October 26, 1994
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Phantasmagoria is definitely one of those more unique albums by video game composers. After many successful Final Fantasy soundtracks, Square let Nobuo Uematsu compose his first, and only, non-VGM related solo album. As opposed to making it sound anything like he’s composed before, he opted to take a very easy listening approach to the entire album. How does this sound pay off? Is it something that one would want to hear again or is it one of those albums that should be forgotten in time? Read on and find out.
Phantasmagoria is essentially broken down into two types of tracks, instrumentals and those with lyrics; however, lyrics is a pretty misleading word. Most of the verbal pieces are exactly that, spoken word. Out of the four verbal pieces, only one is truly sung. I will be covering those tracks in the latter half of the review and will focus on the instrumental pieces at first.
Instrumentally, you can expect a lot of the synth with which Uematsu has grown familiar. While there are what seem to be some live instruments, I think the decision to use synth was a very strong one because it helps enforce the easy listening, but also helps Uematsu work with a medium to which he has grown accustomed. The first instrumental piece to which we are introduced is “Angel Hands.” This is probably the most sentimental of the pieces on the album and the use of live instruments really helps this track excel above some of the others. The overall relaxing feel that this piece gives off, in addition to the slightly sad violin line, makes for an effective combination and really helps draw the listener into the music. In keeping with the sentimental pieces, we are introduced to “Revival of a Tender Experience.” While I don’t find this to be nearly as sentimental as “Angel Hands,” I find the overall effect of the music to be much more successful. The acoustic guitar bass line and violin melody create such a warm and, being clichéd, tender experience. The way these two instruments mesh together to create this magical piece is something to behold.
The listener is given the completely opposite experience with the next track, “Dogs on the Beach.” This is by far the most playful track on the entire album. Comprised entirely of synth, the tone is extremely bouncy and melody itself utilizes Uematsu’s strengths in creating extremely happy pieces of music. This is definitely a track to listen to if you are feeling blue, or even on a rainy day! This brings us to the title track, “Phantasmagoria.” This also incorporates a somewhat happy melody, but is probably also the piece I would classify as most easy-listening. There is a feeling of ethereality in this track, which is understandable, given the track title. Everything in this composition blends together to create an extremely mysterious effect and it is probably my favorite piece on the entire album.
“People of Maya” is probably one of the more unique instrumentals on the album. It adopts the styles of both Spanish and Celtic music in terms of instrumentation and melds them together to form quite an interesting piece of music. The Spanish portions of the track seem to personify sadness while the Celtic section seems to have a very jovial and airy lilt to them; however, when placed together, the creation comes alive and we are given a piece that is quite melodramatic. It’s quite the unique combination! This brings us to the last instrumental piece, “Mirrors.” This is simply a piano piece. While it may seem a bit out of place on the album, the feelings behind it are profound. The entire piece is moving and definitely has a feeling of reflection, most likely from within, to it. Overall, the instrumental section of this album is top-notch.
Unfortunately, I can’t end a review on a bad note, so the non-instrumental section will be jumbled up a bit. First of all, the only track to actually feature a Final Fantasy track is aptly named so. It’s the only piece that is actually sung, and unfortunately, the worst track on the album. Most listeners of video game music will immediately recognize this piece as “Opening Theme,” from Final Fantasy, however, those who didn’t have the privilege of playing the NES versions, will recognize it as “Prologue” from Final Fantasy IV. The vocals are horrendously sung, and what seem to be in made-up language since even my Japanese friend didn’t understand what was being said, and the arrangement of the theme itself is pretty shoddy. The entire track is a sore to listen to and the improvisational section arranger Chinatsu Kuzuu decided to include is definitely not a smart move. Fortunately, the other spoken word tracks boast a much more favorable melody.
“Deep Blue Ocean” and “Rainy Day, Children” are two of the vocal tracks whose titles deal with water, so I figured it would be best to group them together. “Deep Blue Ocean” incorporates a very brassy, heroic opening, but the feeling recedes with the introduction of the spoken words. The melody here is very serene and peaceful, much like the vast expanse of the ocean. Overall, I think Uematsu did a fantastic job painting the portrait of the ocean, and if I understood the words, I’m sure they would do a similar job. “Rainy Day, Children,” on the other hand, gives the feeling of a sad, gloomy day in the rain. The synth is a testament to this quality, and showcases Uematsu’s ability to write music that fits a scene perfectly. There are a few dramatic build ups, but overall, the sense of this track is also serene. I find it a weaker composition than “Deep Blue Ocean” but I still find myself coming back to this track for some reason.
To end the review, “Lots of Little…” is probably my favorite spoken word performance on the album. The interesting thing about this piece is that the words are spoken with a rhythm to the wondrous melody, and in doing so, creates an extremely hypnotic effect on the listener. The hypnotic effect of the vocals, in conjunction with an extremely peaceful melody makes for a listen that is definitely a must. The various instruments used each give the piece a different texture at different times. Strings give a feeling of sadness, the bass line gives a sense of playfulness, and woodwinds help to incorporate a sense of solemnity.
While a lot of people find this album to be extremely lackluster, and perhaps boring, I find it to be a marvelous creation by Uematsu. Given that he is used to composing for video games, in order to enjoy this album fully, I feel that you have to take yourself out of the expected Uematsu mindset and expect something entirely different from him. If you do that, I think that you will enjoy the album more. While “Final Fantasy” is something that shouldn’t have been created, the rest of this album is marvelous. There is definitely a ton of variety, with a piece for almost every emotion, but the general feel of this album makes this an extremely suitable listening device for those who want to relax or wash away the weight of the world on their shoulders. Phantasmagoria is a unique gem in Uematsu’s discography, and perhaps, a homage to the days of old.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Don Kotowski. Last modified on August 1, 2012.