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The Black Mages :: Review by Tetra

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 CDJapan

Overview

Nobuo Uematsu has made himself famous by writing music for the Final Fantasy series of video games. Uematsu's name became more famous when arranged versions of his music was released. Within a decade, Uematsu's music had been arranged for almost every genre possible. Uematsu's music has been arranged in such styles as full orchestra, full concert band, small ensemble, and piano. Up until Final Fantasy X Uematsu had not yet dipped much into the genre of heavy rock. With the debut of Final Fantasy X came Uematsu's heavy rock attempt with the song "Otherworld". "Otherworld" became a frame for the beginning of the game with its lyrics and frenzied style encompassing the events which would take place later. The rest of the music from Final Fantasy X strayed away from the rock style, and the same held true for subsequent games such as Final Fantasy X-2.

In early 2003, Uematsu's arranged music passed into the genre where it had never been before: heavy rock. Tsuyoshi Sekito and Kenichiro Fukui decided to arrange Uematsu's Battle Themes for a rock-style group. Many of Uematsu's battle themes were arranged, with themes from almost every Final Fantasy game. Of interest about the arrangements is that many of the performers and the arrangers were attempting to mimic the style of American rock. Each of the performers within the group tried to put their specific talents in music to work within the group to achieve the best music possible. All of the members are strong musicians, and Sekito and Fukui were equally strong arrangers. The final project was displayed in a performance of their music in 2003 in Tokyo, Japan, with the group being titled "The Black Mages."

Each track follows a general pattern as the themes progress. For most of the themes, there is a quiet introduction, which drops into chord, and the chord is then built upon. As the chord is being built upon, the main theme comes in and passed through the instruments, where it will then be taken into the hands of a soloist who makes a new addition to the theme. Some themes stay close to the original, while others strayed greatly. All of the themes on this album are recommended if heavy rock is the type of thing you like to listen to. If heavy rock isn't your type of thing, this is still a soundtrack to give a try. Listening to this soundtrack multiple times makes the sound grow even more, leaving The Black Mages to be a favorite album.

Track-by-Track Reviews

1) Battle Scene [Final Fantasy I]

Battle Scene starts out quietly, with a pseudo-chorale opening, but quickly drops out to a chord. Most unique to this theme is the varying styles used to articulate the main theme, from guitars, to an assortment keyboard functions, to even more keyboard functions. Unfortunately, although this music is heavy rock styled, keyboards take over as the dominant melody player, while guitar is mainly support and countermelody. Nothing is wrong with the keyboard leading the theme, as it works well for the theme. However, around 2 minutes into the theme, a guitar takes over the lead, straying away from the original theme and develops an effective interlude within the theme. The solo is not overly technical, and makes little use of the effects and sounds that may be made from an electric guitar. Yet, the simplicity and difficulty of the syncopations and notes create an interesting ambivalence of how to interpret the solo. By relaxing and simply enjoying the shifts of new parts around the 2 minute to 3 minute mark, the theme begins to grow and become a nice piece of music. The theme ends much like it began: by repeating the melody one more time, and fading out softly. (9/10)

2) Clash on the Big Bridge [Final Fantasy V]

More notably known as the "Battle with Gilgamesh" theme, "Clash on the Big Bridge" opens in a similar manner to its predecessor with a chorale-like organ part. Also like the theme before it, a keyboard emphasizes a good amount of the main melody; however, unlike Battle Scene, guitars take over the theme about 1/3 of the way through its progression. One of my favorite parts about this theme is how the bass line effectively 'bookends' the melody. In all parts of any of the melody, the bass part moves along with the melody in intervals that not only emphasize, but also bring out the musical phrases within the theme. Each transition between solos happens in not only a musical manner, but a manner that makes the transition not even seem as apparent. When the theme begins to deviate from the original slightly is when it becomes even more interesting. The bass guitar solo at 2:14 for a few bars is probably my favorite part of the theme. Altogether, the amount of fluency in transitions and the musical shaping all-around of the theme makes this a great piece of music. (10/10)

3) Force Your Way [Final Fantasy VIII]

Recognizable as the boss theme from Final Fantasy VIII, this arrangement takes a while to get into the main theme. The first recognizable non-percussion melody of the theme enters 23 seconds into the piece. However, that is not to say that the 22 seconds beforehand are wasted. The synth and percussion provide a nice, gradual segue into the following themes and additions. Of note when comparing to the other themes is how the guitar takes over most of the lead in this theme. "Force Your Way" makes effective use of some technique that can be used, especially in some of the forms of articulation when moving up and down the main melody. When the theme shifts into the non-original format, the "baseball park organ" fits surprisingly well. Each part of this theme effectively builds up into the next segment, leaving it to almost be a crescendo in musical interest throughout the entire theme. "Force Your Way" combines some rock technique and Uematsu's original theme to make a powerful theme. (10/10)

4) Battle, Scene II [Final Fantasy II]

"Battle, Scene II" starts out much like "Clash on the Big Bridge" and "Battle Scene" with a chorale-like part. When the theme drops into guitars, syncopation is effectively used in order to articulate stress points and interest points within the music. "Battle, Scene II" is another theme that makes use of the bass line in order to articulate what is happening in the melody. However, something about this theme leaves me asking for a little bit more. Tempo is slowed down from the previous themes, and at times the time signature seems to alter slightly, or at the very least the theme becomes more swung than before. Like the themes before it, when the theme drifts away from the original theme it becomes more interesting. Overall, "Battle, Scene II" is one of the more laid-back themes on the soundtrack, focusing less on quick notes as it focuses on musicality and having a melody. (8/10)

5) The Decisive Battle [Final Fantasy VI]

Although a theme from the Final Fantasy X soundtrack shares the same name, this is from Final Fantasy VI. "The Decisive Battle" takes a different approach to opening, as instead of opening with an organ part, a slow guitar melody is used over background chords. However, once it becomes time to pick up the instrumentation and add everyone in, "The Decisive Battle" ends up like its predecessors, dropping into a chord with synth over top. The main melody/theme is brought out strong enough, and even some of the countermelodies brought out in Uematsu's original theme are seen here. I am not a big fan of long, held-out low chords to make noise, yet "The Decisive Battle" effectively uses such chords as a way to add power and structure to the theme. Also, much like its predecessors, this theme trades off between synth and electric guitar, with a few bass solos scattered throughout. A melody and theme that are not related to the original are once again present, and they add an effective, interesting way to transition back into the main theme without being over-repetitive. "The Decisive Battle" builds up to its climax, and then ends in a similar manner that it began again. The ending is reminiscent of endings from rock themes in the 80's, also, with the final chord simply ringing until it fades. (7/10)

6) Battle Theme [Final Fantasy VI]

A second battle theme from Final Fantasy VI, "Battle Theme" slows the tempo down slightly when compared to the rest of the themes on the soundtrack. One of the more notable things about "Battle Theme" is the lack of synth playing the main melody from the original theme. Synth plays a backup roll in this theme, and in many parts provides the movement of the bass line in order to provide articulations (along with assistance from the bass guitar, of course). Even though this theme uses guitars to hold the main melody, I'm left to wonder what would it have been like if there were more synth holding the melody. Since this theme retained to the original fairly closely, it kept a good portion of the theme left to sound in a similar manner. That is not to say that this theme is boring; far from it. I do leave it asking for a little bit more, though, as it is the shortest theme on the soundtrack, and also lacking a major portion that is not true to the original. (9/10)

7) J-E-N-O-V-A [Final Fantasy VII]

"J-E-N-O-V-A" differs from "Battle Theme" in that synth takes over the solo more than guitar. It also starts out considerably differently than anything before, with a jet sounding held out note, while the descending scale figure plays in the background, softly. After the arpeggio figure is played a few times, the drummer comes in with the main drum background part for the theme, creating an interesting trio of instruments playing. When the theme shifts through the non-true to original part to going back into the main melody, the guitars take over in leading the theme. I cannot say whether I prefer the guitar or synth leading the theme more, as they are both equally good, and the transitions are smooth enough that both come out effectively. "J-E-N-O-V-A" is one of the longer themes on the soundtrack, but it doesn't seem very long at all. It ends as effortlessly as it begins, with light synth playing notes until a fade out. (8/10)

8) Those Who Fight Further [Final Fantasy VII]

More well-known as "Still More Fighting" from Final Fantasy VII, "Those Who Fight Further" is essentially what "Still More Fighting" should have been. This theme has a surprising amount of retention to the original, yet, since the original was already arranged in a similar format to the instrumentation in "The Black Mages," little had to be done to alter it. Since the theme was good when Final Fantasy VII came out (except sounding like a MIDI), this arrangement and performance did the theme justice. When the theme does stray from the original, it not only makes the theme a better theme, it simply makes a great theme greater. The same backgrounds as before continues, but with a different lead part. Since the background was an effective background in the first place, having a different solo over top makes the theme have even more power. I do not care for the synth being the top and loudest part around 2:53, and when it happens earlier. Granted, this part happens in the original theme at the same proportional dynamic, but when it is played live it does not seem to fit. Nevertheless, "Those Who Fight Further" effectively does "Still More Fighting" justice. (10/10)

9) Dancing Mad [Final Fantasy VI]

"Dancing Mad" is a compilation of all of the main battle themes at Kefka's Tower, not just the final battle. Each portion of "Dancing Mad" has its own unique feeling and structure within. Thankfully, the transitions between each theme are smooth and not particularly noticeable. Around 5:30 an organ part comes in that reminds me of "The Castle" from Final Fantasy VIII combined with Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5." It also in a way reminds me of a few parts from the concert band theme "Apocalyptic Dreams" by David Gillingham. Around the 8:35, what can only be described as an 80's power-ballad type guitar solo enters. This solo, combined with instrumentation used almost has a feeling similar to that of the rock group Boston. Surprisingly, this may be an imitation of Boston's style of music, since the performers used American rock to try and get an idea of style. Either way, no matter whether the solo is intended to be a mimic of American rock solo, it simply gives the theme a great end. Dancing Mad is a little long, clocking at 12:04, but worth listening to for all 12 minutes. (10/10)

10) Fight With Seymour [Final Fantasy X]

This is the battle theme for fighting Seymour from Final Fantasy X. I hate to say it, but until the solo portion of the theme, I think I liked the original more. Unfortunately, this performance of "Fight With Seymour" is true to the original. It's almost too true to the original, in fact. Some of the parts where guitars are playing where it would have been something else in the original are neat, but not as neat. However, since "Fight With Seymour" was a fairly recent theme, it is hard to add different parts to the theme without transforming it into a different theme, since the original was already fairly "involved" musically. My comments about the non-original solo portion of this theme hold true to comments listed in the earlier tracks. The solo provides effective transition in the theme and is simply a great solo, which redeems this theme from being a carbon copy of the original. (8/10)

Summary

The Black Mages is an album that should be listened to with an open mind. It may be hard to listen to the soundtrack with an open mind after reading a review or two, and I will admit that reading reviews before listening to this soundtrack skewed my opinion in the wrong way about some of the themes. Some of themes that I thought wouldn't be great surprised me, and some of them I thought would be good were a letdown. All I can say is to listen to this soundtrack with an open mind, and listen to it a few times. In my first listen through, I only liked two themes, these being "Those Who Fight Further" and "Clash on the Big Bridge." By the time I had listened through my 6th or 7th time, I had a new appreciation for the themes I didn't like as I was beginning to pick up on parts and intricacies that I was missing before. Many of the themes follow the format of about 30 to 50 second opening, followed by going through the theme twice, going into a new added portion, repeating the original theme, and then doing an ending. It might be possible to think that all of the themes become predictable and uninteresting because of this, too. Maybe if this were MIDI sound, or in the original game, but because of the group's instrument configuration, each theme, although similar in format, is distinctly different and interesting.

Overall Score: 9/10