It was with great expectation that I awaited Koichi Sugiyama's first new symphonic suite since 2005, despite being underwhelmed by the two most recent Dragon Quest soundtracks. I'm glad to say that Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite marks a return to form for the series.
The first half of the score has a good chance of winning over even series non-followers with its accessible melodies and thematic focus. In a nice opening touch, Sugiyama adds quite a dramatic original intro to the standard overture march in "Overture IX" (all previous symphonic suites have followed the same theme almost note for note). Though the additions amount to only 30 seconds, they completely change the opening mood of the score. That heightened sense of drama continues into "Angelic Land", the most powerful theme of the soundtrack and the one work to dive into uncharted territory. Though Dragon Quest music has heretofore had moments of sadness and of beauty, no theme has combined the two quite as exquisitely as this one.
The other arrangements from the first half of the score mostly follow series convention but do it well. The classical, string-heavy arrangement in "Oboe Melody in the Castle" is characteristic of the early castle sequences from throughout series, but as in Dragon Quest V's "Castle Trumpeteer", a brisk melody and distinctive lead instrumentation make this one more charming than most. The happy, carefree "Beckoning ~ Dream Vision of our Town ~ Tavern Polka" exhibits a folksy charisma not heard since Dragon Quest IV, while "Village Bathed in Light ~ Village in Darkness" perfectly balances another unassuming but pleasant town theme with a classical interlude.
The second half of the score delves into darker territory. "Gloomy Cavern ~ Dungeon Waltz ~ Atmosphere of Death" and "Pathway to Good Fortune ~ Cathedral of Emptiness" are average for Dragon Quest dungeon themes, which is to say not particularly memorable, though some peculiar solo instrumentation in the former helps to distinguish it. The two battle themes lie squarely between the furious battle themes of Dragon Quest III and V and the lumbering battle themes of other titles. As a danger-filled lead-in to the grand finale, "Final Battle" is the more essential of the two, even if its arrangement is a bit unfocused and its orchestral performance - perhaps intentionally - a tad grating. Though these later pieces are respectable and cover the requisite areas of a Dragon Quest score, the slower pace and completely different tone make them a bit disappointing compared to the more lighthearted and endearing themes of the first half.
Fortunately you can always count on Sugiyama for a great ending theme, and in Dragon Quest IX he comes through yet again. "Journey to the Star-Filled Skies ~ Defender of the Star-Filled Skies" mimics Dragon Quest VI's "Eternal Lullaby", taking major themes established earlier in the score and melding them into a weighty, if melodramatic, classical finale. As a standalone track it doesn't have the impact of the NES-era ending themes, but as a conclusion to the score as a whole it works fantastically.
Though in many ways it's a typical Dragon Quest soundtrack, the potent main theme, charming arranged touches and pleasant overall sound make Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite the most enjoyable orchestral album of the series since its 8 and 16-bit heyday. Sugiyama doesn't try a whole lot that's unexpected, but hearing that familiar Dragon Quest sound is not a bad sensation at all, and the themes it accompanies make a much stronger impression than either of the past two installments. Though certain other Dragon Quest scores boast more brilliant individual works, and Dragon Quest IV remains the place to begin for skeptics and newcomers, those with any affinity for the series' classic sound will find listening to Dragon Quest IX Symphonic Suite like meeting - for the first time in too many years - an old friend.