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The Black Mages Live "Darkness and Starlight" :: Report by Chris

The Black Mages III ~Darkness and Starlight~ Live

On August 9, The Black Mages celebrated their third album The Black Mages III ~Darkness and Starlight~ with a live concert at Yokohama Blitz in the Kanagawa Prefecture. 2,000 people gathered from all over Japan to witness the Final Fantasy rockers perform. The concert hall was literally packed with die-hard fans creating a really strong atmosphere throughout. Prior to the concert, a variety of merchandise dedicated to the band was available, including a T-shirt, wallet, and even rugs. They sold well too!

The Cello QuartetPrior to The Black Mages' performance, there were two other items. Following an introduction by publicist Rieko Katayama, a cello quartet performed three exclusive arrangements. Called Cellythm, the three women and one man ensemble specialises in rhythmically compelling performance.

To fit the theme of the concert, they performed three classic battle themes, namely FFVI's "Battle Theme", FFVII's "Those Who Fight Further", and FFV's "Clash on the Big Bridge". It was a special experience to see such an unusual ensemble perform Final Fantasy music. It's a real pity none of these arrangements will probably make it to some sort of album release.

It was subsequently the turn of Ian Hartley and Matt Baggiani to DJ with their arrangements from Final Fantasy Remix. With the album being released just days earlier, this concert served as a great opportunity to promote it and sell more items. A fitting way to start was with their catchy cutesy intepretation of the "Prelude". However, their take on "Liberi Fatali" was definitely a select taste. The electronic samples were at dissonant intervals relative to the sampled vocals and many of the epic progressions of the original were cut short. It was nevertheless a creative and driving interpretation of the fan favourite.

Final Fantasy Remix DJsNow listeners knew what to expect from the breakbeat DJs, their subsequent four items were less of a shock. "Ronfaure" was a relatively conservative arrangement featuring a drum beat added to the organic samples of the original. "Blue Fields" was very unusual once again and its atmospheric qualities probably would have been difficult to appreciate for first-time listeners.

Though it served as an encore for the album release, their quirky take on "Mambo de Chocobo" didn't quite conclude their set. That was left to "Maybe I'm a Lion", a great choice to build anticipation for The Black Mages' performance given it sampled and twisted their performance from The Skies Above.

Following a 15 minute break, it was time for The Black Mages to make their iconic appearance. And what better way to do it than with a performance of the opener from Darkness and Starlight, "Opening ~ Bombing Mission". With gritty overdriven guitar solos, flashy keyboard work, and integration of the previously acoustic motifs from the original piece, the band members declared themselves back with even more attitude than before. The sampling was excellently done and the performances were almost flawlessly executed despite members' anxieties about performing some of the complex solos from the album.

A Packed Concert HallIt was clear that the band weren't following the track listings of their third album with their subsequent performances. "Premonition" made a surprise early appearance and coldened the atmosphere in the venue with aggressive bass riffs and hard electric guitar motifs. "Grand Cross" appeared next, reflecting the ideas of every member of the band in a multifaceted arrangement, before "The Extreme" dazzled with its fast-paced keyboard runs and an elaborate guitar solo. In another surprise, their classic arrangements of "Force Your Way" and "Clash on the Big Bridge" were also performed from the first album.

The band knew how to get the atmosphere of the concert just right. Their performances always had a hard edge, but not at the loss of a fun appeal. One of the best examples was Final Fantasy III's final battle theme arrangement with its combination of novelty old-school synth, powerful primary and secondary melodies, and amazing keyboard solos by Kenichiro Fukui. Between the performances, the band members introduced themselves and Nobuo Uematsu even inspired roars of laughter with his characteristic self-depreciating humour.

The Atmosphere on StageThe most atmospheric section of the concert was the performance of "Distant Worlds". Following a mellow introduction, a duet between Fukui on acoustic piano and Okamiya on acoustic guitar provided the verse. The fleeting appearance of a cantabile synth line led to their initially contemplative version of the chorus. The unexpected addition of a drum kit and synth instruments in a pop-like manner led to Okamiya's absolutely beautiful gut string guitar solo and Uematsu's equally affecting recorder solo. Following the return of the piano passage to present the verse once more, an electric guitar from Sekito interrupted the piece and took the attendees on a lush romantic ride.

The Black Mages have always been known for their exuberance but nothing they have previously done has compared to their live interpretation of the opera sequence. The 15 minute album arrangement had everything — a dramatic atmospheric overture, a stunningly beautiful rendition and recapitulation of the aria, a duel sequence with powerful Japanese narration from Koori Masao, and, best of all, a completely original rocking section featuring bass, tenor, and chorus by four members of the band. How could they possibly surpass that? By turning it into a full-blown dramatic performance by Square Enix-related play company R-Mix featuring 15 people on stage. So incredible and very, very fun.

Exuberance for the OperaThe concert ended with two encores. "Neo ExDeath" was a great choice giving the great fun factor created by the hilariously cheesy ExDeath motifs and astonishingly lyrical melodies. Michio Okamiya did an amazing job interpreting the virtuosic solo in the centre of the piece, but even managed to outshine himself with the second encore. Bringing the concert round full circle, The Skies Above's "Maybe I'm a Lion" returned with a high-octane performance with arguably the best solo section the band has ever done. Surrounded by so much energy and exuberance, fans couldn't help but feel ecstatic by this point. A spectacular concert, the cheers in the hall were well deserved. Bring on The Black Mages IV!