Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections
Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections
DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (2nd Edition)
December 3, 2003; May 10, 2004
Buy at CDJapan
The absence of the Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections from the Final Fantasy series was a prominent one, since Piano Collections albums had been released for all the other games between Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy X. It left many fans, myself included, rather undernourished and eager to see Square Enix’s forgotten vision eventually become reality like it deserved. Little could one imagine that nearly six years after the release of the Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack this dream would come true. In December 2003, thanks to the upcoming release of Final Fantay VII -Advent Children- and Square Enix’s failed attempts to save its record label DigiCube from bankruptcy, it did. It featured Shiro Hamaguchi’s arrangements of 13 of the best tracks from the game performed by Seiji Honda. Fans all over the world triumphantly rejoiced at the news, but was the phenomenally long wait worth it?
Most arrangements on the album are straightforward piano renditions with no frills and little creativity. The main theme is a prime example; the melody is emphasised and barely changed, accompanied by very basic arpeggio-based harmonies that are occasionally engaging thanks to good choices in chord sequences, though mostly add to the impressive fludity of the piece. The result is very conservative arrangement that will enlighten some due to its melodic beauty and nostalgic qualities, yet bore others wanting more than a piano reduction. Similar treatment is given to the town theme, “Ahead on Our Way,” an arrangement that may disappoint many. There is an attempt to intensify the piece in its latter half, but the transition lacks gradation and the secondary section feels forced; with Hamaguchian blue notes, various scales and arpeggios, and a greater emphasis on chordal textures, it’s a generic and transparent attempt to create variation that also simply doesn’t sound right. Also simple is “Tifa’s Theme,” a warm arpeggio-dominated introduction to the album, and the coda “Descendent of Shinobi,” a very charming with its carefree jazz rhythms and whimsical melody, though feels very much like a bonus track. None of these arrangements have a single bit of substance to them, but are thankfully tolerable to most due to the strength of the melodies they explore and the way they feel fitting and relaxing on solo piano.
The biggest problem with the album is that it seems to have split personality disorder. The principle source of variety between the seven calm arrangements that dominate are battle theme arrangements; three in total, these are heavy texturally, structurally abrupt, and appear to be full-blown efforts to bomb the listener’s ears with bombastic and dissonant piano music. Arguably the least pianistic additions to the album, they are dominated by parallelisms, amateur harmonies, frenetic transitions, and brutal dynamic levels. However, they’re also surprising appealing: “Fighting” transitions surprisingly well to the piano and features pleasant lyrical interludes to contrast with the muddy but attention-grabbing sections; “J-E-N-O-V-A” is undeniably beautiful in places, but ultimately too underdeveloped and rushed; and the relatively “One Winged Angel” progressively gets better after its truly dismal introduction. Representations of both of the score’s diametric personas have merits and failings, but collectively are all dubious due to the fact they never reunite. Gradation is completely missing throughout the album in both the arrangements and the emotionally stale performances. Furthermore, the extremities of the approaches taken soon makes the score, somewhat paradoxically, one-dimensional, limited, and predictable. The thematic focus on the album is at the sacrifice of musical integrity, diversity, and the establishment of a character to define it.
All this said, there are a few fully-fledged highlights on the album. “Cosmo Canyon” transfers the original’s tribal drum beats for an oriental descant that lusciously and cross-rhythmically interacts with the pentatonic triplet-dominated melodies. The theme is further strengthened by the way the descant re-emerges as a basso ostinato in the latter half of the piece, allowing melodic colour to protrude from above. There are some excellent secondary sections and dynamic gradation, with typical Hamaguchian features fusing gorgeously with African rhythms and Eastern flavours, resulting in the best version of Uematsu’s favourite Final Fantasy VII theme available and the only representation of a risk on the album. “Gold Saucer” is one of a handful of rare upbeat gems that contrast with the score’s contrasting personas in a welcome but hardly conciliatory way. Its bouncy harmonies provide solid foundations for the jovial melodies to glide from and its defined performance, emphasised especially by some staccato sections, come across excellently against the muffled original. It’s brief, amounting to 2:28 altogether, but is a satisfactory interlude on a sadly brief album. “Rufus’ Welcoming Ceremony” is similar in character despite being a precise and militaristic march. Though a few sections feel a little empty, it’s another fun arrangement that employs lyrical contrasts between each phrase and dynamic contrasts between each section. It’s a favourite for pianists to play and one of the centrepieces of the album.
These are a few big flops on the disc. “Cinco de Chocobo” and “Farm Boy” were both odd choices to place on the disc, given neither were especially popular on the soundtrack. Their arrangements do nothing to make them appealing. “Cinco…” nicely emphasises the original piece’s unique 5/4 metre, but is an amateurish attempt at jazz arrangement with jarring transitions, uninspired harmonies, and a deeply unpleasant performance of the initial section. It’s another pseudo-interlude in the album, amounting to little over two minutes in length, but that doesn’t make its presence redeemable. As for “Farm Boy”, it’s slowed down to a very dreary pace, features the main melody playing over and over again, and is arranged minimally, highlighting the musical shallowness that underlies many of Shiro Hamaguchi’s adaptations.Probably the most shocking failure of all, however, is “Aerith’s Theme,” a fan’s favourite that receives terrible treatment here. The arrangement is straightforward, akin to the Main Theme, though made worse by lumpy chords, ugly decoration, and yet more shoddy arpeggiations. It does not preserve the subtlety of the original theme, yet fails to enhance in other ways either. While Hamaguchi usually complements Uematsu’s music, one cannot help but speculate what Hamauzian arrangements of such themes and discluded classics like “Anxious Heart”, “Judgement Day”, or “You Can Hear the Cry of the Planet” would have brought.
The Final Fantasy VII Piano Collections is a thoughtless arranged album that shines solely for the strength of the melodic material it utilises and a handful of good arrangements. The format of melody with arpeggiated accompaniment and a few dramatic or jazzy chord progressions grows old quickly and there is a significant regression in character and quality from the Final Fantasy IX Piano Collections. Only a few arrangements are especially bad, but there is little that defines the arranged album as a musical, emotional, or creative experience and the punishing lack of gradation ensures there is no coherency or overriding drama either. However, as the only true Final Fantasy VII arranged album available, it is probably still worth consideration from hardcore fans of the game’s music. Indeed, its conservative approach was a safe one and might satisfy, though nothing remarkable should be expected beyond “Fighting”, “Cosmo Canyon”, and “Gold Saucer”. It’s a poor arranged album, certainly not the masterpiece it had the potential to be, but nonetheless a decent fan service.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.