Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack :: Review by TheShroud13
Many critics of composer Nobuo Uematsu point to his work on the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack as the fading edge of his career's peak. After all, it was the last game in the series that he composed entirely on his own, no small feat considering the soundtrack contains over one hundred songs and spans almost five hours. Despite often being pointed out as Uematsu's final hour, the work is not indicative of a composer on the decline. Rather, the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack features some of Uematsu's most colourful and characterized pieces, simultaneously maintaining more motivic unity than any work he created before or after it. Ultimately the soundtrack stands out as one of Uematsu's finest, and a great musical accomplishment when compared to the entire music landscape.
One of the greatest strengths of the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack lies in the two major recurring themes. To say that there are only two recurring musical ideas in the soundtrack would be a mistake, but two themes stand above the rest in terms of their importance: "The Place I'll Return to Someday" and "Melodies of Life". Each theme reappears numerous times on the soundtrack in a various number of ways, some more effective than others. Regardless of the quality of the arrangements, the presence of these themes adds direction to the massive work, and enhances the sense of journey in the game.
"The Place I'll Return to Someday" is the first piece on the album and immediately sets up a nostalgic atmosphere. The main theme itself is a simple chant-like melody in the Dorian mode invokes antiquity all by itself. This appeal to the past is amplified by the piece's pseudo-polyphonic texture and by the arrangement of the piece for recorder, courtesy of Kunihiko Kurosawa. Though the piece does not return again until late in the game, it remained in my mind throughout the game, colouring my experience with the game having started the game off with that beautiful pastoral theme.
When the theme returns in the latter portions of the game, there is a sense of accomplishment for having again uncovered the theme. Unfortunately, none of these late game arrangements capture the mood of the piece so well as the original wind arrangement. "Oeilvert" treats the main melody with a plucked accompaniment that robs the piece of most of its polyphony and whose interaction with the melody is frequently awkward. "A Transient Past" is plagued by uninspiring choral part writing, and adds an uninteresting transition between the original A and B sections. Some interesting harmonies do come up in the choral arrangement, but for the most part, the theme is the only interesting part of the arrangement. The one arrangement that really does capture the theme in a new and interesting light is Disc Four's "Terra". Though the polyphony is again taken out of the theme, the harp part is intriguing, and the variations on the original melody are tasteful and interesting. The new setting of the B section to strings is also a nice addition and bridges the gap between Bran Bal and the rest of the world very well. As a whole, though the arrangements of "The Place I'll Return to Someday" are not always incredibly well done, they still capture the ancient feeling it seeks to evoke, and ties powerfully back to the game's introduction.
My feelings on "Melodies of Life", the game's major vocal theme are essentially the opposite of "The Place I'll Return to Someday". In this case, I find the arrangements far more effective than the melody on its own. In many ways, "Melodies of Life" is representative of the people of the Mist Continent as "The Place I'll Return to Someday" is representative of the Forgotten Continent. One of the best examples of this is the treatment of the melody in "South Border at the Gate". The smooth folk-like melody rides over a sweet pastoral harmony easily, and it's not difficult to imagine the people of the world singing along with the tune as they go about their lives. The theme also appears in the game's world map theme "Crossing Those Hills" which retains the wonderful melody, but adds an ostinato whose electronic nature seems to contradict the game atmosphere, and builds into a much thicker instrumentation at 0:57 which does not make much sense to me as a world map theme. Either way, it is a nice treatment of the melody. I am not entirely keen on the melody's use in the song itself, however. The melody is used in the game as a very sensitive personal piece, and also is used to evoke the simple life, but it is blown up in "Melodies of Life" to a very extroverted piece that is overly sentimental and orchestrated on far too large a scale to be truly effective. The melody itself is wonderful, and is treated nicely throughout the album.
The Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack does not solely reference its own themes though; it also makes connections to previous games in the Final Fantasy series. "Pandemonium, the Castle Frozen in Time" is an arrangement of the wonderful "Castle Pandemonium" for organ. While I cannot say I appreciate either over the other, the choice to include this wonderful theme hopefully exposes it to an audience that has not or never will play Final Fantasy II. "Gurgu Volcano" also is arranged from Final Fantasy. The arrangement in this case actually seems a bit misguided, and some of the throwback sounds to the NES era actually sever the attachment between music and scene, which I cannot say that I support.
Despite my love of "Pandemonium..." the bit of nostalgia brought back in Final Fantasy IX that I appreciate most is the eight note bass motive which reprises its role as the introductory battle theme passage in "Battle 1". Simple as it is, the bass motive is very powerful driving force for the first section of "Battle 1", which is the more effective part of the composition. While the latter section has better melodic material, there is not really the sense of battle that is present in the more rhythmically driven parts of the composition. Still, it is effective as a regular battle theme, and is a nice contrast from the melodramatic and melodically devoid "Don't Be Afraid" from Final Fantasy VIII. "Battle 2", the game's boss battle is far more effective in terms of perpetually propelling the player's adrenaline than "Battle 1" was, and it should, as it is a boss theme. It does not have the melodic power that many of Uematsu's best boss themes have had, but its dramatic power is a suitable replacement. The real weakness of the battle themes in Final Fantasy IX shows up in its two final battle themes: "Dark Messenger" and "Final Battle". Neither piece is especially terrible but they collectively fail to meet up to the legacy of previous Uematsu final battle themes. "Dark Messenger" is too slow to develop, and is held back by horrible synth programming. The piece's strongest moment is a piano passage from 2:12 to 2:43. The remainder of the piece falls short of creating a convincing rock atmosphere, and falls short of power. "Final Battle" is very strong melodically, but fails to create a sense of doom that should be apparent in ultimate moments.
Of Characters and Colour
As I said earlier, the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack is one of Uematsu's colourful and characterized soundtracks. The first example of this on the soundtrack is "Vivi's Theme". In this track, the black mage Vivi is characterized through an ornamented melody supported by an accompaniment from pizzicato strings. The use of percussion at somewhat unexpected places emphasizes Vivi's awkward character and adds humour to the piece. "Freija's Theme" captures the insecure character of Freya with a harpsichord part full of rhythmic conflict as one line emphasizes beats one and four of the 6/8 passage while another line emphasizes beats one, three, and five. The reserved but sorrowful melody is very indicative of Freya's solitude as well. There is also a remarkable shift towards a more heroic tone as the piece continues. "Freija's Theme" is one of Uematsu's deepest musical portraits of any character throughout his career. Even some of the game's lesser characters are given very interesting pieces the help flesh out characters that might otherwise seem extraneous. "Jesters of the Moon" is a very fun and dirty portrayal of Queen Brahne's court jesters, and "Tantalus' Theme" is one of the game's catchiest themes then accurately portrays the group of thieves Zidane has come from.
"Kuja's Theme" is another character piece that does a good job of capturing the side of Kuja's character that is exposed to the audience, but it fails to really offer any insight into his character. None of the treatments of this theme really manage to capture Kuja's psychological side. "Zidane's Theme" suffers from a similar problem, in that it reduces Zidane primarily to one emotion without offering even any clues to other emotions, only in this case, the theme also manages to be relatively trite and unpleasant. I would expect better for the main character of the game. Regardless of this, the character pieces in the game are generally excellent.
Over the course of the soundtrack, Uematsu is also allowed to show his compositional versatility as he is summoned to colour the environments in a variety of different ways. The most exceptional of these colouristic compositions is the endearing "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" which I'm sure you can guess is strongly influenced by Flamenco music. The piece is rhythmically driven, and features one of the game's most memorable melodies, and fits its scene, a theatrical fight between Blank and Zidane, very well. In "Ice Caverns" Uematsu uses percussion effectively to create a chilling effect, although the composition is otherwise sabotaged by a lack of a memorable melody and tasteless exploitation of orchestra hits. "Ruins of Madain Sari", one of my favourite melodies on the album, combines pan flute, accordion, and percussion to paint a musical picture of the ancient and hollow feeling city. "Burmecian Kingdom" re-orchestrates the rhythmically conflicted harpsichord from "Freija's Theme" for choir that now represents the struggle of the entire kingdom after being ruined by Kuja. The piece uses organ to emphasize the squalid atmosphere. "Iifa Tree" is among the most powerful frightening pieces Uematsu has ever written, combining bells, an electronic ostinato, low piano chords, and a fearsome string melody to represent the monstrous Iifa Tree. The piece grows even more terrifying when electronic instruments play a larger role and choir is added around 1:30. The piece is one of the creepiest Uematsu has written, and it features some of the best synth programming on the album.
The Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack is the largest project Uematsu ever created, and stunningly manages to be the most consistent soundtrack he's written. I cannot think of a single piece on the album that I find completely without merit or that misses the mark of the scene or environment. The few pieces that fall beneath the extremely high level of quality that the rest of the works on the soundtrack remain satisfying on some level, and as the great pieces of such quality and expressive value that the forgettable pieces are easily forgiven. Uematsu's colourful melodies have always been the strength of his talent, but his expressive power is more evident on this soundtrack than other he's created. Though the melodies may not be as memorable or fresh as some of his earlier contributions, they remain an exemplary model of Uematsu's skill as a composer. I find it impossible not to recommend this soundtrack as only the Final Fantasy VI Original Sound Version and the Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack can challenge it for the place of my favourite Final Fantasy soundtrack. Among the whole of video game soundtracks, it is just as difficult to find soundtracks as easy to recommend as the Final Fantasy IX Original Soundtrack.
Overall Score: 10/10