Final Fantasy XI - Music from the Other Side of Vana'diel :: Review by Chris
The Star Onions are an ever-changing group of performers dedicated to performing the legendary music of Final Fantasy XI. Their first album Music from the Other Side of Vana'diel attempted to be very different by offering jazz, synthpop, and piano solo versions of the traditional organic pieces from the franchise. Naoshi Mizuta, Kumi Tanioka, and Masato Kouda each asserted their individuality with their ten arrangements while a group of in-house instrumentalists, guest artists, and synthesizer operators interpreted them. While the performances are good, the track choices, arrangements, and overall direction for the album are often more dubious. While the album focuses mainly on jazz and synthpop music, the album becomes increasingly varied and muddled towards the end. It seems like most people find something to like in this album due to the sheer divergence of the material, but there are relatively few who appreciate it as an overall work. Let's find out why...
The album opens with an emotional solo piano arrangement of "Vana'diel March". The impressive feature about this piece is how arranger and pianist Kumi Tanioka ensures it subtly intensifies, developing from a simple rendition of the main melody with some light and basic harmonies into a sumptuous and harmonically rich arrangement. Compared to most Final Fantasy Piano Collections arrangements, this is surprisingly simple, but Tanioka's beautiful performance and the multifaceted development make it a gorgeous addition to the album nonetheless. A short but sweet introduction. At the centre of the album, there is an increasingly poignant improvisation based on Chains of Promathia's "The Forgotten City - Tavnazian Safehold". This arrangement isn't quite as successful, however, since it wanders aimlessly during the introduction and nearly always adheres to diatonic chords. The arranger Naoshi Mizuta adheres too much to his ostinato-based style here, though at least performer Tanioka is able to bring the most out of limited material. According to Final Fantasy XI's concerts, Tanioka's performances like these are very popular, so are likely to be a big draw of the album.
Following on abruptly from "Vana'diel March", Naoshi Mizuta's arrangement of "Metalworks" is the first of several saxophone-led jazz performances. The soprano saxophone lines are quite enjoyable because of Osamu Koike's performance, though the rest of the arrangement is too simple and bare. The harmonies merely comprise some endlessly repeating motifs while the saxophone is never given the chance to improvise. To make matters worse for the piece, a synth motif is featured for most of the duration that grows irritating very quickly. Other similarly styled tracks also raise eyebrows. The once vibrant and catchy "Selbina" is transformed into a sloppy synthpop tune. The meek piano and guitar lines do not compensate for the fiddle for the original while the plodding bass line features excruciating synth and drowns out the renditions of the main melody. Tanioka's take on "Mog House" sounds very cheesy due to its pop-influenced chord progressions; in particular, the first minute constantly swaying side-to-side from sounding like an instrumental version of a nursery rhyme to being an opening riff of something you'd expect from a wannabe boyband. The piece gradually improves, most remarkably with the addition of a piano-focused section after the 2:00 mark, though the introductory passage soon recapitulates and proves to be as tiresome as ever.
Mizuta's most wholesome contribution on the album, "Rolanberry Fields," makes up for these failures. It is more developed and a little more instrumentally balanced, integrates several well-done solos, and, best of all, doesn't feature the repulsive synth instrument that made "Metalworks" and "Selbina" so unbearable. Once again, it is soprano saxophone-led and Koike does a satisfying job emphasising the relaxing beauty of the original melodies. The piano also plays a well-done jazz solo at one point, which is loosely improvised and just makes the listener want to sit down with a cup of coffee and chill out. Just like the original, Rise of the Zilart's "Kazham" opens briskly with Tsuyoshi Sekito's overdriven electric guitar riff but deviates to become a saxophone-led ska arrangement. Koike plays with great naturalness, giving the piece just the edge it needs, and his integration of more jazz techniques makes it even better. That said, the arrangement is dragged out for six minutes and the number of repetitions of the bass riff between each verse is just ridiculous. It'd have ben fine were its track time halved. Masato Kouda also contributes a groovy synthpop track based on "The Sanctuary of Zi'Tah". The sacred original material certainly doesn't fit with the cheap porno music style adopted here. It's technically proficient unlike some of Mizuta's arrangements, but simply tasteless as well given the original material...
The end of the album moves away from the jazz approach with two very controversial arrangements. Kouda's thunderous techno interpretation of the final battle theme "Awakening" is certainly a stylistic misfit, though at least it is emotional and colourful. It maintains many of the samples that made the original so powerful, with passages dedicated to synth vocals, organ, pizzicato strings, and tribal drum beats, though there are underlying beats throughout as well. Unfortunately, most of these beats tend to detract from the original material and give a superficial gloss to the theme. It sounds more like a half-decent novelty remix that OverClocked Remix would come up with rather than a particularly artistic elaboration. It's still enjoyable, but just a bit cheap. Definitely the most cringe-worthy addition to the set is the gospel interpretation of "The Grand Duchy of Jeuno" in "Blessed in Her Glorious Light". It requires a lot of skill and ambition to transform such a traditional piece into a jazz ballad and Masato Kouda manages to adjust through employing strong lead vocals by Andrea Hopkins, mostly convincing backing singers, a sleek piano accompaniment, and some strong synthesizer solos. Even with these successes, however, the concept is totally off and there are so many parts that sound incredibly cheesy. Nice attempt, but the idea just didn't work.
Was this album worth the wait? Its inconsistency makes this question difficult to decisively answer. The arrangements range from decent yet conservative interpretations of the original material ("Rolanberry Fields", "Vana'diel March", "Kazham") to competent yet misguided stylistic experiments ("Awakening", "Blessed in Her Glorious Light", "The Sanctuary of Zi'Tah") to stinkers reeking of badly synthesized synthpop ("Mog House", "Selbina", "Metalworks"). Everything is disappointing or flawed in some way, although most will tend to find one category of pieces to like, and the album is weak overall due to its inability to achieve stylistic coherency. Music from the Other Side of Vana'diel is still worthwhile for those who don't mind this since there is "something for everybody". However, those looking for an enjoyable and balanced Final Fantasy XI arranged album rather than a scattered collection of experiments should try The Star Onions' second album Sanctuary instead.
Overall Score: 5/10