The Black Mages II ~The Skies Above~ :: Review by Zane
The first Black Mages album was an instant classic in my books, thanks to some fantastic arrangements and a killer low-level that literally ruined my last set of speakers. Sure, it isn't perfect, but it's A grade material in my eyes. Nobuo Uematsu and his band returned for round two with their follow-up album "The Skies Above" with mixed results. Not only is this album less enjoyable than the first altogether, but some poor instrument choices and intolerable vocals make Skies Above enjoyable in spurts, but somewhat passable when taken in as a whole. That said, there are several arrangements here that are well worth your time; it's just a shame that the entire album doesn't share the same level of quality.
Surprisingly enough, the disc opens with the relatively unknown "The Rocking Grounds", effectively fooling the listener into thinking that the rest of the album will be equally potent and expertly arranged, which is a shame. There's some really interesting guitar work here (courtesy of Tsuyoshi Sekito) coupled with gripping time and tempo changes that really keep the listener enthralled. Along the same lines are "The Man with the Machine Gun" and "Maybe I'm a Lion", two themes from Final Fantasy VIII that pack quite a punch and are pleasantly reminiscent of the first Black Mages disc. Neither of them top the masterful "Force Your Way" from the first album, but they're enjoyable all the same.
The pair of arrangements from Final Fantasy IV are solid at best. I think that the two main battle themes from FFIV are some of the best in the entire series and are both perfect fodder for being shot into heavy metal stardom; unfortunately, that chance has passed with Skies Above. "Zeromus" is a fairly typical excursion into 4/4 territory, but falls short as a follow-up to the previously mentioned "Rocking Grounds". It's decent, but I know the Mages are capable of more than this. "Battle with the Four Fiends" shows off some of the true talents of the Mages, led by Sekito and his great guitar lines, and shines as the superior arrangement of the two. Final Fantasy IX is present and accounted for, albeit slathered in mediocrity. "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" sounds much like its original counterpart and "Hunter's Chance" suffers a similar fate.
Interestingly enough, there are two vocal tracks included on the disc. One is delicious in that "so bad it's good" way ("Otherworld" redone with a female vocalist) and one is, quite possibly, the least enjoyable feature of the whole album. The "operatic" (read: terrible) male vocals over "The Skies Above", a rehash of a rehash of FFX's "To Zanarkand" theme, completely ruin any and all chances of redemption that the song may have had prior to the point when the vocals start. And to think, this song had a genuine chance at being somewhat pleasant, yet it trips over its own feet and spills face forward at an alarming rate.
The worst aspect of the entire album, save for the vocals on "The Skies Above", is Uematsu's organ. Some of the underlying synth like the intro to "The Man with the Machine Gun" is courtesy of Kenichiro Fukui, but the gospel-gone-obnoxious organ instrument Uematsu uses is pretty poor and extremely overdone throughout the disc. Ironically enough, it's the loudest part of the whole album, and when the organ comes careening out of the speakers like a drunk train flying off of icy tracks it makes it seem like Uematsu broke into the studio and fiddled with his levels post-mixing so his organ would be louder than everything. The levels on the other members' instruments are perfectly fine Uematsu just needs to relax and turn that damn organ down.
"Matoya's Cave" is a perfect example of how that organ manages to ruin an arrangement in two minutes or less. The track starts off as a slow-paced light rock song that sounds nothing short of awesome. The acoustic guitar intro and the smooth progression through the song is fantastic, planting the classic theme from Final Fantasy in the listener's mind with able means. Around the two minute mark things start to pick up a bit, but instead of having a guitar solo or one of Fukui's synth leads, Uematsu takes over and derails the arrangement with an awful organ solo. I can picture Uematsu in the studio wearing a New York Yankees cap, proudly exclaiming, "Baseball! Baseball!" as he plays an homage to the seventh inning stretch. It makes my head ache.
I can't whole-heartedly recommend buying The Black Mages II ~The Skies Above~ unless you want to risk being disappointed, especially when compared to the first album. What could have been an excellent CD stands as flawed due to some lackluster arrangements and obnoxious organ solos. I respect Uematsu for his prior accomplishments, but that doesn't mean he's untouchable anymore. My recommendation for future albums? Spend some more time arranging and turn the organ down, man. That thing hurts.
Overall Score: 7/10