Quest series. On the other hand, it's ten minutes long and goes through so many different sections that I fear I may take up a bit more room than I'd like with this track. Here we go. The track begins very playfully with pizzicato strings and chimes, as well as some light percussion keeping up the tempo, performing a delightful, but short theme. A timpani roll and some descending harp figures bring the piece to its first real section. This part is simply amazing. It features a lovely melody, first heard by a solo horn then by strings with wind providing additional colour. The theme is slightly heroic, although not in the 'ballsy' sort of way, and slightly romantic.
The next theme comes in rather abruptly with some slightly comedic sounding chord progressions by brass. Then the melody comes in by solo trumpet. It's clumsy, yet adventurous sounding. There are some very interesting string figures here, sliding from note to note. This leads to a statement of the theme by strings with each phrase being separated by the twinkling of the glockenspiel. Descending scales for brass take the track away into the next section. This one is very pastoral, with high, fluttering woodwinds providing the chord progressions. The double basses play a melody in their lower registers. It is an adorable theme, and the extremes between the registers in the winds and strings ensure that the track stays very quirky. The theme repeats, adding strings and a low bassoon doubling the bass.
This melody literally leads us directly into the next section, and by far the best. It is, if I recall correctly, one of two 'gypsy music' pieces from Dragon Quest IV. It is a blast to listen to, with a theme that I can never decide whether it sounds Arabian or Spanish. The theme is carried by the strings as a plethora of percussion, tambourines and castanets included, chatter away. The theme is wildly adventurous and each phrase flows logically into the next. Percussive, but low key, brass provide some interesting harmonies. The climax of this section leads into a beautiful, passionate violin solo ending with a rather complex finale for the violin. Then we're onto the next section. It is more 'gypsy music'. I couldn't tell you what culture it sounds like, but it's still a delight to listen to with a theme provided by pizzicato strings and glockenspiel with some interesting orchestrations. It is a very serious, minor key section, although it also features some lush interludes. Then we're onto the bookend section once more, with its cute pizzicato strings and glockenspiel that opened this mammoth track. What a ride!
I'll save myself some room and just go ahead and say it. The London Philharmonic's performance is by far the best. They hit all the notes with such precision, and the recording captures every single detail of orchestration. Each section is a self-contained piece, but there is a nice flow between them, probably due to the fact that the London Phil plays this one absolutely steadily. The Tokyo Metropolitan, again, is too concerned with drama and dynamics that they lose out. They try to polish off every section, making the entire piece suffer for it. Also, in no track is the sound quality more of an issue than here. The notes, whether they are from the strings or an oboe or a trumpet, blend together. There's an unnatural amount of reverb here that causes each section to appear more like a wash of sound. The dynamics, however, are probably better than the London Phil, although in this piece that's not necessarily a good thing. Crisp and clean is what this piece needed, and man did the London Phil give us their all.
The pizzicato strings on the NHK Symphony version seem particularly... pluckly, almost sloppily so. The harp that ushers in the first section, however is crystal clear, boding well for the rest of the piece. This recording maintains a very good atmosphere and keeps the emotions high. The dated sound actually works for the NHK's advantage this time. It adds an extra sense of nostalgia to many of the movements here. Unfortunately, the sound quality doesn't always work to their advantage with the brass and winds in the second section being particularly muffled sounding. The gypsy theme sections are played much faster than the other recordings, again sounding rushed, so much so, in fact, that the strings actually noticeably miss a note!
4) In a Town
Here comes the town medley. As you may recall, I was less than impressed with the town theme for Dragon Quest I and simply hated the one from Dragon Quest II. I feel that Sugiyama got much better with these tracks when he began letting his creative side take hold, coming up with some inspired orchestrations and being able to really just dive into a lot of different styles. That was especially true of Dragon Quest III's town theme, and he continues the trend here. Beginning some playful strings, the piece builds into the main melody. It is quirky and delightful and fun. The clarinets take on this part of the theme until some light brass takes over with the next, lush section with some lovely string harmonies. Then the strings take it over, ensuring that every section of the orchestra has had a chance to mingle with the theme. Then the flutes come in, and the rhythm changes into something slightly jazzier.
Then we're off to the "casino theme", and man is it fun! It's pure Americana and very bluesy with a swinging trumpet solo with some clarinet colouring. Then a trombone takes over the theme with the clarinets being replaced by muted trumpets. Then comes a lush section for beautifully dissonant strings, sliding from note to note, with each phrase separated by the knocking of a woodblock. Then the trumpets come back in before a slightly misplaced Classical trumpet fanfare comes in, taking the piece to the next section. It begins with a light wash of strings as a flute, then an oboe, carry the next melody. It is not clear about its emotional content, being playful at times and very serious at others. This builds into a statement of the theme by strong brass, and it is now apparent that the theme will take itself serious. This theme is constantly being mixed with the town theme from the beginning of the track, making the sections contrast very greatly. A section for strong, unison strings brings us to the climax of this movement. Then we're back to the original theme, but with some different orchestrations, with strings taking a much bigger part than before.
In the past few tracks, I found the Tokyo Metropolitan to be slightly lazy sounding, never quite being on tempo. They've fixed the problem here, but not really in the best of ways. When the track began and the Tokyo Met was playing the melody about as fast as they could, I checked the track times between the two performances to see how much longer the London Philharmonic recording of this piece was. To my surprise, it was only about seventeen seconds longer. Why does this matter? Because it means that the Tokyo Met will be having a very inconsistent performance, tempo wise. I was right. When the bluesy section comes in, the tempo is nearly exactly what the London Phil's was, except the Tokyo Met had to slow down considerably and rather abruptly to get to that tempo. Also, they don't seem to have the greatest grip on the blues section. In the heroic final section before the original theme repeats, the brass on the Tokyo Met doesn't carry the theme strongly enough. After that, it's pretty much all the same issues I've had before: muddled recording and overly dramatic performing. And the London Phil does what it always does: play with perfection with a recording quality that captures all of Sugiyama's intricate orchestrations. An easy choice, this one was.
The NHK Symphony's performance starts off sounding a bit too lazy, but it soon gets its act together when the woodwinds come in. The performance here is light, much lighter than the other two recordings, which is good for a town theme. Unfortunately, when the blues section comes in, the NHK botches it. All the other orchestrations besides the showcase, the brass, are heard perfectly. The drums are surely too loud in this section as well. The brass lacks strength in the heroic final section before the repeat also. There also seem to be a few issues with tempo with this version of the piece. It's constantly slowing down, dramatically, but never gets back on track right away, lagging behind for a bit.
5) Homeland ~ Wagon Wheel's March
What an interesting track this is. It begins with some longing, lush string writing before moving into something quite adventurous, although with a somewhat standard sounding chord progression. A flute takes on the melody with some more lush string writing providing harmonies. This track is great because of the interaction between the orchestra. The strings, while playing their harmonies, effortlessly take over the melody. Then it's up to a horn solo, with woodwind trills, to carry the melody. Then the winds pull the same effect that the strings did earlier, swinging from playing the harmony to the melody in a flash. Then the track begins to slow down with almost lullaby-like wind solos, first oboe, then clarinet, then, flute.
The track makes a drastic turn for a more heroic, bold, and overtly militaristic melody. The brass is strong and contributes greatly to the militaristic feel of this section, although the snares and cymbals help quite a bit too. The minor-key melody is carried by a trumpet with some swirling string figures underneath. The piece begins to quiet down until a clarinet duet is left with the chord progressions. Then the piece blasts off once again, catching the listener completely offguard with strings and brass playing the theme in unison and some swirling, nearly shrieking piccolos sound. Then the piece makes a shift toward major-key and the piece ends as a romp, with pounding percussion and an interesting usage of brass glissandi.
Let's just get this out of the way: The Tokyo Metropolitan has failed to impress me on the previous four tracks, and here it is no different. The tambourine in the opening section is far too loud, the brass in the final section too soft, and all the sounds run together, killing Sugiyama's orchestrations. Again, the London Philharmonic plays with perfection, with each sound being heard with intense clarity. I'm actually running out of things to say about these two performances. I have now, for several tracks, been treading the same ground and come to the same conclusions. The London Philharmonic is an unstoppable force on this album.
While the other performances were at least technically sound, the NHK Symphony seems to have carved a niche out for itself... a rather unsatisfactory niche of making performance mistakes. The opening strings aren't together in this; in fact, the strings are never quite in unison for long. The transition between the two sections is rather abrupt here, as the interlude between them is very relaxed and even lazy sounding before the next section comes in fast and furious. The brass has a very muted feel to it, masking its full effect from the listener.
6) Frightening Dungeons ~ Cursed Towers
I feel that, with more recent Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, Sugiyama has found a certain niche with his Dungeon tracks. Whether this is a good niche or not has yet to be decided by me, but I do know that I enjoy this track very much. After a dissonant, skittish beginning for winds, the main melody comes in with an oboe and strings. It is strange and mysterious and very dissonant. The theme is repeated by strings before coming to an interesting, rhythmic section for brass and strings playing in unison.
Then we're off to my favourite section, "Cursed Towers". There is a constant knocking throughout the entire piece, which features some very interesting melodies and orchestrations. The melody is first heard by a flute and glockenspiel in unison. Then the strings kick in with some nice rhythms, and brass takes the theme away, with the French horns and the trombones exchanging phrases. The layers of harmony keep building up until all sound drops out except for a bassoon, which ushers in a very dissonant section for strings. A short, rhythmic section where the orchestra all plays in unison leads the section to a repeat. When the piece comes back to this section after the nearly-verbatim repeat, this short, rhythmic section plays several times, building in intensity and becoming increasingly dissonant until it's blasting its way through the speakers. The brass drops out, and suddenly we're left with a somewhat misplaced final chord for lush strings.
Now for the performances. Do you really have to guess what I'm going to say? The orchestrations on this piece are particularly rich, and only the London Philharmonic does them justice. In the second part of this track, where the brass leads the melody, on the London Phil recording the brass is gloriously bold and present. In the Tokyo Metropolitan's recording, the horns are severely soft, while the trombones blare away. There is, however, one thing that the Tokyo Met excels at here. The string harmonies, during the brass statement of the theme, are surprisingly more clear than the London Phil. This is probably due to the lightness of touch with which the strings play on this piece, and other pieces that don't call for such lightness, but it actually works here. Also, the finale on the Tokyo Met recording is stronger. The London Phil hits their loudest note when the final, rhythmic section begins. The Tokyo Met seems to just keep getting louder and more out of control until the final blast of brass. They may not be able to top the London Philharmonic, and in fact there are many dampers on the performance by the Tokyo Met, but, to quote a movie called Adaptation, "Wow them in the end, and you have a hit!"
Up until now, the brass has been noticeably hazy in the NHK Symphony performance while the strings and especially the winds were crystal clear. This time around, even the winds are muddled. The brass has a strange quality to it that makes it sound artificial, and in the faster sections, where the orchestra plays together, each section seems to be playing its own thing, careless of the other performers. This performance is a mess, I'm afraid. Worse than usual even for the NHK, on this recording.
7) Elegy ~ Mysterious Shrine
"Elegy" is, obviously, a very sad piece of music. It begins with some open chords by the cellos as an oboe takes on the main melody. Strangely, there's just something about the melody that doesn't work for me. Maybe it's the arrangement or the melody itself, because after the oboe, the strings take on the melody, and it still sounds awkward. There is, however, a lovely section before the repeat for winds playing some enigmatic chord progressions. The piece ends after a bassoon solo.
"Mysterious Shrine" subsequently comes in. The entire track is saved because of this section, which is so beautiful and hopeful that I'm nearly inspired to tears whenever I hear it. The chord progressions are logical, although in no ways predictable. Sugiyama's orchestrations shine here, with the melody being heard solely by strings at first, then by all winds. When the whole orchestra carries the melody away, it sends chills up my spine. The piece ends with a bold statement of the theme by brass only.
Here comes the test. So far, the London Philharmonic has excelled because Sugiyama's music required the kind of rigor that they brought to the table. But here is a track based nearly completely on emotion. How do they fare? Well, pretty well, I must say, although I feel that even they play the opening section a bit too heavily. The Tokyo Metropolitan, as always, tries to overdramatize things, with the sad, sad "Elegy" coming off more superficial than anything. However, their take on "Mysterious Shrine", with all the overblown dramatics, actually works! It brings out the emotion in the piece, making it comparable to the London Philharmonic, although certainly not better.
Again, what is up with the strings at the NHK Symphony being off!? It's getting quite annoying now, actually. The beginning section features several mistakes by the strings, although the following oboe solo is probably the best of all three of the recordings, playing the melody steadily and without false sentiment. The tempos between the "Elegy" and the "Mysterious Shrine" section are so different at first, that it is nearly jarring to listen to. The strings, again, play poorly, although they hit all the right notes at least. Each section is constantly fighting with the others, resulting in the strings reaching comparable volumes to the brass finale, which is again muffled because of the sound engineering!
8) Balloon's Flight
It took me a while to warm up to this track because of all the sections of the orchestra, the winds are my least favourite. It's just that there's only so much you can do with them, and they get, in a way, typecast for the more lighthearted pieces. When was the last time you of a brutal action track featuring a flute solo? Well, you get the point. Anyway, as I've pretty much told you, this piece consists nearly completely of woodwinds. The beginning melody for flute is a curious theme. It is rather emotionless and neutral, although in a way, it is also rather quirky due to the creative dissonances Sugiyama uses. The piece tends to meander a bit in the middle before the repeat, adding light strings to the mix. The reason this track has warmed up to me is because of the absolute understanding Sugiyama has on the orchestra. The interaction between all the winds is surprisingly complex at times, and it also scores points for being both memorable and rather hard to follow due to the fact that Sugiyama is constantly shifting tempos, metres, keys, etc. Musically, it's simply wonderful.
Finally, I am having a tough time deciding between performances. They both have their merits. As I said, the counterpoint in this piece is very complex at times. Unfortunately, it is also very thin at other times, making the crystal clear recording by the London Philharmonic reveal many of the flaws within the piece. At last, the pesky reverb from the Tokyo Metropolitan's recording comes in handy. The recording is certainly not perfect because, as I said, it's a toss up between the more complex parts, which the London Phil nails, and the thinner sections, which the Tokyo Met excels at. It's a tie for a good score.
Again, I must say at last! I said earlier that the brass in the NHK Symphony recordings seem to be horribly obscured. Well, here we have a track completely absent of brass. The winds still sound a tad dates, but it's more tolerable than the other NHK performances. One thing that gets quite annoying, however, is the excessive usage of rubato by the NHK symphony. Other than that, however, this is one of the best performances by the NHK Symphony, although still far from being as good as the other two recordings.
9) Sea Breeze
As you may recall, I said in my review of the Dragon Quest III Symphonic Suite that "Heavenly Flight" tried too hard to be sweeping and romantic and came across as shallow and trite? Well, Sugiyama corrects that mistake here with a piece that is genuinely sweeping, lush, and very emotional. In every album, there is usually at least one standout track. This album has two. The first was the medley of epic proportions with not a single dull moment. The second is "Sea Breeze". Right off the bat, you can tell what you're in for. The strings are powerful, and the orchestrations only help to enhance the drama in this piece. There are times when a climax is approached by a snare drum roll. It doesn't sound like it would work, but it does. The orchestrations are so intricate, with the strings, just as in "Homeland" alternating between lush accompaniments and strong melodies seamlessly. The harmonies are enigmatic and fluid, yet never predictable. As is customary with these kinds of pieces for Sugiyama, there is a short, playful interlude for clarinet and pizzicato with some creative brass dissonances before transitioning seamlessly into the repeat where, as is also customary, the orchestrations are even richer than before. The piece fades away into its final cadence.
Some pieces are simply better when you can hear the piece in its entirety rather than the individual parts. It is quite similar to the argument about seeing the whole forest rather than the individual trees. Well, this is not one of those times. Our dear friend, the London Philharmonic, blows this track out of the water. The complexity of the piece is betrayed by the Tokyo Met, opting for a more atmospheric performance at the expense of precision. Remember the snare and percussion rolls that precede most every climax in this piece that I mentioned? Well, the Tokyo Met botches them. The percussion should be there to enhance the crescendos, not overpower them. This, as well as the fact that the brass players in the Tokyo Met cannot make up their minds on whether they're going too play softly or loudly (and usually, they pick the wrong choice, as they did in "Cursed Towers"), makes it a very easy choice for the London Philharmonic recording. I will admit that I was worried to hear this piece performed by the NHK Symphony. They hadn't yet given a performance that was able to inspire that much emotion from me, and this is the most emotional track on the album. I was afraid they wouldn't pull it off... well, they didn't quite butcher it, at least. There's a strange issue with volume, with the NHK playing too loudly when the piece doesn't call for that. Also, like many other pieces by the NHK, the performance is much faster than the other recordings. However, the strings do have a slight edge to them that makes every phrase very distinct, if that makes sense. The performance is decent, no better, no worse.
10) Unknown Castle
Now we have another castle theme in the same vein as Dragon Quest II's "Chateau". A rich string beginning ushers in a lyrical violin solo. The melody is quite lovely, featuring many satisfying leaps as well as some lovely scales and logical chord progressions. Then the piece repeats, but with the whole violin section taking over the soloist's part. I do believe that this is the shortest track review I've written for this review. There's just not much else to say than that.
As a castle theme, and therefore a quasi-Baroque piece relying on technicality over emotion, it will surely come as a surprise that it is the London Phil that plays this one too sentimentally. The violin solo uses excessive vibrato, although the rest of the strings play it pitch-perfect. Unfortunately, the rest of the strings are not what matters in this piece. The Tokyo Metropolitan plays the piece steadily and somehow evokes more emotion out of the piece than the superficial performance by the London Phil. It was bound to happen, that the London Phil would have at least one bad track.
The NHK Symphony performance features the most steady violin solo. However, unlike the Tokyo Met's performance, it comes off sounding more stiff than anything. The rest of the strings play with great fluidity, though. I shall give it the same rating as the London Philharmonic recording, except for quite the exact opposite reason.
11) Battle for the Glory
To bring up something else from a previous review of mine, I stated politely that Sugiyama's battle tracks are simply awful most of the time. There have been a few exceptions, but unfortunately this piece isn't one of them. The piece kicks off right away with descending figures for brass and xylophone as snare drums keeps up a steady tempo. In between these descending scales is somewhat of a theme, held by brass. A section for ascending swirling string figures brings on a new section of the theme by brass that fares much better because of its constantly shifting rhythms. Then it's back to the beginning for a few more repeats.
The next section has a steady rhythm kept by pulsing brass with some very dissonant string figures in between. The interaction between the brass and the strings here is fairly interesting although the theme itself is not. The next section is very sinister with a simple one-two chord progression as dissonant strings play the quite unmemorable theme. It repeats but with trumpets and xylophones added to the mix. This section is rather thin sounding, which is why the repeat is very welcome. As with many times Sugiyama repeats a section, the orchestrations are much thicker. Now, the theme is separated by discordant blasts of brass and percussion. It still doesn't add much to the piece, but it helps a bit. The track ends after a signature, for a battle track, brass crescendo, fading away with an interesting brass glissandi.
I could lavish the same kind of praise for the London Philharmonic as I have continually been doing, but it turns out that their previous strengths are now their weaknesses. A crystal clear recording quality reveals just how thin the orchestrations are, and the precise playing ends up coming across almost silly sounding because of the shallowness of the piece. Am I being harsh? Probably, but I can't find much of anything appealing about this piece, and the London Philharmonic's performance only brings out all these flaws. The Tokyo Metropolitan's use of excessive reverb has come in handy this time, cloaking some of those flaws and maintaining a sense of dread and atmosphere. And for once, the Tokyo Met brass section got the memo; their playing is loud and ferocious, just as it should be.
Surprisingly, even the NHK Symphony does better than the London Philharmonic. The strings are edgy to the extreme, being much louder and clearer than either of the other performances. The relentless pace of this recording suits the track well, also. In the next section, however, the brass decides that it does want to be heard… except it does so at the wrong times. The most vicious part of the entire track does fairly well at the hands of the NHK Symphony. The percussive brass sections don't pop quite as much as they should, however the pace is much faster again, covering up the fact that the orchestrations are very thin.
It's been quite a journey, but we've reached the end. The thing about Sugiyama Ending themes is that they can be judged in the context of the album as well as in the context of every other ending theme he's written. How does this one fare, then? A climactic open for powerful brass and swirling strings, aided by cymbals and timpani leads into a buildup for the rest of the piece. The brass backs down, and a melody emerges by the oboe amid strings. There are some interesting, shifting harmonies here, and Sugiyama tries to keep the rhythm up with some bouncy strings, leading into a playful interlude for xylophone and winds. The melody is then repeated by the strings with brass and fluttering woodwinds playing the harmonies. A short section in the middle has a fairly standard sequence with a single phrase being repeated a step up each new time. Then the main theme of the piece is presented again with light strings and winds in a duet. The brass begins to gain volume until the powerful opening music is presented again. Instead of leading to a repeat, though, it plays a short, skittish section for strings before repeating the same material, but with much more dissonance. A steady pulse by the basses ends the piece with a cadence by the strings.
The Tokyo Metropolitan seems to have gotten their act together within the last minute. They play the opening with an emphasis on brass, as it should be, although the other layers are also heard quite clearly. They have a great sense of structure here, making the piece flow logically from one section to the next. The final climax is especially powerful. Unfortunately for the London Philharmonic, they have finally been beaten. Their playing was precise, as always, but came off a bit rigid.
I will just go ahead and say that the NHK Symphony recording is yet another letdown. The opening section lacks the proper heroic power. The oboe is muffled, as is all of the brass (as usual), and the strings are crystal clear when carrying the harmony, but at times when given the melody, the back down more than they should. At the end, the orchestra doesn't embrace the dissonance, and what results is a piece that sounds formulaic because the performers don't seem to want to take any chances.
X1) Tough Enemy
This is one of two tracks that are featured exclusively on the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra's recording of this suite. Like the other 'bonus' tracks on the other Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, I can only ask why they thought that this was incentive to purchase the album? The track just isn't that good. It begins with descending, edgy strings with the drum kit playing its own thing in the background. The most, and only, inspired choice of orchestration with this piece is the usage of the timpani to carry the melody. It is also almost interesting because the melody here, heard by timpani and brass, is the opening melody of "Battle for the Glory". Other than that, this track offers very little in terms of enjoyment. It lacks creativity, and the performance is equally dull and low-key. The orchestrations are so thin that even the great amounts of reverb the Tokyo Metropolitan brings to the table aren't able to cover up that fact.
These two bonus tracks are wildly inconsistent with the rest of an otherwise great album, although this one is much better than "Tough Enemy". The piece begins with soft strings and harp with a short oboe solo. The simplicity of the orchestrations is painfully apparent, although the strings get some interesting things to try out here. The piece attempts to pick up with the aid of snare drums, but the fact remains that it is a very shallow arrangement. It consists of a melody presented by the strings with a couple chord from the brass occasionally breaking the silence. There is a great brass crescendo right before the repeat, which is sufficient to save this track.
The Dragon Quest IV Symphonic Suite marks a new musical standard for the series. The amount of experimentation by Sugiyama, usually for orchestration, is at a high thus far, and most all of his choices, no matter how risky, pay off.
Of the three recordings, one of them is definitely the clear-cut winner, and that is the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Unless you are a completist, I would not recommend the NHK Symphony Orchestra's recording whatsoever. The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra shines at some moments, but not consistently enough and fall rather short of the quality of the London Philharmonic's playing. The fact is that on this suite the London Philharmonic is nearly consistently stellar, and the Tokyo Metropolitan gives us only a few reasons to warrant the somewhat superfluous purchase, while the NHK gives hardly any, in fact probably none.
As for the bonuses that come with each orchestral recording, the NHK Symphony Orchestra includes a original sound story featuring music in conjunction with sound effects. Unlike previous suites, this is split across several tracks rather than one gigantic one. The initial two London Philharmonic prints feature no original music, but the third addition features the full PlayStation remake soundtrack in the second disc. The Tokyo Metropolitan version comes with the aforementioned bonus arrangements, which will provide absolutely no incentive to purchase for those looking for high quality material. Overall, the last London Philharmonic print is the only one with a particularly appealing bonus, but some of the earlier prints might be easier to find.