(Note: They should have been packaged together, but the two volumes of Napple Tale OST are actually sold separately. I'm reviewing them together for convenience and so I can review the soundtrack as a whole.)
Having said in interviews that she had little interest in writing music for games anymore, there was scarce reason to think that Yoko Kanno, celebrated master of the anime scoring field, would rescind her Koei issued valediction. But somehow Sega lured her back into the fold to compose for its fantasy Action RPG Napple Tale.
Kanno's work with Koei was only the beginning. Since graduating to the world of films and anime, she's created some of the best scores in the form's history, and brings her richly matured sensibilities back to gaming with sublime results. While the music is of a slighter nature and less eclectic than her anime scores, it is nonetheless a masterpiece for the medium and an utter treasure of a soundtrack, offering a listening experience the world of game music has never quite attempted.
The first thing to note about Napple Tale is that it joins the select rank of original soundtracks performed almost wholly with live instruments. Although Kanno uses synth textures to add spice to some tracks, and a couple on both discs are all electronic, there's no chip generated music anywhere, and no synthesis of acoustic instruments. These aren't one-minute loops with fadeouts, but fully developed, complete pieces with proper endings; this alone is a rare enough luxury among game soundtracks.
The more valuable luxury is the sheer quality and ingenuity of the music. Apropos for a game set in a surreal cartoonish dreamworld, Kanno brings her enduring love of impressionistic music to the fore, suffusing her score in a multi-hued glow of delicate, pastel colors. It's the aural equivalent of strolling through a chimerical dreamland, its panoply of styles and moods enumerated by the number of tracks. Kanno's aversion to genre ethic means there's no easy label under which to file this music. Chamber orchestra, brass band, small acoustic ensembles and unique fusions of synth and instrumentation all mingle happily and unapologetically together, and the effect is enchanting.
There are moments of sheer hedonistic beauty, like the very Danny Elfman influenced "Rabbit Bed", a haunting wordless vocal shifting its skin from a softly sinister verse to a soaring triumphal chorus, and the playful "Rain Waltz" alternating between grand, parodistically orchestrated ballroom pomp and airy sax insouciance. There are also moments of languorous evocative impressionism, found in "Slow Water", a lovely sax and piano duet that channels the unmistakable spirit of Debussy, and in the limpid, oneiric calm of the orchestral "Flower of Yesterdays". There are many moments of sparkling brio. "Dual Tango", a brilliant and authentically styled tango, sounds like the sort of thing Astor Piazolla in a good mood might have written. "Jumping Cracker" recreates the madcap feel of Carl Stalling's classic Warner Bros. Cartoon work. "Summer Cuttlefish" borrows a page from Kanno's score for Cowboy Bebop, a jazzy brass band samba with grooving percussion and a terrific alto sax solo. And "Snowball" is the most incantatory evocation of snowfall and the wistful joy it inspires I've heard outside Debussy's piano piece "The snow is dancing". Then there are the moments of piercing simplicity, like "Egg", a short solo piano piece with a nursery rhyme styled melody enriched by sophisticated Satie-like chords, and "Little Black Book", a beautiful keyboard and strings piece imbued with aquatic resonance and a touching stillness of spirit. In Kanno's music we find a masterful illustration of the line between artful simplicity and insipid simple-mindedness, and it is never less than perfectly clear on which side Kanno stands. "Cheap" or "gamey" are not conceivably applicable adjectives to music of this caliber. Admittedly, there are a couple overly eccentric tracks, namely "Money-loving Dragon" and "Dove Clock", which probably achieve an effect in the game but don't offer much outside its context. And there are several frustratingly short vocal tracks on Vol.2 whose tantalizing ideas deserved further elaboration. But the size of the hair I'm splitting could hide from an electron microscope.
It should be pointed out that for all its overwhelming merit, Napple Tale may not have universal appeal to game music fans. It simply doesn't sound like game music, or film/anime music for that matter. Unlike Kanno's anime scores, Napple Tale is not a cinematic or particularly motivic work. Her music here in fact seems to pointedly resist this avenue, and the effect is really more of an enormous concept album, a mix of diverse and self-contained pieces united by a shared theme. What all this music has in common is that curious power and essence of dream; the sense you could put your hand through the diaphanous fabric of sound and watch the ripples spread out through the air. Napple Tale contains an utterly mercurial magic and innocence, overpowering with a mischievous elfin grin the melodramatic bombast and empty bluster of so much VGM. It's not in my jurisdiction to levy such absolute judgments as this is "the best" game music score ever. I will simply say that in all my listening experience, it is my favorite. If dreams were scored, this is how they'd sound.