I've noticed that once I latch onto a particular composer or style, I tend to go full force. Throwing myself into a feeding frenzy, I latch onto albums and games that feature the composer, in spite of whatever mixed results I get.
Currently I'm in Motoi Sakuraba mode, and the current acquisition is the two-disc set for Star Ocean: Blue Sphere. The first disc is the arranged music, a well-known and highly anticipated Sakuraba trademark, and the second disc is the original Gameboy Color score. Since the game never made it to the USA ouside of import shops, I simply took the music on its own, much as I had with his wonderful pre-game-career solo album "Gikyokuonsou" (which is certainly worth hunting down for fans).
The first thing I decided to do was to listen to Disc 2. I figured that if I had gone with the arranged music first, I'd never give this disc a chance. It can be hard putting up with limited synth, but Motoi Sakuraba worked as best as he could with it, and put together quite a competent collection of tracks. Might I also add that since it's a very small collection of songs, it's the only(?) recent Sakuraba soundtrack where the songs repeat twice.
Just to mention a few standouts that weren't rearranged, I'll start with "Surface of the Blue Sphere", the overworld theme. It has a great march-like quality to it, and I even caught a few strains that pointed all the way back to field themes in the first game. "Greed City" has a swagger to it, if you can imagine a GBC tune doing that. It sounds like there's something immoral going on behind the scenes. "There is Nothing Permanent Except Change", which has the markings of a closing theme, is soft, emotional, and leaves one wondering how it would have sounded with a fuller arrangement. And while it's hard to place exactly where "Penance" comes into play, it has a mystical and unsettling air that comes across well even in a limited soundscape.
Then onto Disc 1...
As you can expect, Sakuraba-san took his work and absolutely *shattered* the barrier of GBC constraints. On the mostly orchestral side, "Myth of Fate", "A Heavy Heart", and "Star Ocean Forever" are all tremendous. "Myth of Fate" builds upon two elements from the original (a very short piece), turning out a sparkling introduction to the album and ending with a whisper of the main Star Ocean theme. "A Heavy Heart" is the most tranquil of the three, but even it swells to great heights at times, a tip of the hat towards the work in "Valkyrie Profile". "Star Ocean Forever" is what at best I would call a deconstruction of the main theme that both awes listeners and fills them with pride. I was surprised by a solemn middle section featuring strumming guitars and soft percussion, before the orchestral thunder took over once more.
"Sacred Ground" and "Legacy of the Past" build upon the mystery heard in the original songs, but also throw in anxious moments as if to say, "Hold on! Be careful...it's dangerous out there!" "Sacred Ground" accomplishes this with eerie dissonant passages, and "Legacy..." with sudden, furious outbursts of strings. A surprising musical decision, but most welcome.
"Peace of Mind", which I assume is a town theme, simply sparkles. The music speaks of a beautiful place to live, with little hustle and bustle going on in favor of happiness and contentment. The strumming of guitars and whispers of flute really give the piece its atmosphere. "Pacifism" is given a *massive wall* of church organ, Hammond-style organ, bells and chorals, and even a tiny drop of trademark synth at the end. It's a very powerful, hymn-style track.
Then, of course, you gotta expect Sakuraba to say, "Don't forget... I was a progressive musician first!" And with tracks like the bizarre "Like the River Styx" (a dungeon theme?), the battle theme "Hand to Hand" (which leaps out of the starting gate and goes full throttle), and what I assume is the one-two punch of the last battles in "Death is a Great Leveller" and "Every Extremity is a Vice", you won't be forgetting soon. "Death..." is a great mid-tempo piece with grinding electric guitar rhythms, siren-like synths, and a part-terrifying, part-encouraging melody. "Every Extremity..." is especially ferocious, featuring some unusual voice samples in a couple places. I didn't know it was a battle theme at first, because the GBC track sounded so tranquil. (Then again, Sakuraba pulled the same trick on us with the first game's "New Human Race".) I consider it to be every bit an equal with Star Ocean 2's "Integral Body and Imperfect Soul", taking all the power of that game's original theme with a slight touch of the arranged version's upbeat presentation. It's mind-blowing and mesmerizing.
The only track that didn't completely captivate me at first was "No Mercy", which I'm guessing is a boss theme. The original track was fast, dissonant, and very short, so I was wondering what he could possibly do with it. And while he did expand on it, I found his piano work at the very beginning to be a bit *too* loose and free-form when compared to the tight background arrangement, which made for quite a bewildering listen. (And considering that the aforementioned "Gikyokuonsou" album is build around a *lot* of piano, it feels weird for me to bring it up.) Perhaps in time it'll grow on me; in fact, the process has already started.
In the end, I find it a very worthy purchase for a game I didn't play, much in the same way that I enjoy the music in "Force of Light / Shining Force 3" and "Shining the Holy Ark". And for fellow Motoi Sakuraba fans, it gets a very high recommendation.