Final Fantasy Unlimited Music Adventure Verse 2 :: Review by Aevloss
The exploits of Square Enix outside the safety net of RPG gaming have rarely been easy to promote, and when executives came to the decision that their flagship series Final Fantasy might be worthy of a 52-episode anime project, fans awaited with trepidation. After studying some of the mistakes that doomed the short-lived animated series Final Fantasy: The Legend of the Crystals, it was concluded that by creating a brand new storyline and universe, the production team could manage a two-birds-with-one-stone effect the series would appeal to Final Fantasy enthusiasts, due to the name association itself alongside maintained traditions, while also sparking the interest of anybody else who might enjoy good-quality anime (in so doing, sneakily advertising the whole franchise). To adhere with this ambitious scenario, the production levels would have to be generous in all creative areas, not least on the musical soundtrack, given the high acclaim with which the aural experiences in each game instalment had been bequeathed in the past. Composer Nobuo Uematsu's involvement likely became a certainty at this point, but curiously, he was subsequently paired up with long-time collaborator Shiro Hamaguchi and Akifumi Tada, the latter a man relatively well-versed in the medium. Hamaguchi had featured as the prominent orchestral arranger for the Final Fantasy series, in particular, not long after the commencement of the affectionately titled Sony era, but had never been accredited with any compositional work; despite his then small anime resume, people were a little dubious as to whether he would be have been better off limited to an arranging role here too. Luckily, it turned out to be a wise business move.
Despite the disappointing response to the eventual release of Final Fantasy: Unlimited, which was condensed into a 26-episode run following its mediocre reviews, the music was, even in the early days of depression, grudgingly complimented, and has since established itself as a cult classic among anime album collectors.
The material presented on Verse 2 provides a fairly different experience than its predecessor and is hardly the definitive collection of Final Fantasy: Unlimited music, though perhaps the more expansive. Here, the ever-popular Nobuo Uematsu is relegated to contributing a mere four tracks, while Akifumi Tada is given a chance to elaborate on his creative efforts from the first album, sharing a larger portion of the project burden, working as a more involved partner with Shiro Hamaguchi. The CD feels less consistent as a whole due to the heavy emphasis on character themes and familiar motifs, and some might argue that Tada's promotion is also partly a consequence of this; ironically though, it is these 'embellished ideas' that make the score work so well in its context, reinforcing the overall musical arc and choosing in a somewhat unexpected manner to bring it to a close. Unfortunately, perhaps, the casual listener is unlikely to shake the feeling that the soundtrack is mostly supplementary to Verse 1, and this is a viewpoint that is intensified by the choice of first track, which throws us into an important character's past, almost like a direct follow-on from the first album's "Lisa's Recollection". "Lisa's Prayer" is undoubtedly a nice composition, and manages to convey both the purity of its intended character and the feeling of recalling lost memories; some brief discordance in the middle of the piece also adds a nice unresolved touch, which happens to set-up the next theme perfectly on the album as well as being of significance in the show. The main problem with this, however, is that it sounds like the music is building to premature climax, even though we have only listened to the start of the CD. This would be perfectly acceptable if the Final Fantasy Unlimited Musical Adventure was a 2-disc package, but any newcomer listening to this second album before the first would likely feel estranged by the overly-familiar, private nature of the opening.
Nevertheless, the quality of the compositions should not be discredited because of this issue, and it can be said without hesitance that once again, it is easy to find yourself trapped within Hamaguchi's intriguing aural worlds. "Kaze's Recollection" shows the man on top-form in terms of scene narrative, crafting a sinister atmosphere by arranging Uematsu's original melody ("Silent Wind"), helping to give a tragic dimension to the past of Kaze. Although short, this theme heightens tension effortlessly, and leaves us yearning for more. In addition to such event pieces, the composer gets an opportunity to make a handful of themes to represent the brave endeavours of the Comodin, none of which featured on the previous soundtrack. This is another facet that appears to come naturally, and the rebel group's anthem is a very fitting one with its uplifting trumpet bursts and profound cello passages representing the unwavering determination of Knave and his men, even in the face of near-certain defeat. He later reprises the theme in the form of the action cue "Mireth", where the remarkable orchestration echoes Hayato Matsuo's work, mixing further colour into the album. It is perhaps the travelling compositions, "Underwater Voyage" and "Airborne Assault" that achieve the simplest success of the group though. The former is a delightfully bold piece, paying homage to techniques used by late adventure film composers, while also fitting snugly in beside the other 'quest' tracks. The latter, meanwhile, tends to the bog-standard airship theme stereotype, as though pasted from your average RPG soundtrack with improved sound quality. While the idea of using a repetitive bass line to underscore airy, fluttering strings seems a little worn, it will likely be welcomed with open arms by the average Final Fantasy fan for its lovable melodramatics, and easily listenable qualities.
It cannot be denied that the main strength of the album, in the end, is its characterization of the marvellous inhabitants of 'Wonderland'. A great percentage of these pieces are covered by Hamaguchi once more after his successful integration of Ai and Yu's themes from Verse 1. But while the aforementioned additions were incorporated roughly in order of appearance amongst other event tracks, here they are the substance and main meat of the experience. Curiously, in the early stages of the album, it is the children who receive the most musical development with "Ai and Yu's Recollection" and "Peace ~ Ai and Yu's Difficult Battle" both reprising their general motifs and re-exploring their underlying childish innocence. It is very refreshing, in particular, to hear a music box and an acoustic guitar added to the growing musical palette. The latter example also introduces the fairly strange idea of grouping two stand-alone tracks together under the same title, providing momentary pauses to note their separatism. Some might point out that the idea is not unheard of, especially for cutscene pieces to punctuate the elapsing of time, but here it often marks radical changes in the musical structure, leaving fragments which could really be thought of as pieces in their own right. "Lisa's Difficult Fight" is a gripping, ambient gem, and the second half of "Ru's Metamorphosis" features possibly the single best integrated tune in the show, being frightfully memorable regardless of its simplicity.
However, isn't really until Hamaguchi is let loose on scoring for the Earl Tyrant's dedicated henchmen, the four lords of Gaudium and the anomalous Makenshi, that he really begins to hit his stride. "Fungus" is a perfect portrayal of it's proud, but slightly clumsy namesake, with the low tones explored shifting boundaries and marking one of the more aggressive contributions to the series. "Herba" is juxtaposed to great effect; this piece also merits approval through its personality, stressing the magical yet mischievous, playful yet somehow ostentatious dimensions of its beautiful mistress. Trailing behind, "Pisto" and "Oscar" leave little to be desired in terms of ingenuity, their respective eccentric, officious alien scientist and enigmatic, manipulative masked-being tendencies showcased in all their zany glory. It is very rare to find such fun and engaging musical representations for a complete cast of characters, but Hamaguchi hits the nail on the head every time, rending it as his most inventive, inspired work on the show. Unfortunately, save for the erratic imagery they might invoke, these compositions do lose a portion of their effect when not viewed in conjunction with the characters, and some will, not without reason, feel that they slow down the flow of the narrative on this release. To counteract any bitter sentiments, the composer issues a fine entry for Kaze's white-haired nemesis in "Demon Swordsman", a truly mesmerizing experience that undoubtedly prepares the listener the showdown that inevitably resolves the CD.
Amidst all the excitement, however, Akifumi Tada's content really should not be overlooked. With the abysmal "Mogri" excepted, there are some great tracks he adds to his resume, most of which err on the experimental side of the spectrum. The theme tune "Cid", for example, is a quirky joy to listen to in its entirety. The first half seems fairly cool and laid back, punctuated by some tubular bells, mechanical percussion effects, and a lazy guitar, while the second shows the force to be reckoned with the character can be, sounding like a frenzied, but thrilling hybrid of Final Fantasy X's "Auron's Theme" and towards the end something you might find in the Metroid Prime series. "Sabotendar" is not particularly memorable, by comparison, but features a nice display of ancient instrumentation; it is probably his final three contributions to the album that leap out the most, though, with "One Sword Beast" and "Demon Sword" standing as counterparts to the "Thawing of the Magun" and "Firing of the Magun" compositions from the first soundtrack. Each is appropriately suspenseful, threatening, and epic, and they unsurprisingly lead into "Death" on the CD experience. This melancholy piece shows Tada searching himself for a more traditional melody, which he pulls off surprisingly well.
A moment should also be spared to mention Uematsu's contributions, but beyond the two Chocobo theme arrangements once again arranged by Kazuhiko Sawaguchi and an orchestrated version of the infamous Final Fantasy "Victory Theme", his most substantial input comes in the form of the opening theme tune "Over the Fantasy". The solid composition, together with Kana Ueda's vocals, makes the song a fairly catchy one, complete as most anime J-pop should be with the hilarious tradition of a couple of the chorus lines sung in English. Fairy Fore's "Vivid", the closing piece in the earlier episodes, is somewhat less appealing, with the trigger-happy sound unavoidably becoming grating after a first listen and lacking the heart of similar songs on other anime soundtracks. Thankfully, after the climatic but slightly disappointing "Battle to the Death" and the mesmerising "Phoenix", we are speeded in the direction of a fantastic closing piece.
The image theme "Romancing Train" was a fitting ending theme in its context for episodes in the latter part of the serie), but if you have yet to hear it in its complete form, you are missing out. Move have outdone themselves with this fantastic piece; propelled by their penchant for trance music and passionate performance from both vocalists, they succeed in casting a hypnotic effect over the listener, bound to appeal to anyone remotely open to dance music or perfectly-realised, high-calibre tracks in general. Indeed, the development is absolutely flawless, and with each verse, chorus, and interlude we wonder where the song will be steered next, with the instrumental sections coming across perhaps strongest of all try listening to the reprise of the compelling bridge without it's vocals at around 4:20 after hearing the rest of the piece, and preventing the flashes of glitzy nightclub lighting from polluting your mind. Even more astonishing is that it fits into the soundtrack perfectly without sounding out of place. It is almost like the composers were cleverly alluding to it throughout the whole score, particularly in pieces such as "Firing of the Magun", where you hear the bass-heavy synth sounds shift from speaker to speaker; the title itself is fairly tongue-in-cheek, referencing both the subway train, as well as Lisa's implied longing for Kaze, and it is odd that the surrealism with which some of these aspects were previously embodied is brought to fruition in such an impulsive manner. There are certainly listeners who would have preferred to see another "Where the Road Leads" close the album, and while Move's track lacks the potential depth of a powerful Hamaguchi arrangement, it instead concludes the experience with a frivolity that can be very enjoyable in its own right, especially when bearing in mind the shortcomings of the series.
Following a successful first release is never an easy task and Final Fantasy Unlimited Musical Adventure Verse 2 stages a valiant uphill struggle to remain comparable its forerunner's effectiveness, falling short in just a few key areas. Perhaps most noticeably, the powerful narrative thrust is dramatically reduced in scale, with the track listings persuading the listener to observe the finer details of Wonderland rather than the storyline taking place inside of it; this method has its advantages, but also renders the attempt to reach a memorable climax within the space of three or four tracks a lost cause. In this particular case, the composing team also makes one of its worst decisions to simply substitute "Battle to the Death" in place of a final battle theme for the series. Not only does this contribute to an otherwise engaging 26th episode appearing like a rushed job, considering this was the often-heard summon battle piece throughout the whole series, but also results in a very late appearance on the soundtrack, bringing in its wake pressure and expectation which it is not influential enough, stylistically, to live up to.
As a standalone album though, despite the inferior supplementary vibes that it surrounds itself with, there are some truly fantastic treats to be discovered. Shiro Hamaguchi proves himself to be a considerably reliable character composer, giving the Earl Tyrant's cronies theme tunes worthy of their master in terms of musical refinement and abundant personality. Akifumi Tada also exits on an impressive note, establishing himself as a great manipulator of the atmospheric, even if not as melodically consistent as his collaborators. Finally three contrasting vocal themes help to further diversify the album. There are many who might dismiss Verse 2 as too crazy and see many of the experimentations as inconsistent and dislikeable, but at its core, the album is a good collection that completes the set, featuring many of the aspects that made the first album so enjoyable, with only a small number of flaws holding it back. If you were desperate to hear more of Hamaguchi's inventions after listening to Verse 1, this could be the perfect antidote; newcomers would be strongly advised to favour the former instalment though.
Overall Score: 7/10