01 - Lightning's Theme ~ Blinded By Light
02 - Final Fantasy XIII - The Promise ~ The Sunleth Waterscape
03 - March of the Dreadnoughts
04 - The Gapra Whitewood
05 - Nautilus
06 - Vanille's Theme ~ Memories of Happier Days ~ The Road Home
07 - Nascent Requiem
08 - Fang's Theme
09 - Reminiscence - Sulyya Springs Motif
10 - Prelude to Final Fantasy XIII Full Version
Under the slipcase, we find more packaging. It's pretty generic.
If I weren't so sad, I'd be angry.
Masashi Hamauzu is, in my own opinion, the most unexpected success in game music. His distinct impressionist style wasn't an obvious fit for game music. But he got his chance in the late '90s with SaGa Frontier 2, and he won his initial following there. The arranged album for said game, a piano collection with some chamber music at the end of the disc, remains one of my all-time favorite arranged albums.
Hamauzu's high quality arrangements continued with Final Fantasy X. Alongside being a co-composer with Uematsu (a sort of mentor for Hamauzu during the 16-bit era), Hamauzu was the arranger for the Final Fantasy X Piano Collections CD. And that album is, in my opinion, another big success. The arrangements were truly interesting, and performer Aki Kuroda did a fantastic job, particularly with dynamic variation.
Earlier this year, when Hamauzu's full four-disc score for Final Fantasy XIII was released, I saw that he really had what it takes to fully score a high-profile title. And despite the game's ranking in the series (most people would agree, it wasn't exactly the crowning achievement we wanted it to be), the soundtrack was setting the bar for Square Enix's music department.
When it was announced that Aki Kuroda would return to perform on the FFXIII Piano Collections CD, and Hamauzu was (of course) self-arranging, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Let's quickly go over the facts: Hamauzu is great at piano arrangement; Kuroda proved herself a fitting performer for Hamauzu's musical style; the source material for this piano album is truly excellent. What could go wrong?
To date, I don't know. But I can definitely say that something went wrong.
Before I go any further, I have to assure readers that I'm not exaggerating my disappointment for shock value or additional page views. I was visibly upset after my first listen through the CD. My wife asked me if something was wrong. Yes, something was wrong! The CD I had such high hopes for totally let me down!
I suppose now I should get to why I'm saying this. I'll start generic and get more specific. For starters, the arrangements are soul-less. For something as meticulous as impressionist arrangement, you may find this critique strange. And that's fine. But there is definitely a sense of soul, of consciousness and beauty, to the SF2 and FFX piano collections. It isn't there with FFXIII.
Next, the arrangements suffer from needless grandiosity. My critique of the first Kingdom Hearts piano album (not Field and Battle, the character-based themes album) applies to this album as well. Giant chords and arpeggios just to show you can do them does not a good piano arrangement make. Maybe, secretly, I'm just upset because I know when I procure the sheet music there's no way I'll be able to play some of these pieces. But I would've been fine with that; there are many pieces from FFX I can't play because they're too hard. But they're still plenty interesting!
I was discussing this particular issue of arrangement with RPGFan editor Dennis Rubinshteyn. Dennis thought I was suggesting that perhaps it was "over-arranged." But I don't think that's quite it. In most cases, you can still detect the original melody. But these are lazy arrangements. Carbon copies of the melody with some easy decoration around it; cut some of the more harmonically interesting stuff from the source so that two hands can handle the sound, and tada! You have an FFXIII piano arrangement.
And maybe, just maybe, that's the problem. Other than the obvious "this product was rushed to market," which I believe to be 100% true, the problem may be that the source material was so rich, and so good, that solo piano just isn't a fitting place for it. Consider the source material for SF2 or FFX and suddenly my theory makes sense. SF2 is rich and complex, yes, but the "playing field" was leveled by synth limitations. The transition to piano was simple enough, and the result was outstanding. In the case of FFX, the music isn't too complex. Interesting, yes. But not very reliant on strange sound programming effects, or on non-lyrical vocal parts.
Let's get track-specific. The opening track is the same theme at different tempos: Lightning's Theme and the standard battle music "Blinded By Light." This is a great melodic theme, but again, the originals are just far more interesting than the piano arrangement. Melody, chords, and the occasional scale runs, and that's about it. Yawn and sigh...
Next, another medley of songs with the same melody but different tempos: "The Promise" and "Sunleth Waterscape." For the first half of the piece, the biggest disappointment is the lack of re-creating the end part of the piece. You know, the soft part with the wobble/waver thing? In its place, we just get some sustained chords. Ewww... and you'll be hard-pressed to observe a noticeable difference between the piano arrangements of the two source themes. It's just no good.
Now, for the third track, we have something reasonably enjoyable. Why? The original piece was basically a piano piece in the first place. "March of the Dreadnoughts" was always piano-centric, so I'm sure creating this arrangement wasn't much of a task. And though, yet again, I prefer the original, I can still enjoy this arrangement. I cannot say the same for much of the rest of this album.
"The Gapra Whitewood" was fantastic in its original form for two reasons: one, the vocals; two, harmonic ambiguity. In any given moment, I didn't know if we were talking "major" or "minor" key. The piano arrangement loses the latter, and never attempts to touch the former. What's left is a shell of the original piece, with bits of decoration here and there that demonstrate Hamauzu and Kuroda are still reasonably competent. It's not an awful arrangement, but again, compared to the original it just suffers terribly.
"Nautilus" is one of the chief recipients of my "needless grandiosity" critique. Really, I don't think this song should've had a piano arrangement in the first place. But here it is, and honestly, I just don't like it. It gives me a headache, despite how impressive it is. Much like the first Kingdom Hearts piano arrangement. This also happens to be the longest track on the album (over 6 minutes), so the headache is pretty well guaranteed by the end of it.
I'm going to skip over the Vanille happy-time medley, I just don't want to talk about it. I do want to talk about the few tracks that really did grab my attention, because it's exciting that not every track is a disappointment. "Nascent Requiem" is the closest thing to a true Hamauzu arrangement, the closest thing to what I was expecting, I can find on this album. Compare to "Raid" and the final battle music from FFX, and it's basically on par, maybe a little stronger. Still suffering from the über-concerto sound, but overall, a strong arrangement. This is a good, thematic track that doesn't overstay its welcome (clocks in at 4 minutes).
The other big surprise was Fang's Theme. This has the sort of impressionist arrangement I was expecting. Use the left hand (bass clef) for short, staccato, sevenths and ninths to add harmony, and then do lots of cute, clever stuff in the right hand. This is an extremely exhilarating and fun arrangement. I wasn't expecting it at all either. I wish the whole album could've been as fun and "unexpected" as this track.
If there's one track that is "over-arranged," per Dennis' suggestion, it's the Sulyya Springs track. But it was done so intentionally, in the same way that Besaid Island shows little resemblance to its original counterpart. I actually thought this was a smart idea in theory, though the end product wasn't as pleasing as I wanted it to be. The piece simply seems to lack substance.
Ending the album is an arrangement of the opening movie music. The "Prelude" to FFXIII is nothing like Uematsu's traditional, arpeggiated prelude. This is a fully different theme. And, sadly, the piano solo arrangement just cannot carry the weight that the full orchestra had. It just ... isn't there.
Dear reader, you cannot understand how painful it was writing this article. I was hoping this vent-session of a review would be relieving, but it's not. It's just depressing. This was supposed to be my favorite piano album for years to come, and instead, it ranks slightly higher than a Dragon Quest piano CD. Ouch. Yes, it has its moments of brilliance, but overall, it's lacking. It's lacking in all the places we expected the richness and eccentric genius of Masashi Hamauzu. I secretly worry that someone close to Hamauzu would read this and feel hurt. My loyalty to Hamauzu and his music is such that a small part of me wants to just lie to all of you: "Yes, this album is great, go get it, it's the high quality you've come to expect from Hamauzu!" But it's not. Fortunately, the OST really is good enough to more than make up for it. So if you don't have the OST, go get that. As for this album, unless you're a die-hard, completionist kind of collector, skip over it.
Reviewed by: Patrick Gann