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The Black Mages :: Forum Review

The Black Mages Album Title: The Black Mages
Record Label: DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (Reprint)
Catalog No.: SSCX-10080; SQEX-10019
Release Date: February 19, 2003; May 10, 2004
Purchase: Buy at Game Music Online


Written by Totz

Tsuyoshi Sekito and Michio Okamiya on guitar, Kenichiro Fukui on keyboards, Keiji Kawamori on bass, Arata Hanyuda on drums, and last but not least, Nobuo Uematsu on organ, on February 2003, these six performers recorded this album, containing ten Final Fantasy battle themes arranged in a rock style. The tracks were chosen from Final Fantasy to Final Fantasy X, and, even though they chose three Final Fantasy VI songs, I still thought their choice of pieces did not lack variety, and were all of high-quality. But, were the arrangements good? Did The Black Mages of rock succeed or not? Read on and find out.

Track-by-Track Reviews

1) Battle Scene [Final Fantasy I] (Written by Djinova)

I remember the standard, mediocre original version of this battle theme for Final Fantasy. I couldn't capture familiar tunes in this arrangement for the first minute, meaning it must have got a proper, thorough rework. Considering it's the battle theme for the first Final Fantasy, it's simplistic; however, this is good in the way that they can extend the track beyond its initial melody. So, this track is filled with solo passages, which link the actual parts from the original with each other. The heavy rock style in general and the electric guitars in particular are powerful tools to draw out the energy and intrigue which were inherent in the original composition, but has not been expressed appropriately due to limited technology. The intrigue in "Battle Theme" is particularly piercing from 0:44 - 0:57. Before this part, the nice introduction provide a good foretaste. In comparison to other tracks from the same album, this one has a rather mild texture and is less ferocious. I found this to be appropriate, since a thick-textured, heavy, and fast-paced arrangement would easily overshadow everything that's left from the melody, rendering this track indistinguishable from the already simplistic original. Unfortunately, however, this makes me think some passages could have even been more awesome. Nevertheless, it's a well-translated arrangement, that carries over a lot of joy to listen to. (8/10)

2) Clash on the Big Bridge [Final Fantasy V] (Written by Gilgamesh)

I am VERY glad that this track from the underrated and underexposed Final Fantasy V Original Sound Version was included in The Black Mages album, a collection of great Final Fantasy battle themes. The original track from the game was titled "Battle With Gilgamesh" and the gamer first hears it when battling Gilgamesh several times (after our heroes escape ExDeath's Castle) over the long bridge spanning to the main continent. The original is packed with battle emotion despite its SNES 16-bit quality, particularly with the opening motif and the great "pump-up" theme that develops. While the soft opening in this rock-style opening is a bit slower, it provides a great contrast to the sudden speed up and loud volume as the guitars blaze and the arpeggio-like motif can be heard if listened to carefully. The core of the Gilgamesh theme is kept and translated very well, enhancing the emotion that it brings. After one repeat, the track slows down into a quieter and smoother jazzy bridge that works decently (again for contrast) although I found the new material a bit generic and boring. Nevertheless, this is a well-arranged track and is a must-hear for fans of the original theme, even for listeners who aren't into this type of music. (9/10)

3) Force Your Way [Final Fantasy VIII] (Written by Chris)

The first 23 seconds of the theme consist of a synthesiser theme accompanied by percussion. While melodically quite indistinctive, this provides a nice build-up to the entrance of a recognisable theme after this. This initial melody is played on the synthesizer and is harmonised the theme's classic arpeggio patterns and some percussion and electric guitar backing. At the 0:59 mark, an electric guitar takes over to play a rock interpretation of the main melody of "Force Your Way." This part is when the piece really builds up in intensity and provides the buildup for a strong solo passage between 1:28 and 2:12. This solo passage alternates between a synth organ and an electric guitar, which is improvised in a call and response type manner. This part definitely rocks and shows the strengths of Uematsu and Okamiya respectively! The rest of the piece is quite standard after that and is mainly led by guitars once again. It fits together effortlessly, however, and proceeds naturally towards an effective conclusion. The approach to the theme is original and maintains the style inherent to the rest of the album; however, this is not at the sacrifice of the theme's strong melodies. (9/10)

4) Battle, Scene II [Final Fantasy II] (Written by Chris)

In contrast to the rather light nature of "Force Your Way," "Battle, Scene II" is dark, menacing, and somewhat epic. After a synthesizer introduction, a dark riff is introduced against heavy percussion. An electric guitar enters at the 0:40 mark, and while the melody itself is fairly standard, the way the synthesizers provide a dense rock counterpoint around them gives the hook a much stronger feel. Unfortunately, however, the fact that this melody repeats so many times over the duration of the track with no significant changes in harmony to accompany it means that it grows quite tedious as the track progress. However, an original passage starts at 2:10, which leads into an improvised solo passage that alternates between the synthesiser and electric guitar (like the last track). This part is much more interesting, and while the ending is quite uninspiring once again, at least the core of the arrangement gets results. (8/10)

5) The Decisive Battle [Final Fantasy VI] (Written by Terraguy)

From the DVD recording of The Black Mages concert, "The Decisive Battle" was great. Following immediately after the performer's introductions, the theme started off strong and powerful. With Nobuo Uematsu shouting the ol' "1...2...1, 2, 3, 4!" the theme was underway fast. The beginning part, with guitars rocking away, and the keyboard playing a high and harmonic chord, starts off to set the tone and mood. Fast and fun. The refrains, or basically the main melody, comes a lot, but with enough variations to keep anyone pleased, espeically an unearthly keyboard part in the middle. The drums hitting away at the beat will get your head "bopping," and with enough luck, you should get to enjoy this piece as much as I did. The only weak part of this soundtrack would be the end, with a solo guitar doing those fancy "streaks," and then a simple cymbal hit to end the piece. All in all, however, this is one of my favorite pieces on this soundtrack, and it is not to be taken lightly. And by not being too long, it is fair enough to say that this is one of the best remixes that Uematsu did. (7/10)

6) Battle Theme [Final Fantasy VI] (Written by Chris)

A number of features in this arrangement make it stand out as one of the best in the album: its tempo is slowed down considerably; strong emphasis is placed upon the electric guitars, which are played in a strict and agitated manner outside the improvisation section; and dense harmonies are maintained throughout the theme to add to its thick textures. This assures that the arrangement is not only rich stylistically, but dark and brooding too. While the arrangement itself needs a little more variety and is a little short, Okamiya's fine solo between 2:08 and 2:35 is the pivotal part of the track and gives it almost all the intrigue it needs. It is a vast improvement of the original and one of the most memorable and enjoyable arrangements on the album. (9/10)

7) J-E-N-O-V-A [Final Fantasy VII] (Written by Terraguy)

Well, I get to take the track of one of your enemies in Final Fantasy VII. As almost everybody knows about Jenova, this theme is one of the most well-known tracks in Final Fantasy VII. Let's take a look on how The Black Mages have remixed this piece, shall we? Elongating the piece from 2:31 to 6:21, it might seem like a bit too much. The piece, just like its cousin in the Original Soundtrack, starts out with the natural chord progressions downward into "oblivion". However, the remixed version takes a lot longer before the drums set in. Then, with Uematsu playing the keyboard part of the intro, it takes the theme a while to get to the good real rock parts. When it does, it is very nice to hear the small little changes they place. The short melody in the middle is also played well, but it is just as I said, short. Probably the worst part of this piece is the end. Going into a part that's not in the Original Soundtrack, it feels like you're underwater with a mulititude of dolphins squeaking. Strange and exotic, it is also not very necessary. Overall, the piece is a nice and elongated remix of the other. If you dislike just hearing drums though, then this piece is not for you. Also, if you're looking for a very fast hard rock version of "J-E-N-O-V-A," then maybe you should skip this one and head to the next theme. Many fans of Final Fantasy VII will enjoy this piece though. (7/10)

8) Those Who Fight Further [Final Fantasy VII] (Written by Chris)

This track is where the structure of tracks for The Black Mages really begins to feel laboured. This track is practically identical in format to "Battle, Scene II" and "Battle" in that the first part of the track consists of a simple rock arrangement of the original theme, the second part of the track consists of some solos (principally from Michio Okamiya and Tsuyoshi Sekito on the guitar), and the track ends with a recapitulation of the main theme. Interesting introductions allowed the tracks before it to create an illusion that they are original and inspiring in their structure. Since there is no introduction here, however, the structure is not only plain and obvious, but downright uninspiring. Despite that major quarrel, I found the rest of the track to be good. Although hardly distinguished against the solos of other tracks, Tsuyoshi Sekito's electric guitar solos proved functional and enjoyable. In addition, it was pleasing to see that the rock arrangement of the theme still emphasised the melodic goodness of its Final Fantasy VII original. Despite being a dull arrangement, it is saved from mediocrity as a track in its own right due to the original being so good. (7/10)

9) Dancing Mad [Final Fantasy VI] (Written by Talaysen)

This version is every bit as good as the original. The new rock arrangement is well done, except for one big annoyance. As most people know, the original theme relied heavily on an organ, and it even had solos. Well, the new version does as well, and again has solos. So what's the difference between the original and this version at the solo spots? Almost nothing. I really wish they would've done something there. But since this is a twelve minute themes with distinct sections, let's go into a bit of detail on each one.

The arrangement for the intro is really well done. The percussion, organ, and guitar go together very nicely. The use of cymbals may be a bit much though. but that's a minor issue. The rest of the drumming goes nicely. I think there seemed to be a little bit of a lack in guitar, but I honestly don't see how they could've put it in there without messing things up (or straying from the original too much).

Around 2:45 is where I'd say the second part starts. I'd say the arrangement here is about as perfect as I can think of, except for one thing. The guitar was barely audible. The percussion and organ were great, and I especially liked the drum fills around 3:20. Around 4:05 there's a transition into one of those organ solos. While it is well played, I felt it didn't really add anything new to the theme, since it's basically the same as the original. And then at around 4:45 we have the traditional chimes leading to Part 3. Pretty much all organ solo. Not much new here.

Around 6:30 (yes, you heard right, 6:30) they go into part 4, which is the most intense portion part of the whole theme. If you've heard the original, you know what I'm talking about. While in the original you had to wait twelve minutes to get here, in The Black Mages' version, that time is cut nearly in half. Again, I'd have to say the arrangement here is well done, even if it doesn't stray much from the original. They did a good job of keeping that intensity that is an internal part of the original theme. Definitely my favourite part of the theme.

Around 8:00, the theme changes again. Generally this is still regarded as in part 4, but I want to consider the rest seperately. The main reason being is that here is where the guitar finally shines. Around 8:35, the guitar finally gets to be on top instead of the organ, and it's a glorious thing. In fact, this is the part where the theme deviates most from the original, as the guitar freely adds to the already existing melody (for a good TWO MINUTES). I absolutely love it.

So to summarize, the arrangement and execution to this theme was amazing. The opening didn't do as good of a job setting an ominous mood (although with a rock arrangement, that might be hard to do), but it was still well arranged. The second part pushed the beat a little more, creating a bit more tension. The third part, well, there's nothing new there. The fourth part, like the original, was the intense climax of the theme, and probably the hardest to pull off, with it's meter changes from 7/8 to 8/8 and insane rhythms. The final fifth part finally stretched the bounds and deviated from the original. And in a very good way. Overall, the only thing I didn't like was the organ copying. (9/10)

10) Fight With Seymour [Final Fantasy X] (Written by Chris)

The funky melodies of the originally "Fight With Seymour" are literally translated over to this arrangement. Barely anything is changed apart from the somewhat creative section that begins at the 4:00 mark and leads to the ending. This may come as good news to those who enjoyed the original, but I would have preferred something much more creative. Sorry, but I expect my arrangements to be arrangements, not cheap and boring ripoffs. (6/10)


Written by Chris

Arranging the traditional melodies of Final Fantasy battle themes into hard rock tracks was always going to risk alienating general fans. Fortunately, however, this is not the case with The Black Mages, and the album was well received by most fans. Why was this? Well, to put it plainly, because the album wasn't of the hard rock genre. The arrangements still emphasised the melodic strengths of the originals predominantly and didn't experiment to the extent that it could be oppressive to most fans. The album was a commercial success and succeeded in getting what Square wanted (money) as a result of this. The arrangements were, however, pretty straightforward — many tracks followed the same structures (e.g. "The Decisive Battle," "Battle, Scene I," and "Battle") while others were very similar to their originals (e.g. "Seymour Battle" and "Dancing Mad"). Apart from a couple of interesting intros and guitar/synthesiser solos, there was a severe lack of new content for these arrangements. Indeed, while satisfying at first, the structure of the arrangements soon became transparent, as did the album's goal. If the arrangers concentrated more on interpreted hard rock in a more realistic sense rather than satisfying fans that either a) hated hard rock music, or b) didn't know what hard rock music was, this album would have been much more musically worthy. (7/10)

Written by Terraguy

On the CD: Nobuo Uematsu and a few friends of his decided to form a band to play a few Final Fantasy pieces. The catch? It's rock, not regular classical-type music that's usually associated with Final Fantasy music. The good? It's brand new renditions on well heard pieces. The bad? There's not enough. With three guitarists, two keyboardists, and one drummer, Nobuo and friends take you on a journey through "rock" Final Fantasy. With riffs going up and down, and great keyboarding, you can get used to it, easily. The new remixes of themes such as "J-E-N-O-V-A" and "Clash on the Big Bridge" are excellent, and are sure to get the beat rolling. Unfortunately, as with every new band, it takes a while to start up. The Black Mages, while demonstrating nice chioice of remixing music, fail to deliver what could've been a better arrangement and execution. It sometimes seems that there's not enough change, and it sometimes is too predictable to actually be a well-written piece. Some themes are flops, uninteresting, and some themes are superb, pleasing to listen to. This mix of "Yes!" themes, such as "Clash on the Big Bridge" and "The Decisive Battle," along with the "No..." themes, like "Battle Theme" and "Battle, Scene 1," makes this album a hodgepodge, and probably not recommended except for a nice few. (7/10)

On the DVD: Not only are you treated to some scenes from the games as The Black Mages play their rock themes, but you also get in between talks from Nobuo (as long as you can understand Japanese), a special video introduction, and, what might be the coolest part, introduction of each band member as they play their solo. In addition, they tie the themes together a bit better than in the regular soundtrack. Pieces such as "The Decisive Battle" is connected to "Clash on the Big Bridge," and they meld them together very well, well enough to belt out "1. 2. 1, 2, 3, 4!" It's also nice to see the way The Black Mages play, and you'll like how lead guitarist Michio Okamiya brags his skills on the guitar. All in all, a very nice addition to the soundtrack. (8/10)

Average of Summary Scores: 7/10