Isle of Armor
We begin with the new rival themes of Klara and Avery. These characters are version exclusive and effectively share the same role as each other – jealous Trainers at Mustard’s Dojo who try to beat you, including through tricks. As such, while they get unique theme music (and corresponding battle music), the same structure is seen in their music.
Take Klara’s theme. The opening five seconds appears to give both characters the impression they like to put on. In Klara’s case, we have a xylophone paired with short stringed notes, giving a rather ‘cute’ impression of her – this is just a sweet character? That illusion is quickly dispelled when the same melody is repeated with the pairing of guitar and drums, before a piano glissando (sliding of continuous notes up and down) transitions us to the next part. We get some piano and occasional intense drumming, and only short refrains of the xylophone to remind us that she still puts on this facade. It’s a rather well put together theme, incorporating her Poison-type team theming with her personality and actions.
Avery meanwhile is more focused on Psychic powers, and has… quite the hat. His theme starts with a very refined-sounding introduction, and the violin throughout adds to his efforts showing that he’s trying to be the best Trainer ever, matching his front. But the descending synth, which comes right after the intro and at the end of the song loop brings us down to earth, showing that he has a darker side, some inadequacies to overcome himself. I rather liked that this descent even jumps between the left and right side when listened to in stereo. Again, the song matches him well – he wants to be a successful Gym Leader, and showcases how strong he is compared to others – but he struggles to be a good Trainer.
It’s hard to say for myself which of these two I prefer, but when it comes to the battle themes, Klara’s song wins out. Her battle theme builds on her regular theme nicely – it still carries the clear motif and notes, but takes it up a notch, both in tempo and instrumentation. The xylophone eases in for only one part of the song, and instead the bass synth dominates, showing the seriousness of these battles (Toxic Spikes and all). It makes sense – less focus is on the seemingly sweet side, and the battle is faster and heavier in sound, matching that this is a battle, possibly one she’s cheating in.
This same descending notes aspect begins Avery’s Battle theme, which I like. But the section right after… I can’t quite see what it is going for. Maybe evidence for his own failings to prove a worthy successor for his family’s Gym? But even then, musically the song feels a bit too disjointed. It’s not quite catchy enough for me, and lacks the same sort of rise in intensity Klara’s Battle theme had. It instead seems to be more confused, more overwhelming in sounds used, which seems to lack a layer of sophistication or instrumentation to really grab our attention. Klara’s battle theme is far clearer to follow, and in this case I think that is why it wins out.
I think the following remix by Zame is a nice example of how Avery’s theme could sound with more focus on the melody, and less sound effects overlaid onto it. While the Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald soundfont most certainly features trumpets, here they give a much cleaner sound to the melody. The chaotic sounds are not as present, but still there in segments, just more subdued, and perhaps that is the direction the song could have taken. Arguably this goes away from the representation of Avery as a person, however.
Mustard’s theme is fine and rather well structured. The song matches the oriental theming his dojo carries, which is perhaps a hint to some Johto influence (we know he’s friends with Kurt), or perhaps that region he had travelled to and found Kubfu in. (One wonders if this region will be seen in a future generation title.)
The song is fairly simple at its core, with a clear call and response structure after the opening intro. At 0:15 we get the first ‘call’ for 5 seconds with a wind lead instrument, followed by the Asian stringed and synth instruments repeating a refrain, on the right and then left side. This repeats with a subtle change, almost too much but enough for a change to be at least unconsciously noticed. Then we get a different, shorter and call response structure, each with their own even shorter second melody response. These shorter bits lead well into my favourite part of the tune at 0:45, which has no repetition to it – it’s the final conclusion to the song before it loops. Chromatic descending chords really add some nice colour to the melody before the notes quickly go down to a finish.
His battle theme is the clear standout in the Isle of Armor however. It takes the same regular theme, but with twice the repetition, and possibly twice the tempo, with an additional bridge that allows a smoother loop. Second sets of repetition are kept fresh by changing the instrumentation, or variations in the accompanying notes. It’s quite well done.
The guitar adds a nice grittiness, and the occasional blast of brass instruments also add further depth and excitement (at the intro and as a counter melody, or response, to the main tune in place of the original instruments in his regular theme, which only come in on the second repeat). Trumpets execute a tremolo (a trembling effect on one note) in the second set of call-and-responses, which adds more intensity to the song. The part I highlighted in his original theme again is quite nice to listen to in the battle rendition. We get to hear it twice, but with a different conclusion, which as said involves a new bridge section afterward.
On that note, I quite like the mixing of the synth and other more modern instruments with the oriental ones. They parallel each other nicely in the call and response sections, that show up after the introduction, and even swap roles for a bit. And to boot, the higher energy this tune reflects great on Mustard himself, given his visual transformation and demeanor when he does battle with you. This for me is the winner of the Isle of Armor tracks.
We only got one new human in the Crown Tundra who got a theme song as well, and that’s Peony. His theme is definitely the… let’s call it the ‘funny man’ theme – it’s a jokey description, but a very apt one. His theme is very upbeat, and cheerful, and downright silly. There’s little to add to it – there’s strong use of jazz instruments, notably the sax, and electric keyboard. The song also goes between longer, smooth note transitions with the sax, to the very short, deliberate, descent of notes with the keyboard midway through the song. It sounds odd, and that fits.
But a part of me wonders if there could have been a different take here, one that references the Chairman Rose theme – he is his brother, after all. I don’t mean the tone of the tune needed to differ, mind – just have, say, a melody or passage that was a different take on his brother’s song.
His battle theme isn’t quite as silly – it’s still light hearted, with heavy sax and backing trumpets, which then take a lead role for a short moment. Of note is that there’s two brass instruments interchanging here, or otherwise supporting each other with a counter melody or extra notes. Whichever is the lead instrument at the time often gets supported with flourishes of piano too.
It is overall an easy going theme, but there’s a hardness to it, some evidence that this guy used to be a Gym Leader (and even Champion, apparently), particularly at the tail end of the song (right at 1:00). We hear a slow build up that suddenly accelerates to the rapid-fire single notes from both brass instruments that also rise with each repetition, before the song quickly descends down to lower notes and then finishes up. This song is much more nuanced and layered, and I must say it’s a strong entry.
Let’s not forget Calyrex, of course! It’s not a human, but it does get its own cutscene theme, and it’s fairly separate to its Battle Themes so it slots in here. The theme gives a nice sense of the Pokémon. The flute and string leads give a somewhat saddened and calm theme, of a Pokémon that is somewhat resigned to having lost much of its powers and being forgotten across the generations. In the background we have the repetition of rising notes (one part used in its Battle theme, also behind the melody), that adds a sense of mysteriousness to this large headed creature which can possess unwitting needy fathers. Maybe it’s best not to upset it.