Final Fantasy -The Spirits Within- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Final Fantasy -The Spirits Within- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
July 18, 2001
Buy at CDJapan
Musical preference is a funny thing. It can change over years to where one thing you may have liked long ago, you find incredibly ear grating now, and vice-versa. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was actually my introduction to the world of Final Fantasy, and, though the film itself was less than stellar, it led me to such wondrous music by Uematsu, Hamauzu, etc.! When the film came out, I had no interest in Classical music of any kind; I bought the soundtrack for the ending song by Lara Fabian, “The Dream Within”. For years after that, I discovered and built up a collection of Uematsu’s work, leaving The Spirits Within untouched. Though I had listened to the score very little if at all for years, I still decided to prescribe to the general consensus that Uematsu could have done a better job. Years later one night, I rediscovered The Spirits Within, and that led me to the conclusion that, no, Uematsu could not have possibly done a better job than Elliot Goldenthal did here. Since rediscovering this score, I began a search for more Goldenthal, seeking out every score of his that I could, and this remains my favorite. I admit that for Uematsu fans, who are used to straightforward melodies and all manners of pleasant set pieces, Goldenthal’s harsh, almost impossibly complex at times, avant-garde style was probably too jarring at the time, but I hope to convince that Goldenthal’s score, while it may not be everything a Final Fantasy could ask for, is a work of immense magnificence and talent.
In the liner notes, Goldenthal states that he took as inspiration the works of Polish avant-garde composers. From the very beginning of “The Spirit Within” this is evident with a choral droning a la Ligeti complemented by high, almost shrieking, flute and piccolo solos. Later booming low brass enter with a steady, ominous theme that builds into a climax for wordless choir supported by string arpeggios. The piece does not end there, though, but continues into an incredibly dissonant new section for droning choir and the hollow sound of the shakuhachi. This is nothing like Uematsu ever has or could compose; it is entirely unique. Though I find this kind of music to be a treat for the ears, not everybody feels the same way, so you should be pleased to know that not all of the score is this experimental. The next track, “Race to Old New York” has a rather paradoxical name, don’t you think? Old New York? Well, apart from that digression, this track is much more conventional and appreciable for others than the previous one. It is a furious piece for racing strings and thunderous brass showcasing the first occurrence of one of the main themes for the entire score. It is absolutely rhythmically relentless.
Goldenthal has always had a few instruments, groups, techniques, etc., that he loves to use. The shakuhachi, the droning choir, the low, growling sounds of brass, simple piano themes, enormous climaxes, intensely difficult passages for percussion, and the glass harmonica. Most of these instruments and stylistics find their ways into many of his scores, and all are present in The Spirits Within. Some have already been covered, some not. The glass harmonica is an unusual instrument with a lovely, yet equally unusual sound. The best way I can describe it is that is sounds like a crystal glass when you rub a wet finger around the brim. The glass harmonica opens “The Phantom Plains”, giving it a very mysterious, magical sound. It plays a two-note phrase that repeats and effortlessly ushers in the whole orchestra. Strings and brass sound majestically as chimes lend a sense of awe to the track. Then the percussion comes in, and the track becomes louder and louder with woodwind trills and brass crescendos before all drop out except for the mystical sound of the wordless choir; the piece ends very low-key.
“Code Red” is an exercise in tension. The piece begins with wandering, worried strings, with some interesting sounds in the brass section. Then the piece dies down to be awoken by synthesized percussion, making all sorts of clapping, rattling, clanking, clunking, and booming sounds, above which a string ostinato plays, growing in intensity. Brass and percussion are added to the mix, gaining more volume until it abruptly ends. I mentioned that Goldenthal likes using simple piano melodies in his music, and the next track, “The Kiss” confirms this. Apart from a beginning, wandering piano passage, some ethereal vocals sound as well as our dear friend, the glass harmonica. When the melody comes in, it is slow, reflective, and melancholy. The refrain is absolutely lovely being a descending phrase for strings and showing Goldenthal’s knack for interesting chord progressions under a single suspended note, shifting from nearly heart-breaking to hopeful and then back to dreary. The next section is, strangely since it does not feature the love theme, one of the most romantic moments in the entire album before a huge crescendo ushers in a softer section for string harmonics and flute solos. “Entrada” is a very anxious track for suspended strings that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, ending as drearily as it began, fifty seconds later.
Now comes my absolute favorite (well, tied for favorite, anyway) piece of the album: “Toccata and Dreamscapes”. The piece is Goldenthal experimental music at its finest, with all manners of growls, whispers, and wailing from the brass section. I remember reading that, for this score, Goldenthal required additional brass players to implement the enormous sound he required; in no other track is it more evident than here. The main motif is heard at about 1:30 with wailing atonal trumpets before strings carry it to a terrifying climax, after which is total silence, until the rhythmic low brass sounds again, bringing in some of those intense percussion passages I made mention of earlier. The next few minutes or so consist of eerie droning, with the grumbling brass, deep and hollow soundscapes, and moaning choir. One technique that Goldenthal uses often that I love is when the percussion and low trombones play in unison, both as rhythmic devices. This technique is used extensively under shrieking strings and another intense section for percussion that plays under another statement of the main motif of this piece. Grating strings and more percussion bring the piece to its most intense moment with the droning choir sustaining for an almost unbelievable amount of time as trumpet blasts provide a dose of rhythm. Then, the piece quiets down only to restart. The next two minutes are essentially the first two, but more intricately orchestrated, and much more intense, adding heavy doses of orchestral ‘sound effects’ to the mix and with much more percussion. This track is surely one of Goldenthal’s finest, although I understand that the incredibly dissonant and atonal nature of it is probably a big turn-off for most people. The piece ends after howling horns bring the piece to its next, and final, climax. Here, there is no resolution; the piece ends abruptly on an incredibly dissonant note at an incredibly high volume.
Like I said at the beginning, though, very little of the score is this experimental, and the next piece, “Music for Dialogues”, returns the score to some degree of normalcy with string arpeggios and a statement of the bold main theme. The piece is then merely a series of interesting chord progressions and a showcase of superb orchestrations, moving from brass to strings to winds with such fluidity, and bringing them all together for the last, hopeful chord. “Winged Serpent” presents a new motif, one that is only heard twice in the score, but is incredibly powerful and memorable. After an introduction for strings and more relentless percussion, the theme is heard by booming, tragic brass and choir. The piece ends after an extended section for militaristic percussion. “Zeus Cannon” showcases the same, short motif at the finale of the piece. The beginning is mysterious and is one of the tracks that captures the awe of space with trumpet solos amid racing string figures. A more anxious section for brass literally erupts into the final statement of the tragic motif first heard in “Winged Serpent”, and the piece ends after a tremendous crescendo. “Flight to the Wasteland” presents more of Goldenthal’s characteristic strings arpeggios providing the harmonic content with some more intriguing, unexpected chord changes. This piece is excellent in evoking mood; there’s not really any melodic content, and all the sections seem to be merely wandering and directionless, but it never becomes boring. There is an air of mystery here, as there is in many of the tracks. It is also another piece that showcases creative orchestrations with pulsing figures for strings and woodwinds. This piece transitions seamlessly into “A Child Recalled”, another statement of the love theme first heard in “The Kiss”. This is, like the previous piece, great at evoking a mood through gentle, subtle soundscapes and wandering piano solos. The ending presents some of the only pleasant, major key music in the whole score for woodwind solos and soft washes of strings.
“The Eighth Spirit”, again, is filled with some of Goldenthal’s clever, enigmatic chord progressions, featuring strings and the heavenly, cooing sounds of the wordless female choir. “Dead Rain” is an interesting track, featuring the refrain of the love theme in resonant brass and strings amid a very fast-paced, potentially obtrusive electronic pulsing before shifting to more shifting, unexpected, yet appropriate chord progressions. “Blue Light” contains descending arpeggios for strings and low woodwinds. After an extended period of silence, the booming brass comes in with the same motif that opened the score. Here, the climax is delayed, making it very interesting musically, building and building only to die down into more pulsing figures for strings. The piece then transforms into the ultimate statement of the main theme, foreboding and ominous and powerful. At last, we’ve arrived at the final score piece written by Elliot Goldenthal. Earlier, I mentioned that “Toccata and Dreamscapes” was tied for my favorite piece on this album; well, “Adagio and Transfiguration” is what it tied with. Goldenthal sends his score off with a bang, providing the quintessential statement of his love theme. Here, the theme is heard by flute and oboe solos amid strings. The piece builds majestically to the final refrain. It is here that Goldenthal’s most powerful music is heard, with the strings building into a colossal crescendo for brass and twinkling chimes. If any piece of music in the history of the world can be categorized as “earth-shattering”, then this is it. Again, the extensions to the brass section are used to great effect here. Along with earth-shattering, spine-tingling is another phrase that comes to mind with the climax of this piece. The only sound left is high strings on which wandering trumpet and oboe solos emerge. The high strings then play the love theme with additional colour provided by the glass harmonica. Then a flute solo carries the score to its final moments of hopeful serenity. It is a magical way to end the score, because, if you think about it, the rest of the music has been ominous or downright oppressive. Waiting until the final minute to present his most beautiful music, Goldenthal has made the expectation great, and it lives up completely.
“The Dream Within” is a song written for the film by Goldenthal, featuring his love theme. The instrumentation here is very interesting, with marimbas, electronics, percussion, and strings. Lara Fabian’s voice fits the melody very nicely, being almost ethereal at times, and when she belts and hits those high notes, it sends chills up the spine. Also, the melody here is complemented by lovely, poetic lyrics. The next song, by L’Arc~en~Ciel, has been strategically placed at the end so that it is easily skipped! I don’t understand its inclusion on this album; it is a complete departure from the rest of the music and does not fit in, being overly upbeat. After hearing the preceding symphonic masterpiece, this rock song just does not belong! Aside this, there are only a few minor issues with this score, and most of them I don’t find particularly bad, but I understand that others might. First, this score is intense and extremely dissonant and harsh almost all throughout, making for a rewarding, but also exhausting listen. Goldenthal’s writing here is dominated by brass, percussion, and to a lesser extent, strings — however, even the strings play with a very brutal, grating tone much of the time — leaving the softer, more reflective moments, dominated by woodwinds, to an absolute minimum. And lastly, Goldenthal’s unique style — and many of his scores are typical of this — seems to put his performers to the test. What results is a score that is as difficult to listen to as it is to perform, in some respects. I understand that not many people are as enthusiastic about challenging, new music as I, so I hope to have still presented more than enough facts and unbiased descriptions to inform you of what to expect.
I have nothing but praise for this score. Apart from a very few, perhaps only one, uninteresting tracks such as “Entrada”, there is much to be appreciated here. This kind of music will certainly not appeal to everyone, for it contains many complex passages of incredible dissonance. Thematically, the melodies are not as straight-forward as Uematsu’s, and I will say right here and right now that if you’re strictly a Uematsu fan, hoping that Goldenthal can satisfy that need, you will be gravely disappointed. For music fans seeking something new and rewarding, this carries my highest recommendation.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Duncan MacIvor. Last modified on August 1, 2012.