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Sound Decision
Then and Then

by Jonathan Mays,
A year after this column started, it looks like I've come unstuck in time again. This week I'm catching up on a couple of releases that recently slipped through the cracks. But to make up for the delay, I've also got one that we won't see on the shelves for three more months. First, a quick rant:

You know, Two-Mix was quite a missed opportunity. If Warner had been on the ball, they could've led this J-Pop movement instead of Sony. Gundam Wing was a hit, and the duo that performed the theme song got quite a bit of attention from North American anime fans.

But that's sort of a running theme, isn't it?

Just recently Avex missed a big chance with Move and an Initial D tie-in, and an even bigger one with Koda Kumi's quiet appearance at Ushicon. Even if her music didn't make it to the US version of Final Fantasy X-2, there was still a good opportunity to sell Kumi's CDs in conjunction with the game.

And who knows what Giza's doing these days. Aiko Kitahara and Yumi Shinkusa could've jumped on the Latin music bandwagon. Probably too late now. I bet you didn't know they had a US website. Maybe if they'd released something in the last two years, the rest of us would be paying attention.

So if you're wondering why Sony (through Tofu Records) is dominating the US J-Pop scene, here's why: Everybody else keeps screwing it up.

Texhnolyze Original Soundtrack #2 —Geneon Anime Music (2004-10-05)

Ready for a serious dose of Keishi Urata techno? The second Texhnolyze soundtrack is all about mood and atmosphere. That doesn't leave a lot of space for anything memorable, but the background music is among the most professional you'll hear in anime. And some of the electric guitar work is fantastic!

Urata's mood music comes in two types: the kind that'd be perfect for a racing video game, and calm, ethereal mediations. Both are exceptional, but the former is more notable because it's quite rare in anime. (Almost every show has a meditation or two.)

Fittingly, the best piece is actually a blend of the two styles. "Ballad of a Sin Man" is one of those reminiscent pieces (for the conclusion of the series, I assume) that has a modicum of energy to it—a lazy guitar with a snare drum that reluctantly presses onward. I like how Urata uses synthesizers because instead of acting as a poor substitute for strings, he evokes unearthly sounds that other instruments simply can't make. Aspiring music engineers should learn from this guy.

Hajime Mizogushi is also back for this second installment, though with such lackluster piano tunes, he doesn't make much of an impression. Don't get me wrong; they're gentle and unassuming as they should be, but with no real melody the pieces are essentially background music. Since Urata dominates with background music, Mr. Mizogushi doesn't have much of a place this time around.

For such an ugly, violent series, Yoko Ishida's innocent final theme is a brilliant closing number, even more appropriate than Gackt's poetry. Is this soundtrack better than the first one? I don't know; I miss the cello work, but Urata really outdoes himself this time. Either way, there's no reason to choose. You should own them both.

Gungrave Original Soundtrack #1: Righthead —Geneon Anime Music (2004-07-06)

Yes! I've been waiting for an anime soundtrack with some Mexican flair. Pop's fine, and good jazz is tough to beat, but folk music is real the real fun lies. Tsuneo Imahori, the mastermind behind Trigun's music, delivers a five-star effort with one of the best discs of the year.

Things begin on a rough note with a dull opening and a dissonant second track, "Clue." The TV edition of the theme is entrancing, but this four-minute edition lasts twice as long as it should. That's the only hiccup, though. From the third track, a tempting piece of lounge music with a whiny trumpet, to the final one, Gungrave is quite a treat. You'll need to learn to like chaotic, super-modern pieces to get through tracks like "The Maverick," but unless you're a classical prick, that shouldn't be a problem.

Without a doubt, the two most entertaining tracks are Spanish folk ones: "Prayer to rain, Song for wind" and "16% of humidity." The first one's a salsa dance piece with some smooth acoustic guitar (Imahori's been playing it since he was twelve), and the latter is even better. Okay, maybe it sounds a bit too much like the stuff you hear in restaurants on the Mexican border, but you have to commend the guy for playing guitar, mandolin, cavaquinho, and bass all on the same track.

Longtime Cartoon Network viewers who can't seem to escape a certain mutt detective will love the irony of a band called "Scoobie Do" finding its way into anime. It's a simple ending theme that's not particularly catchy, but the gypsy violin is a nice touch. Y'all will have fun with this one.

Adolescence of Utena —Geneon Anime Music (2004-06-08)

It's truly amazing that Utena's music actually fits well together. Nine times out of ten, combining baroque waltzes with 70s pop rock will give a soundtrack a serious case of schizophrenia, but it's a tribute to co-creator Kunihiko Ikuhara's vision that such disjointed styles can coexist peacefully.

Don't bother listening to this until you've seen the Utena movie. You simply miss too much of the atmosphere that holds the music together. You need the distorted, reality-defying architecture, quirky mannerisms, and bizarre imagery to put Utena's comparatively normal music in context. Also, many tracks are revisions of music from the TV series, so it would definitely help to have that under your belt, too.

Since Utena has one of the most beautiful piano themes in anime, I was glad to see a version of "Brightened Garden" make an appearance on the album. The light "Sky Garden's Bride" is an entertaining colonial dance primer (with harpsichord!), and "Resurrection!" is one of JA Seazer's better 70s rock numbers. But the best track is definitely Masami Okui's pop tune, wonderfully titled, "At Times, Love Is." If it's possible for pop music to be elegant and majestic, this one is the ultimate.

I should probably note that "I Want to Be Your Fiancée" does not have Mitsuhiro Oikawa's vocals from the movie. The Japanese CD is also missing a vocal version, presumably due to copyright issues.

Part of what makes Utena so good is that Ikuhara pays more than lip service to each of the musical genres on the soundtrack. Everything from piano ballad to disco dance sounds entirely authentic. It's a bit of a head trip, sure, but what's Utena without a few puzzling moments?

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