In 2014, Square Enix released the first “dual” album for Final Fantasy XIV, From Astral to Umbral, which took an interesting approach to the arrangement album concept. This album — named for in-game terms representing historical times of peace and war, respectively — offered a selection of songs in two styles, marrying peaceful piano productions with energetic rock performances.
In what is now apparently a series, Duality offers the same combination of musical styles, but for songs from Heavensward, FFXIV’s first expansion. Since the album itself features two distinct sides, I may as well cover each separately, starting with…
Tracks 7-13 are performed by FFXIV Sound Director & Composer Masayoshi Soken. Or, more accurately, by his rock band, The Primals (the XIV term for summoned entities like Ifrit, for the uninitiated). The Primals have performed at the multiple Fan Festival events over the last few years, and as a fan, it’s a thrill seeing Soken and company — and localization master/lyricist Michael-Christopher Koji Fox — on stage rocking out. These guys have an energy that’s infectious.
As Final Fantasy XIV continues to be updated, more scenarios and music are added, and while Titan’s hardcore sound was once fairly unique in the game, more and more boss themes have drifted towards rock. None of this is a complaint, but it does make this half of the album tough to review. There’s a newness and novelty to hearing an energetic battle song performed on piano; check out any of TPR’s amazing Melancholy albums for drastically new takes on some familiar songs. Releasing an album with rock renditions of… mostly rock songs is neat, but the results can be a mixed bag, depending on what you want.
Tracks like “Locus” are similar enough to the original that I can take or leave them. “Unbreakable” is one of my favorite dungeon themes, but I feel this version is a bit too much of… everything in places. “Imagination” is another favorite, but I love the deeper bass and slightly slower pace that it uses here. It’s still “heavy,” but the rock leans more towards the dramatic than purely “loud.”
“Fiend,” the theme of Sephirot, took a while to grow on me in its original rendition. But once I saw The Primals perform it at FanFest in front of hundreds of fans? I was swayed. I want to avoid the cliche of saying the Duality version is the same song, just turned up to eleven, but that really is a good way to describe it. And while that is the least interesting approach for this kind of album on paper, it’s such fun that I give it a pass.
On both of these albums, I think it’s the piano that really shines. Once again performed by Keiko, these songs take anything from a relaxing field theme to high-energy songs, and provide a delightful new take on these themes.
Two songs make dual appearances on this album: “Imagination” and “Heroes.” Being two of Heavensward’s finest songs, it’s great having two drastically different takes on them together. “Imagination” on piano is sublime: a passionate performance for a song I’d never imagined to hear in such a way. “Heroes,” meanwhile, takes the epic final boss theme to a new place, with a focus on low, rich notes and tones that sound totally different from the source material, but maintain a level of drama and motion (and emotion, come to think of it) that make it effective on a new level.
It’s been a very long time since my ill-fated piano lessons as a kid, but it’s something I think about when I consider the dexterity one would need to play parts of “Borderless” on this instrument. It’s both beautiful and impressive.
“Night in the Brume” is to the piano songs what “Fiend” is to the band songs: the original song is already so peaceful and low-key that Keiko’s performance isn’t drastically different. However, of the four songs in the city-state of Ishgard, this song quickly became my favorite. It’s chill, relaxing, and perfect for quiet nights at home or when you just need some alone time. This makes it the most obvious and perfect choice for the piano tracks, and the Duality version somehow makes this lovely piece even more beautiful. It easily earns my pick as second-favorite song on the album.
Never Let it Go
I’ve talked about Shiva’s theme in… at least two game or music reviews by now, I’m sure. “Oblivion” really divided fans when it was released: many loved the female-driven J-rock sound, but some weren’t on board, whether it was because of legitimate disinterest or just the surprise at the choice of sound direction.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, but it quickly grew on me and, over two and a half years later, remains one of my favorite primal songs (Sophia’s theme comes close, but I’ll talk about that in another review). “Oblivion” made its first album appearance on From Astral to Umbral as one of the band songs. I described it then as “a straight-up J-rock song,” but that was okay, because the song needed that kind of energy. Or so I thought.
The ‘Never Let it Go Version’ of “Oblivion” is the shining example of why I like these albums and what I wish all the songs were like. The sound team took this bombastic rock song and stripped it down to its acoustic essentials. Minimal instrumentation and a melancholy vocal performance by Ayumi Murata deliver a song that’s heartbreakingly gorgeous. The lyrics to “Oblivion” were always depressing, and their juxtaposition with the rock music make it bizarrely fascinating, but here? With lyrics like:
now I close my eyes for one last time
and say goodbye
fragile creatures, we are taught to fear the reaper never running, we are dead before we meet her
…it’s almost as if this song was always meant to be performed as an acoustic ballad. It’s also interesting to note that both From Astral to Umbral and Duality would use “Oblivion” — two starkly different renditions — to close out the album.
In the end, my feelings are mixed on the band songs, but the excellent piano on display here along with the haunting beauty of “Oblivion” make this an easy album to recommend.