Yin and yang. Black and white. Two other commonly-associated opposites. It’s the method in which From Astral to Umbral was put together, and it’s obvious from the moment you see the high-contrast album cover. It is, in essence, two short albums packaged together, with another 13 tracks tossed in for good measure.
The first six tracks are a piano selection of Final Fantasy XIV’s field and town themes. While they are still Masayoshi Soken’s compositions, these tracks are performed by the unknown-to-me pianist and composer Keiko. The original soundtrack for FFXIV groups multiple themes into single tracks, and Keiko matches those same song blends here. So for example, “To the Sun” contains multiple tracks heard in the various regions of Thanalan in the game, “On Westerly Winds” is a combined track of La Noscean tunes, and so on. I think these were all good choices, as you get to hear piano renditions of more than six distinct melodies. The town and field themes are a mix of upbeat and mellow melodies, and they lend themselves well to the piano. Keiko’s performance lends a different emotion to some songs with her heartfelt performance.
The aforementioned “On Westerly Winds” has moments that dip into an almost somber, introspective feel. “Wailers and Waterwheels” matches the lighthearted feel of Gridania’s original theme, but the piano makes it perhaps even more delicate and beautiful. My only concern is that I feel that the piano tracks could be overlooked on this album for their subtlety compared to what’s to come. Hopefully I’m wrong, as what’s here is simply gorgeous, relaxing piano, and I hope one day we’ll get to see a full, piano-only album for Final Fantasy XIV. Given Square Enix’s track record of Final Fantasy piano albums, I’m sure it’ll happen at some point.
The “other” side of the album starts with track 7, where the “band” tracks begin. Masayoshi Soken seems to be following in Nobuo Uematsu’s footsteps here: Uematsu put together The Black Mages to perform rock versions of classic Final Fantasy themes, and if you haven’t heard any Black Mages albums, you should. Soken’s band is called The Primals, and so far, they perform specifically the primal themes from Final Fantasy XIV. In a hammy display of showmanship, during the Las Vegas FFXIV Fan Festival, Soken introduced every single song with “We are The Primals, and we play primal music.” It’s a phrase that’s now permanently embedded in the brains of anyone who attended the event and saw the band’s live performance.
As I discussed in my review of the FFXIV: A Realm Reborn OST, the primals are XIV’s name for classic FF summoned monsters such as Ifrit, Shiva, Bahamut, and so on. Each major update to the game has prominently featured a new primal — vital to the plot — with each character having his or her own theme(s). Ifrit’s theme, “Primal Judgement”, is a somewhat brief, guitar-heavy rock rendition of the original. “Under the Weight” (Titan) is probably going to get the most attention on this album, and it has a much harder edge than the already heavy rock-centric (pun intended) original. There’s more guitar, a heavier… well, everything, and the lyrics are far more pronounced. It’s the lyrics and vocals that really sell this song; Titan is pretty much a big jerk, and the lyrics are a reminder of his superiority complex:
“Now kneel overdweller, your lord commands / There’s no salvation for the sons of man / The skies will tremble and the earth will quake / From the crumbling walls no one escapes.”
Garuda comes next with “Fallen Angel”, which follows in similar footsteps to Titan’s theme by punching up the guitar and making more prominent use of vocals. Apparently, the original “Fallen Angel” has some lyrics, and while this rendition doesn’t get a full lyrical treatment, the haunting chorus is sung skillfully (in a language I can’t pinpoint) by Akane Ikeya, whose previous credits include Square Enix’s The Last Remnant and Front Mission Evolved. All of this is accented by a bit of maniacal Garuda laughter, because why not?
The last three primal songs are noteworthy, as none of them have seen an album release until now. These primals — Leviathan, Ramuh, and Shiva — were added to the game after the soundtrack released. “Through the Maelstrom” isn’t wildly different from the in-game version, but is once again a more intense variation. Thankfully, Soken himself handles the “Leviathan!” chanting, since I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“These voices telling me let it go (let it all go) / I try and try but I can’t say no (try and say no) / This endless nightmare has just begun (nowhere to run) / My heart is dragging me down into oblivion”
Shiva’s “Oblivion” is interesting, as the original version is already a straight-up J-rock song anyway, so this band version almost seems like an alternate version rather than an actually different take on the song. Not that this is a bad thing — unless you’re averse to J-rock. The Lady of Frost already had one of my favorite themes in the game, and it remains so on this album. And while it’s not the only reason I like it, kudos to you, Michael Christopher Koji Fox, for having the idea of using “let it go” in your lyrics in a wildly different way than everyone knows them from Frozen.
“Now lift thine heavy head and vanquish thy sorrow / Lightning doth strike / Thunder doth roll.”
Ramuh’s “Thunder Rolls” is the only primal song that goes in a totally different direction from the other band tracks. While some great guitars eventually kick in, it’s a slow build-up, and they still take a backseat to the wonderfully ethereal singing — again by Akane Ikeya — that really makes this song beautiful.
From Astral to Umbral comes on a Blu-ray disc, and while I don’t want to repeat what I said in my other reviews too much, what this offers is a multimedia experience that has videos of each primal battle in the game rolling along with the music. It’s a fun addition (even if the poor dragoon dies in almost every battle), but the really important feature is that the disc allows you to copy mp3 versions of each song to your computer. Upon opening the menu to do so — and importers, don’t worry, nearly everything on the disc is in both Japanese and English — you’ll see four different categories. Along with the piano and band tracks I discussed above, all twelve original versions of these songs are also available. This is noteworthy, as half of the primal songs have yet to see an album release, so this disc will give you both the new band versions and the originals of Ramuh, Leviathan, and Shiva’s theme. It was an unexpected bonus, and I was delighted to see these included.
Of course, there’s also a “secret” track that requires a password to unlock. I won’t spoil what it is, but it was certainly a unique choice!
From Astral to Umbral is a great, if perhaps disjointed experience. I think everything on here is worth hearing, but I wonder if grouping the piano and band tracks was just a way to get this music out to the public sooner, versus waiting longer to create two complete, distinct albums. There’s enough talent here that I think that’s the way to go, and I’m hoping that sometime in 2015 there will be enough primal themes to warrant a full Primals album. And I wholly endorse a complete piano album by Keiko, since I’d love to hear what she could do with other types of songs from A Realm Reborn, such as battle or boss themes.
That said, I think this album is definitely worth owning if you’re a fan of XIV music, rock music, and/or the piano. That the album actually contains double the tracks listed on the back cover is just some delicious icing on the cake. No lie.