Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack :: Review by Scherzo
Final Fantasy VII is widely considered a classic of the RPG genre, still occupying a space of renown ten years after its release. Similarly, Nobuo Uematsu's soundtrack for the game has gained wide recognition: "One Winged Angel" and "Aerith's Theme" are some of his best known works, familiar to the most casual of VGM listeners. But is the soundtrack's popularity due to its association with the beloved game, or can it stand on its own as an artistically successful work?
First, a general description of the soundtrack is in order, for those not familiar with it already. Nobuo Uematsu has composed a primarily orchestral score. Most of the game's music could be transcribed without much effort for a traditional symphony orchestra. However, as is characteristic in the Final Fantasy series and in Uematsu's work, more futuristic, synthetic sound patches are used as well. Many of the battle themes, such as "J-E-N-O-V-A" or "Birth of God" have clear influences from the electronica and rock genres, with instrumentations to match. There is also a moderate jazz influence. Many harmonies used in tracks depicting urban areas have their chords supplemented with added 6ths, 7ths, 9ths, and the like. However, though Uematsu draws inspiration from other genres, this is still a primarily classical mainstream soundtrack.
The first thing the casual listener will notice about the soundtrack is the use of the primitive synthesizer technology of 1997. Indeed, it is difficult to ignore this even after thorough examination of the album. Because Uematsu has employed MIDI instead of samples, the number of patches used is actually fairly few. The string sounds used in "Steal the Tiny Bronco!", "A Secret, Sleeping in the Deep Sea", and "Anxious Heart", just to name a few, are all identical, despite the differing moods of these tracks. Through a working knowledge of compositional techniques, Uematsu manages to create a variety of different moods despite limited orchestral potential. The small number of sound patches used also gives the soundtrack a very distinctive mood and feel. Because we are continually subjected to precisely the same string section, we start to recognize it as the Final Fantasy VII string section. For those listeners who've played the game, this association has likely already formed, which results in a soundtrack that captures well the spirit of the game, easily evoking nostalgia for events in the game's plot.
Despite this, however, the fact still remains that, compared to what we're used to hearing in synthesized soundtracks, Final Fantasy VII falls appallingly short. And though this is partly a sign of how advanced synthesizer operation is today, there is evidence contained within the soundtrack that on the majority of it, Uematsu could have done a vastly better job. Uematsu has been cited as saying he used MIDI sounds for the Original Soundtrack instead of higher quality samples because he wanted the load times in the game to be faster. While this is a perfectly admirable explanation, the fact remains that for most of the soundtrack the poor sound quality is a significant detractor to his work. The instruments, instead of sounding delightfully retro, are just close enough to the real thing to remind us what we're missing, making listening to most tracks an inherently frustrating experience. "Racing Chocobos - Place Your Bets" is one of the most fun pieces on the album simply because it is unapologetically primitive in its sound. But on the opposite side of things, there are the rare tracks like "Sandy Badlands" that succeed because the patches used are comparatively close to the actual instruments.
Some patches sound markedly better than others. Consider the two tracks "Flowers Blooming in the Church" and "Aerith's Theme". Both are renditions of the same melody, played on two different instruments, programmed with two different patches. The flute melody in "Flowers..." sounds jerky and unmusical: what others might call a case in point for why true artistic music cannot be produced on a synthesizer. Comparatively, the same motive played on the piano in "Aerith's Theme" is sensitive and gentle. Why is there such a huge difference? The clunky repetitiveness of the bell ostinato in "Flowers" has a bit to do with it, but the primary reason lies in the nature of the patches. The MIDI flute, true to the actual instrument, does not decay gradually with time. Thus, there is no dynamic variation in the melody, giving it a very forced, artificial feel. By contrast, the MIDI piano, like the real thing, stops sounding after a certain length of time. And subsequently, "Aerith's Theme" comes to life, gaining a third dimension. By looking at whether they decay or not, and comparing that to our expectation of the sound created from real life experiences, we can divide Uematsu's sound patches into 'good' and 'bad' categories. In the first go piano, bells, nonmelodic percussion, harp, and techno-styled synth instruments. In the second go woodwinds, brass and strings. Other patches are used occasionally throughout the soundtrack (electric guitar and solo fiddle come to mind) but because of their relative novelty their presence is more easily tolerated.
There is another, less noticeable factor besides decay that plays a factor in how melodic a patch sounds. In "Flowers Blooming in a Church", the flute melody is such that we can hear the attack on each note, which creates a very jerky, stilted sound. Similar problems affect the acoustic guitar in "On the Other Side of the Mountain" and "The Nightmare's Beginning", which gives both tracks a static, unmoving air. Though Uematsu's ensemble string sound generally doesn't decay, the nature of its tone is such that it is fairly inoffensive. Thus, string-heavy tracks like "On That Day, Five Years Ago" can be quite tuneful, with the help of a good motive. And besides strings, there are more patches with a smoother, less offensive articulation of attack. They tend to be instruments with deeper, mellower textures: the whistles used in "Sandy Badlands" and "Don of the Slums", the accordion used in "Chasing the Black-Caped Man", and the clarinet and supporting winds used in "Debut". But regrettably, these exceptions to the rule still make up the minority of the 'bad' patches. There are still plenty of pieces marred by piercing, inelegant synth.
And that same piercing, inelegant synth could have been fixed. "Anxious Heart" is one of the most beautiful pieces on the soundtrack, featuring a warm, lush string sound playing a series of aching chords to depict an evening in the Midgar slums. It manages to accomplish beauty and emotion, despite strings being on the 'bad' list of patches. Uematsu achieves this by more than by virtue of the string patch's gentle attack; he is able to add dramatic crescendos and decrescendos to add poignancy to the mellow string sound. Yet later on the in same track, when the strings are relegated to the background while a harp plays, the same patch is used but the dynamics are dropped. They aren't needed; the strings are no longer at the forefront of the ensemble. Yet it makes one wonder: why couldn't the same care be taken to program in dynamics on other tracks? Perhaps the answer is yet again that Uematsu wanted to simplify his pieces and favor loading times over sound quality, but one must draw the bar somewhere. The soundtrack clearly lacks for dynamics, and it is frustrating to know that they were available but not used to their full extent.
But despite all my complaints, Uematsu manages to keep poor sound quality from completely overwhelming the album. He uses a variety of tricks throughout the album to hide the limits of MIDI programming, and it's no surprise that the tracks he applies these to most are the ones considered favorites today.
Layering of melodic voices is one such method he uses. In "Shinra Company", the sinister ascending melody is played by a quavering wind instrument, doubled (very softly, but with great effectiveness) by a string section. This doubling gives the whole piece a fuller, more realistic sound, without having to employ any dynamics. The same technique is used again in this track, when brass instruments harmonize with a synthesized choir in repeated replies to the main melody. Despite the individual weakness of both patches, they come together to make a cohesive, full sound. But simple harmonization alone is not enough: two separate colors are needed. Consider the repeated ostinato in "Mining Town", which is made up of two winds playing together in fifths. Despite the added voice, it still falls flat, bringing the whole track down with it. Were an instrument of a different timbre, perhaps a harp, to be added, I'm sure the piece would improve immensely. Similarly, in "Tifa's Theme", a solo flute is complemented with just bell arpeggios. Without added bulk to the sound, the track comes off as pale and weak. When string chords are added in the background, the overall presence of the melody improves immensely.
Similarly, those tracks which have more instrumental voices tend to sound better. Thus, "Chasing the Black-Caped Man", despite its unapologetic use of solo, un-delaying accordion, is still an interesting and dynamic piece. The interlocking bell and harp parts combined with string and choir drones create a lush atmosphere over which even a kazoo would sound good. "Still More Fighting" and many of the other battle themes feature tightly interlocking drumkits, ostinatos, bass parts and melodies. The busyness of these tracks are their virtue, with thick harmonies taking the place of a layered melody.
Another way Uematsu overcomes his poor sound quality is by increasing the tempo. Thus, most of the battle tracks are exempt from my complaints. "Fighting", for instance, is orchestrated with many of the same patches which other, more ponderous tracks stumble over: brass, strings. and woodwinds are the meat and potatoes of this exiting track. Yet because the melodies go by so quickly, we don't have time to notice the artificiality of their delivery. Additionally, the problem of note decay is not as evident simply because the notes are spaced closer together. Also in this category is one of the most dramatic tracks on the album, "The Countdown Begins". The fast string ostinato is so effective at introducing the track because it manages to evade the problem of sound quality, which in turn highlights its thematic elements.
Another element used on both the aforementioned tracks is orchestral crescendo. Instead of programming in an authentic crescendo into each separate voice, Uematsu gradually adds voices as the track goes along to build excitement. The difficulty of using this technique in video game music is that because looping is an essential part of the track, it's difficult to pull off anything too dramatic for fear that it will not be easy to return the track to its initial level of tension. But tracks like "The Countdown Begins", "Steal the Tiny Bronco!", and especially the triumphant "Opening" show that Uematsu is capable of using this technique to its fullest. And in "Fighting", a traditional looping piece, he uses a series of small orchestral crescendos in conjunction with upward scales to build and release tension throughout the track.
Of course, sometimes a great beat is all you need. Frequently, Uematsu supports an already excellent tune with a solid, well-composed drum track. Because percussion instruments are on my list of 'good' patches, a decent drum part can contribute towards offsetting otherwise poor MIDI instruments. "Birth of God" shines because of the backbeat kick on the snare drum, which adds momentum and excitement to every measure (though the rocking organ part doesn't hurt). Uematsu's intricate percussion may not turn "Turk's Theme" into a masterpiece, but it certainly makes the track less skippable. And the tribal drums in "Cosmo Canyon" lend a great deal to the overall atmosphere.
Finally, on top of it all, Uematsu can write a catchy motive. The melody of "Cid's Theme" is so heroic and inspiring, one might be forgiven for getting the impression of a crescendo from the upward-turning phrasing. It takes a second listen to realize that this track is no different from many others. The illusion of dynamics is no substitute for the real thing, eventually leaving the listener bored and frustrated with the flat, inexpressive MIDI sounds. Still, it's commendable that Uematsu could create such an illusion at all, and in context it's often the best we can hope for. A similar effect is created in the noble "Judgement Day". We are so inspired by the beautiful melody that it is extremely easy to imagine up one's own dynamics.
Unfortunately, there is an opposite end to this spectrum. Insipid tracks like "Gold Saucer" show that the ugliest melody cannot be prettied up with tricks to hide bad sound quality. Despite the fast tempo and the busy layered harmonies, the track is still wholly unappealing. The simple reason for this is that sound quality is not the be all and end all of musical quality. It certainly helps to have it quite a lot, in my opinion but it is ultimately just one factor of a whole, the other part of which includes compositional and thematic merit.
Subsequently, there are many tracks on the soundtrack lacking in compositional merit. The most obvious offenders are those tracks consisting of a single motive draped over a simple uninspired ostinato. "Infiltrating Shinra Building", for example, is nothing but the 7-note motive heard in "Shinra Company" accompanied by long string chords with a repeated drum lick added shortly into the track. Though thematically, it makes sense in game for this motive to be used, it gets very old very fast when it's on its own. There are many other tracks that have this problem: "Red XIII's Theme", "Buried in the Snow", and "Off the Edge of Despair" are just three. Though they may have redeeming qualities, for the most part there is nothing there thematically that couldn't be summed up in a quarter of the time or less.
Sometimes, however, this thematic repetitiveness is used to great effect. Those who have played the game benefit most from this, as they have associations with the more prominent themes and motives used. "Those Chosen By the Planet" is used in the game as the villain's theme. To me it creates a very sinister and ominous tone, evocative of the evil Sephiroth, whose power is matched only by the mystery surrounding him. And when the main chromatic motive is used briefly in fast-paced pieces such as "Weapon Raid" or "Birth of God", it lends them that same sinister air by evoking the same image. Whether the effect is as dramatic for those unfamiliar with the game's characters and events is doubtful, but I can't imagine that there is no effect at all.
In many of the examples I've cited, Uematsu is using more than one compositional technique: adding a drum beat to an orchestral crescendo, for example, or adding layers to a poignant melody, which is a variation on a prominent theme. But in the truly impressive warhorses of the Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack, he employs as many of these techniques as he can to create truly stunning works that defy MIDI programming. I'm referring here to the classics "Main Theme of F.F.VII" and of course "One-Winged Angel". Both pieces are scored for full orchestra, giving them a sense of grandeur that is immediately evident on first listen. Orchestral crescendos and even actual changes in volume are used. Both include dramatic and striking melodies throughout. In the Main Theme's case, these motives are used throughout the soundtrack to create a sense of cohesion, whereas in "One-Winged Angel," Uematsu uses already established motives (specifically from "Those Chosen By the Planet") to great effect. But most of all, because of these tracks' exceptional length, Uematsu is able to fully develop them, adding changes of mood and orchestration within one loop. In sum, these two tracks are the epitome of what to do right in composing any piece of music, not just one using MIDI. It's simply a pity Uematsu couldn't expend this much effort on the whole soundtrack.
For those who consider sound quality the least of their worries and have skipped to this part of the review in frustration with my persistent mentioning of the matter, there's a lot to like on this album particularly if you've already played through the game. Uematsu has a flair for strong, memorable motives that can transfer some of the game designers' hard work into the music. However, there are just as many tracks on the album that are almost completely trivial. Devoted listeners might find something to appreciate in every piece, but ultimately this soundtrack is neither Uematsu's best nor his most consistent work. And factoring the problem of the poor sound quality doesn't make things better. It's true that Uematsu has strived hard to work beyond the limits of MIDI programming, and accomplished some really great things while doing so. But despite his or anyone's best efforts 1997 technology is still from 1997, and that remains a persistent obstacle in the path to clarity and quintessence.
Overall Score: 7/10