Distant Worlds VI: more music from Final Fantasy


Review by · January 20, 2024

When Arnie Roth created the Distant Worlds concert series celebrating the music of Final Fantasy, I don’t think anyone would have predicted how long this project would last. Seriously, I can’t believe we’re at Distant Worlds VI already! In truth, I have let this impressive series of recordings slip by, having not listened to volumes III through V. Perhaps I was out of steam after listening to Distant Worlds II over a decade ago. But after listening to the latest? I think I need to play catch-up. It’s clear that there’s a wealth of music I’ve been missing out on, with some impressive arrangements from previously existing works (orchestral concerts exclusive to Japanese conventions/events) and some newly commissioned exclusively for Distant Worlds.

The two strongest elements of this latest release from AWR are (1) fantastic track selection and (2) high-quality arrangement and production. In one album, we get a bunch of Compilation of Final Fantasy VII material including the remake and the Advent Children movie (which, and this blows my mind, is now 20 years old). The Final Fantasy VII Remake tracks are some of my favorites, with “Jessie’s Theme” being my stand-out track. This single track has a runtime of nearly six minutes, making it the longest track here except for the six-part battle medley that runs as the album’s opener. This is a slow, pensive, graceful theme that gives me chills. And this is coming from someone who still has yet to play VII Remake.

Other great selections? I mean, the entire set list is solid in my eyes. Given they’re now in their sixth entry, they are starting to go for some deep cuts. That, and they’re doing some main themes from less-celebrated entries. For example, we get the overworld theme “Eternal Wind” from Final Fantasy III, and they absolutely nailed this. The arrangement and the high-quality performance with the precise 16th note runs on both pitched percussion (xylophone, marimba) and woodwinds (flute, clarinet) brings great joy to me, as past recordings of this particular track from other orchestral albums have missed the mark with this area of precision. I love hearing what I’m hearing!

And goodness me, there’s even “Ragnarok” from Final Fantasy XI, the final boss music from the Treasures of Aht Urhgan. This battle theme is a personal favorite, one that brought me to a heightened appreciation for Naoshi Mizuta as a composer. Notably, the tempo is slightly slowed compared to the OST source material, but I’d argue this works to bring out the grandiosity and insanity of certain sections of this wild piece.

Scattered throughout the album are some admirable arrangements from the 16-bit trilogy. For FFIV, we get “The Red Wings – Kingdom of Baron” (as a medley), as well as the overworld “Main Theme.” We’re treated to “A New World” from FFV alongside the medley “Home, Sweet Home – Music Box.” As a special treat, we get a three-part medley for FFVI that fits a particular branching story early in the game involving Cyan, Sabin, Shadow, and Gau: “Phantom Forest – Phantom Train – The Veldt.” You really can’t go wrong with “Phantom Forest,” and though I prefer the unconventional recording from the old Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale arrangement slightly more, this is still a commanding performance. Additionally, near the end of the album, we’re treated to a brief rendition of the classic town theme, “Kids Run Through the City Corner.”

Also, a special note that they actually have a vocal recording of Final Fantasy VIII‘s “Eyes On Me” here! This is a pretty big deal, as there have been significant rightsholder issues and red tape with the original recording from Chinese singer Faye Wong. This new performance from FFXIV vocalist Susan Calloway has a new feel to it. Calloway was listed to perform live with the Distant Worlds tour, but after unfortunate allegations regarding her social media presence, updates to upcoming Distant Worlds shows state she is not performing, so it is uncertain if she’ll return.

Given all the praise I’ve offered, I do have two areas of deep frustration with this album. One applies specifically to this recording, the other to the Distant Worlds arrangement approach. Both are subjective complaints, so please take what I have to say with that grain of salt.

First, the chosen recording method for Distant Worlds VI at The Dvořák Hall was a “concert hall” recording. The way one sets the microphones to capture the sounds in a concert hall is, ideally, one in which the sound of “hearing it live” is recreated. This has its benefits, as it tends to smooth out the sound. But in some sense, it also flattens the sound. The alternative approach, which takes a fair bit more work but has huge dividends, is a studio recording, where instrumental sections, and even solo instruments, have their own microphone output. It takes a lot of extra work in the post-production mixing, but the listener can better pick up on the details of the audio. The mixing and engineering also allow for dynamic shift in each section to help emphasize or de-emphasize certain sections, giving layers to what may have been a “flat” sound in a concert hall environment.

Notably, in the album’s own credits, additional percussion and timpani recording happened in post-production at AWR and mixed in by mastering engineer Matthew Prock. This suggests to me that the original recording from Prague failed to pick up on the percussion because of this exact “flatness” issue, thus the added recordings. To be clear, I think the audio engineers on this project did a great job: both Prock and the recording team at Prague, led by Oldřich Slezák, made something great. However, it’s probable things could have been all the more impressive with a different recording approach. This may simply come down to a budgeting issue, and I can respect that. It’s a shame because I know these performances deserve that extra attention to detail and care to give the listener the best possible experience.

My second complaint is that I have a hard time with the “medley” concept, wherein the experience is one song ending and the next beginning with little more to the transition than maybe one note held over or some percussion maintaining the tempo. This is especially noticeable in the otherwise-impressive “Battle Medley” for Final Fantasy I through VI. Arguably, it’s not much better in the aforementioned FFVI “Phantom Train” medley either. I have complained about this in the past and noted my preference for the more complex, layered, thematic “anti-medley” style utilized by Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo in Final Symphony and other Merregnon Studio projects. I think that, if they wanted to, the Distant Worlds team could pull off something like this. But they tend to put together their setlists in a disjointed “piece by piece by piece” approach. This, too, has its benefits; any listener can follow along and clearly identify which song is playing at any time by looking at the tracklist.

Again, and I cannot emphasize this enough, these complaints are subjective. Some listeners may very much prefer the concert hall recording. Some listeners may very much prefer the individuation of not only every track but each portion of a medley having clear definition. If you’re one of those listeners, then this may be the ideal arranged album for you to pick up.

As a closing remark: even with my complaints standing, I still really enjoyed this album. I enjoyed it so much that I’m inspired to go back and pick up the missing pieces of my own Distant Worlds collection, and there is a non-zero chance that you will see me post reviews of III through V in the coming year. Time will tell. In the meantime, please don’t outpace me with your strong content and put out a Distant Worlds VII in 2024, Mr. Roth! I can hardly keep up!

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Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann

Therapist by day and gamer by night, Patrick has been offering semi-coherent ramblings about game music to RPGFan since its beginnings. From symphonic arrangements to rock bands to old-school synth OSTs, Patrick keeps the VGM pumping in his home, to the amusement and/or annoyance of his large family of humans and guinea pigs.