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How Prog Rock influenced the Japanese RPG

As a lifelong fan of Progressive Rock, I have long been aware of the similarities between it and the music used in Japanese RPGs. But the connections run deeper than ever expected.

Knowing almost every Yes and Genesis album off by heart in my teens, it felt like a natural progression to move on to the world of Final Fantasy, where every sound and every symphony was utterly familiar and comfortable to me.

For my fellow youngsters at the time, the connection was less well-known. It only really came to a head one time when I was playing a Genesis album in my car, and a good friend quite innocently asked me what Final Fantasy game it was from. After this I endeavoured to search out the links between these two fantastical forms of media.

One could arguably say that the prog rock influence began with Nobuo Uematsu, iconic composer for the Final Fantasy series, a man with enough clout to infect the entire RPG genre with these musical sensibilities.

Uematsu had personally been a fan of British progressive rock since secondary school, finding it the most fun genre to perform himself, and being impressed at the range of emotion the genre could reflect. Later, when talking about game music, he has stated that he is influenced heavily by 70’s prog rock in particular, commenting that the irregular meters and key changes work well with game design. In an interview with Famitsu magazine, he mentions too that many game musicians are prog rock fans, and hints that it may be due to their compatibility – the emphasis on high fantasy between the two.

Want to know just how similar they are? Check out one of Yes’s famous tunes from the 70’s, ‘Heart of the Sunrise,’ and compare it with this battle theme (Those Who Fight Further) from Final Fantasy VII.

Doesn’t that sound great? One also has to wonder how much influence particular musical prodigies within prog may have had, for example, check out this solo by keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman (wizard was actually his nickname; he often wore a cape on stage), and compare it to Tifa’s fight music in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. The metering, the tempo and time signature changes, all show signs of influence.

Since Final Fantasy became popular, almost all other Japanese RPG’s (hereafter referred to as jRPG’s) followed suit. The prog sound became apparent in the Grandia soundtracks, whose composer Noriyuki Iwadare has previously admitted ’70’s rock as a main influence. I have the sneaky suspicion that Emerson, Lake and Palmer may be among these influences – just listen to ELP’s ‘The Gambler,’ compared to the music for Cyrum Kingdom in Grandia 2:

Further similarities can be found in the Shin Megami Tensei series, the Mana games, Kingdom Hearts, Tales of Destiny, you name it, the influence is there! It is such a strong connection that half the time I wonder if my ability to grind for hours on end has something to do with my predisposition for such music!

Of course, jRPG’s are also influenced by the current era, so as things progressed beyond the year 2000 we start seeing more symphonic and electronica influences alongside the prog, as in the soundtracks for the Persona games and Xenosaga.

When it came round to producing Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, Uematsu specifically stated in the video interview that he wanted to do something he felt previous prog artists had not done very well – namely, merging the world of symphonic orchestra with the world of prog rock. Now, I dissent somewhat, because Magnification by Yes had been released only five years earlier, and was a stellar album purposely designed to marry these two genres, but then again Uematsu may have been referring to earlier attempts by bands like Yes and Metallica to retro-fit their songs to an orchestral arrangement.

In 2002, Uematsu then went on to create his own progressive metal group, The Black Mages, which proved very successful, especially with fans, and if anything shows that this music does have a market with the jRPG crowd.

Apparently the Black Mages were originally nervous about forming the group, as they are all middle-aged, but they need not be – any fan of prog rock knows that the genre is boundless – the members of Yes themselves are now currently pushing their seventies and are all still touring.

These days, many of the prog bands that were active in the ’70’s are still around, and now we are able to witness the unique opportunity for some counter-influence from the jRPG genre back into prog rock. Below is the opening act for Yes’s most recent album, released a couple years back. Remind you of anything? Well, if you spent hours dodging the lightning bolts in the Thunder Plains of Final Fantasy X, you may well find it familiar.

It’s all just speculation of course, but later releases by many of the ‘old crew’ of prog (when they were not doing a complete Genesis and switching to pop music) indicate that they are progressive in their influences, as their name would suggest. So by now we have come full circle.

These two forms of media are among the most fantasy-born and creative of their type. Whole worlds, and sometimes new languages, are formed in the lyrics of prog and the storylines of jRPGs. They are both similar in that they are the modern, psychedelic versions of high fantasy. They chronicle the stories of unconventional characters who go on bizarre journeys, and both will never fail in allowing a listener or player to get utterly embroiled in the fantasy universe they unleash.

So I challenge you all to switch a prog soundtrack on while you next battle with a monster in a jRPG – and see if you notice any difference! The influences are here to stay: enjoy them!
Concept art © Square Enix, Final Fantasy 14,
Yes – Close To The Edge album cover © Roger Dean

References:

http://www.nobuouematsu.com/ffacc.html

http://www.squareenixmusic.com/composers/uematsu/

http://www.1up.com/news/nobuo-uematsu-discusses-game-music

http://www.squareenixmusic.com/composers/uematsu/

http://squareenixmusic.com/composers/iwadare/biography.shtml

Comments

    • Ooh, nicely spotted, Isaac! It’s near on perfect. Lovely hearing influences in the non-FF games, and in all honesty I was expecting to see Peter Gabriel leap out in his bat costume during that Fire Emblem intro 😉

    • Holy crap you’re right! I’d never noticed before!
      If I do another piece like this I shall definitely have to give far more attention to Italian prog – Italy is the only other country to match and in many cases surpass the UK’s rich prog history 🙂

  1. I’m glad I found this article, 70’s prog and games are my two favorite things <3 I'm sad that no one else has made this connection (I've searched around online), but I've always found that Chrono Trigger's Millennial Fair music sounds a bit similar to Gentle Giant's Talybont:
    https://youtu.be/zqx_egzW6js
    https://youtu.be/k4L8cq2vrlk

    I dunno, maybe it's just me 😛 Though there are a few CT songs that have riffs that sounded like they were ripped straight from prog songs haha.

    • Glad you liked the article, Dan! Always great to hear from a fellow prog and RPG fan.
      Those links you posted are very cool – I certainly never noticed that particular association before but I can totally see it. You’ve also prompted me to replay Chrono Trigger again!
      If you find any more feel free to let us know – I love comments like this.

  2. Other great prog influenced game composers include Hiroki Kikuta (Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3) and Motoi Sakuraba (Tales series, Star Ocean series, Golden Sun).

    • Oh nice! I’m getting into the Tales series at the moment, and have to say, I’m noticing some nice influences there. Sakuraba’s compositions give me a real ELP feel.

      • Yes, the ELP influences on Sakuraba’s work is very clear, especially if you see a video of him in concert where he plays organ and synth backed up by a bassist and drummer!

  3. Interesting article Holly. In some ways the overlap isn’t too surprising. Both tell stories in a non-literary format, especially more extended pieces such as Karn Evil 9 or Supper’s Ready for example. And that’s before entering the “concept album” arena. Throw in a fondness for imposing visuals – both on stage and in album art – and it all becomes understandable if not immediately obvious.

    If you’re interested in expanding your prog horizons then Eastern Europe has plenty to offer too, Riverside from Poland are definitely worth checking out.

    • Hi Clive – thanks for your comment! Very true – it feels almost inevitable that these two rather grandiose forms of media would overlap in such a way.
      I will definitely be checking out Riverside 🙂

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