Review by Justin Pfeiffer
1. The Dawn of Wisdom (from Star Ocean 3)
2. Unfinished Battle With God Syndrome (from Valkyrie Profile)
3. Fly Away in the Violet Sky (from Star Ocean 3)
4. Requiem to a Predicament ~ Falling Under Negative Consciousness ~ (from Valkyrie Profile)
5. More Complicated (from Star Ocean 3 Director's Cut)
6. To The End of The Journey of Shining Stars (from Baten Kaitos)
7. The True Mirror (from Baten Kaitos)
8. Vitriolic A Stroke (from Baten Kaitos)
Solo Perfomance (Piano Solo ~ Drum Solo ~ Bass Solo ~ Three Person)
9. Original No..3 - Synth
10. Mission to the Deep Space (from Star Ocean 3)
11. Beyond the One (from Star Ocean 3 Director's Cut)
12. Original No.1 - Piano
13. Confidence in the domination (from Star Ocean 3)
14. Original No.2 - Organ
15. Cutting Edge of Notion (from Star Ocean 3)
16. Sky's Door (from Valkyrie Profile)
17. Star Ocean Forever ~ The Incarnation of Devil ~ The Dawn of Wisdom
"Fists and elbows." That may be something fans who were lucky enough to attend Motoi Sakuraba's Live 2004 concert on August 14th remember most clearly about the event - and I'm not talking about the pushing and shoving that resulted from cramming 350 people into a relatively small concert hall. I'm talking about the extent to which Sakuraba jammed out on the keyboards this time around.
People were lined down the block outside of Astro Hall in the Harajuku district of Tokyo, anxiously awaiting their turn to enter the building. Astro Hall is relatively small, and in fact proved to be rather difficult to find. There were no seats. It was first come, first serve, and what everybody wanted was a nice, cozy spot near the front of the stage to get a good view of the band. A table was situated outside of the hall with members from Team Entertainment taking tickets, and another booth inside showcasing many of Sakuraba's current albums and posters for sale. Everyone received a flyer with a list of the goods and the prices, but it was a good guess that most of the people in attendance already owned Sakuraba's lineup. These 350 who made it were the hardcore fans.
People were allowed inside at 6:00 PM, with the concert scheduled to begin at 6:30 PM. There was a drink stand towards the back of the hall room where people could order Coke, beer, or one of Japan's signature "cocktails in a can." The stage was dimly lit, and Sakuraba's music played in the background as people began filing into the hall room to claim their spot. There was a good mix of people, with an equal ratio of men and women of varying ages. Fans mingled amongst each other as they waited, likely exchanging stories and opinions about their Sakuraba fandom, or perhaps guessing which songs were to be played, as no one actually knew the track list for the night's event. There was definitely an electric vibe in the air.
When the lights dimmed, Hasegawa, Nakamura, and Sakuraba took stage. The crowd roared. Each member of the band took their spot, with Sakuraba behind his mountain of keyboards on the far left, Nakamura in the back-right corner on drums, and Hasegawa up front on the bass guitar. Once the band was set, a dim blue light began to emanate from the stage lights and a familiar tune began from Sakuraba's fingers. It was the same opening theme from his last concert one year before, "The Dawn of Wisdom" from Star Ocean 3. The theme started off subdued with the low register piano chords and a synth melody that's almost reminiscent of 2001 Space Odyssey. The crowd quickly calmed down and watched still, sucking up every ounce of the show. The hall was packed tightly, but it was small enough that everyone was able to get a clear view of the performers from a close distance. Sakuraba had his head turned towards Hasegawa while playing, keeping a close eye to signal for the changes. After the long crescendo of tension, the tempo picked up and the beat and melody finally came in and everyone in the hall started rocking. The music, resonating within the confined hall, pumping through the amps and giant speakers, was so loud your eyeballs literally vibrated.
Next came the battle theme from Valkyrie Profile, followed by "Fly Away in the Violet Sky" from Star Ocean 3. So far, the performance had been flowing exactly like the first concert. The numbers played this time around that appeared in Sakuraba's first concert sounded the same for the most part, with perhaps a few varying riffs. However, being able to see the action up close was a new experience. Sakuraba's expression while playing showed a look of meticulous concentration which rarely changed, aside from an occasional grimace or snarl during a particularly difficult phrase he ripped out on the keyboards. Sometimes he would even back away during a pause, and stare down the keyboards with a look that seemed to beckon, "Yeah, bring it on."
After the third song, Sakuraba took a moment to address the crowd.
"Everyone, thank you very much for coming out to my second concert," he said in a humble tone. The crowd raved back. Then he paused for a moment, looking at his keyboards. He turned to the band and chuckled, "Is it OK if my make a quick check?" Hasegawa and Nakamura nodded. Everyone was quiet for a few moments, then cheers started coming out at random.
"Sakuraba, you rule!"
"Hasegawa, you're hot!"
The band realized it was going to take Sakuraba a few minutes to check his equipment, so Nakamura chimed in from his microphone to break the silence. He mused about the band and practice, and cracked jokes here and there to keep everyone entertained. The atmosphere quickly became remarkably casual, but the electric vibe was still in the air.
Suddenly Sakuraba's young daughter Mio, who was present in the crowd along with his wife (and who incidentally appeared in Sakuraba's "Voice Mix" album), suddenly let out a tiny "whoo hoo!" The crowd laughed and Nakamura continued cracking jokes for bit. Finally Sakuraba looked up from his equipment and said, "I'm going with a different patch," referring to his keyboard track alignment. The band nodded and took up positions, ready to play.
They paused. Then Nakamura suddenly said, "Hey, what was the next song anyway?" They all looked at each other. Then Hasegawa followed up with, "I dunno, I just have 'Dungeon' written down here..." Everyone laughed, and a few more comments were made, but then it was time for the show to go on.
Next was another familiar number from Valkyrie Profile, but everyone was pleasantly surprised when the following piece was a new performance, "More Complicated" from the Star Ocean 3 Director's Cut album. This opened up the possibility that there may be new content in this concert after all. But after that, the crowd was even more thrilled when Sakuraba announced that the next three songs would be from Baten Kaitos, Sakuraba's latest soundtrack for the GameCube RPG.
The first piece from Baten Kaitos was "To The End of The Journey of Shining Stars," one of the opening themes from the game, and proved to be one of my favorite performances of the concert. The sweeping orchestral arrangement of the original version was transformed into a slow rock tempo with deep bass, a steady beat, and a synth lead carrying the melody in high register. It followed the harmony from start to finish and embellished on the melody strains, creating a memorable piece that really moved the audience. Then with virtually zero hesitation, the band suddenly cut right into "The True Mirror," which totally rocked the house. Fans in the crowd thrusted their fists in the air to the beat of the song, which played through twice and included extended material. Meanwhile Sakuraba tore up the organ solo segment of the theme, switching from various synth leads with incredible precision that replicated the original recording. Finally "Vitriolic a Stroke" came in, with Hasegawa jamming on the bass guitar and Sakuraba following suit with the bass guitar lead sample on the keyboards. The theme continued all the way through, but no one was prepared for the crazy jam session that was to come next.
The piece leveled out to a static beat and bass line from the song with Sakuraba leading the way on a piano solo. The solo kept going. Sakuraba never took his eyes off his hands. The virtuosity of his playing became greater and greater and the intensity grew. In a climactic finish, Sakuraba began pounding out strains on the keyboards with his fists and elbows, running up and down the keys, while the astonished crowd watched googley-eyed from the floor. Next it was Nakamura's turn to strut his stuff with an awesome drum solo that lasted several minutes, and Hasegawa capped it off front stage with the lengthy bass guitar solo. While Nakamura and Hasegawa still played the foundation of the song in the background, Sakuraba's voice came in over the microphone to introduce the band, and Hasegawa followed by introducing Sakuraba. Once again, the crowd roared.
This was definitely the high point of the concert, and just when everyone thought things couldn't get any better, Sakuraba began, "The next song is an original piece unrelated to any game, so please give it a listen." The crowd ooed and ahhed. No one expected there to be any unreleased music, so this was quite a treat. As it turned out, the band performed a total of three original pieces Sakuraba had written for the concert, with a couple Star Ocean 3 themes and another one from Star Ocean 3 Director's Cut scattered in between.
The original pieces bore no name, but instead were designated by the main instrument leading the piece. The first original piece, "Synth," was an upbeat rock theme featuring various square-leads and other synthesizers commonly used by Sakuraba. True enough, although Sakuraba announced the piece had no connection to any game, it was definitely vintage Sakuraba style (circa Playstation period, anyway), and felt as though it could be inserted into the soundtrack of a number of his games of recent times and fit in perfectly. The third original piece, "Organ," also sounded very conventional, with Sakuraba's signature organ riffs and arpeggiation backed up by an off-beat rock rhythm. However, by far the most memorable of the original pieces was second one, "Piano," which was a different story altogether. This piece was more relaxed and incorporated thick harmonics with a meaty melody. It was very song-like, almost like a vocal, with varying piano leads and beautiful high strings. All in all, everyone felt very fortunate to have experienced this unreleased music. Whether Sakuraba will implement these themes in later works, remains to be seen.
The entire concert ended up lasting a little under two hours. Throughout the performance there were numerous other times when the band interacted with the audience. Quite often, Hasegawa and Nakamura playfully fussed about how exhausted they were from playing, henpecking the fact that Sakuraba's music is so difficult to play.
"Ugh, I'm beat."
"I can't play anymore..."
All the composer could reply in jest was, "It's difficult? Sorry."
Another time, even Sakuraba himself became a bit winded and said, "We're tired. But guys, come on." Hasegawa and Nakamura just stood there. "OK, talk about something then," he mused.
Hasegawa began, "How about the original pieces?"
Nakamura responded, "They're too tough!" Everyone laughed.
The two never let up on Sakuraba. Later Hasegawa recalled his reaction to hearing a theme they had practiced after playing the game.
"Oh, so it has this kind of image," he portrayed.
"Yeah, and we play it a lot faster too," Nakamura was quick to add as he gave Sakuraba a wry smile. Sakuraba just laughed and shook his head. Of course everyone was amused by the ranting. It was a gas.
At one point towards the end of the concert, a fan shouted out, "Sakuraba, happy birthday!" to the composer whose birthday had been a little over a week ago on August 5th. Then the crowd began yelling and cheering, "happy birthday!"
Then Hasegawa interjected, "You didn't tell us it was your birthday," referring to the fact that he evidently never mentioned it during practice. Sakuraba, flustered and a little embarrassed, just mumbled an apology and thanked the audience.
When Sakuraba announced that the following song would be the last of the concert, the crowd fussed and moaned. No one wanted the concert to end. The final piece was that of the 2003 concert, "Sky's Door," the overworld theme to Valkyrie Profile set to a pumping rocking rhythm. This was one of my favorite arrangements from the first concert, so I was glad they brought it back a second time around. When the piece ended, Sakuraba thanked the crowd, then the band took a short bow and left stage. Immediately the crowd began clapping and chanting, "Encore! Encore!" A full two minutes passed, and there was no sign of the band. People started thinking they weren't coming back. But sure enough, the trio finally returned to the stage and the crowd rejoiced. Sakuraba thanked everyone for their warm spirit, and without another word, they began the finale, "Star Ocean Forever~The Incarnation of Devil~The Dawn of Wisdom," the same medley played at the closing of his previous concert. The crowd was continually active throughout the concert, with bodies swaying and heads bobbing to the music from start to finish. After the final performance, the band members held hands and gave one last bow to the howling fans and departed from stage. When the lights in the hall lit back up, everyone knew it had finally come to an end.
All in all, everyone in attendance was quite thrilled with the performance. This may not have been the large-scale, flashy event that the first concert was, and although roughly half the content had already been performed, it was definitely a more "up close and personal" experience with Sakuraba and the band. Everyone left the concert hall feeling they had gotten a small slice of Sakuraba's friendship, and perhaps a peek at Sakuraba's personality, as well as some insight into the band behind the scenes.
I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Sakuraba backstage after the concert had ended, and I must say, he is an extremely nice and modest guy. In fact, the majority of the words he uttered to people was simply, "Thank you very much." Except, he was quite taken back when I told him I had been a fan of his music since the 16-bit era, naming off several titles from his Telenet/Wolf Team days, noting that I was especially fond of the Sol Feace soundtrack. He recoiled a bit and went on to say how nostalgic that title is for him, and even turned to get the attention of a person standing next to him (a friend, perhaps) and marveled at the notion. He again thanked me for my comments, but it was I who was truly thankful, for having the opportunity to meet such an esteemed composer in the game music industry.
Thus brought the event to a close. It is a great thing that game music concerts have continued on into today, and that individual composers have come into the light to perform on their own. Let us hope Sakuraba continues performing live events in the future, and that the trend extends to more game music composers out there. I for one, hope to be there.