Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale :: Review by Chris
Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale was not what most expected or wanted. After many fell in love with Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy VI Original Sound Version, still remembered fondly today for its profound melodies and high level of accessibility, many anticipated Grand Finale would bring be the definitive Final Fantasy orchestral album. They were mistaken. It was, in fact, a series of unusual arrangements for various ensembles, including the Milan Symphony Orchestra, that often had artistic and experimental leanings. Accessibility was deemphasised in favour of a series of ambitious and variably successful 'distortions' of Uematsu's original themes crafted by anime composers Shiro Sagisu and Tsuneyoshi Saito. That is not to say the album isn't fascinating, beautiful, charming, and remarkable it is all these things, but nonetheless was destined to cause considerable alienation. Exactly how does it fare as both an experimental experience and a fan service, then?
Some of the transformations are unbelievably good. "Cefca" is expanded into a full-orchestral work that really emphasises Kefka's zaniness with its Neo-Classicist carnival-like feel. With all sorts of yummy dissonant harmonies, amazing contrasts in pitch, a retention of the 'sneaky' nature of the melodic line, and, of course, tonnes of cool instrument use (oh, quirky Eb clarinets, how I love thy rambunctious array of squeaking...), it feels magical and nightmarish at the same time. In complete contrast, "Blackjack" is really chilled out, man. It just glides, as any airship theme should, and the melodic line elevates the listener into a suspended and relaxed state. They're especially beautiful when interpreted by a saxophone as the piece develops a light jazz 'lounge music' feel; the performer has an excellent method of building up the dynamic level and richness of his interpretation immediate prior to passively releasing all the potential energy in a descending glissando. What beats a crescendo to a pianissimo, huh? It's just a lush technique. The pinnacle of creative achievement on the disc is "Mystery Train," a violin and piano duet. The piano line provides an array of bouncy unconventional dissonant harmonies that appear to antagonise the violinist who angrily forces the bow into the strings creating a delicious 'nasty' tone to the piece. More amazing, though, is the second half, where the two forces complement each other and the piece blooms into a passionate 'waltz of the ghosts'. It's haunting and gorgeous at the same time.
The album does have some more conventional arrangements and some really satisfy. "Opening ~ Tina," while a misleading introduction to the album, does exactly what was needed. The interpretation of the previously organ-led introduction is highly appealing, as the orchestra firmly establishes a dramatic arch that leads to a powerful peak. The "Tina" theme is initially approached with more subtlety, the harmonies stayingly thin almost consistently throughout, as the piece, like the original, is carried by the meaningful and understated flute melodies. It's most interesting feature is its middle section, however, where a dramatic buildup through chromatic chord progressions is followed by an eerie take on the theme, perhaps intended to reflect the more mysterious side of the Terra. The other accessible classic is "Aria di Mezzo Carattere," where Celes' synth vocals are replaced by Svetla Krasteva's operatic performance, the dodgy English lyrics are restored to their Italian originals, and an extended instrumental interlude is added. The soprano carries the theme wonderfully, subtly emphasising the rich shape of Uematsu's melodic lines, accompanied by harpsichord continuo and full orchestra. While not as comprehensive as the Game Music Concert 4 ~The Best Selection~ and More Friends performances of the opera sequence, simply because it is limited to one theme, it is nonetheless the most charming, authentic, and touching rendition of the Aria.
Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale does have its problems and they're mostly blaringly obvious. Conceptually, "Milan de Chocobo" is full of all sorts of crazy dissonant and chromatic harmonies that, in conjunction with a dreadfully slow pace and nauseating performances of the Chocobo theme's melodic line, just make you feel like you're a passenger inside a stuffy car that's winding round endless country roads; ultimately, it's a daring experiment, but way off and *can* make people vomit. And then there's the infamous demonstration of how to kill an otherwise perfect creation with one abhorrent addition... "Relm" comes unbelievably close to being the best arrangement on the disc, but there's a problem: God damn friggin' bagpipes. Now bagpipes in themselves aren't all that problematic, but the poorly intonated and thoroughly detestable performance turns an unbelievably beautiful track into something utterly grotesque. Sure, they're only a temporary addition and the track manages to shine most of the time with rich interludes, fluid orchestration, and dreamy interpretations of the melodic line but the damage is still done. Even if the obliteration lasts for just a few seconds, the trauma of listening to such sheer ugliness for just five seconds will permanently damage people; heck, it's a mutagen. Oh, why, Mr. Japanese Scotsman, did you have to be born?
The most consistent problem running through the disc is the arranger's tendency to split tracks into separate parts. The 70 second violin and harpsichord continuo introduction of "Kids Run Through the City Corner" is completely unnecessary and unrelated to the rest of the track; to get from this random and rather boring obstruction, there's one huge five second pause. "Troops March On" is another significant offender. It's second half is completely unrelated to the rest of the track and actually sounds like a separate entity. Perhaps it'd have been an excellent were the track to adopt a ternary form overall, but there's no recapitulation of the militaristic main theme... it just ends with unrelated material that, while good with its American modernist leanings, isn't what the listeners came for and just feels illogically placed. And then there's "Cefca," hindered by the fact it appears to end no less than three times before it actually ends with exactly the same orchestral flourish and cadence as had been repeatedly several other times in the track, and "Mystery Train," victim of another deceptive premature pseudo-end that spoils the flow of a creation otherwise remarkable for its transitions and metamorphoses of emotion; these are not massive offenders, but the pauses are decidedly weird and makes it very clear that Saito and Sagisu do suffer from their apparent inability to prepare anything other than a perfect cadence.
The undiscussed tracks are comparatively plain to other additions on the album. "The Mystic Forest" is an orthodox arrangement whose atmospheric and turbulent introduction is much more interesting than its dreary, slow-paced, and emotionally numb body; subtlety is no good if a track's energy is already consumed by its introduction, the only component of the piece where some sort of dramatic arch seems to be present. "Gau" has its moments of beauty, but, as a whole, doesn't quite satisfy. Utilising a Baroque chamber orchestra with harpsichord continuo, the development is remarkable, especially with the violin solo, though the viola that initially leads the melodic line doesn't hold up against the synthesized 'cello of the original. The whole affair is pleasant, but there's an emotional factor missing and it just lacks the raw and tear jerking beauty a perfect arrangement of the theme would have. As for "Kids...," its body is no more inspiring than the introduction; the harpsichord continuo is just plain arpeggiation, while the string line is unremarkable in every respect other than performance, lacking intricacy or clear direction. Feeling aseptic and sparse throughout, the track never blooms and ends in an abrupt way after it's more than clear that the arrangers have no inspiration here. It's obvious they've never had lessons in good old Baroque counterpoint...
Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale is not something that can easily satisfy a single person consistently. Those expecting Hamaguchian melodrama or something as straightforward and high-quality as Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite will likely cringe at even the most refined experiments, e.g. "Mystery Train" and "Cefca." Those anticipating an artistic gem will be bored to tears with the standard Baroque chamber orchestra plus continuo fare "Kids Do Something Impossible Through the Hypothetical Entity." And even the most moderate and open-minded people will spew at "Milan de Chocobo" or go into convulsions over the bagpipes in "Relm." And that's not even mentioning those oh so weird examples of parasites being stuck on the start or end of pieces... well five seconds away from them, to be precise. It's all explained by complex numbers, I expect, but I was never very good at them.
All that said, there are guaranteed highlights. All tracks save for "Milan de Chocobo" and "Kids..." have unique qualities, with the potential to appeal for their emotional or creative qualities. The arrangements of the "Aria..." and "Opening Theme ~ Tina" do exactly what was needed with the original themes, as would "Relm" with some FruityLooping, while "Blackjack," "Mystery Train," and "Cefca" are superb 'alternative' renditions. I cannot guarantee a consistently enjoyable experience, but there'll be major highlights nonetheless, making this album a recommended purchase. The album *is* fascinating, beautiful, charming, and remarkable, just not consistently so.
Overall Score: 7/10