Final Fantasy's music is incredible. There's no argument against that fact. It deserves to be celebrated, and it should be heard by everyone in my opinion. This is where Distant Worlds comes in. Back in 2007, Arnie Roth was tasked with taking the series' music on tour, and he's never looked back since. Now we're at the end of 2017 and the tour is celebrating its 10th anniversary, so what a perfect time to return to London and go hear the magic live. It's been four years since Roth last brought Nobuo Uematsu's music to the Royal Albert Hall, and on 4th November 2017 they finally returned. The concert hall is a truly magnificent place, and some of the most famous names in music have played here. It's one of those places where you can feel the history as soon as you walk in. As the Maida Vale Singers, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and Roth took to the stage, I felt the excitement well up inside me. I was ready to be blown away.
The show kicked off with "The Prelude." What made this so special is how ethereal it sounded; it was as though you could feel how much it's transformed and developed from 1987 right up to the present day. The choir's vocals throughout this piece blew me away, and it was really just the start of things to come. The setlist was peppered with many old favourites, and I did feel a little disappointed that such a large chunk of the repertoire reused material from previous tours, but they managed to breathe new life into a couple of the pieces. "One-Winged Angel" had to make an appearance in the encore, but it was nothing fans haven't heard a million times over. The audience participation just shows how much admiration this concert tour (and the Final Fantasy series) gets and deserves. And of course, Zanarkand made an appearance as well, but it was preceded by a gorgeous rendition of "Hymn of the Faith." The Maida Vale Singers were absolutely incredible throughout the show, but this was their standout performance. There was a beauty and grace about this cover that has stuck with me ever since. "Hymn of the Faith," while iconic, has never been my song of choice to listen to, but these singers have changed my mind completely.
Out of Uematsu's own work, his most overlooked is FFVIII, and other than "Liberi Fatali" and "Fisherman's Horizon," most other tracks get left in the dust. Distant Worlds changed that and brought about a heartfelt rendition of "The Oath," a moving piece which encapsulates Rinoa and Squall's relationship perfectly. It was one of the high points of the concert for me, because it stirred up emotion from a game that doesn't rank among my favourites. It was dreamlike, something I could easily shut my eyes to and think of that floral field where Squall and Rinoa reunite at the end of the game. This was the fourth number in the concert, and I was already crying by this point.
While Uematsu sat on the sidelines and even joined Roth on stage a few times, much to the crowd's delight, there were chances to recognise the work of the other composers. A few of these got their share of the spotlight, which was wonderful. Hitoshi Sakimoto's "Flash of Steel" made its first appearance on this tour and is only the third FFXII track Distant Worlds have ever played. "Flash of Steel" is a personal favourite of mine, and coming fresh off of the back of The Zodiac Age meant I could vividly remember each of the fights Vaan and his friends struggled against. The additions of the flutes and harp in this rendition made parts of the track sound more grandiose, and it gave you a real sense you were fighting someone from the Empire. The flutes added an unexpected whimsical side to the track, which for me captures the essence of FFXII's exploration. Sakimoto's rousing music suits the concert halls, and I'd love to hear more of his work on display in the future.
Masashi Hamauzu's work on FFXIII was also recognised, and I will always profess that this is a woefully underrated soundtrack in the series. "Fang's Theme" was a perfect accompaniment, and one of only two main character themes on the setlist. It's one of the more traditional themes from the game, and a powerful and uplifting one at that, but in a concert about the best tracks in the series, it was a welcome surprise. And who could forget about Masayoshi Soken, whose musical talents have graced FFXIV for years? "Torn From the Heavens" boomed through the concert hall and was an absolutely beautiful rendition of the now-classic theme from the MMO. Soken's work deserves to be lauded like this.
But there was one game whose music has yet to be performed on tour by Distant Worlds before this concert — FFXV. Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack is one of the series' best, and it had two credits in this concert. The first of these was "Apocalypsis Noctis," the most grandiose and thundering music of the night. The Astral battle theme had a deep punch that shook the walls of the hall and really transported you to each of those battles. Then there was "Somnus," where Roth took up the violin especially for this stripped-down version. Staying very true to the original, this had the entire hall in tears. They stuck with the instrumental version, and after the hectic "Opening -Bombing Mission-" that kicked off the second half, this sombre song was perfect.
Other than the first entry, one other game in the series is celebrating its own anniversary. FFVII turned 20 years old back in January, and it featured heavily in the concert. Out of the 22 songs, five of these were from FFVII, which for me was slightly disappointing because the most any other game got was two; but FFVII's legacy, and the fact that it kicked off the series in Europe, meant it didn't need to fight for its place. Out of these five, "Cosmo Canyon" was by far the best. The original version is a mid-tempo, almost Western-sounding piece, but this rendition was a lot slower and tinged with sadness, perhaps enhanced by the screen showing Red XIII as he discovers the truth about his father. The earthly sounds were transformed into rousing violins and rhythmic drum beats that stirred up old memories from my first time visiting Bugenhagen.
My standout picks from the show were two tracks from a little game called FFVI. Square's 1994 classic has an outstanding soundtrack that has withstood the test of time and is almost theatrical. It ebbs and flows between sadness, laughter, joy, victory and defeat, and Distant Worlds covers are always welcome. "Searching for Friends" was one of their brand new tracks, and if there's ever a song to pick you up, this is the one. "Searching for Friends" is about picking yourself up from the depths of despair and the learning that, with your friends, you can do anything. The experiences of each character flashed up on the back of the screen — Setzer reclaiming his ship, Locke trying to revive his lost love, etc. — and every time the party rallied together, the music rallied with them. It might not be everyone's favourite world map theme, but it should be rightfully celebrated as an empowering piece of music.
The second FFVI track was a surprise for the Royal Albert Hall. If there was one track I wanted them to reuse, it was "Dancing Mad," but truly there's one song from FFVI that deserves to be played in concert: "Opera 'Maria and Draco'." This version was complete with a narrator and three singers, representing Draco, Maria and Prince Ralse. These performers elevated Roth's orchestra beyond the already brilliant music, making it the best song of the night for me. It brought the chiptunes from 1994 to life and gave me a taste of what it would be like to see a real opera — it was all parts drama, sadness and laughter. Roth even looked like the conductor from the original scene, and it made the magic all the more believable.
While I had my personal gripes, there's no doubt that Distant Worlds is a must-see concert experience. There's nothing that compares to seeing a live orchestra. Having listened to each of the Distant Worlds albums, I love the music, but they don't meet the grandeur and quality of going to see the shows. I know many people will be disappointed that these concerts focus on the most iconic tunes in the series and reuse arrangements and materials, but the 30th Anniversary tour is a celebration of what Final Fantasy is. These iconic tracks are must-haves in every concert. If you still have the chance, I urge you to go and see Distant Worlds for the 30th anniversary tour. You won't regret it, and you'll come out a few hankies lighter and many a tear shed.
Personal Favourites: "The Oath," "Flash of Steel," "Searching for Friends," "Cosmo Canyon," "Hymn of the Faith," "Opera 'Maria and Draco'"
FINAL FANTASY SERIES: Prelude
FINAL FANTASY V: Battle (Clash) at the Big Bridge
FINAL FANTASY Victory Theme
FINAL FANTASY VIII: The Oath
FINAL FANTASY XII: Flash of Steel
FINAL FANTASY VI: Searching For Friends
FINAL FANTASY XIII: Fang's Theme
FINAL FANTASY IV: Theme of Love
FINAL FANTASY VII: Cosmo Canyon
FINAL FANTASY IX: Not Alone
FINAL FANTASY XV: Apocalypsis Noctis
FINAL FANTASY VIII: Liberi Fatali
FINAL FANTASY VIII: Opening – Bombing Mission
FINAL FANTASY XV: Somnus
FINAL FANTASY XIV: Torn from Heavens
FINAL FANTASY VII Cinco de Chocobo
FINAL FANTASY X: Hymn of the Fayth
FINAL FANTASY X: Zanarkand
FINAL FANTASY VI: Opera "Maria and Draco"
FINAL FANTASY Series Main Theme
FINAL FANTASY VII: Aerith's Theme
FINAL FANTASY VII: One-Winged Angel