Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy :: Review by Resk
In the past, there have been several orchestral concerts to feature music from the Final Fantasy franchise. Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy is the newest addition to the orchestral recordings from these concerts. While none of the tracks on this album are being heard for the first time, the arrangements themselves have been tweaked, and the production quality has been raised up quite a bit. The recording has the same sound quality one would expect from a studio recording in a live performance. For many of the pieces, this higher quality allows for the individual, often animated ornamentation to play through instead of being lost in a miasma of sound. The arrangements themselves are a nice mix of pieces from all of the Final Fantasy titles, excluding Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XII. A wide variety of vocal tracks (provided by the choir Allmänna Sången with a few exceptions) are also present, giving nice variation to the flow of the recording.
Something to keep in mind with this review is that I will be looking at the album from a slightly different point of view than my usual reviews. Since most of these themes are widely recognized, I don't need to go into the details of how the pieces actually sound. Instead, I'll be looking at how these arrangements compare to their originals, and how they've been adapted for the live stage. I will not, however, be comparing this album to previous recordings (i.e. other concerts). Every concert series is different, and therefore each performance of a particular piece can be viewed independently. I'm going to change up the order a bit as well, but we'll still be looking at each of the pieces on the album. Of course, some pieces will grant more discussion than others. That being said, let's head into it!
Starting off this review strong, we begin with "Memoro de la S^tono~ Distant Worlds." To put this into context, I don't like Final Fantasy XI. I never have, and I've never been all that interested in its various forms. I have also never heard the soundtrack, and have no desire to. This piece makes me reconsider. Not having heard the original, I have an opportunity to gauge this piece based on this arrangement alone, and I'm very much in favor of it. The opening section of the piece is very strong in the choir and the accompanying orchestral elements. What I like the most is that this is a choir driven piece, where the orchestral parts are designed to amplify the mood created by the choir. The result is a grand opening with exceptional control, flow, and structure. Moving further into the piece, the volume dies down a bit, but even the quiet sections are perfectly balanced, allowing strings and French horns to share the spotlight. We then move seamlessly into the vocal portion of the piece, which is provided by Susan Calloway. This portion of this piece, I have heard before, and as suited as Izumi Masuda is to the piece, Calloway blows her out of the water. "Distant Worlds" is a very different vocal piece, in that it isn't a pop piece. All the other vocal themes from the franchise ("Eyes on Me", "Melodies of Life", etc.) all have a pop ballad nature to them, while "Distant Worlds" is more of a classical composition. The melody is simple, but the vocals propel that melody into a stunning melodic sequence. The clarity of Calloway's vocal also brings another element to the piece, contrasting to the effect created by the choir. In many ways, her voice compares to that of Lisbeth Scott or Anneke van Giersbergen, and personally I would love to see her invited to sing again on a future vocal piece. Exemplary in all ways, this piece truly defines what this concert will be about.
Moving further along, we'll look at "Aerith's Theme" from Final Fantasy VII. Yes, we've heard this one before many many times, both within other concerts and on various franchise recordings (such as the reprise for Advent Children). Normally, when you think of how high this piece has been elevated in terms of popularity, this over exposure would threaten the otherwise peaceful and tranquil nature of the piece. Perhaps, to a degree, this is true. Looking at the construction of the piece, the melody is very simple and the accompaniment is deliberate yet subtle, designed to frame the melody rather than flow with it. Because of this, doing an arrangement of the piece usually becomes limited in terms of expression. Luckily, this particular arrangement seems to side step, if not avoid, these limitations. Particularly near the end, the melody is brought throughout the orchestra instead of limiting it to the strings or woodwinds as is normally the case. In contrast, "Fisherman's Horizon" from Final Fantasy VIII encounters the exact opposite. Originally one of the most 'peaceful' tracks in the entire Final Fantasy repertoire, developing an arrangement of the piece for an orchestra would be a delicate operation. I'm happy to say the arrangement works beautifully, highlighting the key phrases of the main melody and sweeping it back and forth throughout the various instruments. Introducing an ahh choir also allows the piece to escalate in volume, allowing for further expansion by the orchestra. Personally, I'm incredibly pleased with the result.
"Liberi Fatali" from Final Fantasy VIII has always been a staple performance during these concerts. The first notable use of vocals in the franchise, this piece tells the player that they are about to experience something completely new; something which the opening cinematic also conveys. On the grandest scale, the composition of the piece goes all out, bringing in a fast tempo with soaring choir, strings, and heavy brass. Of course, when you have such a strong original studio recording of this piece, comparing it to an arrangement is extremely difficult. Some may say that this arrangement doesn't have the same presence that the choir is slightly more subtle, that the instrumental solos (from the piano and cello) don't have enough prominence, or that the piece itself sounds a bit muddled overall. Some of this I would agree with, but that doesn't take away from what has been created. When arranging this piece to be preformed live, some things have no choice but to be edited. Luckily, those edits are well hidden. The strings in particular in this arrangement are of note. They are incredibly clear, and help to propel the piece forward. At times, this clarity gets muddled a bit by the introduction of other instruments, but for the most part, the strings (particularly the cellos) are consistently strong. The brass comes through nice and strong both through key chord and melodic functions, helping to add dimension to the overall sound. Finally, looking at the choir, this is in my opinion only slightly weak. Much of the upper register seems to be subdued, causing the middle and low ranges to lose some of their strength throughout the piece. This is unfortunate, as the four part chorus was always one of the strengths of the piece. Overall, though, this is a very nice presentation.
Moving forward to "Swing de Chocobo," I have to withhold my praise a bit. For this track alone, I will recall the other concerts, as this piece is tailored for the concerts themselves. This has always been a funky piece, but I feel this variation of it has lost some of its spunk. Normally, I would expect to hear more of the brass band musical style applied to the piece for the PLAY! concert, meaning more prominent brass and much louder drums (during the drum solos). Instead, this recording is more towards that found at the VOICES concert, in that it is more subdued and mellow. While this is an okay sound for the piece, personally I feel a bit more punch really would have brought it home. Putting that aside, this arrangement is still good. I like that certain instruments are able to take the stage throughout the piece, such as the marimba and the clarinets, both of which usually get bunched in with their respective sections. Probably the most important aspect of this recording, though, is that it really sounds and feels like a chocobo theme. WARK! Looking at the "Theme of Love" from Final Fantasy IV, this is another track which is easily recognizable. Like "Aerith's Theme," the arrangement gives a very smooth sound to the original piece, allowing the melody to sway back and forth. While parts of the melody itself are repeated far too often for my tastes, I like the treatment given to it throughout the arrangement. Strings propel much of the track, while the oboe and flutes carry the upper melodic lines. The only part that seems to come out of nowhere is an increase in volume near the end. This seems a bit misplaced, in that the volume stays pretty much constant throughout the piece except for this one section, and it disturbs the fluidity of the piece a bit.
Moving to one of the longer arrangements, we look at "Medley 2002," combining pieces from the first three Final Fantasy titles. We begin with a section based on the iconic Final Fantasy tune, "The Prelude." It sounds very much as you would expect it to, so I won't go into much detail with it. The introduction into the "Final Fantasy I Main Theme" is very cute and sweet, staying light and airy while keeping the piece sharp and quick. The section based on "Matoya's Cave" is an interesting segment, in that the tempo has been greatly reduced from the original. I like the new variation on the piece, as it becomes more of a symphonic piece than a happy jolly stroll through a cave. The section based on "Elia, the Water Maiden" is a very nice adaptation from an otherwise pleasant melody, again transforming the piece into a symphonic work. The harmonics and volumes are perfectly handled in this section as well, along the phrasing of the piece to really come through with constant movement. The short look at the "Chocobo Theme" is handled with great care, allowing the piece to be very fun and light hearted. When compared to the earlier "Swing de Chocobo" on this album, it is nice to see how the original Chocobo theme can be adapted for an orchestra while still keeping its simplistic elements. Moving into the grand "Rebel Army Theme", the arrangement takes a different turn, becoming brass centered in a bit of a march form. When compared to the original, this is definitely a step in the right direction, as much of the original melody is expanded upon to give a real regal sound to the piece. Its powerful and has a presence, and this is definitely my favorite portion of the medley.
Moving into the second half of this review, let's look at the "Opening ~ Bombing Mission" from Final Fantasy VII. While many of us will claim to have a spot in our hears for "Aerith's Theme", or that "One Winged Angel" defines our very being, this is the track which will forever be ingrained on the mind of any Final Fantasy fan. Although I personally don't hold Final Fantasy VII in that high of a regard, many people do, and this is the track which begins it all for them. Because of this, it is very nice to see that this arrangement has been given due respect. I particularly like how mystery at the very beginning of the track is kept intact, even through the increase in instrumentation. The powerful opening is much grander, keeping expectations high for the rest of the track. Then we get to the train. While the piece originally is not very melodic in nature, I love that the dark nature of the reactor is worked in, using piano to emphasize the alternating rhythms this is one of the few tracks on this album in which the piano is somewhat prominent. The main melodic section is handed quite well, using brass for emphasis, particularly French horns and trombones. The strings and woodwinds create a very nice middle ground to allow that brass to really shine. Of course, I have to give a nod to the percussion as well. It is steady and sharp throughout the piece, and the touch of tubular bells is great to hear. My only complaint with the piece is the ending. It just sort of ends, without much build up. Although the piece is designed to repeat, I would have liked to see a stronger ending for the arrangement.
Keeping in the upbeat mode, we're looking at "Don't Be Afraid" from Final Fantasy VIII. Once again, I love that the energy of the original is preserved in this arrangement. The whole thing is quick paced and quite lively. The strings, in particular, keep the running rhythm going throughout the piece, and are always present (rather than becoming muddled). The brass is incredibly strong (a bit over the top perhaps at some points), and I particularly like how the percussion elements are augmented by the orchestra, rather than simply existing on their own. One thing I have noticed throughout the arrangements on this album is an emphasis on chord work (particularly in "Fisherman's Horizon" and "Aerith's Theme"). I would have liked to see a little more of this chord expression used in this piece, but overall there is little to complain about, except perhaps the length of the piece before it repeats a bit on the short side. Also of note, again, is the disappointing ending. There is a lead up, but then the piece just sort of ends on a dud note. Keeping with Final Fantasy VIII, we're looking at "Love Grows." This is a beautiful instrumental version of the vocal piece "Eyes on Me" which, in the game, is usually attributed to either Julia or Rinoa. I like this arrangement of the piece a lot, simply because the melody of "Eyes on Me" has always been one of my favorites. This adaptation is full of expression, whether it be a in a piano solo, oboe melodic segment, or the exquisite string accompaniment. I like the middle of the track as well, where the cellos go into the higher register with their melodic segment, with the piano rolling overtop of the whole thing. I'll say it again, far too little piano on this album for my tastes! Touching on the ending, I love how the full orchestra comes in for the big strong finish, all coming together to add their own touch to the melody, before delicately backing away for the oboe, bassoon, and flutes to take us to the soft ending; simply fantastic all around.
Getting closer to the end, it is time to look at "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" from Final Fantasy IX. This has always been one of my favorite Chocobo-related pieces, so hearing it with the full orchestra proved to be something exciting. I'm slightly less enthused with the result however. While each segment of the piece is handled with great care, the overall flamenco sound is not kept throughout the piece or rather, not to the same standard as some portions of the piece. The arrangement itself is split into three sections, taking an A B A form. The first section gives us the main theme presented with tons of flare and finesse. I like the change from quiet to loud in the development of the main theme, and the instruments are nicely balanced. The second section takes more of an artistic approach at the theme, stripping away much of the filler and reducing the piece to its basic elements. In the third section, we return to the main theme, again with a contrast between loud and soft. Overall, not a bad adaptation for the piece, but the strong flamenco sound from the original only makes brief appearances throughout the piece. Another less than great ending, the final sequence seems rushed, resulting in a bit of a muddle leaving questions of 'is it over? maybe? um.. yes?'.
Alright, no use putting it off any longer, lets look at "One Winged Angel" from Final Fantasy VII. Anyone who knows my musical tastes knows how I feel about this piece. Every performance of it is different, and is dependent on a multitude of factors for it to be successful, whether it is the power of the choir, the clarity of the percussion, or simply the acoustics of the location. I have been waiting for quite some time to hear this piece the way I have envisioned it, and I'm very happy to say I finally have it. We'll look at this arrangement in sections. In the opening, the brass is very clear without being too powerful, and the strings provide a wonderful undertone. Woodwind elements are crisp, and although soft, aren't lost in the background accompaniment. Moving into the vocal part, there is the same problem I noticed with "Liberi Fatali," in that the upper register of the choir seems absent. Luckily, this is quickly remedied, and is fully present during the rest of the arrangement. Throughout the main melody, the orchestra and the choir perfectly complement each other, giving and relinquishing ground where necessary to keep a steady and stable flow. During the 'tango' segment, the brass really gets to shine, trading melodic segments between the strings, trumpets, and French horns. Also during this section, I like that the woodwind elements are subtle, yet still audible underneath the blaring brass. Running to the ending sequence, all sections of the orchestra come together in their own way, perfectly balanced with each keeping their own presence at the forefront. The choir as well is very articulate with the vocals, adding to this balance. Then of course, there's the final note. I always hope to hear that note echo properly, with the acoustics of the room soaking it up without having one element or another (whether it be choir, percussion, brass, etc) becoming the dominant last tone heard. The balance of the ending sequence continues right to the end, which makes me very happy at that note.
I've saved the big one till last. Yes, this is "Opera 'Maria and Draco'" from Final Fantasy VI. While a live version of this opera has been preformed at other concerts, this is my first time hearing it live and I've been looking forward to it. I always found it interesting that among the experimentation of genres that the franchise has explored over the years, an opera somehow found its way in and as a plot element no less! While the original MIDI version is classic in its own right, having a live version brings a whole new dimension to the piece on a purely musical level. Hearing the interaction between the different instruments, having the vocalists deliver their lines with passion, its all something that only a truly live performance can achieve. This is the longest piece on this album, so we should probably get into it.
Looking at the opening sequence, the entire exchange between the strings and brass is handled with great care. A strong fanfare leads into string movement, followed by an intricate layering of different instruments at various ranges adding more to the full sound. A softer section focusing the harp, strings, and flutes follows before joining together for another sweep. We then move into the first vocal section, performed by the character Draco (Fredrik Strid on this recording). While some might find this melody to be a bit of a strain on the ears, it has a lot to do with the performer's voice than the melody itself. Strid keeps the melody clear of the accompaniment while keeping it reigned in no over the top expression belting here! I would probably run screaming from the room if he did that... The next section is wonderfully played back and forth between the strings and the woodwinds, keeping the balance perfectly. A piano section! That means we're moving into the next vocal section, performed by character Maria (Emma Wetter on this recording). Known to fans of the game as "Aria di Mezzo Carattere," this section asked the player to maneuver Celes around the stage while singing, and required them to choose the correct lines for Celes to sing. Previous to hearing this, I always thought of Maria as a Soprano, not a Mezzo Soprano, but when I hear it, I realize how wrong I was. The range for the melody is perfect, and a Soprano (and all the devices brought with it) would be totally out of place. Wetter brings a lot of emotion to the role, and blends perfectly with the background instrumental. I also like that while there is passion in her voice, the lyric is still quite clear. This is definitely a worthwhile rendition of one of the more iconic pieces from the Final Fantasy repertoire.
The next section, the ball, is very well done. Preformed mostly by the strings (with woodwinds and brass coming in later), the section (although short) is very peaceful and fun. Reaching the meeting between Draco and Maria, things start off peacefully that is until the character of Ralse (Johan Schinkler on this recording) calls Draco into a duel. Although only a short segment, Schinkler brings a lot of power to his character, creating a worthy rival for Maria's hand in marriage. The duel itself is quite lively and active, with the full orchestra getting into the game. All sections meld together flawlessly, creating wonderful tension and urgency. The brass takes it home, really coming alive during the section (up till this point, brass has been relatively subdued). After the fight, we enter another vocal section between Draco and Ralse. I particularly love this segment, as this is the first time during the piece where the vocalists perform a duet. Strid and Schinkler really get into their roles, and deliver a powerful performance. The instrumentation as well during this part is well handled, staying quite strong, with an emphasis given by the French horns and a lone tubular bell. The duet itself is so simple, yet so powerful. This is another section where the actual voice of the performer is what drives the piece. Nothing robs the emotion of the lyric more than a vocalist who doesn't sound heart broken. This is continued into another segment given by Maria, returning to the Aria melody. Wetter's solo becomes a trio, heading into the final part of the piece. All the stops come out here, and the entire orchestra goes nuts in terms of volume. Surprisingly, all elements of the finale come together incredibly well, with the orchestra providing a full sound instead of backing off a bit to allow the vocal to pierce through - it does this on its own. The vocalists also get to shine a bit here, propelling their voices into the rafters leading up to the big final note. Nothing less than a standing ovation is deserved. Bravo.
So there we have it. The newest concert recording brings a lot to the table. The quality of the recording itself is superb, allowing the orchestra and choir to really be heard with minimal distortion or loss of sound. The arrangements are well structured and utilize all elements of the orchestra to really create a full sound with little empty space. While some of the pieces fall a little flat in the way they are presented, the overall mood generated by the album is one of life and energy. Although I would have liked to see a few different arrangements that hadn't been explored or preformed before (such as "Rose of May", "Rufus' Welcoming Ceremony", "Eternity ~Memory of the Lightwaves", or "Dancing Mad"), I can't complain about the section, and all the major tracks are there. Overall, I'm quite happy with the album, and although it isn't perfect, it is certainly one of the better recordings from the concert series.
Overall Score: 9/10