Final Fantasy: The Black Mages II -The Skies Above-
Final Fantasy: The Black Mages II -The Skies Above-
Universal Music (1st Edition); Square Enix (2nd Edition)
December 22, 2004; March 19, 2008
Buy at CDJapan
After the success of The Black Mages’ first album released in 2003, fans were anticipating a new album. About 22 months later, the fans got their wish when The Black Mages’ second album The Skies Above was released. For those of you who don’t know who The Black Mages are and what they do, here’s a little introduction. Simply put, they take battle themes from the Final Fantasy series and arrange them into a rock style. In the new album, they went further and arranged some non-battle tracks as well, but most of the arrangements are still of battle tracks.
The first piece on the album is aptly called “The Rocking Grounds” and is an arrangement of the normal battle theme of Final Fantasy III. The arrangement of this piece is actually pretty nice, keeping with the original enough but also straying from it to make the piece more interesting. Of course the guitar and keyboard have solo jam sessions in the middle are very typical of The Black Mages in general.
Next on the list is “Zeromus” which, as most people can guess, is an arrangement of the battle theme for the fight against Zeromus in Final Fantasy IV. The beginning of the arrangement almost captures the ominous mood of the original piece. Well, about as well as guitars can anyway. Then the piece gets intense for a little bit with a fast paced drum beat in the background. After that, well, it sounds a lot like the original piece, just with guitars and a keyboard. Way too much keyboard, in fact. And of course, there’s another jam session in the middle of the piece, which seemed VERY out of place. The piece started out so well and had lots of potential, but I think it was ruined pretty fast.
Ah, next up is “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco”. I’m sure you can guess what the original piece was (since it had the same name). This is one of the pieces a lot of people looked forward to. For enjoyment, this piece is great to listen to, but it is an odd arrangement. The original piece simply does not work well with electric guitars, but I think The Black Mages actually did a decent job of arranging it, as it doesn’t sound completely horrible. The best part of the piece is in the middle, where instead of an electric guitar playing they use an acoustic guitar (or at least the sound of one) and a very different style. If they had used that sound and style for the whole piece, this would have been the best piece they’d created. While I do disagree with their choice of arrangement style, I do respect The Black Mages a lot for being able to pull this off without it sounding horrible.
The next piece, “Hunter’s Chance”, was also highly anticipated by fans. I guess after neglecting Final Fantasy IX in their last album, The Black Mages decided to give a double dose this time. Simply put, this piece sounds amazing in a rock style. Definitely one of the better arrangements on the album. The biggest problem with the piece is the end, where the piece goes into a more laid-back style with a keyboard solo. It just simply does not fit. They should’ve just stopped the piece a minute earlier instead of ruining it like that. Oh well, still a solid arrangement as a whole.
“Otherworld” is arranged from hard rock to… hard rock. BIG change there. I wonder who thought of that one. Although, here’s where the irony strikes; there IS a big change. The new vocalist is a female. Personally I found the vocals in the original piece to be horrible and unintelligible. Now they’re halfway decent and halfway intelligible. As for the instrumental part itself, it does sound different, mostly due to different equipment and a slightly lighter sound. This is one of those love it or hate it tracks, and mostly depends on how you like the original track. Fans of the original tend to hate it while dislikers of the original tend to love it. Of course, there are exceptions.
With the next piece, the album goes a bit old school with an arrangement of “Matoya’s Cave”. This new arrangement goes much slower than the original, which actually sounds much better. The piece starts out with an acoustic guitar before going to electric, which actually sounds great despite the dubious move to a rock style. It must be noted that the style is much lighter than the earlier pieces, which actually saves the arrangement as a whole. Almost half of this nearly five minute piece is one big jam session, but unlike the others, the keyboard jams in a blues style rather than rock. It may seem slightly out of place, but it’s not too bad. Overall, this is one of the best pieces on the album.
Next up is “The Man with the Machine Gun”… except like twice as fast. They really kicked up the tempo on this one. Anyways, the original piece was just itching to be remade in a rock style, and that’s what was done. Most of the actual arrangement actually sounds very similar to the original, except for the guitars… again. They don’t waste any time getting to the jam session this time, as it is only a minute and a half in. After that, they throw in another familiar piece into the mix. Turns out it’s from “The Legendary Beast” from the same game. Other than that, there’s not much to note about this piece. It had lots of potential but didn’t really use much of it.
Staying with Final Fantasy VIII, The Black Mages move onto “Maybe I’m a Lion”. Since the original piece had a bit of a rock feel in it, it was a good candidate for an arrangement to complete rock. The biggest problem with the piece is that it lost some of the drum groove during the transition to rock. On the other hand, the rock style itself also lends itself well to the piece. The jam sessions in this piece actually fit well and have better transitions. Personally, I found this arrangement to be one of the better ones on the album even despite the loss of the great drum groove.
Next on the lineup is “Battle with the Four Fiends”, an arrangement of “The Dreadful Fight” from Final Fantasy IV. This is another piece that sounds great in rock style. Personally, I find this to be the best piece on the whole album, and is definitely worth a listen. By this time of the album, The Black Mages must have run out of ideas for jam sessions, since this one seems smaller than the earlier ones. Definitely a good thing since it’s getting a bit old…
After the greatness of “Battle with the Four Fiends”, the album starts to go downhill with the next piece, “The Skies Above”. This piece is an arrangement of “To Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X. It starts out with the simple piano playing the theme as normal. After that’s finished, the guitar starts an intro to the main piece. And as soon as the vocals come in, it goes downhill. Well, not really, but the vocals do sound awful. The instrument arrangement is amazing though, although it is downplayed by the vocals obviously. Unsurprisingly, the best part of the piece is the instrumental in the middle. Without the vocals there, this would easily be the best piece on the album, but that’s not the case. Still, the piece isn’t completely ruined if you just try to ignore the vocals.
The last piece on the album, named “Blue Blast – Winning the Rainbow”, seems to be an original piece. I really enjoyed the melody and overall style of this piece, even though it wasn’t anything really spectacular. Even though the piece is original, the jam session is still very apparent. But also because the piece is original, it doesn’t seem like it’s “butting in” or anything like in the other pieces. Overall, this is probably one of the best pieces, if not the best piece, on the album, but it doesn’t really seem as interesting since the whole point of The Black Mages was to rearrange Final Fantasy pieces. Think of it as a bonus though.
There are a few problems with the album as a whole. First off, several of the pieces sound exactly the same as the original counterparts except for a change of instruments and a slight change of style. It would have been nice if they had changed it just a little bit more, perhaps adding a bit more flair to the pieces. Ironically, the biggest change of the pieces is the other problem, the frequent jam fests. They’re good and all, but they just don’t fit and get old by the end of the album. Also, the overall structures of the pieces always seem the same: piece, jam session, piece. That gets old too. But despite those, most of the pieces are still good to listen to.
Now the main questions still remain: Do the pieces sound good? Did it live up to the hype? Is it better than the first one? The pieces do sound good, but I don’t think the album lived up to the hype. I expected more. The first album had a number of great pieces, and the rest were still pretty good. This one is more of a mixed bag. There are some great pieces on here, such as “Battle with the Four Fiends”, “Blue Blast”, “Hunter’s Chance”, and “Matoya’s Cave”. But there are also some disappointments, like “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco”, “The Man with the Machine Gun”, and “The Skies Above”. I’d say there were actually more great pieces on this album than the last, but the last album didn’t really have any disappointments. So comparing this one to the first album is a bit hard; it really depends on what you want. Either way, this is really a great listen and definitely worth a purchase.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Talaysen. Last modified on January 16, 2016.