What was once old is new again. Such is the basis for tradition and reinvention, and few companies live and breathe this ethos more than Capcom. Well, that and cold, hard cash, and few series make them as much of it than perhaps their most beloved icon, Mega Man. The company's recent treatment of the franchise and its fanbase has been less than kind, but Capcom can never turn away from a proven moneymaker for long, and in the spirit of the series' 25th Anniversary, released a mammoth, encyclopedic collection of the main series' venerated musical history, from the first game to the last. But whereas the Rockman Sound E-Can represents the old, the "new" in the equation is... a resurrection of an old idea; in this case, releasing another pair of high-profile arrange albums, one for rock music, the other for techno. They made two such albums to celebrate the 20th Anniversary and now they have released another two to celebrate the 25th Anniversary.
Of course, the newer Mega Man games released since 2007 are included and accounted for, up to Mega Man 10. But Capcom wisely chose to also expand the breadth and variety of talent for each album, as opposed to one composer handling all the work for each, with Basiscape handling the lion's share of arrangement duties and a few surprise guest stars to fill the margins. After Shinji Hosoe's impressive work on the 20th Anniversary album, the Techno Arrange Version has much more of an act to follow than its counterpart, but the task of producing interesting new takes on material as beloved as this is always a tricky proposition. With a few exceptions, the team here do a stand-up job modernizing series hits and a few weaker, little-known tracks, and the electronic arrangements are a country mile more interesting in palette, but the album as a whole doesn't have quite the same consistent punch as the impressive Rock Arrange Version.
Both arrange albums are split fairly evenly between massive epic medleys of classic favorites and single-track jobs. Almost by definition, the medleys are more scattershot and exciting, reaching across the entire span of the series, whereas the tracks that zero in on one piece make up with slight repetition with more focused, dynamic arrangements and are generally the more developed and interesting of the fare. Far more so than the 20th Anniversary arrangements, in any case. The team at Basiscape are the biggest stars of this project, and once again, Azusa Chiba and Yoshimi Kudo rock the house with a pair of arrangements each.
After her amazing work on Let's Tap and various arrange albums, I've been looking forward to Chiba's work in particular, and she kicks the album off with a pulse-pounding medley of the series' stage select jingles. She rolls backward through time, starting with Mega Man 10 and all the way to where it all began on the NES, never dwelling too long on any certain theme before jumping to the next. Ever since the foundation of groups like GE-ON-DAN, I've been continually impressed with how some composers can take a few brief singles of victory jingle or filler and extrapolate from them brilliant, fully developed works of art, but to my surprise, this is something altogether different. It's very strictly a medley in the sense that some have come to dislike; the switch from theme to theme isn't exactly graceful, though never jarring, and Chiba is less interested in developing their basic melodies or making them flow together seamlessly than crafting an air-tight, wonderfully produced shot of pulsing rave nostalgia, pumping up each theme with sharp synth and punchy beats that enhance or modernize them. Some may say it tries to do too much or doesn't devote enough time to each part, and some are briefer than others, but such complaints miss the point. It's just a bright bit of remixed electrolove for the series' history that, even unlike the original techno album, I could see people actually dance to.
On some level, there exists a certain stigma for techno remix albums, especially in the realm of game music. In today's age of YouTube, remix communities and simple-to-acquire music software, any dolt these days can slap a manufactured beat and hackneyed samples over a simple melody that was already electronic, in a sense, and call it a new track. Just a mere mention of the word "techno" blight the mind with thoughts of the eleventy-thousandth UNTZUNTZUNTZ. Thankfully, with widespread, easy exposure comes equal access to those who understand the rainbow spectrum of wondrous variety made possible by electronic palettes and sound libraries, and in that regard, the 25th Anniversary album trumps even Hosoe. Disco, hardcore, house, D&B, and a few things that lie somewhere in between are among the breadth of timbre and texture displayed with near-perfect production value. This variety is exemplified early on with Nobuyoshi Sano's entry, dunking the opening and ending themes of Mega Man and Mega Man 2 in a thick, dry ice haze of disco-flavored house and percussive funk. Sano is a master at the craft of drawing striking, human sounds from machines and technology, carrying the melody on fuzzy, bright synths, gradually ascending through pulsing bass until becoming a warmly echoing disco lullaby.
Super Mario 3D Land's Takeshi Hama, meanwhile, serves up a striking blend of pervasive, slurping synth, the tinkling of coins, sad, chromatic bell tones, and a subdued, almost forlorn violin solo that haunts the entire mix. Natsumi Okimasu's performance is heavy with emotion and expression, shading the theme from Quickman with a quiet air of tragedy to counterpoint the percolating electronics before the beat kicks up. The strings die in and out as if being washed away by the production only to return between each transition with wilting, reverberating legatos and then slip back into a supportive or harmonic role when the next melody begins. The Flashman segment is dominated by pounding drumbeats, thick buzzing and eerie pizzicato plucking as Okimasu's violin moans in a heavily distorted, ghostly wail, which then stab and roar over the machine-gun pulse of Heatman, and even this theme has its quieter moments of unease. The whole track is just Hama conducting wild, horror-tinged experiments with texture and harmony while bending and distorting Okimasu's solo, the singular organic element, in bizarre and captivating ways.
If there were a pair of artists I was most looking forward to hearing from on this album, it was easily Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, both well versed in electronic musicianship. I went into this disc eager for an encapsulation of Sakimoto's rapid-fire arcade jams like his work for Raizing and Treasure, while the mind boggled at what abstract, Baroque-esque noiserock Iwata was going to throw at me. Shocking, then, that the two composers wound up flipping extremes. Iwata's medley of Harman and Snakeman is a cheeky, neon-colored disco blast from the 80's, rockin' silly synth beats straight out of a Human League song. The retro synths are remarkably convincing, sidestepping the easy trap of sounding too high-tech or polished and betraying the mask, but the Hardman segment leaves a bit too be desired. It's a touch too plodding to be danceable and a little too stiff and slow to hold one's attention, but with the spectacular shift to Snakeman, the jam comes alive. The beats intensify and hook you in, the melody is infectious, and the production sparkles and thickens, enveloping you into a funk wonderland. Snakeman's bendy, groovy melody makes a killer fit for the genre, and the stellar fidelity really hits this one out of the park, despite its slightly robotic opening. Huh. Hardman... Snakeman. It's like Iwata planned it that way.
Likewise, Sakimoto subverts expectations by taking the dark, ambient approach. He blends Pharoahman and Skullman's themes together and letting them bristle and simmer over a pulsing mix of beats, buzzing and noise until they slowly curdle and explode into a thunderous explosion of cacophonous ethnonoise, with weird synths approximating something akin to gut strings and clattering metal, the shrieking of insects and a million other imperceptible bursts of ruckus all roaring over and through one another. The core melodies are crushed into each other so viciously they're hard to pick out, but given the slightly weak source material, I don't consider it much of a loss. It runs a little long for how little it moves, but this one isn't about forward momentum. It's a case experiment in pushing bedlam and chaos as far as it can go without rattling itself apart, building and building and growing more and more riotous without losing some cohesive anchor to keep the listener bobbing and weaving over the waves. As my thoroughly stomped floorboards can attest. I call it a success.
Yoshimi Kudo lets himself run wild on a pair of obscure Wily themes from Mega Man 7, cutting what were once nicely melodic but rather slow, drum-heavy tunes into a sharp, eclectic fusion reminiscent of his Soukyugurentai remix. He injects pure techno insanity into Wily 3, ramping up the tempo, laying on the zany, almost cartoony synths, fragmenting the track with heavy drops and backbeats and groovy bongos. The production is pitch-perfect and Kudo stretches the track as far and as many unpredictable places it can go. There's never a boring moment, never a moment it isn't right up UNTZing in your face, right down to the dramatic transition into piano-led, thumping menace.
Unfortunately, this is around the point where the album starts to let me down, with relative unknown Yuto Takei's remix of Darkman. While it doesn't hold a candle to the rock version, it's decent enough. It's a lightning-quick D&B arrangement with the melody so staticy it could generate a charge and quivering synth beds, but perhaps because it sticks so close to the melody, something about it just doesn't excite me. Then the Wily Medley comes in and the coma comes in. It's little more than a sparse, fragmented piano meandering against over a light beat and synth arpeggios. It's awfully dull and always loses my attention. Far East Recording's arrangement of MM9's Wily stage is even lazier, if it could even be called an arrangement. It's straight up just the exact melody as it is in the game(if the chiptune sounds were at all upgraded, I could never tell) with a generic beat, an added synth pad, and the tempo raised maybe a semitone. Maybe. I appreciate some of the later touches to bolster the Asian theme Soichi Terada was going for, like this occasional wail from some manner of woodwind, but it's so little in the face of the fact that the whole thing just loops with nil in the way of elaborations or solos for nearly six minutes. Unacceptable.
If there's anyone who can rescue the album from this quick dip into the doldrums, it's surprise guest Shinji Hosoe, returning from his exemplary work on the first go around to again subvert expectations with a dreamily retro bit of ambiance spun from Mr. X's theme. It doesn't move very much, and possibly runs a bit long, but there's so much to just sit back and enjoy. The smooth, wavey sounds and harmonies, the silly robotic vocals chirping about who-knows-what, the light, relaxing melodies and subdued beat, all rendered with the same style of 80's synth he employed in Mega Man Network Transmission. I wasn't prepared for a light dose of hazy, almost-soft R&B from Hosoe of all people, but the surprise is novel and welcome.
Chiba and Kudo both return around the end of the disc to see out our returning upward slide. Chiba's medley of the Intro Stage and Frostman from Mega Man 8 stands alongside Sakimoto's for the effort taken to meld the two themes together instead of using cleanly delineated breaks in the track. She crafts a superb fusion of shimmering string samples, cool synth pads and crunchy beats, and Kudo smoothly sliding the Intro melody on guitar. Chiba gorgeously handles Frostman's ever-so-slightly sad melody on piano, her soft voice gliding over it all if you listen close. The medley has a strikingly mature, romantic sophistication to it and radiates a wintry, sparse atmosphere thick enough to freeze the air waves it passes through, yet glows with heart, especially in its final duet breakdown. Speaking of Kudo, he returns one final time to handle, that's right, Dr. Wily Stage 2 from Mega Man 2. Yeah, I'm sick of it, too, specially in a techno context, but he does with it what he can, using a wavering, moody opening and fun use of orchestral string samples and stuttery chip melodies to invigorate this very-well-trodden territory. There's really not much to say, here. It's Kudo. It's Wily 2. It can't possibly be bad. Far from it.
Closing the release out is a more inspired choice of Wily themes from Mitsuhiro Kaneda, specifically, Wily 2 from Mega Man 8. Not terribly transformative or elaborative, it mainly just quickens the tempo, loses the slap-bass, deepens the bass in the beat, adds some laser-like effects and fuzz distortion, and calls it a day. Again, the focus here is more on texture and rhythm than rich development, and Kaneda relies on an odd vocal sample that sounds like Rosie with a voicebox giving DIY instructions to carry your attention while the beat pulses along. The mix's constituent parts are enough of a hook to be satisfying despite the lack of momentum (the odd song choice helps) and. while not the momentous showstopper that an anniversary celebration deserves, there's enough of an overall mood of cool finality to make it feel like an appropriate ending track.
Mega Man's 25th Anniversary Techno Arrange Version, while a fitting tribute to the series' musical legacy and more interesting musically than Shinji Hosoe's solo offering, still falls a fair bit short compared to its stellar rock twin. The production values are top-notch, the synth quality rich and varied, and nearly every genre of electronica is represented and accounted for. That said, few weak arrangements bring the whole of the album down and I can't escape the general feeling that this could have been so much more. What works, works wonderfully, but there's still a certain something missing. Perhaps this really is just bias from being compared to or, in my personal case, being listened to after hearing the superb Rock Arrange Version, but one has to wonder how much further it's even possible to use electronica to take and elaborate on music that, in a sense, is already based in blips and boops. But this is a deeper discussion for another time. Like all arrange albums, it won't be perfect for everyone. One can never stop wondering what could be if more iconic tunes were chosen or if more talents like Ayako Saso, Yasuhisa Watanabe, or TECHNOuchi were invited on, but these are minor, subjective quibbles. For anyone with even a remote fondness for Mega Man music, the game themselves, or just good old fashioned blood-boiling rock, this album is a touch flawed, but has more than its share of amazing and intriguing arrangements and comes fully recommended.