Black Materia 2XLP
Black Materia 2XLP (Regular Edition)
April 16, 2016
Purchase on Yetee
Four years ago, we reviewed Black Materia, a cover album of Final Fantasy VII tracks with an unusual twist – the tracks morphed into rap songs that turned the iconic score of VII into something brand new. Rapper-arranger Random made his musical debut with Mega Ran, a rap album paying tribute to the music of Megaman, and landing him a place as one of the most well-known nerdcore artists.
Working aside longtime collaborator Lost Perception, Random created Black Materia, which took the story of Final Fantasy VII and combined it with the soundtrack, resulting in a rap opera of sorts. The lyrics of each song detail the plot of the game, with stripped-down renditions of the original tracks serving as the backing tracks. Now, Black Materia is available on vinyl, with some notable differences from the original album, including orchestral arrangements by Vancouver-based producer R23X.
The album comes with artwork by Drew Wise and Rodrigo Pradel, whose combined work creates a striking first impression of the album. Wise, whose contributions to the design are largely minimalist depictions of well-known images from Final Fantasy VII, include a simple black-and-white image of the Jenova mask on the cover, and an equally stark Midgar spread on the inside of the box.
The artwork on the inside contrasts sharply – Pradel’s pop-style work gives some of Final Fantasy VII‘s best-known scenes a gritty, graphic novel look, which is very much true to the nature of the album. (Additionally, the packaging includes stickers of dice, materia, and a buster sword – pictured below.) Any Final Fantasy fan would appreciate the artwork – not only is it well-designed, but perfectly frames the distinct sound that Random generates with his nerdcore arrangements.
What is especially unique about the music of Black Materia is not just the style of the songs, but in the lyrics themselves, and the layout of the tracks. Each song is a separate work of music, but fits with its surrounding tracks to generate a continuous story that follows the story of Cloud and his Campbellian quest. “Aerith” is one track that encapsulates this approach – the three piano notes that begin Aerith’s theme,while beautiful (particularly with the help R23X’s touch), don’t begin until several minutes into the piece. Instead, Random raps about Cloud’s initial encounter with Aerith and subsequent discovery of her past with an arranged “Forested Temple” in the background, which fades away into “Aerith’s Theme,” in the manner of the original soundtrack.
In this sense, Random doesn’t arrange tracks so much as he arranges musical sections of the game, and his lyrics don’t linger on one intangible concept or another, but instead follow the journey of the characters they describe. All in all, the tracks are as solid as they were in Black Materia. I thought I had heard every arrangement possible of “One-Winged Angel,” but Random’s rendition is both clever and effective. Apparently, it doesn’t take a massive rock-choir-orchestra to pound Sephiroth’s name dramatically into musical form; Random uses a skeletal version of the music to set the song up as a dialogue between Sephiroth and Cloud.
“Cry of the Planet” is an especially standout track that can’t go without mention. The haunting melody from “You Can Hear the Cries of the Planet” opens the track – and the added orchestral effects give it a new depth, but it quickly evolves into an eerily relevant track detailing horrors of the modern world. There is no semblance of metaphor after phrases like “Afghan market” and “Greenhouse gases” drop – while the rest of the describes characters and plot from Final Fantasy VII with the hope of drawing in empathy for or understanding of that character or event, this track implies a Final Fantasy VII that is a reflection, or a response, of our current world.
The track struck me as especially poignant this week, when the two biggest stories flooding my news were protests and cries over a starkly serious social justice issue and eagerness over a certain augmented reality phone game. The juxtaposition of the two stories (rather, fields of stories) has been a strange one, but also understandable. “Cry of the Planet” takes a game with a slew of worldly concerns, and breaks the fourth wall in the process of laying them out, bleakly and blatantly pointing out the parallels. The pairing of games and current topics – whether political, social, environmental, religious, or otherwise – is not new (but it is growing), and Random reminds us of how necessary that pairing might be.
Not every track is as somber – “Don of the Slums” is an especially playful remix that takes the sleaziness of the original track’s subject matter into account through its lyrics, and “Cid” incorporates the uplifting theme into a breezy, almost cowboyish sound (which fades way too quickly!). On the other hand, “Tifa” is written (from Cloud’s perspective) a bit like a teen drama, with Cloud’s mixed emotions about Tifa quickly bubbling to the surface of the lyrics (fans of Tifa’s theme will also appreciate its prominence throughout the track).
The package contains a pair of two-sided LPs with a handful of songs on each side. The album ends with a bonus track, which actually isn’t a song at all, but instead Random describing his journey from teacher to musician, talking against a backing track that gives the whole track a very musical feel, even the spoken parts. (I couldn’t help but be amused at the sharp contrast as the heat and intensity of “One-Winged Angel” abruptly faded into Random’s far milder story.)
For those unfamiliar with Black Materia, Matt Diener gave a thorough look at each track in his 2012 review, with an extremely positive conclusion. For me, it was an acquired taste – but it was successfully acquired. Random’s arrangements are extraordinary convincing. His lyrics bring a stroke of brilliance to the story that many of us have grown up with, and while I found myself occasionally worried at the beginning of each track that it would somehow prove my initial assumption that Final Fantasy VII was not meant to be rapped, the surprising and staggering successes of this album far outweigh the very small moments that don’t work.
Is the Black Materia 2XLP worth buying? The extra $30 gives you the reorchestration of the original Black Materia, in addition to the artwork accompanying the album. The artwork is the new framework that goes with those arrangements – and quite nice framework at that, but the musical extras elevate the album in a big way, as well. The powerful new sound does not simply rely on some vinyl quality, but on the remixes and arrangements themselves, which is great news.
Posted on July 13, 2016 by Emily McMillan. Last modified on July 13, 2016.