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The Black Mages II :: Review by Duke Lionheart [Competition Winner]

The Black Mages II ~The Skies Above~ Album Title: The Black Mages II ~The Skies Above~
Record Label: Universal Music (1st Edition); Square Enix (Reprint)
Catalog No.: UPCH-1377; SQEX-10111
Release Date: December 22, 2004; March 19, 2008
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


Having enjoyed the first CD from The Black Mages despite several flaws, I was looking forward to their second release, hoping they might have improved in the meantime. First thing I noticed, however, was a track selection that seemed strange to me: Only three really famous battle themes and several non-battle tunes. Would these fit for a rock band? And what would they do with the great classics? It's impossible to answer this briefly. Whatever category I try to put up, I find at least one arrangement I'm very satisfied with and one I'm not. All I can say now is that there's lots of ups and downs on this CD, but it's good and a bit better than the first one.

The main reason for that is that The Black Mages now are a real rock band and obviously have spent some time together playing. Thus, the tracks sound more authentic than those on the first album. At the same time, the recording and producing quality has improved. And, oh yes, they're faster. There are no techno-rock experiments like "J-E-N-O-V-A" or slow, boring tunes like "Battle Scene II." This is rock. Sometimes soft, sometimes hard, and with one excursion into Power Metal. I wouldn't say that this album is totally consistent in style, but it is a bit more than the first one, and yet it does not lack diversity. We have two ballad-like songs and two with vocals.

Now, let's talk about the quality of the musicians involved: I especially like the drummer who does a very good job on all tracks. Fast heavy beats, great fills and well-placed "off-beat" cymbals. The bass player is very good. He plays very lively, and is very valuable to the drive of the band. The guitarists are also good and deliver some cool riffs and licks. Still, I'm not too enthusiastic about their solos; I even find some of these annoying. They mostly try to sound like Eddie van Halen or Kirk Hammett and they are quite good at this. But for me, there is more to a good solo than just technique and often less is more. Uematsu himself is awesome on the organ, doing both great solos and background work. The keyboardist is just as well in background work. His solo parts can be very fast but do not always fit in and there's still some sounds I don't like.

Track-by-Track Reviews

1) The Rocking Grounds [Final Fantasy III]

An excellent opener and a good demonstration of this band's abilities. They demonstrate here that a short, simple original theme doesn't have to be worse material for them. In fact, with some cool variations and focus on a cool rock adaptation of the main riff, they deliver a fast and funny rock tune. They start at the speed most of the first album used and suddenly accelerate, playing a great introduction into the main melody which, if you know it, you're going to hum along even before it is played. Then it is played in a wonderful question-response way by guitar and organ. A slightly irritating keyboard line leads into a great rhythmical break part and then we're given the best guitar solo I've heard from this band yet. Then the keyboards take over again and lead into a great reprise. (9/10)

2) Zeromus [Final Fantasy IV]

This track starts as strong and fast as the last one. Due to the nature of the original, it is more keyboard-orientated. This is no problem here, because the sounds are quite-well chosen and the guitarists do a good accompanying work here with nice "crunchy" riffs or short solos. The main guitar solo at about 2:10 is however, rather uninspired, whereas the keyboard solo following is interesting and funny, but doesn't fit in that well. It sounds just too light-hearted. A short reprise and another guitar solo end this track which started great but somehow lost much of its strength about half-time. (7/10)

3) Vamo' Alla Flamenco [Final Fantasy IX]

Perhaps the track that fits least on the album. Yes, it sounds like rock and more so than "Matoya's Cave" but still it's a bit misplaced because this melody won't lend itself that much to rock. Just the melody being played rather slowly by one guitar and organ, with another guitar doing simple riffs, doesn't work that well. The best part here is the acoustic guitar solo which is accompanied by some great percussion. Unlike most other tracks, this one gets better after the solo: The strings fit much better for the main melody and Uematsu's organ solo is fun. Still, a rather pointless adaptation, since it is by far not as good as the original track. (7/10)

4) Hunter's Chance [Final Fantasy IX]

A track I didn't know before but that surprised me most positively. It's a very direct, dynamic and lively theme, and goes right to the point. The main melody seems to be made for rock, and while it is repeated several times, it never gets boring. There's many variations, additional guitar licks, sometimes a bit of organ in the background and nice bass lines. And at 3:20, it suddenly gets very quiet and atmospheric, a wonderful piano solo is played and a very short reprise ends this tune. (8/10)

5) Otherworld [Final Fantasy X]

I really am in two minds about this one. The original was controversial, but is among Uematsu's best works in my opinion, because it wonderfully combines the metal and the soundtrack approach to music and is evil as hell. It starts good, being not as heavy but faster than the original and the organ also fits in quite well this way. Then comes the singer... At first I totally hated her. It seemed like a very bad joke to use this high, rather weak female voice in this song, since it is anything but a rock singer's voice. However, as I found, she definitely is very motivated to give her best and indeed does some interesting variations and screams. You might say that she gets better and better as the song goes on. Now that I've got used to it, I must admit I somehow like it. But I still prefer the Heavy Metal version with Bill "grunting" Muir. (6/10)

6) Matoya's Cave [Final Fantasy I]

The rock ballad version of this classic theme is another welcome surprise on this CD. They start with a good long acoustic intro before the electric guitar comes in. And it works much better here than it "Vamo Alla' Flamenco". Then suddenly, The Black Mages get the blues and Uematsu plays a long groovy organ solo. It fits perfectly, also because of the emotional guitar solo that follows over chords from the original theme. And when you expect the guitar to take up that theme again, it suddenly appears in 8-bit-style synth and in another key. But half the way, the guitar takes over again, changing key again and takes us to the end. (9/10)

7) The Man with the Machine Gun [Final Fantasy VIII]

This one starts very promising, with a really fast intro. But actually, the "verse" is totally disappointing. The guitar does nothing but repeating one power chord, a synth lead plays the melody and it somehow sounds very empty together. When the organ enters, it gets better. But the guitar solo is much worse again. Technically good and very fast, it completely fails to convey any expression or melody. Luckily, we're given compensation by a short intermezzo from "The Legendary Beast" which fits in very well. Then the main melody is played again, now doubled by guitar, which sounds much better, and the organ takes over into a good ending part. (9/10)

8) Maybe I'm a Lion [Final Fantasy VIII]

This track was hard rocking already on the Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack, but now this is even better. I've counted five or six variations on the original riff, in the (long) intro, in the melody parts, as breaks, in the solo parts... and they all kick ass! There's much change here, mainly between parts where only one instrument is heard and those where all play together. There's a long solo section for organ and guitar and it's very cool, too. Again, there's a new part here. A simple, but effective quint circle cadence for the solos that automatically makes grip your air guitar. Being the most dynamic and complex track on the album, it is also the best. It combines elements of rock music from the 70s' (organ), 80s' (keyboards, solos) and 90's (hard riffs and the effect-loaden intro) and puts them together very well. (9/10)

9) Battle with the Four Fiends [Final Fantasy IV]

There's one big problem about this track: It sounds too similar to "Zeromus". That probably was intended on the original Final Fantasy IV soundtrack, but is irritating here. From Final Fantasy IV, I'd have preferred the normal boss battle theme. There's no surprises here: It sticks close to the original, the way the instruments change in taking centre stage is appealing, the solos are where you'd expect them, Uematsu's organ being much better than the guitar here. Solid but a bit uninteresting. (7/10)

10) The Skies Above [Final Fantasy X]

This one starts quietly, as it's the Zanarkand piano theme. Nothing wrong, since that's a very good theme indeed and sounds better here than the synthesized original. Once that's over, however, a trashy metal riff come in and you go "What the...?!". Drums enter and the riff is repeated. The second time you hear it, it is just a bit too simple. Then it's the Zanarkand theme again, but sung while the guitars go Power Metal. I'd never have expected, but it sounds good this way. You've got to get used to the singer, maybe. Some of the notes are obviously a bit too high for him. Operatic metal requires "castrated" voices and this guy is still too masculine for that! The solo part following with guitars and keyboards is just god-awful but the break that follows is very nice. Soft synth resurrect the Zanarkand melody with clean guitars fading in. Two more "choruses" follow, one with vocals and one with guitar solo (much better than the previous one). The honour to end this track is given back to the piano. Conservatively thinking, I should give this track not more than 5/10, since almost nothing really goes together. But I have to admit that I like it. The idea is stupid but great, and the wonderful Zanarkand theme almost sounds even better when sung. I sing along all the time. The lyrics are senseless, but who cares? I certainly don't. With Metal, this is nothing special and, keep in mind, English is not my mother tongue. (8/10)

11) Blue Blast - Winning the Rainbow

The new track starts very good, with a nice atmospheric intro, a fast metal riff and a good memorable main melody. It sounds very Anime-like but still has the typical Uematsu 3-3-3-3-2-2 measure in it. So far, so good. Then the track slows down a bit and gets rather uninteresting for about one minute. The keyboard part is just boring but it's the guitar solo that really sucks. It is just unpleasing and lacks any expression. As soon as the main melody comes in again, it is nice again. Sadly, they don't end here, but add an ending part that is just empty. This is not a bad track, the main part really rocks, but everything else is uninteresting. I'm missing the substance beyond one good melody. (6/10)


The most obvious thing about this album is that a good or well worked-out original is definitely no guaranty for a good arranged version. This is not new, and was also an issue with The Black Mages I, but is even more now. Apart from "Maybe I'm A Lion" which does justice to a complex original, it's the simple originals that stand out here because they demand innovation and variation. And it's the variations and new parts that make this album good. To me, the main problem is that The Black Mages always try to make a 4-minute-song from 1-2 minutes of original material. All tracks, also those with new parts, use solos to accomplish this and especially the guitar solos can get annoying sometimes. I'd like to see some shorter or longer tracks on the next album.

"The Skies Above" was also a nice idea, but a bit random, whereas "Winning the Rainbow" was funny, but empty. Concerning the "Otherworld" singer, may she make her way, but not in rock music! Biggest plus it the "band factor": There's just so much more going on at the same time than on the first CD. All members, as I said before, are good or excellent musicians and they all add to the sound and drive of the tracks.

All in all, The Black Mages got better, but they still didn't exhaust their possibilities. Let's get this clear: We're comparing them to Uematsu's Final Fantasy music which was revolutionary in the first eight installments and partly also in the tenth. Yes, that is a high standard and very few arranged albums have met them so far. And when I say that The Black Mages meet them to a good extent, that makes them stand out already.If you like Final Fantasy soundtracks, and are not an enemy of rock music, I certainly recommend you this album. They rock, especially when you play them loud.

Overall Score: 8/10