A Close Listen to Spring 2015 Anime Soundtracks

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Oscillot’s related video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8CUOMIT4Yc

Any review of an anime series with a noteworthy soundtrack will likely stress the importance of music in creating the tone and character of a scene or series. However, it’s pretty rare (including in my own content) for anyone to take a closer look at what exactly that music is doing to get its effect. Today, for a change of tempo, I’ll be joined by anime reviewer and musician Oscillot to take a look at some of the current season’s soundtracks, and to see how they’ve been constructed to maximize the impact of their visuals and storylines.

–Shokugeki no Soma/Food Wars–

Oscillot: Food Wars stretches its source material so thin with prolonged and repetitive reaction shots that it probably wouldn’t be watchable if not for its dramatic soundtrack. A lot of people have commented that it sounds like Hollywood blockbuster music. That specific style of composition is often referred to as Neo Romanticism, which always strives to push Classical conventions to their extremes. The first wave of Romanticism saw Beethoven breaching the taught and well-oiled form perfected by Mozart. Thus these kinds of bombastic film scores are always trying to push more out of the average ensemble, going to drastic lengths by having a perpetual sense of movement and employing unconventional instruments in key scenes.

What the hell does this have to do with food? Well, Romanticism is all about pushing to extremes and transcending the everyday to reach something divine; it’s focused on subjective emotion which is why it…sort of makes sense in the context of eating food. As a comedy show, Food Wars wants to find the most striking and amusing ways to show just how goddamn amazing Soma’s cooking is, so it creates out-of-body sequences in which the eater is transported to a fantastic location. In other words, they transcend their mundane place and experience something more grand. The humour comes from the fact that you can’t get any more mundane than cooking food at a diner, yet every vegetable-chopping montage feels quite comfortable with exhilarating action-flick music.

Digibro: The angelic imagery of each episode’s transcendent climax is accompanied by choir singing, and a shift to calmer, more atmospheric music, as though the eater has literally died and gone to heaven, wherein each forkful of orgasmic nourishment is being hand-fed to them by God himself. These long, intense musical builds in the cooking scenes climaxing into a holy afterglow helps to sell the sexual implications of the fanservice-laden reaction shots, as if the soundtrack itself is blowing its load along with the characters.

Even outside of the big climactic cooking scenes, the music in this series doesn’t slouch. Episode three opens with a jazzy saxophone and guitar-lead song that wonderfully sells the nostalgia of its small town memory. This music is harshly disrupted by booming drums and a horror-movie piano chord as the brutal reality tramples the nostalgic past hopes of the character. All in all, this series utilizes its varied soundtrack with skill in maximizing the emotions of every scene, be it the haughty attitude of the school’s students walking around, or the dumpy, discordant melodies of a small-town girl worried about dropping out.

–Kekkai Sensen–

Oscillot: The city of Lot is diverse, crowded and boisterous, much like its biblical counterpart. The style Kekkai Sensen seems to be going for has it cramming together a patchwork of jarring visual and auditory ideas. Not only is the show filled with all manner of strange looking animals, aliens and humans, but its musical selection also spans quite widely; there’s jazz, ballads, techno, impactful rock, English lyrics, Japanese lyrics and even classical references. Episode 3 featured an extended sequence set to the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony with equally auspicious visuals. This sequence was actually preceded by a rather minimal composition based on very UN-classical microtones, so it was all down to the general pacing and use of silence to not make the change of genre seem distracting. Indeed this show is directed very tightly even in the sense of music, containing an exceedingly high amount of deliberate rhythmic visual cues. As Digi discussed before, this overproduced style has its downsides; when too much gets thrown at the audience it’s easy for the story to leave them behind or be dwarfed by an individual moment. While I agree with the points he’s made I might be willing to argue it’ll work in the long run once I’ve seen some more.

Digibro: In many ways, the melting-pot, all-genres-welcome approach to portraying Lot is typical of how New York City itself is typically portrayed in film. It certainly is far from the first work to portray the hustle and bustle of moving about the city using frantic jazz tunes–even the other famously New York-based anime series, Baccano, used a similar-sounding jazz-based OST. However, I’d be hard-pressed to find any other series incorporating these droning, avant-garde minimalist tracks used to make the outerworld feel, well, otherworldly, besides maybe the work of Yoko Kanno. If this singing is in any real language, I’d love to know what it is. There’s a strong willingness in this series to use vocals in its background music, often high in the mix, and without too much concern for raising the voice acting volume high above it, adding that much more to the cramped and hard-to-parse feelings of the series.

–Ore Monogatari–

Oscillot: Ore Monogatari doesn’t take itself seriously; it’s a very laid back, old school romance story with a basic premise–and that’s the simple beauty of it. The team makes use of a lot of visual tangents and alterations since the screenplay is more or less a pizza base. At a glance, I really wanted to hate Ore Monogatari due to it seeming like “Shrek The Anime” but soon I was convinced that there was nothing to get annoyed over!

Madhouse really banked on this show’s refreshing honesty, using tracks that almost seem like genre parodies. Seriously, the piano pieces have ridiculously easy counterpoint and are as sickeningly sweet as they are simple! It makes sense in the scheme of things since the show generally maintains a very light colour palette, only occasionally decorating it with some comedic throwaway moments that utilize different art and animation. The music also dabbles into this idea by using melodies based on the pentatonic scale. These kinds of scales hold particular significance since this is an anime, since a lot of pentatonic scales originate from traditional instruments used in Japanese Buddhist chants. With these scales we get a lot of leaps followed by a series of steps, as well as melodies accompanied by a lower voice in parallel 4ths.

Essentially, all that gobbledygook means it sounds more similar to Japanese koto music; but it never goes too far with this idea. The oriental-sounding melodies are still accompanied by regular common-practice harmonies, so it never goes extensively far down one path, keeping everything feeling natural and relaxed, while that slight oriental touch adds a little nostalgia to the whole mix. Call it manipulative, but that’s what this whole game boils down to: tricking you into thinking a scene has atmosphere when all it is is a bunch of chums on their instruments.

–Show By Rock!!–

Digibro: Show By Rock is set in a world where music is everything and the capital is called Midi City, though its focus falls pretty squarely into the pop spectrum. I’d almost say that it doesn’t earn the “rock” in its title, except that the drums in the opening theme and some of Plasmagica’s other songs are actually pretty kickin’. One of my biggest problems with a lot of J-Pop is the lack of kickass drum fills, so this show goes a little way in scratching that itch, even if its main songs lack the bombast of its contemporaries in shows like K-On.

There’s an odd contrast in the insert song performances, wherein a lot of the instrumentation sounds like it was made digitally, yet the vocals are given an echoey effect to make them sound more live; and the show frequently does cutaways to the audience wherein the music is made to sound distant and live-y, in spite of the actual performance not sounding live at all.

Like a lot of pop music groups portrayed in anime, the music in this series is often built around the image of the band, from the cutesy pop of the girl bands to the more sexy and rambunctious attitudes of the boy bands; even though pretty much all of the song structures and styles are exactly the same. These kinds of heavily structured J-Pop songs are the type whose quality comes down to the track-by-track basis of whether the tone of each instrument, the mixing of the tracks, or the vocal performances manage to be attention-grabbing; and unfortunately I don’t think this show has any real stand-out songs. If you’ve going to sell garden-variety pop, you’ve gotta pick the biggest flowers in the greenhouse, and I’m sad to say that none of these songs had enough going on to grab me the way a Tom-h@ck track would. The actual BGM is cutesy and fun, but definitely nothing to write home about.

–Hibike! Euphonium–

Oscillot: Hibike is actually the most downplayed of the whole bunch. It’s always interesting to see how a music-based show will use its soundtrack. You can appreciate how some insert songs were written at a high school ensemble’s level of difficulty, and even when it’s not played by orchestral instruments a given is the low number of instruments playing (or voices if you wanna be technical) at a given time. It’s a little reminiscent of Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, which had a soundtrack pertaining to the show’s musical subject of live-house rock. While that show took to never playing music that didn’t come from an on-screen source, Euphonium tracks are bright and perky but still sparse. Perhaps it reflects on the ensemble’s lack of connection with each other, and who knows what it’ll be like at a later stage.

Digibro: It does feel a bit odd. Most of the BGM is the sort of meandering, milquetoast stuff they’d be bouncing jokes off of in K-On, but it doesn’t quite have the dexterity to fit into Hibike’s consistent tone shifts and more heavy, dramatic moments. Something a bit more tailored to fit with each scene would’ve been nice, though I don’t think the music is distractingly off-putting or anything that extreme.

Oscillot: Fortunately, the staff behind Hibike from Kyoto Animation are absolute sticklers for details, and made sure the insert tracks were distinct from the music played by on screen characters. Everything from the unedited slides to the leaky air and lack of phrasing is totally indicative that these are instruments played by students without an audio editor or substantial diaphragm or lip strength. Trust me, I spent five years in a band like this in high school! The visual direction makes good use of repeated sequences to mark the passage of time, but the level of flash for this show is arguably the lowest Kyoto Animation’s ever worked with and at this stage that’s what this soundtrack seems to be working towards. We’ve had glimpses of how the show will represent its cast playing music and I can’t wait to see how it ends up!

Digibro: That about wraps up our thoughts on the music in current-season shows, but we’d be curious to hear what you have to say not only about the music in the shows that we’ve discussed, but in other Spring 2015 anime as well. Share your thoughts in the comments, or in your own videos if you’re so inclined. While you’re at it, be sure and subscribe to Oscillot’s channel to catch his own upcoming video on music in anime reviews, and to check out his awesome analytical writing about Haruhi and Trigun. You can also follow both he and I on Twitter by following the links below. If you enjoyed this video, then be sure to share it around, and consider supporting my channel via patreon so that I can keep making videos like it. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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