Tomoya Ohtani – Sonic Frontiers: The Music Of Starfall Islands

4 out of 5

Label: Data Discs

Produced by: Shaun Crook (vinyl master)

I’ve heard a range of video game music at this point, spanning old school to new school, retro, modern chiptune, fully orchestrated, minimalist, rock soundtracks, metal soundtracks, and on, and on. I know I’m not unique in this, whether you’re buying / listening to these soundtracks or just experiencing them in game: we’ve either been inundated with them directly, or even indirectly, with “non gamers” recognizing – at least in spirit, and yes, I’m kinda just working anecdotally – classic tunes, or a general vibe we might associate with games.

In short: we know a lot of digital bleep bloop music at this points, and a lot of it isn’t digital bleep bloop anymore!

…And yet, so many things are being composed that can still surprise, even for AAA games.

I’m not familiar with Tomoya Ohtani’s work yet, but listening to Data Discs selections from Sonic Frontiers – in order to scale the 150 hours of music into a digestible set, DD suggested a compilation of the game’s “island” themes, since those skew more classical / orchestral – my lack of familiarity is set to change: these themes are gorgeous, and haunting, and exciting, all where due. And not without some VGM bop, as witnessed on the 4th LPs H-side, which starts to get into some interstitial sections of the game. This is important, as it’s firstly suggestive of Ohtami’s range (probably easily told, for those like me new to his work, by glancing at a list of his works…), but more importantly, it underlines how, within Frontiers’ rather grand style across the other LP sides, there’s an undercurrent of awareness of what works for a game. As a standalone listen, that does effect some vagueness at times, when the music is meant to be truly background, or act in concert with other game aspects – this is actually noted in the commentary Tomoya wrote up for the release, and mostly is heard on the A/B-sides’ Kronos Island score – but once the game gets going (and I’d say the listen is fairly chronological), the way pieces and themes come together is incredibly exciting, and rewarding.

And on Kronos – which I take to be the main hub world (I haven’t played the game yet, sorry) – the way things shape up is truly moving. Each of the first three LPs has approximately four sections: the opening movement introduces that island’s main musical themes (Kronos is quiet and mysterious, told through piano and strings as somewhat classical compositions; Ares has a sense of discovery and adventure, stuffed with world-spanning instrumentation and is a bit more jazzy; Chaos is combat, very percussive based, and flitting between thrilling and more angsty tunes, with a pop backing), then the next couple movements expand on this by bringing in more instrumentation. On these LPs flip-sides, the next few movements formalize everything into more traditional “songs” – not as open-ended – and finally, some type of concluding theme, which generally starts punchy and then winds down. Whether or not Kronos is a hub world, it displays the most evolution in its tunes, which start very sparse and become very dense, and emotive. While the grand sweep of these songs rather instantly had me tuned in to Frontiers, I’d also say these are the hardest to sit still for and differentiate from one another at first: the A-side is not suggestive of the type of variation you’ll experience once moving to the B-side, though repeat listens bring out more and more subtleties, and allowed me to sink in to the listen, and imagine the open expanses told through the collection’s art.

Regarding which: it’s Data Discs, so it’s going to be good, but this is really something: housed in a box, each individually-sleeved LP has island-appropriate art and coloring, all themed to the tone of the music. Within each is also a print, a separate image from the cover, and then we get a full-size booklet with more stills and the aforementioned writeups from Ohtami for each island, which are not fluff – very much worth a read (and I’ll note that he speaks to the difference between the movements, though slightly differently than how I broke it down above). Sound quality is fantastic: regular DD vinyl masterer Shaun Crook has never let me down with the richness of these recordings, whether it’s classic or modern stuff, and that holds true here again, but we should also nod to Ohtani’s arrangers on these tracks – Takeshi Watanabe; Takahito Eguchi – and the original recorders / mixers – Shigeo Sakurai and Toshitada Miya, respectively.

I’ve left out the 4th LP, except in a passing mention above. It’s admittedly less “required” listening than the others, simply by dint of being, presumably, smaller / incidental locations. The first theme (Rhea Island) is from one of the final locales, and it’s absolutely deserving of a place – it’s a boss fight theme, rocking and intense – but the rest of the LP could be said to be akin to bonus material in a way, from a summary theme of Kronos Island (Ouranos Island; Theme of Starfall Islands) to lighter, boppy stuff (Fishing Vibes), and the minimalist ‘Theme of Koco.’