Panzer Dragoon Soundtrack Review: Soaring Themes

Panzer Dragoon Soundtrack Review: Soaring Themes

A new reissue of Yoshitaka Azuma's groundbreaking shoot-em-up score serves as a reminder of its brilliance more than two decades after its debut.

Data Discs's game soundtrack releases continue to impress me. Admittedly, their exclusive focus on vinyl (and on SEGA properties) gives their work a decidedly niche flavor; nevertheless, I feel any game music enthusiast should look to their rapidly growing catalog of LPs as the standard for the medium.

Even for Data Discs, though, their newest release — the score to Saturn shooter Panzer Dragoon — stands out as something special. And perhaps it should, as the album pulls double-duty not only as a reissue of a pioneering game soundtrack but also as a tribute to its composer, the late Yoshitaka Azuma. Azuma, who passed away in 2012, was never one of gaming's better-known composers... likely because he only contributed a handful of works to the medium. The bulk of his output came in the form of electronic and new age instrumental albums throughout the ’80s; Panzer Dragoon was Azuma's sole full-length game composition credit.

SEGA's selection of fresh blood for this game, to me, speaks of their ambitions for Panzer Dragoon and the 32-bit generation as a whole. While SEGA already had a few years of CD-quality audio in games under their belt thanks to the SEGA CD, Panzer Dragoon's 3D graphics and action allowed a level of immersion — of multimedia sensation! — that SEGA CD software could only halfheartedly play at realizing. Panzer Dragon was leagues beyond your Sewer Sharks and Silpheeds, no longer reliant on static full-motion video to create the impression of movement and action. The game felt like no shooter before it, and it played differently, too, allowing players to interact with the 3D space surrounding their on-screen hero. It moved more deliberately than its blistering genre bedfellows, for one thing. It looked otherworldly with its misshapen enemy craft and bizarrely armored dragon mount. Azuma's score perfectly complemented the unconventional design of the game with a synthesizer-heavy sound that drifted between martial, ethereal, majestic, and intense — sometimes within the same track! Yet a sense of stylistic unity bound it altogether.

As befits such an exceptional collection of music, Data Discs has given this LP reissue a truly deluxe treatment. The packaging is striking, with a heavy stock record jacket printed with an undertone of metallic silver ink. At first glance, the front cover appears to consist simply of the game logo printed against a stark silver background; upon closer examination, though, you'll see that background is actually a cloudy sky, and the silhouette of the hero and his dragon appear superimposed over it as well. Data Discs has also included a 12x12" print inside the jacket, reprinting a CG render of the main character and dragon. The CG is admittedly rather less than impressive — it looks every bit the 22 years old that it is — and the lack of any reproductions of the game's Japanese packaging (rendered in a hand-drawn French comics art style that carried across the series overseas) comes as a bit of a letdown. Given Data Discs' willingness to go spelunking in the SEGA archives for original illustrations, though, my guess is that (as with Out Run and Super Hang-On) there simply wasn't any surviving original art to be found on file.

Regardless of that one complaint, the packaging's iridescent appearance makes for a beautiful addition to any music collection. Besides, the real star of the show here is the music itself, which spans two LPs. It appears to be an almost direct reproduction of the 1995 Japan-only CD release of the game's soundtrack; all that's missing is a pair of 30-second interstitial tracks. Since the original soundtrack release came in at a bit under 70 minutes, Data Discs either could have omitted (or truncated) a few tracks in order to squeeze everything onto a single record, or else ended up with short record sides on two discs with a ton of empty space left over. They went with the latter approach, but they introduced a welcome twist: Both records play at 45rpm rather than 33rpm.

This isn't the first Data Discs release to play back at 45rpm, but with two discs Panzer Dragoon feels far more substantial than Super Hang-On did. I won't pretend to speak authoritatively to how much the higher playback speed (which allows for greater density of the sound information on each disc) affects the quality of the product, but it really does feel like the publisher has tried to create the best possible package for this soundtrack. And deservedly so. Panzer Dragoon's soundtrack, much like the CG render included in this set, feels decidedly like a product of the late ’90s. The difference is that, unlike the CG, it does so in the best possible way.

Azuma put together a cutting-edge collection of game music here. Three of the tracks were performed by orchestra — something you rarely saw in a video game back in 1995. The rest of the album consists of ’90s-vintage synthesizers, with lots of multilayered stings and fake electric guitars. This could have made for a super cheesy and dated collection of tunes, but there's enough texture and depth to these compositions that they hold up a lot better than, say, something by E.M.F. or C+C Music Factory.

One of Azuma's most important tricks as both a composer and arranger for Panzer Dragoon was his uncanny ability to create thematic consistency across the entire album without leaning on leitmotifs or heavy reprises. Although the Panzer Dragoon soundtrack demonstrates an impressive range of instrumentation, atmospheres, and even genres, it all feels consistent thanks to Azuma's deft re-use of certain instrument voices and rhythms. There's no one particular sound that appears throughout the album, but instead a variety of different synthesizer voices and techniques emerge and re-emerge in different combinations. It creates a sensation of unity and familiarity without overusing any particular technique: A difficult trick, but one handled with skill by Azuma.

Consider the way the chunky bass guitar sound of "Opening Theme" segues into a stretch of ambient synthesizers before giving way to choral voices reinforced by the return of the initial bass sound. Although no other track on the album duplicates this setup precisely, the bass riff and choral hits re-emerge a few tracks later on "Worms." And the use of sustained synth strings and new age sounds as a bridge between energetic passages repeats several times throughout the album, albeit with different instruments and tempos.

Equally important to the unity of the album is the sense of evolution that emerges over the course of the track sequence. Most of the tracks here work in pairs or trios: The background tune to a stage, followed by that level's boss theme. Each boss battle tends to echo thematic elements of the flight that precedes it, be it musical phrases or simply the choice of instrumentation. But each new level's music tends to carry forward snippets from the previous boss encounter or stage. SEGA presented Panzer Dragoon as a sort of combat narrative, creating a highbrow cinematic story frame for a twitch-based genre, and Azuma's soundtrack perfectly captured that aspiration.

The music flows gracefully, beginning with the orchestrated bombast of "Main Theme" and the aforementioned dense bass of "Opening Theme," which then gives way to the more delicate, snare-driven melancholy of "Flight" (a track that could almost work as a Final Fantasy airship melody). There's a sharp upswing with "Sudden Turn," which kicks off Side B with an electronic, ’80s New Wave-influenced beat that slowly gives way over the next few tracks until you reach the downbeat "The Empire," which creates a sense of oppression with its mournful keyboard sound and intense synthesized overdrive guitars. The album ends with the grandiose, orchestral tympani beats of "Flagship," which culminate in the intense "The Imperial Capital Set Ablaze" before giving way to the curiously subdued new age wind sounds and pitch-shifting synthesizers of the final conflict.

The fourth side of the album consists of synth arrangements of the three orchestrated tracks. These lack the richness of the live arrangements, though they do sound more consistent with the rest of the soundtrack. That said, it's not as though the live performances don't fit; because they bookend the album, the shifts between orchestra and synthesizers are kept to a minimum and create a sort of sonic "wrapper" for the entire package.

All told, Data Discs has done a great job of reissuing a brilliant collection of music — one that I honestly hadn't fully appreciated until sitting down to listen through this album. SEGA has long since retired the Panzer Dragoon franchise, but this beautiful rendition of the original game's stirring soundtrack stands as a perfect tribute both to a cult classic series... and to the man responsible for crafting its magnificent soundscapes. Highly recommended.

Note: Review copy was provided by the publisher. It can be purchased from Data Discs or Mondo.

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