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Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris

Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack Album Title: Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack
Record Label: DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (Reprint)
Catalog No.: SSCX-10054/7; SQEX-10013/6
Release Date: August 1, 2001; May 10, 2004
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan

Overview

The first anomalous soundtrack of the numbered instalments to the Final Fantasy series, the score to Final Fantasy X saw series' composer Nobuo Uematsu require considerable help to complete one of the series' soundtrack for the first time. Presumably exhausted after the massive score to Final Fantasy IX and overwhelmed by demands from producers for a stylistically and emotionally rich soundtrack, his desperate efforts to create an excellent solo score seemed doomed after all he churned out were a series of mind-numbingly unoriginal and underdeveloped works that were trivial both musically and emotionally. In order to satisfy fans and reflect time limitations, his mediocre compositions mostly made the final cut, despite the fact most, including the main theme "Suteki da ne," were created in a mad rush. Having evidently lost his touch, on road to create by far his worst Final Fantasy soundtrack, Nobuo Uematsu made the wise move of making a cry for help leading to the involvement of two collaborators in a late stage of the production.

Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano were wise choices. Despite neither being involved in a prominent game prior to Final Fantasy X, having both suffered from being designated to compose a number of Square's flops, they both had sufficient stylistic individuality, technical expertise, and emotional capacity to nourish a dismal score. Hamauzu, now Square Enix's leading composer, has been described as Nobuo Uematsu's successor for years, having demonstrated warmth, melodic ingenuity, harmonic sophistication, and diversity in his scores for Unlimited SaGa, Dirge of Cerberus Final Fantasy VII, and SaGa Frontier II. He makes the most profound additions here. In contrast, Nakano proved skilled in creating rhythmically and texturally remarkable ambient pieces with great efficiency for projects such as Another Mind, DewPrism, and Musashiden II Blademaster. His contributions were variable, but worked remarkably in the game. The duo's input didn't stop the score being the most inconsistent Final Fantasy soundtrack to date, but gave the score musical worth and emotional depth, while also rejuvanating the somewhat stagnant nature of the series' music as a whole.

Body

The thematic basis of the soundtrack comes from three major themes — "At Zanarkand," the simple yet heartfelt solo piano introduction, "Suteki da ne," the Eastern-flavoured main love theme sung by Rikki, and "Song of Prayer," a modal a capella monophonic hymn to reflect the importance religious of religion in Spira. In their original forms, they suffice as reasonably executed and moderately charming melodic material, the former two being noteworthy fan favourites, though do suffer from banality in places. Nobuo Uematsu offered the melodic material itself, but wasn't single-handedly responsible for them, contrary to popular belief; he was only solely responsible for Zanarkand, which suffers the most musically out of the three with its predictable diatonic harmonies and ordinary melodic resolutions. "Song of Prayer" required subtle tweakings from Hamauzu to sound so spiritual. "Suteki da ne" demanded a massive amount of effort from arranger Shiro Hamaguchi to shine in both its original form. Hamaguchi was responsible for all the harmonic intricacies and additions such as the rich violin solo, as well as its unbelievable beautiful orchestrated recapitulation at the end of the soundtrack; all Uematsu offered to the love theme was a basic plan of its structure, a request for it to be Eastern-flavoured and be sung by Rikki, and a melody that he admitted to creating on the same night as 20 or so other creations as a deadline quickly approached.

The treatment of the themes is variable, though Uematsu is responsible for rearranging the themes excessively and unnecessarily throughout the soundtrack. While his use of leitmotifs has often been a strength in previous soundtracks, helping to establish a cohesive basis for their thematic development, such a musical feature is used principally as a tool to hide lack of melodic inspiration elsewhere in the case of Uematsu's creations here. The pieces created do not sound awful on an individually basis, but offer absolutely nothing unique to the shape or musicality of the soundtrack. Whether it be the bland, overly sentimental, and worthless instrumental arrangements of "Suteki da ne" that constitute "Yuna's Theme" and "Daughter of the High Summoner" or the reuse of "At Zanarkand" in the melodramatic rip-off "Revealed Truth" or, most randomly, in the ambient "No Hopes, No Dreams," Uematsu continually fails to utilise material in a meaningful and musically appealing way, instead creating a pile of imitations that only constitute filler to the soundtrack. The worst culprit is the "Song of Prayer" theme, which reappears in no less than eleven direct vocal arrangements throughout the soundtrack, the majority of which are merely 'ports' in which the hymn is transposed and sung on a different voice yet otherwise completely unchanged. This is completely obstructive to the flow of the soundtrack and undermines the value of the original theme itself, which soon becomes transparent in its simple construction and very dull to listen to.

Between them, Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano succeed in using all three themes in appropriate and inspiring ways. Hamauzu's rich pseudo-orchestral instrumental rendition of "Sutaki da ne" in "Someday the Dream will End" conveys the sense of love and hope through original means while radiating a special aura — a successful "Revealed Truth" perhaps. The same theme is manifested with more subtlety in "Spiran Scenery," Hamauzu's complex unplugged guitar arrangement; it's extremely convincing both musically — where Hamauzu demonstrates profound knowledge of the acoustic guitar — and technologically, thanks to Ryo Yamazaki's impeccable synthesizer operating. Nakano moulds "At Zanarkand" into the world map theme, "Sprouting," notable for the way it utilises percussion and a variety of organic instruments in an outlandish way to create an image of Spira while also offering a sense of camaraderie. The "Song of Prayer" is also used in a direct yet sophisticated way by Hamauzu in places, the source of ghostly dissonant quartal tenor voicing in "Song of Prayer - Yunalesca," wonderful imitative canonic structures of a full choir in "Song of Prayer - Spira," and a melancholic arrangement with ethnic-influenced instrumental backing, "The Sending." Also impressive, however, is its integration into non-vocal themes, including "Reception for Great Sage Mika," "Time of Judgment," and "Macalania Forest," where the theme becomes consistent not just with religion, but also cycles of brainwashing, treachery, death, and unnatural life, as the true nature of Yevon is revealed. Consistently, Nakano and Hamauzu utilise the main themes in creative and deep ways, creating a number of fantastic pieces while also enhancing the meaning and nature of the themes in their original forms.

Nobuo Uematsu's narrow-minded focus on melodies of variable worth is at the sacrifice of diversity, musicality, and depth. He either hideously ignores the elements of previous themes that made him so popular or tries to emulate previous works to the extent that he offers no engaging original material. "Tidus' Theme," for example, provides a fairly accurate picture of the game's protagonist through shallow means; with chord progressions and instrumentation that sound recycled from previous works, together with focus on a weak melody, it sounds like it were quickly composed in the middle of one of Nobuo Uematsu's long and exhausting nights — and, indeed, it almost certainly was. "Brave Advancement," used to represent a mini-game where the gamer faces a variety of foes, is a prime example of severe superficiality, with its simplistic fanfare-like melodies against a cheesy bass line. Neither of these themes immediately stand out as being bad, yet with repeated listens, their pleasant exterior fades away to reveal a sizeable collection of flaws. Unfortunately, some of Uematsu's creations are also unbelievably irritating. "Place of Ordeals," used during the utterly tedious temple trials, simply grates with its combination of pizzicato strings, random vocal chants, and one-dimensional melodies; at least it was an attempt at creativity, but the false projection that these repetitive and lengthy puzzles were fun does the theme no favours. And then there's "Djose Temple," a failed attempt at minimalism due to its thoughtless progressions, eventual reliance on a shallow melody, and incoherent structure, and its even worse counterpart, "Ride the Shoopuf?," only rivalled by a few Hanjuku Hero tracks as Uematsu's most irritating attempt at creating music.

Worse still, Uematsu constantly appears to be battling with himself, continually alternating between offering experimental creations and revisiting the past in a desperate search to give the series' music a strong sense of direction for the future. On the one hand, there's "The Prelude," arranged by Hirosato Noda, which sees the trademark harp arpeggios be thrown away in favour of an upbeat light techno remix of the cheesiest kind in which the original theme is barely recognisable. On the other, there's rubbish like "Rikku's Theme" and "We Are Al Bhed" that reuse melodic progressions, instrumental palettes, and styles from other works, in these cases Final Fantasy VII's "Costa Del Sol," in an unconvincing tropical style that constitutes reckless and inappropriate attempts to add colour to the soundtrack. The experiments are blatant and often appalling; "Otherworld," the most notable one, is just a Marilyn Manson rip-off complete with a pile of guitar distortion, screaming vocals, static melodies, and tasteless lyrics, ultimately a transparent attempt to appeal to a new audience without any stylistic focus or charm. The other side of the coin sees some really shameless creations. "Seymour's Theme" typifies this, a ludicrous hybrid of Final Fantasy VII's "Those Chosen by the Planet" and Final Fantasy IX's "Wicked Melody," utilising just a series of diminished chord progressions against a 'We Will Rock You' style bass line. It's arranged in the most damning ways possible no less than four times during the duration of the soundtrack in a series of variations that are not distinctive from each other and add nothing to the soundtrack. Oh dear, oh dear...

Uematsu is capable of producing rare gems, however. Perhaps most worthy of attention are "Jecht's Theme," which adopts an American country style and includes some great steel-stringed guitar solos from Tsuyoshi Sekito, and "Silence Before the Storm," perhaps Uematsu's best forest theme to date with some extraordinary chord progressions. He's also the creator of two great battle themes — "Battle Theme" and "Seymour Battle." The former adopts a standard format for a normal battle theme, yet is refined to the extent that it sustains in-game use rather well, while the latter wonderfully adapts "Seymour's Theme" into a rock- and electronica-tinged remix that hides the flaws of the initial theme. Perpetually moving, upbeat, and fun, what more could a listener want? As for the other good theme, most of these stand out because of the way Uematsu utilises fairly traditional musical approaches, including his emphasis on somewhat bland melodies, yet creates incredible atmosphere. Some examples include "Mi'ihen Highroad," an adventurous theme led by a sequence of chromatic melodies enhanced by buoyant dulcimer-led harmonies, "Via Purifico," a moody and arpeggio-ridden solo piano piece, "Men Staked on Blitz," a variation of "Tidus' Theme" that redeems itself in its development section, and "Brass de Chocobo," a fresh big band rendition of the classic theme. Hamaguchi and Uematsu also charmingly conclude the soundtrack with a full-orchestral ending theme that recapitulates the "Song of Prayer" and "At Zanarkand" motifs; in many ways an emotional rollercoaster, with sadness tinging the prevalent force of optimism, Hamaguchi suitably restrains himself to avoid it becoming melodramatic, essentially ensuring it is a programmatic and fitting accompaniment to the game that touches on a stand-alone basis.

The creation and utilisation of the main themes in the soundtrack is a microcosm of the way the soundtrack is built as a whole, the soundtrack's two other composers, Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano, salvaging the remains of a fundamentally damaged work otherwise crafted by Uematsu. Hamauzu's contribution is the strongest. His contributions include the vibrant techno- and rock-influenced "Blitz Off," the breezy and impressionistic "The Splendid Performance," and the nationalistic piece of symphonic underscoring, "Tragedy." Some are decidingly random, such as "Travel Company," built with a minimalistic piano line and cross-rhythms offered by a hotchpotch of percussion instruments, or "To the End of the Abyss," based on some 'cello scribblings that combine daintiness, cacophony, and mysteriousness in one delightful blend. Even his individual pieces often cannot be defined by one style, but rather individualistic approaches to a variety; they demonstrate Hamauzu's sensitivity, maturity, and imagination, leaving many listeners spellbound. A strong example of the strength of Hamauzu's fusions is represented by "Besaid"; with a highly melodic piano part, discordant bass undertones, and a decorative electronic descant, a sense of fragility, calm, exoticness, and the influence of technology are simultaneously created, reflecting Besaid's scenery, history, atmosphere, and uncertain future all in one. Imagery is his strength too. Consider the way the jazz-influenced bass clarinet lines in "Wandering Flames" gently correspond with a luscious string descant and a drifting ethnic flute part. It provides a perfect depiction of a dim yet everlasting flame through profound musical means — a symbolic light that glows when everything else has gone dark.

The bane of the soundtrack's mastermind is that his works are sometimes too subtle for many listeners to appreciate. Final Fantasy gamers have grown up with Nobuo Uematsu's works, which are a diverse and fruitful bunch, yet almost always accessible thanks to their melodic leanings and explicitness; they fit their purposes well, but are not musical masterpieces, intended to appeal to the masses, much like most pop songs. While Hamauzu is capable of creating rich melodies — exemplified especially by two-tiered "People of the North Pole" and the piano-led "Thunder Plateau" — they are often treated in a more subtle way and are often fragmented, protrude against seas of harmonies and an array of sophisticated features, and feature within pieces that are stylistically complex and unfamiliar. Indeed, his melodies are more considered than Uematsu's, but less pronounced and not immediately digestible. The styles he integrates are also too off-the-wall for the layman. Most will fail to see the appeal in "Crisis," describing it as unpleasant noise, due to its intense dissonance; it is, however, remarkable, utilising many of the ideas of modernist composers within a direct action framework, building textures in such a way that carefully placed horrifying shrieks and bursts of sound are exclaimed. The same applies to the more subtle works, such as "Scorching Desert". Perhaps Hamauzu ought to cater his style for Final Fantasy XIII towards accessibility, but should never attempt to emulate Uematsu, as that will destroy everything he is about. If some can't appreciate his work, it's a shame and it's their problem; Hamauzu should never be condemned for being a proficient musician and artist, though perhaps a genius is not what the series needs musically.

Junya Nakano's contributions are the least accessible and stylistically varied on the soundtrack. The majority of his contributions could be considered 'ambient music' — creations that fit scenes well but are not enjoyable on a stand-alone basis — though that doesn't mean his music is without merit. For the most part, Nakano's compositions rely on careful layering of forces and use of timbral contrasts for colour and variety, while continuous percussive rhythms and a distinct pulse drive the compositions in a repetitive but often effectual way. His themes usually have no distinct melody to speak of and often lack clear harmonic progressions, a sense of tonality, or even a true musical form, making many seem uninteresting to most. However, his compositions usually do exactly what is needed with remarkable efficiency. "Deep-Sea Ruins," for instance, carefully utilises percussive electronic notes, rising bubble sound effects, and a progression of ethereal suspended synth chords to represent a sunken airship. It's a very consistent and subtle composition that won't interest most casual listeners, but shines for the way it elegantly fits the scene and creates so much out of relatively little. Responsible for the most minimal but atmospheric themes on the soundtrack, other examples of Nakano's mastery include "Ominous" (a theme that blooms from nothingness to create an arch structure that peaks with the entrance of some chilling vocals), "Twilight" (which is based entirely on a series of carefully selected suspended string chords that grow in dynamic before seamlessly and duskily moving to the next), and "Darkness" (a theme that comprises almost entirely of an exotic array of percussion). Enjoyable? No. Interesting? Somewhat. Effective? Definitely. Efficient? Well, given they were each made in about ten minutes, how could they not be?

Beyond 'standard ambience', Nakano's contributions are variable, but include a series of masterworks that feature impeccable use of instrumentation. Arguably his best, "Guadosalam," combines a series of tribal-influenced percussion cross-rhythms with a wailing ethnic flute melody and, at its gorgeous peak, some eerie vocal chants. A theme that blossoms from little, it paints a perfect image of Guadosalam — organic, alien, and deathly. Another artistic creation, "Illusion," paints a surreal image of a icy and boundless scene through its combination of impressionistic chord progressions on synth pads, gliding string melodies, and complex cross-rhythms from a mixture of glockenspiels and untuned percussion instruments. Also superb is "Luca," a fresh, upbeat, and rhythmically driven seaside town theme marvellously punctuated by syncopated guitar work, lyrical string melodies, jazzy piano chords, various nautical sounds, and yet more percussion cross-rhythms. The relationship between vivid imagery and the unique timbres Nakano creates and manipulates is very strong throughout these themes, though these are also outstanding on a stand-alone basis. However, there is also an abundance of themes that excruciatingly drone and endlessly repeat without having any of the interesting timbral characteristics of aforementioned pieces. "Secret Maneuvers" features just a repetitive tremolo string motif, a suspended high string note, and ordinary tribal percussion rhythms, and is just a big pile of repetition that loops after 30 seconds. It is an overplayed and bland addition to the game. This, in addition to "Temple Band," "Sea of Mist," "Unwavering Determination," and, to an extent, "Darkness," cripple the soundtrack in places and the fact they are utterly boring is made worse by the way all five themes rely endlessly and exclusively on repeated percussion and suspended strings. Utter rubbish.

The pinnacle achievements on the soundtrack come from Nakano and Hamauzu's action themes. Nakano's key creation is the boss theme "Enemy Attack". Adopting a 6/4 metre, the theme is percussively driven so that an agitated but consistent rhythm dominates for the entirety of its playing time. When this rhythmical impetus is compounded by brass crisis motifs, thick orchestral textures, bold timpani rolls, and, in its climax, suspended vocal chants, string discords, and cymbal crashes, the atmosphere created is incredible. The theme broods, challenges, roars, deafens, and exterminates, never relenting in pace and always intensifying in potential energy. Nakano also offers two 'hurry' themes, "Run!!" and "The Advancers". Though they mostly create tension through repetition of ascending motifs and sequences, they feature rich percussive timbres. Hamauzu's "Attack" is a superb effort. It fabulously intersynchs impressionistic harmonies, gliding string lines, and glittering piano use with a blaring bass line and various percussive features, creating two broad and opposing spectrums of colour. Hamauzu also offers the rock-electronic-orchestral fusion "Challenge," a grungy distorted guitar dominated creation that unites the ghostly, deathly, destructive, religious, and climactic elements of the score. The album reaches its climax with its two major final boss themes. Nakano's "Summoned Beast Battle" is incredible on a rhythmic, timbral, and atmospheric level, but so intense, intricate, bold, and perfect that any brief musical description would fail to do it justice. Opening with a dirty brass-led progression, its successor, Hamauzu's "Decisive Battle," develops into an impeccably realised piano concertino dominated by Stravinsky-esque staccato piano lines that glide angularly and convulsively over thick, rasping, and dissonant orchestration. The theme is made delightful through the way it attains a degree of lyricism through the precise, albeit deceptively random, interaction of the piano and orchestra, sometimes in conjunction with the "Song of Prayer" theme.

Summary

The Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack may be the most inconsistent Final Fantasy soundtrack, but this isn't just because it features a lot of rubbish. The score's saviours Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano create numerous masterpieces between them while offering fresh new styles to the Final Fantasy series, the former pretty much creating great works from start to finish. Nobuo Uematsu was the weakest link, devastating after his scores for the Super Nintendo and PlayStation, but nonetheless offered solid thematic material for his collaborators to utilise. The soundtrack may be full of surprises, but it's also timeless thanks to numerous individual pieces. It's a must-have and, while the collective experience may disappoint, the highlights will not.

Overall Score: 8/10