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Sound Decision
The Big Two-Five

by Jonathan Mays,
Wow, we actually made it to a 25th column. Back when I started Sound Decision in July, I wasn't sure if there'd be enough anime-related music out there to fill a weekly column. As it turned out, Pioneer (now Geneon) decided to re-enter the animusic market at the very same time, and we've seen a steady diet of releases ever since. AnimeTrax seems to be dead in the water these days, but ADV (split from AnimeTrax) is still chiming in once in a while, and Bandai's experimenting a bit, too. We also can't forget the sudden emergence of Tofu Records as a domestic venue for Sony's Japanese artists.

After over fifty reviews (and several special features), I hope I've been a reliable source for thoughts on anime music, J-Pop, the industry, and music in general. But I'm still trying to refine my column to fit what interests you. If you have a few minutes to spare, I'd really appreciate some feedback. Would you like more anime music or J-Pop? Domestic only, or occasional imports, too? More reviews per week, or longer ones? I'd be delighted to hear your thoughts.

This week you'll find my opinion on three upcoming CDs. Enjoy!

The End of Evangelion Geneon

Without composer Shiro Sagisu's contributions, The End of Evangelion would be just another genre-shattering blockbuster head trip. Instead, it's a genre-shattering blockbuster head trip with an exceptionally frightening soundtrack. The ominous chanting and Psycho-like violin shrieking are startling enough, but Sagisu has more subtle ways to make you uncomfortable, too.

Easily the best of Eva's many OSTs, The End of Evangelion consists of two parts: revised themes from the TV series and new music made exclusively for the film. "The End of Midsummer" improves on Eva's foreboding pre-battle sequence, while new solo piano and vocal versions of "Thanatos" intensify the angst of the original. Also of note: In an rare feat for anime, all of the vocal songs are in clear, competent English.

To reach the unnerving heart of Eva, you have to move beyond the epic, dramatic stuff and focus on the pieces that don't seem to fit, like the light Baroque "Air" and the relaxed "Come Sweet Death." Songs about death and suicide aren't supposed to be this upbeat. And I'm certain Bach never dreamed his orchestral suite would be the centerpiece of a bloody battle scene. But director Hideko Anno manages to twist classical pieces into his own nightmarish vision, and if Bach—or anybody else—protests, he has two words for you: "Too bad."

On its own, the End of Eva soundtrack is a display of wild schizophrenia, reaching from classical piano and jazz to pulse-pounding contemporary pieces. If there's one drawback, it's that Sagisu's arrangements feel a little dated; given the same film, I can't help but think Kenji Kawai would've made something better. Those who haven't seen Eva will miss the irony of many songs' corresponding scenes. But it's still a good listen, and one of the more thought-provoking anime soundtracks on the market.

Arjuna - Into the Another World Geneon

Yoko Kanno's Arjuna soundtrack closely resembles the anime in its presentation: beautiful, remarkably skilled, but sometimes too aggressive for the audience.

Ever since her Macross Plus anime debut, anything boasting Kanno's name has featured exceptionally diverse and memorable music. Arjuna is her most innovative project yet, blending Brain Powered's timid, music box-like sound with the insistent guitar and drums of Wolf's Rain. There seems to be a strong Spanish influence, but it's an exercise in futility to pigeonhole Kanno, so I'd recommend against trying.

Vocal pieces drive the Arjuna soundtrack, which features a theme song from Kanno's usual vocalist, J-Pop star Maaya Sakamoto, as well as eleven tracks credited to the mysterious "Gabriela Robin," whose voice bears an astonishing resemblance to Yoko Kanno's. The style and instrumentation is the most varied I've ever heard in anime—hard rock, jazz, even colonial dance makes an appearance. Kanno's chanting pieces are hit and miss; "Awakening" is profoundly stirring, while "Clone" is so primal that it's jarring to the ear. My favorite piece is the beautifully haunting final track, "Aqua."

Kanno's musicians deserve special notice, particularly guitarists Hitoshi Watanabe, Tsuneo Imahori, and Masaharu Satō. It's safe to say the average anime musician doesn't have the talent or heart to bring some of Kanno's more challenging passages to life.

It would take another page to get through all of the instrumentals, as they're simply too disjointed to summarize well. Ironically, that's probably the soundtrack's greatest weakness: the tracks are so different that they don't gel, so you probably won't listen to the full hour in one sitting. It's hardly Kanno's fault, though, as the show dictates the progression more than anything else. Is Arjuna worth a listen? It's Kanno. Of course it is.

Gunparade March - Spirit of Samurai Geneon

Kenji Kawai is a drum freak. If you don't believe me, listen to Gunparade March's soundtrack. Almost every piece has a bass/drum part that sounds like it's been cranked up to the max. For the battle themes, it's great to add so much body to the bass, but with the brighter pieces, the effect is downright hilarious. Take track three, "Marching Onward to Hope," which plays like a light march—with a freaking cannon going off every four steps.

Fortunately, Kenji Kawai is a talented, experienced drum freak. A mediocre show like Gunparade Parch isn't the best venue for his skills, but he still puts forth a worthy effort, even if the effort seems futile at times. A number of his compositions, particularly the battle pieces, sound uncannily similar to Final Fantasy music, and considering that franchise's penchant for great music, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

I think Kawai is better suited to films with a singularly dark tone like Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor WXIII. Nobody's better than Kawai when it comes to building anticipation with quiet, eerie themes and exploding into epic conflicts. "The Singing Voice of Ruins" gives him such a chance to showcase his talent, with a foreboding vocal harmony that begins with eight simple piano notes repeated over and over again. As the strings slowly join and the tension reaches a climax, the sensation is equal parts beautiful and menacing. Through all this the piano continues, and when the strings and vocals fade, the piano concludes with the same eight-note progression, slowing, and then falling into silence.

Alas, the other 33 tracks don't even begin to attempt this kind of depth. They're okay, but generally, it's one of Kawai's weaker showings. I should mention that the opening music is performed by the sugary Yoko Ishida, but this particular song is dull and unremarkable; buy her "Sweets" album instead. And pick up Kawai's Patlabor WXIII while you're at it.

I'll see you back here for number 26—and many more!

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