What was the best game soundtrack of the last decade? No, don't answer that; it was a trick question. Music is too subjective for that sort of statement. But, that being said, I don't think too many people would give you funny looks if you ranked The World Ends With You up around the top.
Like a great many things about Jupiter and Square Enix's cult favorite DS RPG, TWEWY's soundtrack worked out far better than it had any right to do. For starters, there's the fact that it was attached to a DS RPG, of all things; the limited hardware and storage capacity of that system should have precluded the inclusion of so much high-quality music. Yet somehow the programmers managed to cram a full album's worth of both vocal tracks and instrumental themes alike into that tiny cartridge, and their compositions -- spearheaded by Takeharu Ishimoto, but actually representing a collective effort by a huge array of Japanese musical acts -- carried an urban, electronic rock vibe that perfectly complemented the game's setting.
A smorgasbord of underground music that shifted as fluidly between Japanese and English as it did between rock and rap doesn't seem like it should work for an RPG. Yet it neatly captured the essence of Tokyo's Shibuya district, with its sea of teen-oriented clubs and shops, and somehow made a perfect backdrop for a game where your combat efficacy revolved around your fashion choices and the coolness of the pins your characters wore.
Like Square Enix's other recent cult favorite, Nier, TWEWY's soundtrack has gone to take on a life of its own, with a number of add-on releases having trickled out over the past couple of years. But the real testament to its impact comes with The Death March, a live concert album recording of some of the game's most memorable tracks, and whose title is a nod to the in-game metal band Def Märch. Specifically, The Death March captures a fifth anniversary tribute concert that took place in Shibuya last November and brought together many of the soundtrack's original performers (along with Ishimoto).
Of course, the game composers performing their nerd music live is nothing new; Konami's legendary "Kukeiha Club" team of composers and Taito's house band Zuntata used to rock the stage with blistering renditions of their tunes as far back as the early '90s. The Death March, however, stands apart simply because Ishimoto was the only in-house Square Enix musician to take part in the concert. The remainder of the band, so far as I can tell, consisted of outside performers who happened to collaborate on the original soundtrack and joined back together for the occasion.
While TWEWY's soundtrack has been subjected to any number of remixes, the live performances on The Death March give the tunes an entirely different feel. Divorced of the niceties of in-studio production, their sound is far more raw. They're often imperfect, particularly the vocal performances (which frequently sound rushed and breathless), but those rough patches give them an authenticity lacking in the in-game renditions. There's even a horn section that chimes in for a handful of tracks, most memorably "Owarihajimari." What these performances lack in slick polish they more than make up for with energy and enthusiasm.
The Death March manages to hit nearly all the high points of TWEWY's soundtrack, including "Hybrid," "Someday," and an extended mash-up version of "Twister" that serves as the set's finale. The one notable omission is a standalone rendition of "Calling"; for some reason the album includes two different versions of "Someday" (one standard, one the Kingdom Hearts version) but not "Calling." The specifics of the live act give several of the tracks a wildly different feel from their original renditions; for example, since the vocals are performed by two female artists (Stephanie and SAWA), "Twister" and "Owarihajimari" appear without male voices.
In short, it's a great live recording of a great live set of great tunes from a great game. So: Basically great.
The Death March isn't quite complete without its companion album, Subarashi Kono Sekai Crossover Tribute. Primarily a remix album, Crossover Tribute also includes the one tune conspicuously missing from The Death March: "Calling." It's a dirty deal, but thankfully Crossover Tribute is a pretty good listen on its own. "Um, do I really need an album that includes five different versions of 'Twister'?" you may ask. Well... maybe not. But Tribute covers a huge gamut of musical styles, from the borderline-dubstep sound of "March On" to the gentle, spacey trippiness of "Satisfy Galaxy Dub" (which features keyboard and vocal samples that I could swear were swiped from the Einhänder soundtrack); even those five different renditions of "Twister" stand apart from one another.
Unfortunately, neither of these CDs are available for sale on Square Enix's U.S. store front or the U.S. iTunes. As it turns out, this was an extremely limited CD release in Japan. With luck, though, they'll eventually put it into wide release for fans of the series to enjoy.
For TWEWY fans, The Death March should be an essential selection -- a full disc of fresh, live renditions of beloved tunes. For the truly devout, Crossover Tribute has its moments as well. In any case, it's great to see TWEWY lives on so long after its original launch through the enthusiasm of its fans (and the game's lead composer).