Final Fantasy XIV -Before Meteor- Original Soundtrack
Final Fantasy XIV -Before Meteor- Original Soundtrack
August 14, 2013
Buy at CDJapan
The initial release of Final Fantasy XIV was met with some seriously critical reviews, to the extent that the game required a significant makeover — well, a complete overhaul to be more precise — to meet public approval. This came in the form of A Realm Reborn, together with a largely revised soundtrack of the same name. The original game and its patches nevertheless amassed an impressive total of 104 tracks; while they tracks from the game have been released in several digital and physical forms, the most complete version is a Blu-ray album entitled Before Meteor. Nobuo Uematsu, one of the most recognized names in the video game music industry, returned to compose the entire original game, constituting his first solo soundtrack for the series since Final Fantasy IX. Composers Masayoshi Soken, Naoshi Mizuta, and Ryo Yamazaki also brought their compositional abilities to the mix to create various tracks for the game’s patches. Together, they created a relatively varied album that captures the traditional Final Fantasy sound more so than its predecessors XIII and XII. While the soundtrack is not without its flaws, it is one of the more substantial albums from the Final Fantasy series in the last ten years.
Before Meteor is rife with the colorful, catchy themes that gave the music of Final Fantasy its name. “Opening Theme” begins with the trademark Final Fantasy main theme in a march-style setting, filled with brass and snare drum and triumphant strings. But like many of the reprises, the interpretation of the theme is very straightforward and the arrangement doesn’t hold much of a candle to the orchestral interpretation featured in the ending theme for Final Fantasy VIII. “Prelude – Remembrance” has the same issue. The concept behind the arrangement in XIV isn’t bad, but there’s little that makes it stand out either; the harp follows the standard pseudo-arpeggio pattern like it does in the majority of games, and the melody that ultimately comes in is a delicate choir accented with bells and synth strings. It’s a little too synthesized for my own tastes, but my main issue is no risk-taking in the track to make it stand out in any way from other Preludes (e.g. unlike FFX’s Easter Egg).
This mentality reflects one of my larger issues with the soundtrack; Uematsu relies on previous successes to carry over into this soundtrack, but the result is a forced comparison in which XIV nearly always loses. It’s not a bad soundtrack, but it’s simply not as memorable as it could be. The returning Chocobo arrangements in this game, “Bo-Down” and “Eorzea de Chocobo,” are further examples of this issue. Overall, they are decent orchestral arrangements of the iconic Chocobo theme, but aren’t particularly interesting either, especially looking back at themes from other games, which have ranged from brass to techno to ukelele. An orchestral interpretation is mildly impressive on some levels, with the synths capturing the epic scope of the game to some level. But when I think about the best Chocobo themes from other games, they are the unexpected themes: the ones that are at first jarring, then kind of funny, and then classic (“Mambo de Chocobo” from V is still played in Distant World concerts). Did Uematsu lost his famous sense of humour while writing this soundtrack?
One returning theme worth mention is the Moogles’ theme, which first played a significant role in Final Fantasy V. Courtesy of Masayoshi Soken, the same theme returns in XIV but in a few weirdly distorted versions, beginning with “March of the Moogles,” which in name alone suggests a different manifestation of the traditionally mild and fairy-like creatures. Upon listening to “Seven Sages,” my first thought was that it sounded like something from Danny Elfman’s Nightmare Before Christmas; only after then did I discover the Moogle’s theme embedded in the piece but in a distinctly minor key. I had no idea how creepy the Moogle theme sounds with just a few notes shifted a half-step, but the difference is large enough that the theme is almost unrecognizable at parts, especially with the pounding low strings tattooing a driving rhythm in the bass and the melody itself several octaves lower than usual. “Good King Moggle Mog XII” has the same instrumental part but with the addition of eerie voices actually singing the melody (the lyrics of which supposedly help the player out with the Moogle boss fight the piece accompanies). Certainly the weirdest track of the album and one that would have benefited from some post-production polish, but I was happy to hear such a bold and original variation on an old Final Fantasy theme.
In general, the more worthwhile tracks are the original ones. Uematsu creates some fantastic new themes in XIV that have since become regulars on my playlists. Uematsu created a main anthem, field tracks, and a battle theme to depict each of the major areas (or frontiers) in the game. For example, “The Twin Faces of Fate” is the main theme of Ul’dah, while “Twilight over Thanalan” and “Quicksand” serve as the field and battle tracks. The field and battle tracks share a theme, albeit under very different settings, with a soft piano and strings in “Twilight” and harder rock guitar in “Quicksand.” Limsa Lominsa, another frontier of Eorza, contains several area themes including “Freedom,” a triumphant orchestral fanfare, and its major battle theme, “The Promise of Plunder,” a driving but high-spirited and bright flurry of orchestral instruments that fits the area’s harbor and ocean aesthetics (not to mention the main theme of the area, “Navigator’s Glory”). The last two frontiers, Ishgard and Gridania, follow a similar pattern with a signature main theme and accompanying field and battle tracks. For those especially interested in a particular area’s set of themes, a series of four digital ‘Frontiers’ albums have been sold separately, averaging about eight tracks an album and incorporating the majority of tracks from that area.
Focusing in on the organic content of the album, “On Windy Meadows” is one of the rare glimpses on this album of Uematsu at top form. True to he best works, he creates lively and intricate melodies laced with subtle harmonies, using liberal ornamentation and an unusual rhythm to keep the delicate piece fast-paced and moving. Before looping, the piece concludes with a series of chords that feel fresh and exciting while maintaining the lightly driving rhythm. The section from 1:56 is divine and captures Uematsu at his best. “Born of the Boughs” is another piece that works similarly to “On Windy Meadows”; Uematsu uses pizzicato strings and chimes to begin a rhythm and a low flute and oboe to create a melody and countermelody. These two pieces felt, to me, like they came from older Final Fantasy games but with far more sophisticated instrumentation. There’s plenty of other similarly-styled tracks on the album, but they’re usually good rather than excellent. For example, the light-hearted and airy “By Design” is a solid filler piece; written in the same mood as “Meadows” and “Boughs”, it opens with a pizzicato pattern and uses a combination of oboe, arco strings, and flute to create a syncopated melody that, while not quite delivering a solid melody, is enjoyable enough.
It’s clear from tracks such as “On Windy Meadows” that Uematsu has considered the sheer scope of the game. Just like his compositions in Final Fantasy XI, the compositions here tend to be long, varied, and extensively developed. For instance, “Twilight Over Thanalan” begins with a synth/pop tone, but heavily utilizes strings to the point where they take over at times from the synth instruments and the piece begins to sound beautiful in a more authentic, organic fashion. By two minutes into the track, the piano and strings have entered an intertwining duet with a more prominent melody line than at any other point in the piece. Two tracks with alternate realizations of the same melody, the electronic-heavy “Conflagration” and tribal-styled “Pitfire,” arrange another highlight into three-segment tracks. The pattern and melody of the pieces are interesting; they begin with a slowly descending scale repeated once (the second time with heavier instrumentation), then fall into a bass melody with soprano quarter notes for harmony. Both pieces then pause dramatically before entering the third section; a descending scalar pattern similar to the first section, but incorporating two scales instead of one. The effect is an unusual melody that is fun and invigorating, and one of the catchier tracks on the album.
Uematsu incorporates a range of other genres of music into the album; surprisingly, he is able to keep them from feeling too out of place in the Medieval game, but they do provide a significant break in mood from the other songs. The previously mentioned “Twin Faces of Fate” (a deceptively theatrical title) consists of almost exclusively synth instruments, including an electric piano, and an unusually mellow melody to ultimately deliver a very 90s-influenced pop-style track. “Starlight and Sellswords” follows the same pattern but with a smooth jazz feel backed by a chorus of brass instruments, with a result of something like elevator music. Other synthy tracks like “From the Heart”, “Where the Heart Is”, and “Behind Closed Doors” are filled with the simple, tender melodies many have come to expect from Uematsu. Other staples from the composer include dreary ominous tracks such as “Tears for Mor Dhona” and “Neverborn”, the cutesy bossa-nova interludes “Supply & Demand” and “Daring Dalliaces, and ethereal synthy dungeon themes like “Encaptured” (diminished chord progressions ahoy!). For better or worse, these could have easily have come from Uematsu’s soundtracks of his PlayStation era.
Uematsu’s use of electric guitar throughout XIV is wonderful and certainly not limited to the lengthy ballads. “Steel Reason” is another one of those tracks on the album that brings an earlier Final Fantasy game to mind in terms of thematic content and structure. The track begins lightly but with pent-up energy with a rhythmic soprano motif and continues with a lower brass entrance, followed by the repeated entrance with a parallel fifth harmony. The melody ultimately played on electric guitar is both moving and energizing, using harmonies from nameless background instruments to create a more ethereal effect, suddenly falling into a dotted rhythmic downward pattern and descending into a driven melody vaguely reminiscent of the Celtic tones of IX. The same melody returns briefly in “Nemesis,” a darker and more orchestral piece additionally featuring piano. Other enjoyable synth-fests include: “The Seventh Gate”, which is a cheesy-but-likeable homage to 70s prog rock, “Beneath Bloody Banners”, a piercing blend of rock and orchestral elements, and “Conflagration”, an ultra-catchy track filled with flair. Though these tracks aren’t anything particularly new, they do capture the tongue-in-cheek personality that we all know and love.
As the score progresses, the tracks both lengthen and intensify, so that several epic-length tracks make their way onto this album towards the end, averaging about 5-10 minutes in length. Masayoshi Soken’s “Rise of the White Raven” and “Fallen Angel” were both seemingly written to be epic battle tracks complete with choir, orchestra, rock, and even some organ (a la “One-Winged Angel” or “Dancing Mad”). However, they fall a little short of their intended effect due to implementation issues. While the vocals in “Rise of the White Raven” were written as the main force, they are horribly recorded and hence aren’t strong enough to hold the melody line of such a huge piece. While “Fallen Angel” does include some fantastic moments, it did not have a consistent thematic pattern that functioned throughout any significant chunk of the track; hence it feels more like a mishmash of fantastic great sections, but not a fully-fledged climactic battle theme. That said, I really enjoyed the twelve-minute “Tempest,” which nearly fell into the same trap as “Fallen Angel,” but actually returned to repeat some of its themes as the piece went on. It made for a much stronger rock ballad experience.
The final track is also the most climatic, taking place as Bahamut is destroying the world of Hydaelyn and setting a foundation for the sequel game A Realm Reborn. “Answers,” sung by Susan Calloway, takes place during the grand finale of this game, serving as a very strong ending note for the album. I first heard this song from the Distant Worlds concert, and was happy to find that the album version was just as massive. The song incorporates choir, orchestra, and electric guitar and percussion set for a full effect. Calloway has a strong voice, and Uematsu has said several times that she had always been his first choice for a singer on this song, but the style and sheer amount of the backup vocals and instrumentation featured here would support most voices. The piece is written to suit Calloway’s alto range, but towards the end of the song she leaps up into her falsetto voice a few times to hit the higher notes. In Distant Worlds, the falsetto is distinctly weaker than her chest voice, but the album version of “Answers” treats the falsetto well so that it’s hardly distinguishable from the rest of Calloway’s lines. Jam-packed with Uematsu-isms throughout its seven minute playtime, this is easily one of the best vocal theme songs of the Final Fantasy series. I only wish the themes from this song had showed up more frequently in the rest of the album.
Overall, “Before Meteor” is a more-than-satisfactory score to a less-than-satisfactory game. It is a treat to hear another Final Fantasy scored by Nobuo Uematsu. Though he offers relatively few new ideas, he revisits the approaches he has developed previously in Final Fantasy’s area, battle, and event themes to develop some solid, enjoyable tracks. He also captured the scope of the game, right from the sprawling area themes all the way to the climactic battle tracks and vocal ballad. That said, there are plenty of mediocre tracks featured in this album, as well as recurrent implementation issues not acceptable for 2010. Before Meteor is a massive and varied album, but given its high price, it’s only worthwhile if you’re a hardcore collector. It also doesn’t help that the album is only available as a Blu-ray disc, which isn’t compatible with most record players. More casual collectors might wish to consider other albums released for the series, including Eorzean Frontiers, a 12 USD digital download featuring 38 of the best tracks from the game.
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Posted on September 15, 2014 by Emily McMillan. Last modified on June 19, 2015.