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
The original The Black Mages album is very much an oddity in the world of Squaresoft’s arranged albums. Square’s arrangements rarely extend beyond the token Piano Collections, soft vocal albums, or moderately paced orchestrated albums. I’m sure some people enjoy the softer, more classical approach to arranging the music of Final Fantasy (as seen in basically every single Final Fantasy arranged album EXCEPT for The Black Mages), but I’ll assure you that I’m not one of them. It’s not that I feel that albums like Final Fantasy IV Celtic Moon, Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale, or any of the Piano Collections don’t have their place. They do, but my response to them as a whole can be summed up in a single shrug of my shoulders. Compared to companies like SNK, Konami and Falcom, which tend to release arranged albums in a much greater variety of styles, I find Square’s output pretty outright anemic. I’d much rather listen to a Konami Battle album or a King of Fighters Arranged album or an Ys Perfect Collection anyday, over your typical orchestral or piano hack-job. Some tunes are just designed to have their powerful melodic prowess expressed by the sound of screaming guitars, pounding drums and electrifying synthesizers. Konami, SNK, and Falcom have these kinds of themes in abundance (among others) and it shows on their brilliant arranged albums. However, if you were to listen solely to Final Fantasy’s arranged albums, you would almost have to consider their original scores as the snobby overseers to their loud cousins and almost believe that they’re ‘above’ such ruffian filth. It’s a fair conclusion in that situation, but one that can’t be further away from the truth: When arranged properly, Final Fantasy’s music can kick just as much ass as anything. I’m not talking about the crappy arrangements of the series’ most energetic pieces on the various piano albums (I laughed my head off when I heard “Zeromus” on the Final Fantasy IV Piano Collections), albums like Final Fantasy IV Celtic Moon (which now sits idle on my mom’s music shelf), and Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale, which blatantly ignore the series’ battle themes entirely; I’m talking about Japanese fan-made CD’s from the likes of Akineko (CD Name: Matsu Meta) and Hellion Sounds (CD Name: The Sentence of Death) which focus almost solely around the already-kickass battle themes and put the notes to synths and guitars and jam away. By the same note, I’m also talking about The Black Mages, a group comprised of none other than longtime series’ composer Nobuo Uematsu and longtime Square composers Tsuyoshi Sekito and Kenichiro Fukui, who decided to release Square’s first official rock arranged album, The Black Mages.
I was quite the fan of the first The Black Mages album. I defended it quite a bit against the constant accusations that it didn’t use enough guitars and played much of the main melodies with the synthesizers. I even tried to make light out of some of the more lackluster arrangements like “Dancing Mad” or “Battle Scene 1″… As long as I had my powered up arrangements of “Clash on the Big Bridge” and “Force Your Way,” I was more than content. However, two years later, I will readily admit that I rarely listen to the album anymore. Despite the arranging of some of my favorites, the only time I really listen to it seriously is when I’m doing old-new comparisons or if I’m in the mood to hear one of the original pieces and I want something a little different. The low-quality, overused synths, and somewhat lacking arrangements keep it far away from the greatness of the J.D.K. Band, SNK’s New World Sound Team, or the ever-present Guilty Gear albums when I need to rock out. And yet, knowing this, there has been no greater anticipation for an album from myself like there has been for Final Fantasy: The Black Mages II -The Skies Above-. For that matter, there isn’t an album I’ve listened to more than this one upon tearing the shrinkwrap off and tossing the disc into the CD player. For about two weeks since I first got it, it’s been the sole listening getaway at both my computer and in my car and that probably includes well over 50 listens.
One reason for my enthusiasm towards the album is because of the track selection. It’s quite diverse to say the least. There are a fair number of old-school Final Fantasy tracks, as well as plenty of tracks from the series’ more recent years. For both types of tracks, this is good news… Fans of the older games (especially Final Fantasy IV) have been long clamoring for powered-up arrangements of themes like “Zeromus” for ages now. For the more recent entries in the series, some fairly interesting pieces have been marred by horribly limited PlayStation synth (read: Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy IX) and are begging to have their potential expanded upon. Even more interesting is an arrangement of “Otherworld,” the heavy metal song you all know and love from Final Fantasy X, the transformation of the same game’s “To Zanarkand” into a rock ballad, and the arrangement of an original unreleased piece by Uematsu. As for the performances themselves, I thought it was somewhat of an improvement over the original album. The synths aren’t quite as annoying, the drums and bass carry more of an overall punch to them, and the guitar work sounds better (and there’s more of it). Lead guitarist Tsuyoshi Sekito still has somewhat of a rigid playing style, as if he’s being too careful to hit the notes and there are pretty strong complaints that Uematsu’s organ is too loud in some places. It’s more of the same, but matured, if that makes sense. I doubt those who didn’t enjoy the first album will regard the performance as charitably as I’ve described, but I thought it was better overall.
Overall, the “old-school” tracks made the transition to rock arrangements pretty cleanly, though unremarkably in a few cases. Despite my unfamiliarity with the source of “The Rocking Grounds” from Final Fantasy III, 20 seconds into the piece told me I was in for some good rockin’. Right off the bat, the guitars make their presence felt, opening with some strong riffs and letting the bass enhance the power. At about the 1 minute mark, the main melody starts up and it comes off very effectively, using the guitar for the first part and the organ for the second. This is probably the best example of the two working together, as the organ doesn’t dominate the piece like it would have in the first album. It has a solo and some parts of the melody, but the highlight here is clearly the guitar. This one is a classic. Another track, “Battle with the Four Fiends,” is just as good. This time, the organ pretty much dominates everything (the guitar comes in for some key chords), but people who are familiar with the SNES sound of the original probably won’t mind, as it’s this sound that keeps it faithful to the original. I’m all for that: It’s a powered-up remake that loops twice and has some sweet solos inside. As a bonus, the introduction for the original is played at several intervals. This is noteworthy because the original’s intro never played when the song looped. In fact, it’s one of the few pieces I went to record onto my portable tapedeck many years ago and wasn’t exactly sure where the loop was. “Matoya’s Cave” has something of an interesting history behind it. It was played at the first The Black Mages concert, but was absent from the first album. There is a new version here, specifically for this release. For those familiar with the original of this piece, it’s basically everything you hoped for… In some parts. Sekito’s rigid guitaring comes in handy, as he doesn’t miss a single note of the 8-bit melody on either the acoustic guitar (1st playthrough) or the electric guitar (2nd playthrough), making for a beautiful power-ballad of the original. Unfortunately after that, comes one of the low points of the disc: A horribly placed organ solo literally burns its way in between the guitars and goes completely off on its own in a jazzy little number. This interlude is so embarrassingly bad and outright jarring, I thought my CD player had skipped! The main melody mercifully comes back after about a minute or so of this nonsense, but you’re not missing much if you skip to the next track after the second playthrough of the main melody.
And now, we come to the big momma! The track every old school Final Fantasy fan and their cousins dreamed about… The track that set the standard for final boss battles for many, many years to come for anyone not named Falcom… The track that sent fear down the spines of fools who thought they could use “Exit” to avoid all of their battles on their way down to the center of the moon… The track that was literally synonymous with Final Fantasy IV‘s cheap-ass, transforming, final badass itself, Zeromus, is up for its long-awaited rock arrangement. Well, keep dreaming because this arrangement is the biggest disappointment on the album. I apologize if my long build-up has lead you to believe that this track is anything spectacular, because it’s not. Let’s examine why. First off, this arrangement is way too slow. I remember the frantic pace of the original music had me so fired up, I was misfiring commands and downright freaking out, trying to heal from constant “Big Bangs”. Here, the notes are held much, much longer than they should be. It’s as if the band was attempting to give it an epic/drawn-out sound instead of a fast-paced one. The climax of the piece feels like the speed with which the original zipped along at is stuck in glue, basically killing any power it may have had. Second problem: This is the one piece where Sekito’s rigid playing really got on my nerves, as he sounds as if he’s really struggling to hit the notes the piece calls for. You can almost hear him struggling along. Third problem: I stand by my theory that Sekito couldn’t handle this piece because the climax is done entirely with synths. The one place that absolutely demanded guitars and it misses completely! Argh! Final problem: The layout of this track is complete rubbish! The first two minutes are the original melody playing through once, the third minute is a long string of solos that really fail to do anything for this piece and the final minute has parts of the beginning of Zeromus’ theme, before it fizzles out on a few crappy notes. My response when I first heard the piece just fizzle out was as follows: “That’s it? That’s just it!? I waited 13 years to hear a decent arrangement of this piece and that was it?” I mean, the original melody is there once, so I don’t exactly skip this track, but it should have been so much more. Another full loop with guitars at the climax at the very least. As it is, Zeromus just sucked… There’s no way around it.
My dreams for a good version of “Zeromus” dashed, I turned to the arrangements from Final Fantasy VIII and Final Fantasy IX. Thankfully, these are handled with a bit more class. “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” is hardly my ideal candidate for this type of arrangement, but the arrangement is entirely geared towards proving me wrong. The strong melody lines are kept intact and the emergence of an acoustic guitar in the middle and near the end help it retain the Spanish feel of the original. “Hunter’s Chance” has always been one of my favorites from Final Fantasy IX, but the original grew quite dull to listen to because of the underpowered synths and bass support, despite the rocking nature of the melody. No such issues are present here; the drums and bass hold up the strong electric guitar-driven melody, giving this awesome piece the power it needs to truly shine. There is a small break in the frantic action with a soft piano, but it works well, as it comes in well after the original has been playing for awhile. I don’t see any possible way a fan of Final Fantasy IX‘s soundtrack can walk away from these two pieces disappointed.
Final Fantasy VIII‘s “The Man With The Machine Gun” is a pretty standard arrangement. The lead instrument is mostly the organ and the background instruments are rarely enough to make it stand out. It’s not bad, but it’s not that special either. This was primarily a techno/dance song on the soundtrack, so I’m not that surprised at how it turned out. Oddly enough, it seems to be moving TOO fast. If only the tempo of this and “Zeromus” could only switch places… “Maybe I’m a Lion” is easily one of the best pieces on the CD, however. It opens with the line “Maybe I’m a Lion!” spoken by Alexander O. Smith (the singer of the original “Otherworld”) before the bass kicks into overdrive. Since the original was already loaded with killer guitar riffs, this arrangement looks to only mildly resemble it while building itself around them. This is pretty fine by me, as the original melody never did much to impress me. In about five minutes, it loops once and there are only two parts that should be readily recognizable to fans of the original (well, three, but the riffs near the beginning of the original appear twice). Everything else is loaded with powerful solos and killer chords, backed up by the powerful bass and drums. One of my few positive memories of Final Fantasy VIII (the game) was this piece playing with the boss just floating there in the sky and that is exactly what this track reminds me of: A giant beast hovering in the sky and coldly calculating their next swoop-in attack, as the heroes struggle to find enough slings and arrows to shoot it down. I have to say, this is a pretty daring arrangement that could have floundered (because it ignores much of the main melody), but is so well-done, I find it playing probably the most out of any track on here.
Finally, there are the oddities of the album. “Blue Blast-Winning the Rainbow” is a typical Uematsu melody with a typical The Black Mages arrangement. To Sekito’s credit, this is probably his best performance on the disc, as there is some real power behind the tune and even a bit of reflective emotion that makes it a great song to bring the disc to a close with. After the first loop, there is a slight hint at the battle theme from Final Fantasy VII. You’re not going to believe what they did to “Otherworld” though, even after I tell you. Considering this was a rock album, I didn’t think The Black Mages would alter it that much to begin with, so I certainly wasn’t expecting such a cute (yes, cute! There’s no other adjective to describe it!) version of it. The roaring, howling, furious metal vocals of Bill Muir in the original have been replaced by KAZCO, a girl who sings it as a straight “Engrish” pop vocal. Only thing is, the lyrics hardly make sense in real English, so hearing her stumble over them can only best be described as… well, cute. Appropriately, the instrumentals have been way scaled back for KAZCO’s softer voice…There is no pulse-pounding bass or so-wickedly-awesome-you-want-to-die guitar solo here, just fairly light The Black Mages fare. Only real problem is the so-wickedly-awesome-you-want-to-die guitar solo is now the so-wickedly-average-you-want-the-guitar-solo-back keyboard solo. It’s not disappointing, just different. In a good way, I guess. Lastly, I’m not even going to break into a separate paragraph for the cover track “The Skies Above” because it’s a sad joke that isn’t worth the extra press of my “enter” key. First off, it starts off by replaying the original of “To Zanarkand.” Once that ends, the guitars come on full blast, making you think you’re ready for all-out awesomeness. Instead, you are quickly greeted by Mr. Goo, a guy who sounds like Dudley Doo-Right singing along to the powered up version of “To Zanarkand” in the background. And yes, he sucks. His perfect Canadian accent is far more intolerable than KAZCO’s “Engrish” can ever hope to be. She was cute… This guy sounds retarded, especially with the cheesy lyrics of the song itself. I generally don’t mind being labeled as weird for listening to game music, but this is something I don’t even want my parents to hear me listening to. Too bad… Removing the lyrics would make this quite enjoyable, as the guitars are nice even for a simple tune like “To Zanarkand.” As it is, this track is noticeably absent from the copy I burnt myself for use in my car stereo.
Disappointments aside, I’m happy with the Final Fantasy: The Black Mages II -The Skies Above-. From the kick-assness of “The Rocking Grounds” to pretending “Zeromus” doesn’t suck to the awesome Final Fantasy IX tracks to the supercute version of “Otherworld” to the head-banging goodness of “Maybe I’m a Lion,” “Battle With the Four Fiends,” and “Blue Blast,” it’s been worth my time. In any case, it’s nice to see Final Fantasy breaking the classical-only mold it’s been saddled with for so many years. Hopefully, to the chagrin of those that want to keep it that way, Final Fantasy: The Black Mages II -The Skies Above- won’t be the last to fully explore the possibilities of hard rock in the series. Like most Final Fantasy albums, this CD is readily available at most game music retailers.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Andy Byus. Last modified on August 1, 2012.