It seems odd that it’s taken this long for a vinyl release of Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack. With the ongoing vinyl resurgence straddling the lines around novelty, collectability and audio wankery, Milan Records’ release of such a seminal anime series’ iconic soundtrack was sure to draw attention.
The tight integration of music and anime has been cultivated over the last few decades to become an essential commercial facet of the modern production paradigm. Just as merch bankrolls Star Wars, so too does music join otaku merch in keeping the anime industry alive and relatively healthy.
The anime industry has maintained a very long and healthy relationship with the Japanese recording scene going back to the late-70s and early 80s where funk, rock, j-pop and city pop found itself omnipresent across TV, OVA and movie releases. Super Dimensional Fortress Macross made pop music a core theme of near-future sci-fi, Kimagure Orange Road triggered a devastating run of amazing 80s vocal tracks and even the 1980 run of Astro Boy featured an EP release of its opening theme covered by Japanese boy band ANKH.
Cowboy Bebop hit Japanese airwaves in 1998 courtesy of Gundam stalwart Sunrise, but in a post-Evangelion world where mecha-action sci-fi strove to rewrite expectations by auteur creators, Shinichiro Watanabe applied a decidedly gritty and funky approach to mash together spaghetti westerns, film noir, post-modern sci-fi, martial arts philosophy and a celebration of grindhouse cinema pulled together with the help of Yoko Kanno’s revelatory musical direction to deliver an unforgettable journey of redemption.
Kanno’s involvement in the anime and Japanese video game music scene is extensive. For many who got into anime in the mid-90s it wouldn’t be unusual to posit that their first encounter with Kanno’s work would have been Macross Plus, but the sheer scope and quality of compositions that arose with her work on Cowboy Bebop launched her to another level of western recognition and fandom. Given Kanno formed her band The Seatbelts on the back of this release, and that the band reformed in 2020 after a 6 year run from 1998-2004 previously, should help emphasise that the music on Cowboy Bebop is a step beyond the typical approach to anime soundtrack creation.
Featuring lashings of bebop, funk, blues, jazz, big band and the occasional contemporary pop arrangement, Cowboy Bebop’s soundtrack is incredibly vast and ambitious. To the credit of Kanno, Watanabe and his team, somehow they managed to pull the whole thing together.
With such a huge and diverse score, Milan Records’ vinyl release of the Cowboy Bebop Original Soundtrack had to make a few hard choices in what to include despite this being a double-LP release. Those critical pieces, like TANK!, Rush, Cosmos and Mushroom Hunting, hit most of the high notes, and the weave of song choices across the 4 sides hit a nice flow to avoid listening fatigue if you’re enjoying everything in a single session. Equally, thanks to a bit of spatiality to the track selection, listening to sides in isolation is less likely to result in a fragmented listening experience (which as a busy parent is a welcome thing!).
From a purely selfish and subjective perspective it would have been great to have seen Call Me, Call Me and The Real Folks Blues round out Side D, but given the amazing journey with what Milan Records has delivered it certainly isn’t a reason to get grumpy about. Maybe they’re saving it for another release? We can only hope…
The packaging is stunning. The key art for Cowboy Bebop provides an enormous wealth of source materials, and this matte gloss printed, thick paper stock gatefold screams quality. The two LPs are housed in gorgeous printed cardboard sleeves, and thankfully the cardboard stock is nice and smooth to avoid much in the way of cosmetic scratches to the vinyl. While we don’t get much in the way of liner notes, we get some encouraging quips from Kanno and Watanabe on the second LP’s jacket. Some have questioned the choice of art for the cover – I originally thought it was a proof of concept preview image at first myself, but now that I have it here it’s growing on me. Thankfully all the other trimmings are fantastic.
While track curation is arguably key and the fancy packaging rounds out the value proposition, poor mastering or pressings in a vinyl release will reduce the whole exercise to nothing more than a collectible curio. That was certainly on my mind when pre-ordering the second wave of retail releases back in January as I’d heard a few cases where well-meaning vinyl releases of anime (and video game) soundtracks were undermined by hot or lethargic mastering and marred by quality control issues.
To Milan Records’ credit the records play gorgeously warm and detailed, at least on my modest setup. Each LP is pressed onto 180g black vinyl, came through looking mighty clean and, importantly, flat from centre through to the lead-in. I’ve found my current cartridge tends to be a little fussy on some lead-in tracks, especially where there’s some wobble on the edges of the record, but I found absolutely no issues despite spinning both records repeatedly so far.
What’s impressive is the way the pressing and mastering for the Cowboy Bebop Original Soundtrack handles the huge variety of tracks in this release. TANK! can easily fall prey to coming off shrill or harsh with the huge lashings of brass throughout, but happily allows the double bass to hum along without overpowering it. The harmonica solos in tracks like Spokey Dokey come across earthy and delicately fold in subtle details like the performer’s inhalation before belting out a bluesy solo without distracting from the music (admittedly this was probably present in the previous CD releases, but it’s a nice touch in this release regardless). Mushroom Hunting burns with warm, energetic funk without fatiguing your ears, while the clean, delicate tones of Memory come across with the contemplative melancholy so evocative of the anime.
Audiophile’s an overused term and my listening environment is a far cry from the enthusiasts in corners of the internet like StereoNet, but the quality of the records themselves are fantastic and easily sit up there with the small collection of Japanese pressings from the 70s and 80s I have on hand to compare against.
Aside from a few key tracks absent there is very little to fault with this vinyl release of the Cowboy Bebop Original Soundtrack. Milan Records had a daunting task ahead of them for this release – Kanno composed an eclectic soundtrack that would be impossible to capture in its entirety on vinyl while remaining at an accessible price point, but the curation has been handled extremely well. The quality of the packaging is both an impressive celebration of this iconic anime series and highly functional to avoid fans worrying about damaging anything when giving the records a spin.
Critically, Milan have ensured the mastering takes advantage of the vinyl format and plays to its strengths, delivering an engaging and warm listening experience manufactured to an extremely high standard.
Colour me impressed Milan – this is an essential investment for Cowboy Bebop fans, especially those with a penchant for records. I’ll be looking forward to news of a follow up release to capture those missing tracks!