Note Worthy 007: Borderlands, Pandaria, Double Dragon

Soundtracks you should be listening to!

We’re back with another issue of Note Worthy, our monthly soundtrack round-up feature. In addition to the moody Borderlands 2 soundtrack and the ethnic-flavored Mists of Pandaria, we have what I’m calling one of the best soundtracks of the year, Double Dragon Neon by Jake “virt” Kaufman.

Other reviews you’ll want to check out are the Etrian Odyssey IV arrange album (can’t wait for this game to be released!), Austin Wintory’s Horn, retro goodness with Dragon Spirit (which isn’t even out until the end of October!) and the return of the amazing rock band, TEKARU, with TEKARU MECHANICAL.

It’s all good! So dig in, listen, and let us know what you think of this month’s round-up, and thanks once again to graphic artist Connary Fagen for redesigning our Note Worthy logo to fit the new, sleek spread format.

Borderlands 2 Original Soundtrack
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Price: $15.59
Availability:Sumthing Else Music Works
Artist(s): Cris Velasco, Sascha Dikiciyan, Jesper Kyd, Raison Varner

I loved the original Borderlands soundtrack. One of the most amazing things about it was that it brought together a large and varied group of composes and still managed to sound cohesive. Jesper Kyd (Darksiders II, Assassin’s Creed series), Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan, and Raison Varner all return for a second course, and it once again doesn’t disappoint.

Think of the soundtrack as a dark, gritty electro-Western. Twangy guitars are featured prominently, and there’s a healthy dose of reverb applied to give the entire soundtrack a wide open feel. Classic Western moments come in on tracks like “Lynchwood” which also features cool pitch bends and warbling ambiance and “Fyrestone” with a deserted and dusty feel. “Sanctuary” is also another standout with phasing electronics to give the track a more ethereal vibe.

“Dam Top” and “Glacian” are a bit more on the cool synthetic side, while there are some light dub step elements (never overdone) in the final boss theme and the “Vog Fight.” Other highlights include “Main Menu” with some nice panned guitars, the dancey “Bandit Slaughter,” and the unsettling “The Fridge,” which sounds like it could have been pulled directly from a horror flick.

I recommend checking this out even if you’re not going to play the game. It’s good music.

Double Dragon Neon Official Soundtrack
Release Date: September 11, 2012
Price: Name Your Price
Availability: Bandcamp 
Artist(s): Jake “virt” Kaufman

Mind blown. I had high hopes for the Double Dragon Neon soundtrack upon hearing that Jake “virt” Kaufman was scoring it. I imagine it was a dream come true for him to work on such a classic franchise with such a strong musical heritage, and the team at Way Forward pulled out all the stops to ensure he could do it justice with lots of live studio recording and vocal work.

Vocal work, you say? Yes, but it’s actually tasteful. As tasteful as super cheesy 80s pop, surfer rock, hair metal, rap, and more can be, at least. Best of all, everything is incredibly well-produced, sounding like something right off of an 80s album.

Right from the opening orchestra hits in the “Title Theme,” a remix of the classic Double Dragon theme (which gets an amazing synth choir version later), you know you’re in for a treat. There is a nice blend or remixes and originals, although I’d argue the originals are better. I love “Neon Jungle,” a female pop track, and “Countryside” gets into super sexy synth funk while “Glad I Am” will have you singing along for weeks. Also, the sweet electric piano ballad, “Marian’s Theme?” Awesome!

The soundtrack ends with a series of “mix tapes” that accompany in-game tutorials. These are one of the best things about the soundtrack. While short (less than a minute in length), they go to great lengths to reference everything 80s including: Guns ‘N’ Roses, Beastie Boys, Rick Astley, Depeche Mode, and more. These are often hilarious, especially the fun and feel-good “Training Wheels” about childhood memories of riding a bike without training wheels before immediately falling, smashing your teeth and fracturing your jaw. And how about kicking cops in the gonads?

This is easily Jake Kaufman’s best work to date, and one of the best soundtracks released all year. And it’s Name Your Price. GET IT NOW!

Release Date: September 5, 2012
Price: 3,150 Yen ($40)
Availability: CD Japan
Artist(s): Noriyuki Kamikura, et al.

I loved Yuzo Koshiro’s new approach to Etrian Odysesy IV. Out with the PC-88 FM synthesis, and in with live performers. However, while an FM arrange album is still on the way, the obligatory “Super Arrange Version” album has been released, this time headed up by former Basiscape composer Noriyuki Kamikura and friends (some JDK Band folks and Masashi Hamauzu, among others).

There’s a lot of rock arrangements here that, while good, don’t really do a whole lot for me. “Battlefield – Storm,” which I’ve previously raved about, is probably my favorite of that bunch. There’s swingin’ jazz with some awesome bass runs, epic orchestral works by Yukihiro Jindo of JDK Band, and a piano solo piece that puts me to sleep every time I listen to it by Final Fantasy XIII’s Masashi Hamauzu.

My favorite tracks, however, are the dreamy opening theme which gets a contemplative arrangement and a seductive sax accompaniment, an upbeat pop arrangement of the first labyrinth theme with female vocals, and a funky fresh take on my favorite theme from the original score, “City of Radiant Ruin” (awesome track title too). While this version also takes a contemporary jazz approach, the addition of English vocals by Anemone of blue chee’s and the more pop-leaning arrangement are fantastic.

While this album provides an eclectic group of remixes, they’re all well done, and if you loved the original soundtrack, you won’t be disappointed. Be sure to pick it up along with the FM synthesis version being released later this month.

Release Date: August 13, 2012
Price: $5
Artist(s): Austin Wintory

Well, Austin Wintory is following up his score to Journey here, so there’re likely a lot of high expectations for his score for the iOS title Horn. It’s an iOS title, so I wasn’t expecting miracles, but surprisingly, Wintory brings in live orchestra and session players for what turns out to be a nice little ‘journey’ into another world.

It’s a good thing I like the game’s main theme, “Horn,” a whimsical piece with a lovely woodwind melody. I say it’s a good thing because it finds its way into several pieces throughout the score, mostly in the form of adventurous, drum-laden variations, including “The Final Trial” towards the end of the album that particularly stands out. I really love tracks like the moody and emotional “Cuthbert” and the ethnic-tinged “Westernesse,” but a number of the tracks here are a bit too minimalistic to hold my attention. I imagine these pieces are great at setting the mood in the game, but I found myself listening to three or four tracks in in a row without realizing I was on to something new.

Overall, I love the main theme and the tracks where it’s later used, but this one may be best enjoyed within the context of the game itself.

Kirby’s Dream Collection Special Edition Compilation Soundtrack
Release Date: September 16, 2012
Price: $39.99
Availability: Retail
Artist(s): HAL Laboratory

Okay, so Kirby’s Dream Collection makes me realize I’ve missed out on way too many Kirby games. I loved the first Kirby’s Adventure game and its music, but somewhere down the line I guess I strayed. Well, this collection can catch me up not only on some of the games in the series, but also the music. The game comes with a soundtrack disc featuring music from the original Kirby’s Dream Land on the Game Boy to Kirby’s Return to Dream Land on the Wii, and even throws in some remixes.

The reason this collection is so important is because there’s very little Kirby music available on CD. What little there is is mostly limited to hard-to-come-by Club Nintendo Japan releases. Most Kirby titles are represented with anywhere from one to four tracks from 16 titles.

You’ll get lots of classic “Green Greens” and “Fountain of Dreams” from various games, but the catchy tracks from Kirby Super Star and Kirby’s Adventure 3 are some of my favorites. The funky “The Last Iceburg” from the latter is one of my favorite tracks here with its distinct Earthbound-tinged sound. Kirby 64 gets a little more serious, making me want to play the game to find out why that is, while Kirby: Nightmare in Dream Land’s “Tower of Midbosses” gets a fun Asian vibe going, Air Ride gets some big orchestral arrangements, and Canvas Curse offers up a perfect organ piece titled “Drawcia Sorceress.”

Epic Yarn and Kirby’s Return to Dream Land both offer up some fantastic melodies with a more modern sound. There are the standard arrangements which are great, but I really love the epic ending theme from Return to Dream Land. The remixes are also really cool, with a barely recognizable “Electro Kirby” and even a chamber orchestra version of “Green Greens.”

I don’t think Kirby fans are aware of how important this CD is. The fact that it was brought over to the US is a big deal, so thank your lucky warp star and pick up this collection for some great games and music!

Release Date: April 27, 2011
Price: 2,625 Yen ($33)
Availability:SEGA Store Japan
Artist(s): hiro

Power Drift is a strange racing title from Sega that was released first on arcade in the 1980s then again on the Sega Saturn. It featured a bizarre cast of racers seemingly drawing on American stereotypes and featured a soundtrack composed by Sega legend hiro. This music has been released several times over the years, and the latest re-issue here gets a few new bonuses.

The album features the both the arcade and Sega Saturn ‘arrangement’ versions of the soundtrack that come in at about 30 minutes a piece. I can’t say this is hiro’s best work, as the arcade version in particular sounds rather muddled with the hectic flurry of guitar, bass, and percussion going on. My favorite track, “Silent Language (Course C),” reminds me of Sega’s glory days with its incredibly catchy melody and measured pace, and it seems to be a Sega favorite as well as there’s a special arrangement tucked away at the end of this album that commemorate this re-issue. The name entry track, “Diversity” is also a lot of fun. Unfortunately not much stands out to me (especially the Sega Saturn version, which is fleshed out a whole lot more than the arcade version). There’s an unused track thrown into the mix, but it doesn’t amount to much.

For the price, you may want to consider something else. But if you played and enjoyed Power Drift, it may be worth picking up. Unfortunately Sega music releases are notoriously difficult to find since they’re sold exclusively through Sega’s online store in Japan.

Shinji Hosoe Works Vol.1 ~Dragon Spirit~
Release Date: October 28, 2012
Price: 2,940 Yen ($35 USD)
Availability: CD Japan
Artist(s): Shinji Hosoe

Continuing SuperSweep’s “Works” series (we covered Manabu Namiki’s first volume in our debut Note Worthy entry), SuperSweep leader Shinji Hosoe gets his moment in the spotlight. This two-disc album pays tribute to one of his best and earliest works, Dragon Spirit. This is the original arcade version soundtrack with all its retro goodness intact, including the jubilant “Area 1,” the poppy “Area 3,” the desperate “Area 6” (my personal favorite), a foreboding final stage theme, and some excellent boss themes. Even better, “Area 6” and “Area 3” both get remix upgrades that are exclusive to this album.

Disc two features two lesser-known works by Hosoe, Assault and Quester. The latter is only four minutes in length total and likely won’t stand out to listeners, but Assault (co-composed by Kazuo Noguchi) offers some great moments. After a spacey intro track by Hosoe, a number of great melodies follow by Noguchi including “Lift Down” and the funky “BGM 1.” Hosoe returns for “BGM 4,” a measured synth rock adventure in space. This is good stuff.

While SuperSweep’s releases are generally hard to come by, this album is available for import from CD Japan. Those seeking out the Dragon Spirit soundtrack in a physical will definitely want to pick this up, as previous CD versions are hard to come by (last printing I could find on VGMdb was from 1989!).

Also of note is the fact that virt was originally announced to be contributing an arrangement to this album, but that didn’t end up happening. You can still check out his great rock remix from 2004 on his website, however.

Sword Songs ~ FINAL FANTASY XI Battle Collection
Release Date: June 26, 2012
Price: 2,100 Yen ($27)
Availability: CD Japan
Artist(s): Naoshi Mizuta, Kumi Tanioka

Simply put, this is a compilation of battle themes from Final Fantasy XI to commemorate ten years of the game. There’s just an under an hour of music here, and most of it has been released on other collections. Additionally, many of the tracks are for major boss battles, which very few regular battle themes being present (the opening “Battle Theme” is an important exception as one of my favorite themes from the game, period).

Although many of these battle themes were on the recently-released Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack PLUS CD, I still love “Shinryu” with its amazing chorus section, “Awakening” which I recently learned to love through play Theatrhythm, and the upbeat “Mercenaries’ Delight.” The final track, “Provenance Watcher” is a bonus track that I can’t identify (I admit I didn’t get too far in Final Fantasy XI), but I can’t say that it’s terribly exciting.

Hardcore fans of Final Fantasy XI who don’t already own a lot of the previously-released Final Fantasy XI material may want to check this out, as these boss battle themes in particular should remind them of some of the most epic moments in the game. Casual fans may want to pass on this one for the asking price.

Release Date: September 26, 2012
Price: 1,500 Yen ($19)
Availability: Limited
Artist(s): Hideki Sakamoto, TEKARU

Okay, so I instantly became a fan of TEKARU, composer Hideki Sakamoto’s synth rock band, after listening to TEKARU TECHNICAL earlier this year. The problem? It clocked in at just over 20 minutes in length. TEKARU MECHANICAL follows up with something a little more substantial (still under the 40 minute mark) with performances of tunes from the noisycroak team’s Shin Kamaitachi no Yoru (featured last month), 428 ~Fuusasareta Shibuya de~, Ragnarok ~Hikari to Yami no Koujo~, and TIME TRAVELERS.

Yes, none of these games should be overly familiar to anyone, but that’s okay because you’ll learn to appreciate them here. The opening track, “Abnormal Returns” is easily the best track on the album with its fun synth scales, organ, and dueling electric guitars that bring back memories of my father playing The Who on the stereo when I was growing up. “Scale Formation” gets experimental with the electronic sounds, while “Blast the Blizzard” is epic metal. “SUN” gets a desolate and dreamy soundscape and strange yet endearing male vocals (by Sakamoto himself) that you’ll notice are English if you listen really hard.

But how about those game arrangements? I love the spooky effects and funky slap bass in the track from the suspenseful Shin Kamaitachi no Yoru, the bouncey and poppy track from 428 (another of my favorites), and the hard hitting track from Ragnarok Tactics which may remind you of Castlevania. I leave the track from TIME TRAVELERS for last because it’s a bit polarizing. The same accent-tinged English, but the catchy melody and the ‘sound’ of the voice go well together. I personally love it, but I know not everyone will.

This is a fantastic album. Again, I wish it was longer. And I wish TEKARU would come to MAGFest. They’re great, and you need to check them out (especially for the price).

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria Original Soundtrack
Release Date: September 25, 2012
Price: Collector’s Edition (physical) / $10.99 (digital) 
Availability: Collector’s Edition bonus / iTunes
Artist(s): Russell Brower, Neil Acree, Scott Cardon, Edo Guidotti, Jeremy Soule

I’ve been looking forward to this soundtrack for a long time. As a fan of the music from World of Warcraft (I’ve yet to play the game!), I was excited about the idea of the team visiting such a unique theme and unleashing some stereotypical Chinese instrumentation that I’d be all too happy to hear. Learning that Jeremy Soule would be contributing sweetened the deal even more. So how does this fare?

Well, make no mistake about it. This is World of Warcraft music from start to end. The opening theme, “Heart of Pandaria,” begins with the ominous World of Warcraft theme and only teases the more lighthearted ethnic sound I was expecting before quickly transitioning back into serious orchestral territory. And I’d say this is true of most of the score, including the powerful “Why do we Fight?,” the imposing “Temple of the Five Dawns,” and the frightening “Sha {Spirits of Hatred}” and “Townlong Steppes.”

There are some great ethnic woodwinds heard through, great use of ehru and other instruments, but the orchestra is the key instrument here. There are many great moments on this album, which flows from one track to the next to mimic the storytelling of the game through its music. I love the dreamy with “August Celestials” and adventurous in “Shado-Pan” that sports layered strings that sound like Jeremy Soule. My two favorite tracks are “The Traveler’s Path” with its deep vocal accompaniment in Chinese (strange, butmemorable), and the softly swaying “Valley of the Four Winds.”

“Going Hozen” is playful and mischievous while “Stormstrout Brew” provides comic relief, showing for a few brief moments that Pandaria does have its lighthearted moments. The album ends with the triumphant yet reflective “Wisdom of Yu’Lon.”

I’d call the Mists of Pandaria soundtrack tasteful. They don’t hit you over the head with Chinese restaurant music, although I would have been happy to hear that. There are countless more hours of music in the expansion not featured on this album as well, so feel free to chime in and let us know which tracks you’re enjoying most.

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Jayson Napolitano
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