Archive for September, 2010

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Final Fantasy III – “Elia, The Maiden of Water” (Nobuo Uematsu)

September 30, 2010

Final Fantasy III is probably one of the weakest soundtracks in the series. After giving the whole thing a detailed listen-through, I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of the tracks, aside from a handful such as “Battle 1”, “Eternal Wind,” “Go above the Clouds,” and “This is the Last Battle,” “The Crystal Tower,” – and of course “Elia, the Maiden of Water” (though the DS remake seems to have done a much better job of the original score, which seems overly ambitious for the NES 2A03 sound chip). Anyway, Elia is a girl of great purity who lives in the dark ocean below the world. We only see her for about 10 minutes before she’s killed by a kraken, her frail body already destined for the great beyond (Final Fantasy III wasn’t high on the writing either). Anyway, most arrangers seem to agree that “Elia” is one of the best songs on the album as it has been featured in a vocal collection as well as a flute arrange from Legend of the Eternal Wind. Thankfully, the DS version of the soundtrack seems to have done a better job.

I feel a little repetitive using yet another piece from Pray, but honestly, the album is that good. It’s one I really wish they would publish on iTunes. It has been out of print since 1994, too, which makes it hard to come by. The rendition here is “Once You Meet Her,” Risa Ohka gives a solid performance with lyrics that actually move beyond a description of the game to something a little more universal – praising the beauty of a mysterious young woman. Perhaps a little fantastic, but capturing of the romantic and fleeting nature of this young maiden (who the narrative doesn’t tells us much about anyway and kills off far too quickly for us to develop any kind of emotional attachment). Miss Ohka sings “Once You Meet Her” in English, which is both a relief for Western audiences as well as a testament to her abilities – she can also sing in French and Japanese (of course).

My other favorite rendition is from Legend of the Eternal Wind, a drama/arrange album performed with live instruments. This version is a flute and harp arrange that is sparing but perfect. The track is titled “The Water Maiden” and was reprinted in the US as part of Final Fantasy – N Generation (N for ‘Nintendo’). The DS soundtrack does a great job of replicating the feel of this version.

While you’re at it, check out the enchanting “Voyage – Endless Great Ocean“, one of the best actualization of the original song. Miss Ohka’s deep and powerful voice rolls with the strings like ocean waves, all sung in her original Japanese; it’s an emotional voyage into aural bliss.

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Final Fantasy II – “The Promised Land” (Nobuo Uematsu)

September 29, 2010

Though I have never played the game (despite having Final Fantasy Origins on the PS1 and Final Fantasy I+II for GameBoy Advance), I have heard Final Fantasy II‘s main theme, “The Promised Land” several times and find it to be one of the most memorable themes from the series. The “Main Theme” is played on the overworld while walking around the map screen. The song has no connection with the beautiful choral piece, “The Promised Land” from Final Fantasy: Advent Children. This version is from the PSP version of Final Fantasy I+II. It is very close to the Final Fantasy Origins version.

“The Promised Land” is a little quaint, its main melody lightly tapping through short steps and holding long, hummable notes. This rendition is played with clarinet and later supported by strings. It’s a ballad sung in a thickly forested world where vision is obscured by fog and scoured by war. It is a wish for a world that’s perfect, a hope to cut through the mists and dark.

As far as arrangements go, Final Fantasy: Dissidia has an interesting lounge-style mix of the theme. More famously, there is also a vocal arrange of this piece from Final Fantasy Vocal Collections – Pray. The lyrics at times feel a little forced, the English words a little too clunky for the smoothly dancing meldoy; sentences break in the middle of a stanza, giving the text an awkward flow. The lyrics are also more about the game than anything of greater meaning. There’s a shorter version from Love Will Grow; both are sung by Risa Ohki, who has an absolutely beautiful voice.

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Final Fantasy – “Main Theme” (arr. Shirou Hamaguchi)

September 28, 2010

The main theme of Final Fantasy is called – surprise, surprise – “Main Theme” but is sometimes also known as “Final Fantasy” or “Opening Theme” depending on the game and album. The track is sometimes played as a standalone song, such as in Final Fantasy I and III as an ‘overture’ for the adventure, but in later games (IV and on), it is usually played during the credits, as the song has a triumphant, almost victory processional feel. The best renditions of this theme seem to always be the orchestral versions, particularly those from the concert series. Sometimes it’s played in medleys of other Final Fantasy tunes, but it seems to work best alone. My pick goes to the version from More Friends – music from Final Fantasy which is a recording of an orchestral concert for the series played in Los Angeles in 2005. The track, originally composed by Nobuo Uematsu, was arranged by Shirou Hamaguchi (Final Fantasy VIII, IX, XI) and was performed by the World Festival Symphony Orchestra. The piece was actually originally arranged for the 20020220 Music from Final Fantasy concert and has since become a staple of most orchestral concerts for the series. Sadly, just the 20020220 version is available on iTunes, and it contains applause halfway through as Mr. Uematsu comes on stage to conduct.

More Friends – music from FINAL FANTASY – “Main Theme” (arr. Shirou Hamaguchi)

It is easy to see the series’ roots in classical music, particularly works of Hayden, as Hamaguchi’s arrangement fluidly weaves strings, flute, clarinet, and trumpets together, first one at a time, then finally drawing them all together in the end (beginning 2:00) up to a glorious finale at 2:46. The two main sections of the theme have a nice call and and response, one answering the symphonic poetry of the other. The theme is kingly, proud, and sincere, a call to adventure and an honoring of the adventurers, and is one of the great themes of videogames. In fact, I can’t help but compare it with Koichi Sugiyama’s “Opening” theme for Dragon Quest.

Another amazing performance of this tune is from Tour de Japon (pictured above), performed by the New Japan Philharmonic and also conducted by Shirou Hamaguchi. However, halfway through the performance, Mr. Uematsu comes on stage to conduct! Tour de Japon traveled around Japan in the spring of 2004 and built off the success of the 20020220 concert. This performance was recorded in Yokohama.

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Final Fantasy I – “Matoya’s Cave” (Nobuo Uematsu)

September 27, 2010

So Final Fantasy is getting a bit of love here these days. Today’s 8-bit Monday goes WAY back to the original Final Fantasy (1988). The series began with four unnamed warriors’ quest to find the four elemental orbs and bring order back to the universe. The whole soundtrack is pretty well composed, which is pretty surprising for the mega-blockbuster series’ humble beginnings with a soundtrack inspired by classical music. Within are three major tunes that have appeared in nearly every game since: the “Prelude,” “Opening Theme,” and “Victory.” I’ll give these tracks their day sometime, but for now I want to focus on one of the more popular themes from the game (which has plenty of good music), “Matoya’s Cave”.

With a 31 second loop, “Matoya’s Cave” is pretty short, though about average for an NES track. The track is pretty fast-paced, and with a well-developed melody to make up for the short length. The piece is homely, with easy notes and little major leaps about the scale, which makes perfect sense as Matoya’s Cave is a safe house of sorts located deep in the middle of monster country. Matoya is a witch who has become blinded since her special crystal eye was stolen by an evil wizard; once she gets her eye back, she finds the party too ugly to keep around and kicks them out!

“Matoya’s Cave” has seen quite a few mixes over the years, including The Black Mages II as a rock arrange and Final Fantasy Vocal Collections I – Pray as a French pop song. In contrast to the original is “Matoya’s Grave“, a beautifully sorrowful arrange by deim0s from OCR.

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Final Fantasy V – “Death Battle at the Big Bridge” (Nobuo Uematsu)

September 26, 2010

Final Fantasy V brought to the forefront of the Final Fantasy series one of the most memorable characters, Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is based loosely on the hero from the Babylonian epic of the same name and is characterized as a polite, sword-greedy warrior who pops out at the most inopportune moments to challenge you for some item. In later games, he can be obtained as an ally. His first major appearance in Final Fantasy V is on a level called the Big Bridge, which is just that – a giant bridge over the ocean separating two continents. Gilgamesh serves as one of the guards, but later shows up numerous other places to challenge you to battle. The theme that plays on this level – “Death Battle at the Big Bridge” is sometimes known as “Big Bridge”, “Clash on Big Bridge” or “Battle with Gilgamesh” as it appears in several other battles with him.

“Death Battle at the Big Bridge” is characterized by trumpets and slide piano/organ and Nobuo Uematsu’s trademark drumset. The track opens with the slide piano and some excellent drum and cymbal synths for pounding, clanging armor, followed by a nice cymbal break at 0:32 – I can imagine Mr. Uematsu smiling as he composed that part. The main theme is full-on rolling trumpet with slide piano support that’s straight out of swordsman footwork. The trumpet and drums together give the piece a slight samurai western feel, which probably relates to the epic duel and Gilgamesh’s antique armor and his haughty airs, all of which are captured in the theme. At the end, the track begins to fade out as in a haze, but quickly rebounds to the main melody and action. With such a memorable melody, this is by far one of the best Final Fantasy tunes and one of the best on the SNES; classic oldschool Uematsu.

There have been several arranges of this theme, but the best seems to be the one by – surprise, surprise – the Black Mages. I prefer the version from The Black Mages over the live recording.  Another excellent arrange – in slower pace – is “Down to Big Bridge” by Japanese rock arranger Crow’s Claw (aka Taka). He’s done two different versions of this piece, the first (2004) being slower rock and the second being faster-paced metal (2005). I prefer the second, though it comes off as a little too intense! There was also a more traditional rock arrange on Dissidia: Final Fantasy, a fighting game that brought together characters across the series.

As for fan mixes, MV did an amazing chip arrange of this theme on VGMix 2.0 called “Battle with GilgaNES“. There’s another interesting arrange from there as well that’s not as good (heavy MIDI synths) but is an interesting orchestral take on the track. The arrange is by Shoryuken from VGMix 2.0 and has a well-thought out composition that is a departure from the mainly metal arranges this track has seen.

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Final Fantasy VIII – “The Man with the Machine Gun” (Nobuo Uematsu)

September 25, 2010

My favorite piece from Final Fantasy VIII (1999) is “The Man with the Machine Gun,” the battle theme for Laguna who is, in short, some guy with a machine gun. Final Fantasy VIII has a very strange plot, part of which involves the characters in the present dreaming about events in the past where Laguna and his sidekicks Kiros (who had his hands replaced with swords) and Ward (who fights with a giant anchor(!)) are involved in an insurrection of some sort while he searches for his fiancee. Ultimately, Laguna was a lot more interesting for me than the other characters and that coupled with the abrupt jump to a brand new team was enough to make things interesting. While there are several songs in the game that are really better composed than “The Man with the Machine Gun” (such as “Fisherman’s Horizon”), this piece is the one I remember best.

As a synth/trance piece, “The Man with the Machine Gun” doesn’t really sound like the standard PlayStation fare, which tends to be more orchestral in presentation. The piece uses primarily synth lines with a nice electronica drumset and has a strong square wave at 0:52 that reminds me of the NES. Mr. Uematsu adds a trumpet at 1:05 for the end of the loop before transitioning into a variation of the track’s intro where an electric bass line is added along with some subtle choral support for a great loop back to the main melody. The song’s fast pace and roots with traditional game music make it a great battle theme, while the high notes of the main melody capture Laguna’s guerrilla style of warfare, dropping down into the staccato drumbeats that recall machine gun fire. Great track, and highly memorable.

“The Man with the Machine Gun” saw two official remixes. The first is from Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec: Final Fantasy VIII and is an orchestral remix heavy with strings, replacing the main synth line with a mellow trumpet. A break with new material has been added at 2:05, and the second loop begins more straightforward with a pop drum beat (2:40) that is more in line with the original. The second is a rock arrange recorded by The Black Mages, a band formed by Mr. Uematsu himself which performs music from the series. Mr. Uematsu plays keyboard. The synth player, Kenichiro Fukui, has a background with Konami’s MIDI Power pro series of albums. Guitarist Tusyoshi Sekito helped compose the new tracks for Chrono Trigger on the PlayStation and also has a background with Konami, composing Space Manbow for the MSX. Most of the fan arranges are done in trance/electronica form, which is admittedly a genre I dislike, so I can’t really recommend any specific one.

What’s really interesting is the soundtrack actually saw a US release in Final Fantasy VIII Music Collection, though the circumstances surrounding the release are foggy. These days, it can be picked up on iTunes.

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Symphonic Legends – “Ending Medley” (arr. Jonne Valtonen)

September 24, 2010

September 23 saw yet another feather in the cap of the German Symphonic Game Music Concerts series (Symphonic Shades, Symphonic Fantasies), Symphonic Legends, a concert dedicated to the themes of Nintendo games. The concert was live broadcast around the world from the official website and some clips from the live broadcast have now found their way to YouTube. The concert was conducted by Niklas Willén with many of the pieces arranged by Jonne Valtonen (PLAY! A Videogame Symphony).

Though my favorites include the F-Zero, Mario, and Starfox medleys (and I still have to listen to the epic 32-minute Zelda piece – my internet crapped out during the intermission) I felt the Encore performance of the “Ending Medley” was a good pick. The piece opens with a lovely interpretation of the Wind Waker ending theme, complete with the ethnic, Celtic instruments used throughout the soundtrack, particularly the flute and bongo (and actually, I believe that’s Rony Barrak on the bongo! He did a bongo solo for Symphonic Shades). The piece then transitions to the beautiful Super Mario Galaxy at 2:25 before playing a short segment from Zelda at 4:05. The real treat here though is the ending theme from Super Mario Bros, complete with a 50-some-person choir. While I’m not very good at picking out lyrics (particularly when sung by a large choir), I will say the effect is quite impressive. The final segment beginning at 5:08 I have trouble placing, but I think it might be a few more notes from Super Mario Galaxy. Admittedly, I was hoping for the ending to Metroid!

Needless to say, the concert should be produced in album form within the next year or so, considering how every other concert done by Symphonic Game Music Concerts has been produced in an album. Interesting to note: though the concert sold out back in March, there appear to be plenty of empty seats! Maybe some people decided to leave early?