Dragon Quest VII ~Symphonic Suite~ is the latest in a long famous line of orchestrated Dragon Quest video game music. This collection is composed and arranged by Koichi Sugiyama, and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which is something of a testament to its quality: it's not every day that the London Philharmonic plays music from a video game. Sugiyama is somewhat of a rarity nowadays in that he provides a full orchestral arrangement to almost every piece he composes. His style follows that of the Late Romantic period, and has a lot of ballet elements and movie soundtrack elements that make the tracks very visual.
Dragon Quest VII is very different from the popular video game soundtracks of today. Most people are familiar with the likes of Uematsu and Mitsuda, who tend to choose a number of main themes and motifs and compose variations upon these set numbers of themes. It is very easy to hum a melody for a video game such as Final Fantasy because the main theme is extremely prominent throughout the soundtrack. Sugiyama is much different in that he does not compose with a primary theme, but instead follows a number of musical techniques such as similar keys, germ motifs, and cadences to link the songs to one another. Rather than reusing a melody over and over, he may use a similar underlying harmony or place a rest in a way that it reminds you of another song from the soundtrack. The common tonalities and links between the songs make the soundtrack very subtle and complex, and give something new to discover with each listen.
The result of Sugiyama's musical form is an epic storyline with a large variation of music. Because the soundtrack does not have a notable "main theme", the soundtrack is not as instantly noticeable as other video game soundtracks. However, once you listen to the music a few times, it will latch itself onto you and never let go. The game has an immense number of hummable themes that can easily stay in your head for weeks at a time ("Strolling in the Town" comes to mind as an excellent example). The music is also full of variety, which can recreate a number of different atmospheres. The soundtrack is very good at using music to set a mood: the castle theme, "Echo of Horns Throughout the Castle" is stately with its fanfare; the tower music, "Screams From the Tower of Monsters" is chilling and instills fear.
There are a few low points about this collection that must be brought up. Dragon Quest VII comes with a second disc that is filled with the original Playstation melodies. This would be a prime candidate for the garbage can, except that its first track is "Triumphal Return ~ Epilogue", which is the final track of the arranged compositions. The synth and recordings heard from modern Playstation games such as Valkyrie Profile and Final Fantasy IX outshine Dragon Quest's soundtrack in terms of sound quality, making the original sound version a real disappointment. You tend not to notice as you are playing the game how tinny and fake the OSV tracks sound, but especially in comparison to the symphonies, the original sound recordings are absolutely horrid. The only good tracks are the ones that weren't arranged (track 3, "Intermezzio", and track 22 and 23, which sounds like a gypsy's theme).
The other complaint is that this soundtrack seems too short. The arranged pieces come out to about eighty minutes of music, which actually is quite a lot considering that the tracks are very complex and involve a lot of time and skill from a large number of performers. But given the number of tracks found on most games these days, and the length of time that was allocated to this game's production, it is minimalist to have only two overworld themes and one boss fighting theme.
Those who are familiar with the series' symphonic suites know that Sugiyama follows a similar formula for all of his Dragon Quest compositions: the death music uses long, drawn out tones at a slow rhythm; the town music is light and cheerful; the fighting music uses a lot of percussion and modulations. He follows the forumula for Dragon Quest VII as well, but there are also a number of songs that don't seem to fit into the traditional categories. This is by means not a bad thing at all because it gives us more variety to the soundtrack.
One of the more addictive songs is the "town music", called "Strolling in the Town". This is a medley of the game's town music, casino music, shrine music, and celebration music, and is a great track. It's a very cosmopolitan track, with the music moving from a gentle pastoral with an underlying marching beat to the sound of trumpets and trombones from a jazz band. The festival section of the track is extremely fun, with chimes and a fast-moving beat that makes it almost danceable.
Another great track is the ship theme, "Aboard Ship ~ Pirates of the Sea". The ship song is a waltz, as most of the ship themes are. The first half of the medley is a pleasant tune, though nothing extremely remarkable. The second half of the medley is the pumped-up version of the first half, with trumpets and percussion playing out the waltz, turning the sea voyage into a grand quest for adventure. This is a great example of how the same tune played by different instruments can make such a dramatic difference in the atmosphere.
One of my favourite themes from the soundtrack is the dungeon music "Shadow of Death". The low, dissonant tones remind me very much of Liszt's "Nuages Gris", and the use of the augmented forth really sets the mood of the song. As a tonal contrast, the consonant theme from "Mysterious Sanctuary" is interleaved in the middle of this track, carrying the listener in a dreamlike, surreal state.
There are a number of short emotional pieces that are scattered throughout the soundtrack, setting moods that range from whimsical to nostalgic. "Morning in Eden", the first statement of the soundtrack's main theme, is serene and light. "Saraband" is a slow, sad requiem. "Days of Sadness" plays its lonely plucked strings as the "ruined town" theme. "With Sadness in Heart" is the game's "death" music, which turns into the welcoming pastoral, "A Safe Haven".
The most epic themes of the soundtrack are the last three tracks, "Over the Horizon", "Orgo Demila", and "Triumphal Return ~ Epilogue". Here is where Sugiyama breaks the traditional Dragon Quest bounds (something he did with partial success in Dragon Quest VI) by composing epic, movie-like tracks. "Over the Horizon" is a relatively quiet theme during which the instruments imitate birds with trills that create a love scene in the listener's mind. "Orgo Demila" is the epic final battle and starts off with the roar of brass and the scales of woodwinds creating dramatic crescendoes. "Triumphal Retrn ~ Epilogue" is an absolute masterpiece. It is very sweeping and instantly summons visions of the hero realising that he has finally won the battle, and then plays out the dramatic escape from the evil lair, until they are finally safe where they can celebrate victory. From the snare drums and timpani leading to the sounds of oboe and violin, this is certainly dramatic music at its best.
This soundtrack is an absolute wonder to behold. Its sweeping score and dramatic flair completely holds those who love to listen to epic music that tells stories. It has its share of fun, upbeat tracks; sad, woeful tracks; eerie tracks, and fanfare. All of the compositions are played perfectly. This is not just game music, but a symphony in nineteen movements, telling an entire story. You aren't just listening to a game, you are listening to musical poetry.