Various Artists – Shenmue II

5 out of 5

Label: Data Discs

Produced by: Shaun Crook (vinyl master)

As I was pretty underwhelmed by the first Shenmue soundtrack, I wasn’t much looking forward to Shenmue II. (…But I love the Data Discs label, to answer why I’d then bother listening to it in the first place…) Employing most of the same composers, I was expecting, y’know, most of the same. And at a high level – the somewhat laidback, gentle vibe; the Japanese instrumentation – there are certainly similarities, but Shenmue II is a wholly different experience.

The first score, to me, sounds like people trying to make what they think some epic, period drama video game should sound like. It conjures that exact description, but not much more. It’s not very distinct. In the two years between games, we can imagine our composers getting more familiar with their craft, but also that the inspirational material – the game – had itself gotten sharper and more refined. And the music supports that. Shenmue II’s score is cinematic, but it’s not afraid to be game-y; it captures, right away – with Takenobu Mitsuyoshi’s Good Luck Song For Travelers – the epic sweep the first game’s music mimicked, and, more importantly, has its own personality, and humanity. You can “sense” a composer telling a story, which is then well carried over to the other composers’ contributions.

A first go through of the A-side had me questioning the relative shortness of some of the tracks in the middle – Data Discs is normally spot-on with how much they loop things – but the way the side bookends these more minor flourishes between grander tracks ultimately works, and especially when we go to the B-side and are bombarded by some amazing work from Osamu Murata, as well as Mitsuyoshi’s concluding Departure On A New Journey, which is suddenly powerful and direct; a stirring counterpoint to his emotive opener.

I had to stretch to figure out how I felt about the first Shenmue score, resolving that the fact that I didn’t feel much at all was fairly telling. Shenmue II, meanwhile, was the polar opposite: every track bursts with feeling, and varied feelings – those briefer, spot-scoring tracks on the A-side allow the composers to get a bit more playful – and everything feels linked, but also unique, with a theme hovering in and out but woven in to vastly different emotional palettes.

Data Disc’s presentation is the usual awesome, as-is their crisp mastering. Another reminder why I like following labels sometimes, as I listen to things, and end up quite adoring them, when I otherwise probably would’ve passed them by.