BY DIGICUBE, 2003
One consistent theme of Masashi Hamauzu’s work on both the SaGa Frontier 2 and Final Fantasy X soundtracks has been a heavy reliance on keyboards and clever melodies as opposed to the sweeping, grandiose orchestrations of many other recent game soundtracks. One listen to Hamauzu’s latest work, the Unlimited SaGa OST, serves as notice that Hamauzu has put those days well behind him. The USG OST is a lush, sprawling work, overflowing with more instruments and musical styles than one would have thought possible in any single game.
That Hamauzu has branched away from his previous work is obvious from the first track, but the rest of the album may feel somewhat underwhelming… at first. While there are certainly elements that immediately stand out – an increased reliance on Mitsuda-esque strings and guitars, and a rolling feel that wouldn’t be out of place in any standard anime closing-credits ballad – the album’s initial impression leaves the listener with little to get excited about. While not exactly derivative, most tracks fall squarely into various background music niches: there are tunes that strongly suggest battle themes, boss themes, character themes, overworld themes, background music for dramatic revalations, etc. At surface level, these tracks are certainly done well enough, and carry the core of Hamauzu’s earlier style inside of more symphonic arrangements, but there’s little here that the listener likely hasn’t heard before.
Still, it’s pleasant enough background music for everyday tasks, and it’s during this repeated listening that much of what makes the work worthwhile begins to emerge. First and foremost is the instruments themselves, both in terms of what’s used and how it’s used. It’s not just that various tracks feature violins, trumpets, acoustic guitars, and even the occassional xylophone, it’s that it all sounds so damn good when it comes together. Some, if not most, of the credit should probably go to Ryo Yamazaki, who programmed and synthesized much of the music and is featured prominently in the liner notes, but Hamauzu deserves praise as well… and the more the album gets listened to, the more praise Hamauzu seems to deserve. Each piece seems intricately, solidly put together, maintaining a degree of cohesion that most soundtracks rarely aspire to. And while it’s true that most of the tracks don’t far diverge from traditional soundtrack niches, it’s also true that each niche sounds totally different from the one before it, with different melody, different instruments, different timing… all the music is clearly Hamauzu’s but it’s also clearly distinct and unique. Perhaps it’s due to Hamauzu’s recent collaboration with Junya Nakano and Nobuo Uematsu on the FFX OST, but Hamauzu’s compositions have become vastly enriched since his work on SaGa Frontier 2.
Also noteworthy is that most of the soundtrack work proper falls on disc one of the two disc set; disc two is primarily an arranged disc of electronic and keyboard based reworkings of the songs on disc one. It’s a nice bonus and sounds much more like the straight keyboards of SF2, but nothing’s quite as pleasant as, say, "Zauberkraft" from the earlier album. Still, all things considered, this is a very worthy entry from Hamauzu, and worth the asking price of ~$30. Recommended. –Chris Jones