The Black Mages II – “The Skies Above” (arr. Kenichiro Fukui)

October 5, 2010

There are only two songs I really enjoy from Final Fantasy X, and both are best enjoyed (so I think) as arranges. The first is the “Song of Prayer” which plays when the player unlocks a new summon and appears with one variation per summon. The second is “At Zanarkand”, the haunting piano overture through which the game opens, revealing the ruins of a destroyed city, and a theme which appears in different guises throughout the soundtrack – though never with more emotion than here. The latter is my favorite of the two, instantly recognizable and touching, a piano solo with melancholic power. A piano arrange was featured in Final Fantasy X Piano Arranges and later 20020220 music from Final Fantasy as well as Distant Worlds II. However, my favorite arrange is “The Skies Above”, the titular piece from The Black Mages II: The Skies Above (2004). The track is absolutely brilliant, the crown jewel in an amazing album. Note there have also been several music videos of this piece, but having never played the game, I prefer the music to create its own images (though the lyrics seem a more or less literal translation of the game’s narrative core).

Nobuo Uematsu’s original work is here arranged by Kenichiro Fukui (XEXEX, Midi Power Pro, Front Mission 5). The piece opens with a piano solo conducted by none other than Fukui himself (Mr. Uematsu in the live performance), a piece that plays haltingly but precisely, a cautious step into legend…

The piece then blasts open to a fierce guitar heaven (1:40), a driving bass like a diving bomber that drives past radiantly shrill guitar riffs. The guitar work is profound, melody yielding to the sweet sound of the electric that surfs the curve with ease into a lyrical inferno.

The lyrics here are sung by Mr. Goo (aka Tomoaki Watanabe, Lost Odyssey), who has a slight drawl to his singing, but such a heroic voice that it really doesn’t matter. He stands before the blazing, epic guitars as a figure out of dream, a man who stands against the darkness like some operatic god, words of valor pouring from his breast. He sings a cryptic poem penned by Alexander O. Smith that is as much a call to heroism as it is a desire to rise from this dim, hazy world to reach a purity, an ideal that is impossible to attain. It is more the quest than the goal that counts.

Sparks from the fire rise up to the sky;
Higher and higher, oh I want to fly!
Out of the story, this time I’ll be free;
Wake up for a moment from this dream of me.

Just a legend, cold words on a page;
Lift up my eyes and I’m soaring away
On silver wings spread out to the sun:
I’m leaving this city for the skies above.

O’er the ruins and ancient light,
Never lost, never failing;
Follow me on my path to the heights
Before the shadows fade into night.

Running back but I’m out of time.
I could tell everything,
Hear the words that fill my mind:
How can I say she was mine?

Between the third and fourth stanzas is a series of solos, first a guitar solo by Tsuyoshi Sekito followed by a synthesizer solo by Mr. Fukui and finally a bass guitar by Keiji Kawamori. After the final lyrics, the blazing guitar solo fades again to Fukui’s piano, which pools like a cool water, crystal and deep.

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