Self-arranging is a tricky task, and one that I wouldn't recommend most composers attempt. Most VGM arranged albums are found to be superior in the hands of an objective third party, or sometimes, a whole group of people. But when it's been 20 years since you first wrote the music, revisiting your old scores is almost like working with someone else's score.
And so it is that Kenji Ito was safe to arrange his own music. This album, the first in a planned three-part series of Seiken Densetsu arrange albums to celebrate the series' 20th anniversary, features Kenji Ito arranging music for the four titles he worked on in the series: FF Adventure / Seiken Densetsu 1, Sword of Mana (the remake of aforementioned first game), Children of Mana, and Dawn of Mana. The latter two are, perhaps, too fresh on Ito's mind, and perhaps too forgettable to be worth talking about. Or, maybe I just have a bias for that landmark FF Adventure soundtrack, and I can't let go of that bias.
The opening track, "Rising Sun," is a lackluster arrangement of the classic theme. We've heard far better from the old and new orchestral arrangements, and in the "SQ" series arrangements. But I wasn't expecting that arrangement to be through the roof. Also, if you want a really unique take on this particular track, seek out bigGIANTcircles' (Jimmy Hinson's) '80s vocal ballad based on this theme. That one of the Mass Effect composers would pen an awesome, emotion-drenched version of this song shows its staying power.
I was pleasantly shocked and pleased with track 2 (the only track not arranged by Ito, it's done by "quad"). This "quad" fellow has some sweet techno dubstep skills. The source track is a piece of music I tend to forget even exists, but it is a strong secondary field theme (secondary, of course, to "Endless Battlefield"). This arrangement is the best arrangement of the song I've yet heard. Kudos to quad for that.
Mana's Mission succeeds because Ito chose to strip down the arrangement to vocal and piano as the primary instruments, with a select group of pop/chamber music as backup. The gaps of silence, the simplicity, the waxing and waning of the string section around the two minute mark... just a beautiful arrangement. This more than makes up for the opening track's vanilla-ness.
The former track serves as an all-acoustic interlude into more poppy electronic remix action. "Mana Palace" is my absolute favorite track from the game, and perhaps the entire Seiken Densetsu series. And while this particular arrangement doesn't strike me as the best Ito could've done, it is certainly an interesting take on an old favorite. It would have fit well on one of the "SQ" albums, especially "Chill SQ."
The only arrangement on the album from the DS game Children of Mana is asurprisingly strong baroque-rock arrangement of "Infant of Mana." Children of Mana wasn't composed solely by Ito, but the tracks Ito did put into the soundtrack are nothing to scoff at. This is probably the best of the lot, and anyone who likes cleanly-produced rock tracks with heavy melodic guitar (think Sound Team JDK, or the band DragonForce) will love this track. For me, it was a real shocker.
Things go from awesome to way too awesome in track 6. This is the song that sells the album, at least for me. In this track, Kenji Ito invites back Kyoko Kishikawa, the amazing ad-lib/scat singer used in Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song to flesh out a track that I hadn't even remembered from Dawn of Mana. Kishikawa sets the soundscape on fire. Anything this woman touches turns into solid gold. Kenji Ito deserves credit for keeping the Latino jazz-rock bossanova feel alive.
What makes the arrangement of "Battle 2" specific to Sword of Mana, as opposed to the original FF Adventure? Listening closely, I have no idea. Sword of Mana ("Shinyaku Seiken Densetsu") did have a bevy of songs unique to it, but none got arranged on this album. In any case, that Latino jazz-rock with the Spanish guitar is back in full force on this track, and it far surpasses the version of the song found on the old orchestral album from the '80s. Conversely, the "Final Battle" music (track 8) is intentionally arranged at a slow tempo and made into a somber piece instead of a killer rock track. Bonus points for doing something unexpected, but no points beyond that, because the end result is smooth jazz boredom in my ears. And my ears reject such a sound.
For the end of the album, Ito doubles down on sentiment with "Endless Dream" from SD4 (Dawn of Mana) and "Legend Forever" from SD1 (FF Adventure). The former is a traditional 4/4 andante vocal ballad, the latter a piano solo. They bring fitting closure to the album, but if I were pressed to condense my listening experience to anything less than the album's 45 minutes, these would be the first two tracks I'd cut.
So, what you're getting here is hit-or-miss, but there are enough treasures for a collector to pick it up. I have high(er) hopes for the self-arranged albums that Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura will bring to us in the coming months. But, should those turn out to flop, I will be happy to at least keep this album in my collection.
Reviewed by: Patrick Gann