Cowboy Bebop Soundtrack, Yoko Kanno, 1998
After a somewhat rocky start (that initially didn’t even see all episodes screened), Cowboy Bebop went on to become one of anime’s cultural milestones – on both sides of the Pacific. Setting itself apart from almost anything else produced for TV animation in either Japan or the USA, Cowboy Bebop merged disparate genres and visual styles in ways that helped the series introduce many new Western viewers to anime. Its cross-cultural appeal was partially based on its use of tropes that were familiar to Western audiences – Western, pulp fiction, film noir and cyberpunk (all within a space opera setting). Shinichirou Watanabe’s creation turned out to be popular enough to spawn a movie sequel and feature on many ‘best of’ lists in the years that followed.
As one would guess by looking at the series’ title, music played a crucial role in its eclectic aesthetic. Not surprisingly, the collaboration between director and composer on Cowboy Bebop was closer than usually – and the result was one of the most distinctive, attention-grabbing anime scores ever written. After her breakthrough with the orchestral fantasy masterpiece that was The Vision of Escaflowne, Yoko Kanno changed gears in spectacular fashion. Using jazz (and its many permutations) as the basis for Cowboy Bebop, Kanno branched out into a dizzying array of genres. She successfully dappled in everything from blues and metal to country music and opera, matching the series’ free-wheeling stylistic approach. Ultimately, Cowboy Bebop cemented Kanno’s status as one of anime’s foremost composers, able to seemingly nail just about any musical genre.
With the series pulled out of development hell by multimedia company Bandai Visual, it was no surprise that a video game adaptation was released even before Cowboy Bebop became such a rousing success. Released for Sony’s PlayStation just a month after Cowboy Bebop first aired, the game was a decidedly less creative affair than the series. Taking its cue from titles like Starfox, Cowboy Bebop was adapted into a straightforward third-person rail shooter, with gamers controlling protagonist Spike Spiegel’s spaceship Swordfish II. Released only in Japan, the game didn’t seem to leave much of an impression – but thankfully, it did feature an original score by Kanno (rather than just a reworking of her music for the series). Curiously enough, the game soundtrack never received an official release – an absolute rarity in Kanno’s body of work.
Where would Kanno take the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack, after having explored so many musical genres already? As it turns out, her choice isn’t that surprising – to underscore the game’s shooter action, Kanno goes with heavy metal as her main inspiration. While Cowboy Bebop features few stylistic surprises and is nowhere near as creative as the TV series’ music, this game score still takes a special place in Kanno’s discography. Nowhere else in her entire oeuvre has Kanno focused so strongly on metal (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex featured its fair share of growling guitars, but in a much grungier, industrial vein).
As such, the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack mostly lacks the kind of emotional and tonal subtlety that characterises so much of Kanno’s work. Her aim here is a different one – to write a bunch of melodic, upbeat metal instrumentals and she succeeds with flying colours. While her game music for Cowboy Bebop isn’t particularly profound, Kanno’s arrangements are as dense and carefully crafted as one would have come to expect. This helps her raucous cues to flow seamlessly between song sections and always sustain their fairly substantial running time. Her compositions’ pacing is helped by the fact that due to the game’s linear rail-shooter format, Kanno can (mostly) write songs with a specific length.
“Stage ½ (Part One)” and “Stage ½ (Part Two) quickly demonstrate just how accessible and fun the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack is. Launching into a searing attack from the entire band (including rock organ), Kanno herself soon takes centre stage on keyboards, as she audibly enjoys churning out some big, glossy 80s synth hooks that land the music fairly close to hair metal territory. At this early stage, the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack registers as Kanno’s most pop-influenced work, with a steady supply of catchy, anthemic melodies that turn into sky-high declarations of victory once powered by the blazing metal backing.
In fact, most tracks here sound like roaring band jams that keep energy levels high at all times and also give other instruments the chance to improvise and shine. “Stage ½ (Part Two)” is particularly indebted to delicious 80s cheese, relying on its pop-infused grooves to straddle the divide between the chrome shine of its synth hooks and the grittiness of its fiery metal instrumentation. Kanno’s keyboard work again mostly focuses on the repetition of memorable, short phrases.
That said, a longer keyboard solo towards the end of “Stage ½ (Part Two)” points towards the transformation that the score is about to undergo. There’s no huge stylistic change afoot, but after “Level ¾ (Part One)” opens with a triumphant synth clarion call that takes after Van Halen’s “Jump”, the cue makes space for more virtuoso keyboard parts that now move the music towards prog metal. It’s not a big surprise, considering Kanno’s trademark dense arrangements and playing skills. Still, “Level ¾ (Part One)” never loses the soaring quality and hooky rush of adrenaline that makes the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack such a joy to listen to.
The synths change style again on “Level ¾ (Part Two)”, now aiming for space rock’s laid-back sense of wonder and otherworldliness. Floating, wordless female voices contrast nicely with the still densely jam-packed arrangements and lead into a majestically gliding mid-section – before the band launches into a ferocious finale full of neo-classical soloing that still maintains a good amount of cheery melodicism. Kanno increases this stylistic tilt on “Level 5/6 (Part One)”, again subtly changing the music’s style and tweaking it towards power metal when she layers more operatic female vocals on top of the particularly dramatic metal arrangements. “Level 5/6 (Part Two)” then decides to simply go for the jugular, presenting itself as the album’s most straightforward, chugging rocker that delivers all of the showboating and head-banging intensity you could ask for.
There’s one more aspect to the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack and its quality is a bit more dubious. Each level cue ends with a boss segment – and Kanno is on audibly less secure footing when forced to write music with no clearly defined end point (as the boss fights could take any amount of time). Earlier tracks don’t fair too badly – while the boss segments on “Level ½ (Part One)” and “Level ½ (Part Two)” don’t develop much, they are appropriately sharp and don’t overstay their outcome. On “Level ½ (Part Two)”, Kanno even experiments a bit, crafting an unlikely combination of syncopated big drum beats and another 70s prog rock keyboard solo. Later on, these boss segments turn more humdrum, meandering along with an anonymous martial flair and disappointingly vague cinematic ambitions. Thankfully, it’s only a small stain on what’s otherwise another outstanding entry in Kanno’s body of work – a true hidden gem and yet another feather in her cap.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the game rip (with some tracks edited to exclude the less exciting boss material).
- 01 - Level 1/2 (Part One) Kanno, Yoko 5:14
- 02 - Level 1/2 (Part Two) Kanno, Yoko 5:16
- 03 - Level 3/4 (Part One) Kanno, Yoko 5:03
- 04 - Level 3/4 (Part Two) Kanno, Yoko 5:03
- 05 - Level 5/6 (Part One) Kanno, Yoko 4:04
- 06 - Level 5/6 (Part Two) Kanno, Yoko 3:39
- 07 - Bonus Track Kanno, Yoko 3:00