Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack :: Review by Julian Whitney
Final Fantasy IX is the culmination of what Final Fantasy has achieved since 1987. We recognize it as the last Final Fantasy for PlayStation, and know its soundtrack even more for being highly prolific. Final Fantasy IX symbolizes the end of an old age, and the beginning of a new one, as the music reflects past styles combined with new creative and imaginative compositions. While Final Fantasy IX essentially returns to 'its roots', it possesses new qualities and attributes, making it a lasting memory in any fan's heart. The music demonstrates artistic diversity, continuity, and professionalism at expressing the game's depth while providing and enriching the emotional connection for the listener. The soundtrack is unique because of its nostalgic, yet novel flavor, showing us how video game music captivates the soul, immersing us in plot, characters, and world to draw us one step closer to understanding the love of the Final Fantasy legacy.
My goal is to write a review that helps us appreciate Final Fantasy IX for the work of art it is musically. While I believe every piece on this soundtrack is beautiful in its own right, there is simply not enough space to go into detail about even half of the soundtrack. Knowing this is his most prolific soundtrack, I have chosen the following pieces from what I believe represents and explains what Final Fantasy IX is, and why it is close to my heart and soul, as well as others.
Places of Promise - A Look into the World of Final Fantasy IX
I remember like it was yesterday; Final Fantasy IX was the first Final Fantasy I played, and this earned it special place in my heart. The music is no different, as Uematsu has wonderfully created an assortment of pieces to express the mood and drama of different places on the world map. This gives us an assorted range of atmospheric music that set the stage for the world we travel in.
The music of the environment follows very simple compositions which allow for greater connections with the listener. "Rustling Forest" is an example as the track features the beautiful, yet mysterious harp along with pizzicato strings to create feelings of uneasiness and subtle life in the forest. His use of percussive ornamentation also helps create a sense of whimsical magic, as the lovely double bass pizzicato provides depth and enriches the tone of the piece. This piece is beautiful because it is creepy, as serves as a great introduction into the wonderful world of Final Fantasy IX.
While "Rustling Forest" is slow and melancholic, "Frontier Village Dali" is a perfect example of a soft town theme with instruments from past music. The piece starts off with a slow guitar rise, and soon Uemastu introduces nice percussion, simple strings to provide solid background, and a solo woodwind to carry the melody forth. These instruments work well together, depicting calmness and tranquility for this tiny, quiet village. This melody correctly proves that it is the simple melodies that make the music relaxing and enjoyable, memorable.
Disc Two presents many more themes to consider, but for the sake of length, there are just a few that particularly shine, along with being ones I think represent daring imaginativeness. Now, while this theme only plays at the pub, its composition is very well done. "One Danger Put Behind Us" does a very good job at depicting a social event, and combines very interesting sounds, using the pan flute and other various orchestrations. Its beat is rather catchy, and lifts of the weight of the danger the player encountered in the past. I also enjoy the electro synth Uematsu uses because it takes a lot of talent to use futuristic sounds with ancient instruments in a medieval setting.
"Lindblum" contains interesting and memorable orchestration, as it uses percussion and woodwinds sparingly, while using the meter to make good use of the spatial distance between notes. If I were to say this piece reminds me of "Silence and Motion" from Final Fantasy VIII, you will understand. What I like most about this piece is that it is simple, and portrays a feeling of normality, so we may get a glimpse at the people and society of Lindblum. It is the fine, detailed focus on the small things within the world that make the soundtrack golden.
However, "Burmecia Kingdom" is quite a twist from what we have heard so far. This demonstrates Uematsu's brilliant versatility, especially since this is one of three tracks that utilize the same melody! He rearranges this piece from "Freya's Theme" using an organ and chorus instead of harpsichord. The theme portrays sadness, poverty, defeat, and survival simultaneously. Another important feature to note is the tone color of the music, as the chorus sounds as though a heart beating, which makes a nice ornamenting effect for the listener. It draws out the consequence and sorrow of war magnificently and therefore stays in my heart.
"Sleepless City Treno" is also very unique because of its use of the studio piano. Because the sound is lower than that of a regular piano, I am impressed that Uematsu used this without making it sound melancholy like "Rose of May." This is also very catchy as it develops very well melodically, and creates a nice sense of refuge and safety, even though the town necessarily isn't.
Disc Three shines as far as these themes go, presenting diversity and enjoyment before the conclusion for Disc Four. With this first piece, you will begin to understand what I mean. "Black Mage's Village" is very imaginative, using lovely electro synth with nice sounds and percussion to create the feeling of a "city within a forest." Think of this as the upbeat, happy version of "You're Not Alone" from Disc Four. It definitely creates a lively mood and does a good job at describing the black mages as nice and passionate people.
Now, if there is any piece that remains on my top list, it's "Sacred Grounds - Esto Gaza." The piece begins with choir chords that lead into crystal piano keys, followed by a smooth, emphatic choir that is accompanied by pizzicato strings. The most important part of the piece is to note the time signature makes it slightly slower than most other atmospheric themes, allowing more time for the listener to immerse him or herself between the depths of the notes. The piece does well at depicting the religious, quiet mood of the town, and it is this very simplicity of chords that make it wonderful to listen to.
As we round up the game on Disc Four, two tracks come to mind; this first being "Memoria." The meaning of this music is "reflection" as it uses church bells to evoke a sense of divinity and ending, working with the harp which strums at certain points to mystify the music. The addition of a solid, enriching bass line and finely plucked strings indicates a sense of despair and deep reminiscence, as the music creates a perfect opportunity for the player to reflect on his memories with the game.
Next, is "Crystal World" which admirably is a rearrangement of the original Prelude. It follows the same pattern, but the harp arpeggios go through sharper rises and falls, depicting the twisted curves and pathways of the Crystal Path. There is also a fair amount of ambience present in the piece that creates a realm of supernaturalism that makes this music particularly unique. The emphatic bass in the background creates moods of desolation, and the "point of farthest remove" effect where we know we have stepped into a greater struggle. It is not a coincidence Uemastu decided to reuse this theme to draw us back to the essence of everything... the crystal.
Motifs of Past and Present
So, if this soundtrack is returning to its roots, what exactly does that mean musically? Well, to answer that question, if involves a couple of things. There are obviously Final Fantasy staple tracks, like the prelude which is used in every Final Fantasy, but besides that, what else is there? Uemastu takes us back way into the past rearranging Final Fantasy's "Gulug Volcano" and Final Fantasy II's "Pandemonium, The Castle Frozen in Time." Both of these are very well done arrangements, indicating not only Uematsu's technique and creativity, but the development of technology over the last decade.
"Gulug Volcano" features a nice beat with percussion in the background, and develops further as it reaches the 0:34 second mark. The piece just keeps growing until its climax at 1:36, and then fades away to repeat it. It shows versatility in using percussion and staccato notes to create a mood of liveliness as it progresses. It rounds out to be a wonderful arrangement of a piece long ago, and seems to express themes even better. "Pandemonium, The Castle Frozen in Time" is timeless and amazing as it uses the brilliant the church organ! The strength of this piece lies in the fact that the chords make very nice transitions, moving from one dissonant key to the next. This is a brilliant arrangement as it throws us right into the dilemma of Zidane learning the truth of his existence. We truly get the sense of hopelessness and eternal pain, which I believe is what Pandemonium is all about. This piece is very enjoyable and very emotional, staying very close to my heart as they should to yours.
I mentioned before about new ideas. Uematsu has a lot of them, but if you want me to focus on specifics, there are two themes that establish themselves firmly as in-game motifs. "The Place I'll Return to Someday" and "Melodies of Life" both are beautiful through their nostalgic-provoking experience, making me love them more every time I hear them. For the first one, you hear it at the title screen as Uematsu uses ancient instruments to create a sense of traveling back into the age of Final Fantasy. It is simple and memorable; two aspects of a song that will make anyone remember it. Its simplicity makes it easy for anyone to hum it, and the fact that it is easily recognizable establishes the musical connectivity between every Final Fantasy IX fan.
"The Place..." also appears numerous times throughout the game, such as "Oeilvert" and "Ipsen's Castle" which both have their unique arrangements of the theme to fit the atmosphere. You will also hear fragments of the theme from tracks such as "Terra" and "You're Not Alone", making it important in understanding the emotion of the story. "Oeilvert" uses ancient instruments with pizzicato strings as well, while "Ipsen's Castle" uses a choir and a tambourine. What remains constant is the use of ancient instruments, but not to the point of sheer repetitiveness. "Terra" and "You're Not Alone" mimic the song, but accurately place it in the minor key to completely shift our interpretation of the piece, giving it a completely different meaning other than reminiscence. The sheer amount of tracks rearranged from "The Place I'll Return to Someday" is large, but each time, you get a different feeling from hearing it.
"Melodies of Life" has its rearrangements, as you hear it perfectly in "Song of Memories" and the fully orchestrated "Behind the Door." Both tracks offer unique interpretations of the song, each with a different flavor, creating a different reaction. For instance, "Song of Memories" is done just by voice and nothing else, allowing us to experience the beauty of Garnet's character. These are just examples, for this motif pops up in many tracks across the four disc set, but I doubt that you will think them all to be exactly the same as Uematsu makes wonderful arrangements of each one of them to serve a different purpose. Aside from the ending theme, there is also an extra "Melodies of Life" for the last track, with smooth, soft vocals, and use of an echo. Without saying, it is beautiful and calm and memorable. Both these pieces are motifs in their own right, and are essential to understanding what Final Fantasy IX is.
Look Out, It's a Monster! Battle Themes of Final Fantasy IX
If there is any type of music that has an immediate purpose, it's the battle music. Uematsu is famous for writing impressive, groundbreaking battle themes that immerse us into the battles of the game. Final Fantasy IX is no different. While the amount of themes he has is significantly less than other Final Fantasies, the quality of each battle theme is what makes the piece admirable and enjoyable.
"Battle 1" is the normal battle theme that plays, and it shows how Uematsu wishes to return to the past. It begins with the traditional rising notes, and then introduces an 8-beat rhythm that develops into a larger scale piece, very similar to Final Fantasy IV. This piece is exciting as the drums are easily noticeable, and the piano synth creates a very epic feel to it. Unlike previous battle themes, like the ones from its two predecessors, this one is less serious, allowing Uematsu to experiment more with composing a theme that is inspiring. Its use of rising notes gives a sense of rising to a fighting climax, and is sure to envelope any player into the atmosphere of the game.
The "Battle 2" demonstrates Uematsu's ability to write battle themes that instill different moods. Unlike the previous track, "Battle 2" creates fear, anxiety and survival as the drums are much darker, along with a developing melody that first rises to create uplifting tension, and then reverses in hopes of capturing the intensity of the battle. The horns do a very good job at capturing these moods, creating a sense of trembling as we witness the power of the boss. This piece is very powerful and epic, standing out as a sheer work of genius. It allows Uematsu to experiment with repetitive chords and key progressions that allow him to emphasize his point, making the piece stick in our mind.
Everyone who has played this game is sure to recognize "Hunter's Chance." Now, this is an excellent battle theme! It has wonderful drum beats, a very nice electro synth, and great horns to emphasize a coming to climax. Like "Boss Battle", Uematsu uses his downward chord and key progression to indicate an ironic tension building. This piece could easily be the main battle theme for the game, for it does what "Battle 1" does and more. It is beautifully composed, and the use of crescendos, rising volumes, and the layering of instruments before it repeats makes it a great piece to listen to. I never understood why it only places twice in the entire game! Aside from that, this piece stays close to my heart as it expresses great musical development, and emotional captivation.
"Sword of Confusion" is a piece that expresses the magical, yet dangerous power of the Alexandrian General Beatrix. It uses the piano, making use of hard bass notes, while the treble develops. The piece is slow, showing that the best battle themes don't need to be fast. The music works perfectly with the Burmecian atmosphere, creating a cosmic mist that shrouds the General. The background percussion also makes the piece sort of like a march, which is inherent of Beatrix's knighthood. This piece portrays Beatrix well, and supports the versatility of the piano in creating slow, dramatic pieces.
"Those Whom We Must Protect" is heroic, as it uses a solo trumpet in the treble clef to demonstrate bravery and fearlessness. The beginning also sounds like a march, which is not surprising given the situation. It only plays once, but that is all one needs to understand the teamwork and courage Steiner and Beatrix have to protect their kingdom. It is a personal favorite of mine, and uplifts the soul to discover the courage within all of us.
"Concurrent Battles" seems more like the introduction piece to a battle rather than a battle piece itself. I like this piece very much because it does a great job at building tension, and allowing the player to realize the culmination of their efforts, as they get ready to forcefully unlock the gateway to Terra. What is most appealing about it is the development, as it starts from one repeating note and progresses into a full scale piece with drum rolls that signify the beginning of battle. It is a lovely piece that places its emphasis in the meaning of "a note" using repetition to complete a musical thought and drive the emotion home to the listener.
Well, we have finally reached the end. Kuja is just beyond this portal, and along with him lie some of the most memorable battle themes of time. If I had to describe "Messenger of Ruin" I wouldn't describe. This is clearly because this piece needs more than a 1000 Words to describe its musical genius (FF X-2 motif). It begins with the organ which plays Kuja's theme, but anyone can tell that the increased force and volume behind it introduce something greater. The key word in this piece is "development" and it does it wonderfully. The chorus clap and stomp is essential to indicating Kuja's prestige and power, and the drums make it easy to rock along to. The music progresses by using chords as the main theme continues, and then around 1:47, the tempo speeds up, increasing in tonality and key, to reveal a blessing at 2:13. There is it ladies and gentlemen, the supernaturalism of the piece. The excellent use of percussion and high treble piano notes create the feeling of fighting in the heavens, as though the conflict just soars up completely. Uematsu even follows through with this, and keeps the key in the high treble before he returns once again. The entire journey from the keys rising to the very top makes this piece special, loving and enjoyable. It definitely shows Kuja's new power, and his desire to keep it.
So, this is it. The "Final Battle." I can hear the souls crying in the background as we listen in despair to what the Necron is saying. But wait, at 0:48, there is a light of hope. The key slowly rises up, representing how the team with not give up. They have no choice... but to fight. And at 1:20 it begins. The drums flare off as the keyboard captures our attention. We are in the midst of one of Uematsu's greatest works. The strength of the piece lies in the alien type synthesizer he uses to express the Necron's otherworldly nature. He uses slowly rising chords to express finality, and chaos as the piece continues to play. Even better, the souls cry out in despair as the piece continues, highlighting clearly the theme of life and death evident in the game. There are so many elements in this piece, including confusion, finality, and above, all, courage. It shows that even after writing groundbreaking pieces like "One Winged Angel" and "Dancing Mad" Uematsu's ability to end with a bang has not subsided one bit. This stands as one of my favorites, and when you listen to it, hopefully you will feel the same way. This battle theme is the essence... of Final Fantasy IX.
One of the features of Final Fantasy IX is Uematsu's return to writing character themes for every major character in the game. We have not seen this many character themes since Final Fantasy VI, and Uematsu's emphasis on them shows that he is trying to take us deeper into understanding the individual character, and how they unite as a whole.
The first theme is "Vivi's Theme" which is heard early on when we first visit Alexandria. Uematsu begins the piece with steady pizzicato strings in Adante, starting off the melody slowly that we may follow alongside him. The use of the pizzicato and the varying woodwinds allows us to explore Vivi as a friendly, timid, yet mildly adventurous character. These instruments are complimented by the short militaristic sequence we hear at 1:15 that uses a combination of percussion and drums to drive home the theme. At the very beginning of the soundtrack, Uematsu shows how he can develop a simple theme to something more complex, thus filling in our perception of Vivi, and the new place he has visited.
While we have our good characters, we also have the bad, as we see in "Jesters of the Moon." The use of the studio piano brings forth a mischievous mood as we can feel trouble developing already within the kingdom. The tune is very catchy, as we hear how Uemastu is creating something that, while can be mischievous, can also be interpreted as funny and comical, as the song also reflects the bumbling nature of Zorn and Thorn. This theme is important as a follow up to "Vivi's Theme" because it accurately uses the versatility of the piano to combine different moods and feelings into one piece, giving the listener a variety of reactions toward the twins' nature.
"Steiner's Theme" is next, incorporating very good use of solid bass line with a low horn to evoke Steiner's gruff and stubborn persona. This piece also uses the piano as a compliment to the harsh and distorted bass line, along with a solo woodwind. While the instruments both follow the same rising pattern, we get the sense of "approaching" and "getting closer" as the theme represents Steiner's pursuit of Zidane and Garnet. More specifically, at 1:50, Uematsu effectively uses counterpoint as the woodwind and low horn both separate into different clefs, reemphasizing Steiner's pursuit. The repetition in the bass line, as well as the low solo horn indicate Steiner's mood, but more importantly, create a sense of sympathy for him as we understand later that his obedience with the law is actually what restraints him from understanding the truth.
The first disc gets even more mystifying as we encounter Queen Brahne's theme in "Queen of the Abyss." It makes very good use of a solo string tremolo to indicate Queen Brahne's anger and darker persona. This becomes more apparent as we hear pizzicato in the double bass, driving us deeper into understanding her character. She is mysterious, cruel, and most of all, unforgiving. These are the moods one receives from listening to her theme which only allude to the fact that our heroes will soon have to contend with such a force.
Ah, finally, a happy, and... interesting theme. "Zidane's Theme" is very unique as it concludes the first disc. Now, considering the events that have occurred so far, one who has played this game would know that there have already been fights, and sacrifices. But, the high woodwinds, and drums give forth a sense of happiness, and carefree attitude. This theme is important as it showcases Zidane's confidence, and love for his comrades. Sometimes I wonder why it only plays once throughout the entire game. But anyway, unlike the earlier theme, there is no pizzicato, and the strings are strongly united, indicating how Zidane embodies leadership, and most of all, strength in his beliefs. This is one of those "don't dwell in the past" themes that explain how valuable life is, and that we should not waste it. Look to the future, for there is always a brighter day, seems to be Zidane's motto. And this theme accurately portrays that philosophy as a groundbreaking expression of loving heroism.
We have come to our ninth installment, and you know the one thing almost all the Final Fantasies have in common? Cid! Yes, once again Cid makes his star appearance, and his theme is very powerful, as it begins with swelling strings and marching drums, followed by the introduction of horns. The horns play the majority of the piece with the strings in the background so we can really feel the majesty and power of Lindblum Castle. However, the climax is at 1:30-1:50 where the trumpets and drums strike heroic notes to depict courage and fearlessness. This is a great theme to start off the soundtrack as it overshadows the danger from behind, and creates the new day our heroes are about to embark on. I was definitely happy when I first walked through those golden gates. The theme is powerful, yet friendly and welcoming, and makes a strong start to the music that plays next.
"Freya's Theme", a melancholy theme of loss and forgetfulness seems to evoke a sense of lasting hope. This theme touches the heart as the harpsichord rolls through key progressions that play in arpeggio, providing a nice sense of continuity. It is the basis of two other tracks that follow the same melody, and the use of a solo woodwind creates a nice sense of hope, the hope that Freya will indeed find Fratley one day. This theme tells the tale of lost love, and soon to be, unrequited love. Its simplicity makes it touching because the listener can easily sense the problem from the simple progressions. If there is any theme that stands out on the soundtrack, it is the power of Freya's courage and perseverance in her theme. The struggle to keep going, and not to give up is what this song is about.
Well, here it is. The theme of the main antagonist, Kuja. "Kuja's Theme" features a solo piano, and plays keys that most associate with the octave right below middle C. They are concrete, yet hollow in the sense that they make great tones for creating mysterious, sinister, melodic music. I like this theme because it accurately portrays Kuja's dark, yet calm persona, while also seeming to relate to piano piece of the Romantic Era, like Chopin. Uematsu plays key arpeggios while lingering notes in the higher treble develop and move the song forward. It is a truly stirring piece, soothing, yet uncertain as it does a good job at marking Kuja's ambiguity.
I really enjoy "Garnet's Theme" because it is an arrangement of "Melodies of Life" and because the woodwinds are at just the right register. They are not too high to sound screeching, and not too low to sound haunting. The percussion, mainly the bells are wonderful at depicting her innocence, and purity as a young girl curious with the world. This could easily be a bedtime theme to a bedtime story. The melody is very well composed, and sticks out as one of my favorites as it provides such a calm mood to one's soul. I give Uematsu so much credit for composing this theme, as it highlights perfectly Garnet's inner personality.
One of the most beautiful character themes actually comes from someone who is not even a main character! Beatrix's "Rose of May" works beautifully and indicates how this is as much her story as anyone else's. All Uematsu uses is a piano, and the arrangement of keys highlight Beatrix's unsurpassed beauty and gentle nature. The chords, alongside the playing of individual keys work wonderfully together as they give us a sense of passion. This piece is special because it portrays the everyday struggle we all encounter; the need for help from others. This music is wonderful, and comes at the right time to calm our souls after Cleyra's unfortunate demise.
"Eiko's Theme" follows the same pattern as Garnet, depicting innocence and grace. Uematsu uses the guitar and interesting percussion that remind me of folk music, probably to symbolize Madain Sari. While using a different instrument, the dynamic for most of Uemastu's character themes remains the same; there is soft connectivity between the notes and the repetition help develop and clarify the melody, much like Beethoven's Scherzo. The notes are not in ABA form, but the same reasoning applies. My opinion for this track stands the same as for "Garnet's Theme." It is beautiful, and offers perfect insight into Eiko's character.
Yes! What better way to end the disc but with dissonance and evil! I love Garland's Theme, "Keeper of Time." It uses the church organ and the melody begins the same as "Pandemonium" which makes a clear connection between them both. However, what makes this piece different is how it develops. The slight chord changes as the keys go higher and higher highlight Garland's power, and dominative power. The music is not too different, yet not too similar to its latter, and does a great job at introducing a new nemesis. This piece needs no legatos as the simple chord changes, and the abundance of whole work very well at making a lasting impression on the listener. What I like most about it is how it is different from Kuja's theme. It is demanding and scary, dissonant and dreadful as it makes perfect use of the organ in describing Garland's twisted scientific mind. This is truly a great piece to listen to if you are interested in dissonant organ pieces like I am.
What Does This Piece Do?
With any soundtrack comes music that people are unsure about; music that becomes the least favorite of the listener, and therefore becomes overlooked. While this is one of my favorite soundtracks, I too sometimes wonder, but try not to dismiss the music's purpose completely. I can guarantee many people might not like "Ceremony of the Gods" too much because it sounds bland and plain because of the sound. With character themes, people might question "Quina's Theme", and not surprisingly, "Marsh of the Qu Tribe". The bass is particularly interesting as is the folk-like chorus, which creates the primitiveness of the Qu Tribe.
There are also your staple pieces like "Goodnight" that accompanies a wonderful rest at your friendly neighborhood inn, and "Tetra Master" which follows closely after "Shuffle and Boogie" from Final Fantasy VIII, except that the music is much more laid back, which I find very appealing. "Lindblum" might be boring to some people, depending on your preference for what you think the music for the most powerful kingdom of Gaia should sound. I enjoy how it depicts the social life of the town, which makes it unique and catchy. "Amarant's Theme" seems to be less paid attention to then others that Uematsu has composed. While some might think it doesn't really develop, I think the absence of instrumentation is important is showing how much of a loner he is.
Now, you can criticize me all you want, but if I had to choose a track that ranks among my favorites, it would have to be "Gargan Roo." Before you kill me, let me explain. I admire the freedom in this piece. The fact that the piano chords may seem atonal is what gives the gargant its lovely irrational nature, and I like the use of that snorting sound. What makes this music important is that it indicates how music is not just instruments, but all of the natural sounds in life. That is music.
So, what is Final Fantasy IX's soundtrack besides a musical masterpiece? Well, it is a collaboration of sounds and melodies that we find familiar in previous works with a balance of novel musical ideas and imaginative creativity. While this is the most prolific, it is definitely not the amount of music that matters, but the depth within each individual piece. Uematsu has been able to touch us with every new soundtrack he has created, and this one is no different. This music is nostalgic, and brings us back to why we love Final Fantasy. It reignites the feeling of journey, gracefulness, good, evil, and love which we find in every game. This album is truly a reminder to us all what we have achieved in the past two decades, meaning not only the improvement in sound quality, but the overall experience of video game music as a whole. I say this from my heart; this soundtrack allowed me to understand what true music really was, and true my listening of it, I now have the opportunity to share it with all of you. This soundtrack is the ending of an age, and the beginning a new one, as we come together as avid listeners of Final Fantasy's music to truly reflect on what we have learned from such inspirational pieces. Such is the essence... of Final Fantasy.
Overall Score: 9/10