After half a dozen entries, Data Discs has established its SEGA soundtrack vinyl release series as a high-water mark for the preservation and elevation of video game music. It's a niche concern to be sure, but one that demands the effort, and Data Discs' highly focused lineup points the way to how it should be done: With thoughtfully remastered music in simple but luxe packaging.
The seventh volume in their SEGA series, unfortunately, marks the first time a Data Discs release has left me cold. Their new single-disc compilation of brawler classics Golden Axe and Golden Axe II maintains the company's usual high standards of packaging (a welcome return to form after my minor complaints about the curiously low-resolution screenshots emblazoned on Out Run's otherwise extraordinary soundtrack collection). In this case, though, the wrapper greatly outclasses the contents.
The Golden Axe I & II LP comes in Data Discs' standard heavy-stock sleeve. It's light on text; there are no liner notes or retrospectives, merely a small passage in the copyright indicia to detail the remastering process and production credits. Instead, the focus is entirely on artwork, with high-quality reproductions of the games' original marketing art both inside and out. The cover features a great illustration I'd never seen before (evidently from the first game's Japanese Genesis/Mega Drive release), with the heroes contemplating Death Adder's castle on the horizon while that giant turtle they have to ride to get there lurks in the middle distance.
Inside, you'll find two 12" square prints on heavy paper stock: One of Golden Axe's European console release, the other featuring the cover art to Golden Axe II. The former is a somewhat strange image of the game's three characters adopting bodybuilder poses, to the point that I'm pretty sure the illustrator just did a tracing of bodybuilder photos. The latter is the work of ubiquitous fantasy illustrator Boris Vallejo, and it is exactly what you'd expect: Hyper-muscular figures rendered with elaborate anatomical detail, occupying space with a grotesque and equally complex monster, all atop a moody, abstract, oil-painted background. It screams "this is ’80s fantasy" and for anyone who grew up reading sci-fi and fantasy novels emblazoned with Vallejo's distinctive artwork, it may serve up an even more profound blast from the past than the music on the LP.
Also per usual, the soundtrack LP itself comes in a few different variants. Black for the hardcore audiophiles who hold to the wisdom that only black vinyl sounds good, a limited-edition gold-with-purple pressing (available only direct from the publisher) that looks remarkably like an homage to 2P from Final Fight, and a simple translucent gold that fits with the "golden" theme of the games and packaging. In all cases, the music has been remastered from original game hardware and transferred to vinyl rather than being sourced from archives or digital files.
Curiously, both games' music has been recorded from SEGA Genesis rather than an arcade board. I say curiously because while Golden Axe II never ran on arcade hardware (it was a Genesis exclusive), the first game began life as a coin-op title before making its way to Genesis. I would assume Data Discs went with the console port for the sake of consistency between the two sides, but their previous releases have freely mixed and matched different hardware sources. More likely it's because the Genesis renditions of the Golden Axe soundtrack have more punch than the arcade board. The two versions sound similar (not surprisingly given that the arcade title debuted on a System 16 board, which served as the basis for the Genesis hardware). However, the console arrangements have a stronger lower end, so they sound slightly less clean but hit harder — as seems fitting for a rough-and-tumble fantasy brawler.
And frankly, the music needs all the help it can get. Golden Axe I & II didn't have bad soundtracks, but the music here has much less nuance than something like Out Run or Streets of Rage II. I've played the Golden Axe games dozens of times through the years, yet going into this review I couldn't think of a single tune from the series. Now, after listening to this album six or seven times, I could pick a few of the more distinct tracks out of a police lineup... but only a few.
For the most part, the Golden Axe soundtracks work as sonic wallpaper: Music that happens in the background while you're concentrating on beating lizardmen to a pulp. They're the very definition of generic chip tune music, energetic and driving without really accomplishing anything. They don't offer any particular substance besides their simple melodies and 4/4 beats, lacking much in the way of countermelodies or other subtleties woven throughout the tunes as a reward for players who listen carefully and pick apart their intricacies. The problem, quite simply, is that there are no intricacies to pick apart.
Of the two games, Golden Axe II offers the stronger collection of music, even if it's the less familiar and iconic game. The compositions are fuller, and they come closer to breaking out of the series' overwhelmingly generic feel than the original ever did. Perhaps not coincidentally, Golden Axe II bears only a single composer credit (Naofumi Hataya), whereas the original resulted from a three-person collaboration. Still, even the influence of that singular vision wasn't enough to elevate Golden Axe II's soundtrack from middling status. It's there, and it's fine, but it falls well short of greatness.
None of this is to say the music here is bad. It just never achieves transcendence the way Data Discs' previous SEGA compilations have. All the loving care and remastering in the world can't elevate forgettable tunes to timelessness, and despite the thoughtful effort the publisher had made here, Golden Axe I & II definitely stands as their least essential release to date due to the lacking nature of the music being compiled. Collectors and completists will probably want to pick it up anyway to avoid an unseemly gap in their library, and the LP does at least come in absolutely wonderful packaging — it makes a great shelf piece. Even with this excellent mastering and wrapping, though, this isn't the kind of soundtrack most game music fans will spin up for a random listen.