Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack
Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack
DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (2nd Edition)
August 1, 2001; May 10, 2004
Buy at CDJapan
Note: This review was originally written for our affiliate Chudah’s Corner, where Ongakusei is a staff member. Please visit their site some time if you enjoyed this review and want to read more from the Ongakusei, who kindly allowed us to share this review.
After scoring the first 9 of Square’s ever more complex and relentlessly produced Final Fantasy games, culminating in a gargantuan 5 disc, 150+ track score for Final Fantasy IX, for the 10th installment and debut of the series on PlayStation 2, series composer Nobuo Uematsu evidently and sensibly decided to hell with tradition, it was time for a little help.
Uematsu reached his apex for me with Final Fantasy VI and has since struggled to varying degrees. I found VII generally well done, but plagued by misguided and failed efforts at experimentation; VIII wildly inconsistent, with several inspired tracks nestled among many, many more intolerable ones; and IX more assured and well crafted, but of thinly stretched, journeyman quality. However, IX evidently cost him far more of his energies than he could recover in time for X. The decision to bring on co-composers Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano was felicitously timed, for had Uematsu carried the soundtrack alone, it would have been the most disappointing and unmemorable Final Fantasy score since the series’ inception. The choice of composers was also fortunate as Hamauzu and Nakano, the two brightest lights at Square, both possess strongly individual and idiosyncratic harmonic styles that have imbued their past scores with inimitable musical voices, and now change the soundscape of Final Fantasy with a myriad of new flavors.
Hamauzu takes center stage. After rescuing the SaGa series from the mediocrity of Kenji Ito and producing one of Square’s finest scores ever in SaGa Frontier II, Hamauzu here saves Final Fantasy X from Uematsu’s flattest, most uninspired work to date, moving with chameleon’s ease across a dynamic and volatile aural topography in full grasp of a refined harmonic palette and with a sharp ear for attractive, original tone colors. From the abstract downtempo meditation of “Besaid Island,” the sparkling and impressionistic “Splendid Performance,” the energetic techno of “Blitz Off,” the martial atonal orchestral snarls and shrieks of “Crisis,” and the lonely, hypnotic minimalism of “Wandering Flame,” Hamauzu doesn’t have a single poor or even derivative track. His work infuses the Final Fantasy brand with fascinating new sounds which have no prior equivalents, and alone makes the soundtrack compulsory listening.
Nakano’s contribution is slighter, but still a positive asset. His mellow and beautifully atmospheric music perfectly complements Hamauzu’s more complex and focused style, and adds considerable color and texture to the score as a whole. While a few of his tracks are somewhat uneventful, he comes up with some wicked standouts. The cold, mesmerizing “Illusion” seems to freeze the air its sound waves pass through; “Luca” plays soaring strings and rugged bass against an ingeniously syncopated, off-kilter guitar and percussion rhythm; and “Summoned Beast Battle”, my favorite battle theme in the entire FF series, interpolates the “Song of Prayer” motif and the chord structure from “Illusion” within a blistering and climactic orchestral setting.
Unfortunately, the winners from Uematsu’s studio comprise a short list, and none achieve any special prominence or memorability. The solo piano opening theme, “At Zanarkand,” while agreeable, affects a gravitas its overly familiar chord structures and pat melodic resolutions can’t support, and represents the theme’s least involving arrangement in the score. “Silence Before the Storm” bears an evocative melancholy carried by austere guitar and lo-fi strings; while the most elaborate and distinctly colored of Uematsu’s tracks, he keeps the ball in the park by falling back on the clichéd cadences and predictable chords that now saturate his music. He also turns out a solid and lively regular battle theme, one of the better ones in the series; the moody, albeit mechanically sequenced, solo piano “Via Purifico”; and an effective orchestral epilogue with a suitably apotheosized appearance of the opening theme. Then of course, there’s the now expected main vocal theme, “Suteki da ne (Isn’t it wonderful?)”. While less obnoxious than “Melodies of Life” or the execrable “Eyes on Me,” this one’s cut from the same tatty cloth all the same. Uematsu still relies on an overly sappy and melodramatic melodic line, with perfunctory, banal harmonic support and the kind of Vegas lounge pop ballad rhythm I find indigestible. In addition, vocalist Rikki has an irritating lilt to her voice which makes the vocal performance less than pleasurable. Uematsu also gives us the rather dubious bonus of a second vocal song, “Otherworld,” an unutterably ghastly early White Zombie rip-off that’s really going to hurt us when aliens come to judge the overall dignity of our species’ art.
The rest of Uematsu’s tracks simply sound like the work of a man with chronic sleep deficit and a deadline due the day before yesterday: underdeveloped, trivial ideas, assembled out of stagnating recycled phrases and melodic gestures from Uematsu’s past, and presented in spare, artless arrangements. Tidus, Yuna, and Aaron’s Themes, “Father Murderer,” and “Djose Temple” are good examples, among many others, of why composing on a caffeine catheter tube will never be on the list of successful creative methodologies. It’s left to Hamauzu and Nakano to put Uematsu’s themes in their best light.
Despite my indifference to the “Suteki da ne” theme, Hamauzu manages to transform it into one of the most beautiful tracks in the set: “Spiran Scenery,” a recreation for solo guitar with syncopated latin rhythm and graceful jazz harmonies. The clarity of the guitar sample and Hamauzu’s meticulous addition of dynamic and rhythmic expression make for the best and most convincing synthesized guitar I’ve ever heard in a game. Nakano comes up with a colorful adaptation of Zanarkand, “Sprouting,” with exotic percussion and a curious accordion-like lead that gives the piece an ingratiating French pop flavor. Even beyond straight rearrangements, both composers incorporate subtle quotes and references to the main themes into many of their own pieces, strengthening the score’s thematic consistency and cinematic quality. The one minor irritant beyond Uematsu’s hackwork is the preponderance across the 4 CDs of “Song of Prayer” tracks: a brief modal a cappella theme evidently written to accompany the spirit summonings. A few are graced with worthwhile arrangements by Hamauzu, such as one for male chorus in Hindemithian quartal harmony. Had all been arranged uniquely, the repetition of this theme could have been justified, but most are simply solo monophonic presentations distinguished only by differently ranged singers; a copout and a cheap way to enlarge the tracklist.
As far as sound quality, evidently the PlayStation 2 soundchip is not a huge advancement over the PlayStation’s. Although the sound programming and sample quality is only a moderate step up over Final Fantasy X, Hamauzu and Nakano get around the absence of revolution by experimenting with unique and unconventional electronic based sounds. Meanwhile Uematsu sticks largely to the same limited acoustic instrumental palette he’s never strayed far from, and his tracks sound the weaker for it.
Overall, the quality of Hamauzu and Nakano’s music is so fresh and immediate, it handily supercedes any ill will engendered by Uematsu’s sub-par tracks, and he does at least have a few that stick out from the murk. Unlike most structures, music scores are not only as strong as their weakest links. Final Fantasy X is a diverse and richly textured score, for me the most memorable of the Sony generation FFs, whose scattered disappointments are held in check by the virtues of the music surrounding. Cut Uematsu out of the equation, and a pure collaboration between Hamauzu and Nakano would be magic. I look forward to whatever they set their sights on next.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by James McCawley. Last modified on August 1, 2012.