Gig Review: Sonic Symphony

Yesterday I was lucky enough to score tickets for the opening show of the Sonic Symphony tour, with the first leg being held at the Barbican Centre in London. I had a ticket for me and a ticket for potentially the harshest critic of all: our Sonic-mad six year old. Though the combination of classical music and a six year old might seem like a bit of a risk, the little dude can complete Sonic 2’s Death Egg Zone in just over a minute and forced me to help build him a huge Spotify playlist of Sonic songs, so I thought it was difficult to say he hadn’t earned his right to be there.

Sonic Symphony Act 1

The Barbican, as a venue, was a great choice. Aside from the exterior’s mix of harsh concrete and idyllic ponds lending themselves well to a Sonic the Hedgehog zone, the acoustics inside are great. I’ve only been to a few events at the Barbican but I’ve always been in awe of the quality of the sound. Hopefully this show wouldn’t disappoint.

The impressive Barbican Central Ponds (image: Stephen C Dickson, CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Once we arrived, the interior was awash with Sonic T-shirts. An early confirmation, if needed, that we were happily among our fellow nerds. While waiting for the loos we have a nice chat about just how amazing Sonic Frontiers is, and while on the way to our door we passed a giant Sonic surrounded by a huge throng of people and (ominously for those with 8pm tickets) a queue for the merch stall which seemed to extend up a stair case. We made our way to our door and wait to be let in.

Unfortunately for me, things are running behind schedule. The doors don’t open till about 10 minutes before the start time on the ticket, which did not go down well with my young companion. As I try to distract him by asking what he thinks will be played. In the back of my mind I’m thinking about what WON’T be. Though two hours is probably the optimum length for a gig like this, there’s a lot of music to fit into that. It’s inevitable there’s going to be some popular Sonic music that they simply won’t have time to squeeze in. Ominously, the young master is very hopeful of them playing Ice Cap zone and won’t heed my gentle warnings that it might be one of the things they can’t include.

Still, eventually we’re allowed Inside and are greeted by a screen showing a lovely backdrop of the whole Sonic gang in their concert getup, with a countdown telling us when the show will begin (thank you, team, for cutting down on the inevitable “Daaaaad! When does it start?”) The tickets I’ve snagged are on balcony row D – which is as far away from the action as you can get. Thankfully at the Barbican ‘as far away as you can get’ still isn’t really that far – so we still have a clear view of all the performers doing their thing (even once the guitarists start strutting their stuff at the front later on.) The performers file in, and the show begins. My companion requests an excited fist bump as the orchestra break into the notes of the original ‘Sonic the Hedgehog’ title music.

As a grumpy living room composer, I’m probably more sceptical of the cult of live music than most, but this is one of those moments that you absolutely have to hear live. The medleys of Sonic and Sonic Two aren’t too different from the versions you can listen too on the 30th anniversary album (available from the streaming version of your choice) but played in front of you the effect is absolutely breath taking. all of the performers in the orchestra seem to be completely on top of their game and the acoustics draw all of the nuance out of even the quietest instruments. I’ve heard all of the songs millions of times before, but – even including the 30th anniversary symphony album on Spotify – never quite like this.

We also have no idea where to point out eyes. On the one hand, the orchestra in front of us is doing an amazing job, and watching them is captivating. On the other hand, the visuals playing in the background are completely brilliant. Would it be enough to have pulled some footage from Sonic Origins and call it a day? Absolutely – but whoever created the backing video is a true-blue (ahem) Sonic fan. The videos aren’t just accompanying the music but are weaving narratives in their own right – all while throwing in a few visual gags that draw genuine belly laughs from the audience. If I wasn’t impressed enough with the orchestra before, its clear these comedic moments can only work because the visuals and the music are completely in sync. A fraction of a second either side and the funny wouldn’t have landed quite as well.

If anyone had been expecting them to just play the 30th edition show under a new name, they were probably taken by surprise when the orchestra went from Sonic One not into Sonic Two, but a medley of tracks from Sonic CD. Once again, the arrangement of the tracks is masterful: it takes all my self control to respect the reverential atmosphere and not whoop and ‘yeah’ along to Palm Tree panic. Thankfully, it is the correct PAL/JP soundtrack and not the inferior US counterpart. My companion is sitting forward on his seat with a manic grin. After Sonic CD, we jump into Sonic 2 and a deep, beautifully brassy rendition of Wing Fortress Zone.

From there, things start to go down hill for me personally: Sonic Three is represented only by , a beautiful arrangement of Sky Sanctuary zone. Combining elements of both the original Megadrive and the version used in Sonic Generations, everything about it is absolutely perfect. It’s patently not going to be enough for the diminutive Sonic 3 fundamentalist sitting next to me, however, and his body language takes a shift towards the huffy when we move into a medley of music from the 8 bit titles. His mood is a bit of a shame – the likes of bridge zone sound like they’re made for an orchestral arrangement, while the orchestral arrangement draws satisfying hidden complexities out of Sonic 2’s Underground zone. The visuals are once again completely on point with another laugh drawn from the crowd.

As we moved into the modern era, we had what was perhaps the weakest part of the afternoon – though still fabulous, “Believe In Myself” from Sonic Adventure is a charming and crowd-pleasing choice, but with so many beautiful pieces of music left on the bench I’m not sure the Chao medley can justify it’s place – even though it does have a beautifully charming visual accompaniment. For me personally, the likes of Sonic Colors and Sonic Unleashed probably have the least meaning – but to be fair there’s no denying that some of those tunes were made for orchestral arrangement and sound absolutely beautiful. Planet Wisp still gives me chills just thinking about it.

Thankfully the first act (ha) ends with a surprising high: A new medley of tracks from last year’s Sonic Frontiers. In a way this might seem like cheating (as it stands, opening menu music ‘I’m Here’ is already arranged for piano and strings,) but the medley is incredibly ambitious – even including some of the fast-paced drum’n’bass enthused cyber space stages. It’s really well put together and I’m incredibly impressed.

Disappointed at the lack of Ice Cap Zone, my companion decided he wants to go home in the interval. Thankfully, however, a quick chance to meet his hero and have a picture is enough to invert his mood. The area is around Sonic is a bit of a scrum – for a nation infatuated with queuing, its odd that we haven’t worked out it’s the perfect way of dealing with character meets.

Why yes, meeting sonic WAS primarily for the child’s benefit…why do you ask?

Sonic Symphony Act 2

Back in our seats everything has changed. The small pile of band instruments has been picked up, and the orchestra pushed further back. As the band break into the opening crunch of Shadow the Hedgehog’s ‘I am All of Me’ a huge whoop surges from the crowd. It’s clear the reverential atmosphere of the first act has made way for something closer to a rock gig.

On the whole, I tend to be a fan of seeing bands in non-band-centric venues. Rock venues tend to be too enthused with their own propaganda, with the music ending up as muddy and indistinct and just overly loud as a result. This theory holds up at the Barbican, where the instruments were distinct and clear from each other. Perhaps we were too far away, but my only criticism would be that the special guests weren’t loud enough. It was amazing to have legendary Sonic composers Jun Senoue and Tomoya Ohtani in attendance, it was just a shame not to have them higher in the mix on their respective instruments when they were doing their thing.

Still, the rock band…well…rocked. Show producer Shota Nakama did a great job on the guitar, Blaize Collard and Louis A. Ochoa kept the rhythm section tight and Derek Dupuis keyboard work had everything feeling just like the source material. Frontman Dave Vives also did a really good job of simultaneously making the stage his own while also quietly morphing into every Sonic vocalist from the past twenty five years (helped on ‘His World’ with an impressive impression of Zebrahead’s Ali Tabatabaee from Ochoa.) The polite applause from the first half of the show was replaced with raucous cheers and bellowed song requests. The band took these in good humour, though the experience was a bit much for my little buddy to handle, and he had to cover his ears between tracks.

Still, any grumpiness from the first act was soon forgotten as the band jumped from crowd-pleaser to crowd-pleaser: from 1999’s ‘Open Your Heart’ right up to Sonic Frontiers’ ‘Break Through It All’ – and even including an exciting sneak peak of what’s to come from Sonic Superstars. The crowd might have been louder on some songs than others -‘Escape from The City’ has the entire auditorium singing along – but every song seems to find at least a portion of the audience singing along in loud voice. It’s impossible not to be swept up in the euphoria. I catch my son headbanging along to Reach for the Stars, with a big cheesy grin on his face. Perhaps because we started late, the band eschew the tedious rock’n’roll pantomime of the encore to just give us more of what we want, finishing with a breath-taking Sonic blast of Sonic Adventure 2’s Live and Learn that involves the band, the whole orchestra and pretty much everyone in the auditorium.

In a way its a slight shame that the band arrangements didn’t feature the whole orchestra throughout. Though the typical rock strings are welcome, it certainly adds something having the band supported by an entire bold brass section. Seeing the smiles on the face of pretty much the entire audience shows this to be a miniscule grumble however: we are all very very happy. As we head back towards Barbican station we pass the early birds arriving for the 8pm show. If I didn’t have a son to get home to bed, I’d have been tempted to see if there were any last minute tickets available so I could do it all again.

An hour later, we’re sitting in the car, blasting away from the last concrete tendrils of London towards the darkening country lanes. Having experienced his first classical concert AND his first gig, the six year old is also experiencing his first post gig high: chattering away as he tucks into the obligatory post-gig Happy Meal with one hand and hops around replaying everything we heard (and everything we didn’t hear) via my phone in the other. “I think I liked the orchestra the most” he says to me “because they played Sky Sanctuary.” All grumpiness related to the event had been forgotten in that beautiful way a child’s mind can just let go, and what remained were the memories of a perfect afternoon. They might not have played everything I wanted, but the event itself was everything we’d hoped for and so much more. Sonic Symphony was a beautiful bonding experience that will stay with us for years to come.