After taking the “Dear Friends” tour all around Japan, Uematsu and crew showed up in the US to kick off E3 2005 in Los Angeles. This show, entitled “More Friends”, featured a full orchestra, the rock group “The Black Mages”, Rikki, Emiko Shiratori, some opera vocalists, and a big choir from a nearby college. The production was a big deal.
Though I myself missed the show, more than one RPGFan staff member got to see the performance, which included the “Mario and Draco” opera from Final Fantasy VI (which had not been performed in over a decade, last seen on Orchestral Game Concert 4). I thought I’d never have the chance to hear it, until Square Enix announced that they had indeed recorded the performance and would be releasing it on a CD in February of 2006.
And, considering the relative lack of FF orchestral performances (“relative” to, say, Dragon Quest), how could I not be excited?
The full 75-minute album can be broken into four sections. The first section is the orchestra concert proper: tracks one through seven. Eight and nine are a mini-rock concert from the Black Mages. Ten through twelve is the vocal section, with themes from FFVI, IX, and X. Then, as the encore, we combine orchestra, rock, and vocals for the big finale: a new arrangement of One-Winged Angel.
First of all, I have to say something about the sound quality. For a live album, it’s really good. The only problem is that the volume (on the CD itself) is set fairly low. I had to turn my speakers up to a pretty high level to hear everything, especially in the softer orchestral songs.
Now then, I’m going to have to tackle this one track-by-track.
The opening song, which is also the opening to Final Fantasy VII, starts with that ominous soft sound, then builds to the “Bombing Mission” theme, which is truly outstanding. By the end of this first song, I knew that I was in for quite a treat.
Alright, I know it’s a fan favorite, but I’m getting tired of Aerith’s Theme. This recording sounds great, but I was doing just as well with the recording at the end of “Reunion Tracks.”
“At Zanarkand”, the piano solo theme from FFX, really made me glad to own this album. Why? Well, for starters, it’s no longer a piano solo track. The full orchestra backs up the featured instrument, and the overall performance is splendid. This is one of my favorite tracks on the CD.
The FFVIII battle theme is one of my favorite battle themes of all time. This orchestrated version is great, but from what I can tell, it is the same arrangement from the arranged album “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.” It’d been awhile since I heard this song, however, so I didn’t mind. Nonetheless, the more new arrangements we get, the better.
The most disappointing track from the orchestra section is without a doubt Tina’s Theme from FFVI. While I was glad to see a pre-VII song on the album, the performance and arrangement are not up to par with the other songs on the album. On the piano collection, this is one of my favorite songs, but the orchestral arrangement left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Bouncing back, we get a big-band jazz version of the chocobo theme. Though the CD lists at as from the “FF Series”, Swing de Chocobo is the FFX version of the song. This performance is great, but with all the times that the audience laughs, I wish a limited edition DVD had been included; I want to know what they’re laughing at.
To bring an end to the orchestra section, the Final Fantasy main theme is on the scene. The majestic sound of this song is one I can never pass up. It beats the pants off of the Dragon Quest opening song, in my opinion. If the concert had ended here, I would have been satisfied. Still, it goes on!
Though the crowd seemed excited to hear them, I wasn’t all that impressed by the Black Mages. At least, not their live performances. It was just a lot of loud rock sounds. There weren’t any impressive solos or massive breakdowns: just a lot of 4/4 rock ‘n’ roll. “The Rocking Grounds” is a worthwhile song, if only because it’s from an old Final Fantasy title. “Maybe I’m a Lion” is a decent FFVIII battle theme, but this arrangement just doesn’t do it for me. I felt like the band could’ve picked much better songs for their section of the concert, but perhaps didn’t do so because they’d be too hard to pull off live.
I was thoroughly pleased with both Rikki and Ms. Shiratori; their live performances sounded more heartfelt and meaningful than the studio recordings from the respective games. Rikki’s “Suteki da ne” was particularly powerful as it had the orchestra backing it (much like the end credits version from FFX). But then again, Emiko Shimatori showed her skill by singing both the English and Japanese versions of “Melodies of Life” in one performance. For both of these songs, the dynamic quality (soft to loud, etc) really stood out as artistic. I didn’t expect myself to enjoy these two songs as much as I did.
Though the English lyrics may be cheesy, I cannot help but love this twelve minute operetta. The composition of the orchestral section is really what stands out to me. It’s so much better than the original synth part, I simply couldn’t get enough of it. The female vocalist sounded particularly weak, however. The battle music between 9 and 10 minutes is my favorite section of the song, and I also enjoy the part where the two males sing “Maria! Maria!” together. Listen to the audio sample to hear this part.
Finally, the encore performance that brings everyone together (well, almost everyone). This was the obligatory crowd-pleaser. However, the work put into it shows that this was no joke. The Black Mages shine on this piece in a way that the simply did not on the two other tracks. There are complex time signatures, breakdowns, awesome solos, the works! This performance used the same arrangement as what’s on the Advent Children soundtrack, but I was just shocked to hear it happen live without any major errors. This was a big deal to me, and it should be to you too. Like Metallica’s double-disc album with an orchestra, we again find that a rock band with a decent orchestra and choir makes for one outstanding performance. Yes, yes, yes! Glorious on all counts.
Compared to the other live FF album released (02202002), I prefer this one. The recording quality is great, almost every song is aimed to please, and rarely do Square Enix fail in this regard. Re-live your favorite FF moments (particularly from VII to X), and buy this album.