Chris Huelsbeck has been composing game soundtracks and releasing albums of those works for well over a decade, but the Symphonic Shades concerts in his homeland Germany - and this accompanying album release - mark the first fully orchestral performance dedicated to the composer. Though some of his upbeat, pop-oriented compositions lose a bit of charisma in the transition, most of those that began with an orchestra in mind end up in fine form.
After a decent intro in "Grand Monster Slam", the soundtrack leads off with its greatest achievement, "X-Out". Combining a dignified, momentous melody with a flawless choral performance, it is quite likely the greatest choral work of any game soundtrack to date and would not sound out of place resounding in the halls of an ancient cathedral. It also has one of the most dramatic openings in all game music, a deep, ominous baritone and ethereal female vocal intro followed by a gorgeous violin solo reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda's opening title. Though none of the other tracks match the dramatic impact of X-Out, the ones that come closest feature the same outstanding choral accompaniment. In "Licht Am Ende Des Tunnels" it takes a somber form joined once again by gorgeous violins, while in "Karawane Der Elefanten" it has a Middle Age sound similar to the classic Conan the Barbarian film soundtrack.
Offsetting the excellent choral arrangements are a few missed attempts among the purely instrumental pieces. The Rony Barrak drum solo makes for an intriguing lead-in to "Tunnel B1" on first listen, but it's little more than a distraction thereafter. Of more concern is the Tunnel B1 arrangement itself. The orchestra has a hard time matching the original version's massive array of sampled brass, and the puzzling addition of a distracting, high-pitched flute to the arrangement nearly neuters the theme altogether. The title track "Symphonic Shades" makes the album's sole attempt at integrating synth with the orchestra, but the synth instrumentation is poorly designed to the point of being mistakable for distortion at times, thwarting what is otherwise one of the album's stronger orchestral performances.
The remaining arrangements are perfectly enjoyable but often feel as if they're missing just a little something. "Jim Power in Mutant Planet" has a couple of fantastic melodies at its core, but it just begs for an edgier arrangement and some bold counterpoint to make it the classic it should be. "R-Type" has an upbeat, adventuresome melody but the tempo feels just slightly off, and "The Great Giana Sisters" has a spirited, jazzy segment that Phoenix Wright fans will adore, but the latter half of the arrangement doesn't feel quite right being paired with it.
Even dressed in quite fancy orchestral garb, the upbeat, generally lighthearted nature of Mr. Huelsbeck's more pop-oriented compositions shows through. The arrangement for "Gem'x" does the least to conceal this and comes out better for it, via an optimistic and inspiring array of light percussion and solo instrumentation. By contrast, when at full throttle the orchestra can seem like a bit much for some compositions, and "Tower of Babel" and "Apidya II" come off feeling overblown and postured as a result. Fortunately the "Turrican II" arrangement manages the ruse more successfully - it feels far more like a classical opus than a game soundtrack, ending the album in an impressively ambitious manner.
Orchestral buffs with an appreciation for live concert performances will find the most to like about the rock-solid performance and mostly conventional arrangements in Symphonic Shades. For other soundtrack fans, the purely orchestral tracks offers any number of pleasant melodies, but not the dramatic style of arrangement to be found in some of the very best orchestral soundtracks. The choral pieces are most certainly impressive, and if the production team's next game music concert (to feature the music of Square Enix) can follow that same high standard in its entirety, it'll be a show not to be missed.