Hey … something feels wrong. I feel excited about a SaGa Orchestra album, but didn’t they just release a two-disc orchestral set for the SaGa series last year? Let me check my shelves … oh, yes. Yes, they did.
Now, “Orchestra Concert 2016” was recorded in late 2016 at a live concert in Tokyo, about six months after the “Legend of Music” orchestral CD had been released. If you want to know which arrangements were reused in this live recording they are: Disc 1 tracks 01, 03, and 05-08; Disc 2 tracks 01-05. On balance, that looks like well over half the album being repeated (11 out of 17 total tracks). However, in terms of total track time, it comes to about 50% repeat material, mostly because of the length of Natsumi Kameoka’s grandiose battle medley “Is This the SaGa of Living Things?” found near the end of disc 2, which runs at over 17 minutes in length! There also seem to be a handful of places where the “repeat” medleys were edited or expanded for this concert.
For this review, I will be intentionally focusing on the new content. Again, these are all new recordings, and the recording quality for a live performance is some of the best I’ve ever heard. Thus, even if you own “Legend of Music” already, you may want to invest in this album as well.
The first two “new” tracks are from some of the oldest games in the series. While “Legend of Music” had a SaGa 2 (Final Fantasy Legend II) medley, there was a painful absence of music specific to SaGa and SaGa 3. Orchestra Concert 2016 makes up for that omission with two new arrangements from Kosuke Yamashita: the only new arrangements to be found on the first disc.
“Returning to the World” is a medley track, as most of the other tracks on this album tend to be. However, based on the name, you might think it’s not a medley. This orchestral piece is 3 minutes long and is an arrangement of the OST piece of the same name. Fortunately, it is, in itself, a sort of medley. It serves as the game’s epilogue music, so it has original sections, the town theme, “Wipe Away Your Tears,” and more. This was a smart choice on Yamashita’s part among pieces to arrange, and the end result is stunning. I am very glad that it exists and that I’ve lived to hear it.
“Traveler of Time and Space” is a medley of “Field” themes from Final Fantasy Legend III (SaGa 3). This medley, also from Yamashita, includes four tunes: “Journey to the Future,” “Holy Ruins,” “Another Dimension,” and “Champions of Time and Space.” Fun fact: the inclusion of Chihiro Fujioka as a composer for this album is only because “Champions of Time and Space” was included in the SaGa 3 medley. In all other cases, the SaGa 3 songs included on this album were composed by Ryuji Sasai. Cheers to Fujioka on getting credited, and especially for having one of his best pieces on SaGa 3 chosen for the medley. If you know and love the whole SaGa franchise, you are bound to enjoy this medley as well. I still personally find SaGa 3 to be the strangest game in the franchise, in no small part due to the music (Sasai and Fujioka never returned to this franchise, though they did write the soundtrack for Final Fantasy Mystic Quest).
Disc 1 goes out with a four-part mega-mix of mega-medley, all of the Romancing SaGa trilogy, and all found previously on “Legend of Music.” Is it still amazing? I’ll let my review of “Legend of Music” and the audio samples do the talking.
The first half of disc 2 is all repeat content as well, covering the PS1 and PS2 SaGa entries. Strangely, Emelia’s medley from “Legend of Music” did not make a return, though Natsumi Kameoka’s excellent Asellus character medley did! As for the last half of the disc, let’s see … we have two live recordings from SaGa Scarlet Grace (the PSVita original title that is so unlikely to be localized, even with the announcement of the Switch port, making it impossible for me to “wipe away my tears”), as well as Natsumi Kameoka’s legendary 17-minute medley. And then, finally, the classic Romancing SaGa overture, specifically in its “Romancing SaGa 2” form, perhaps arranged and performed in association with its HD remake? I won’t complain, I’m happy with this being the encore piece.
Before we get to the main event (2-08), let’s talk about the two Scarlet Grace tracks. While they were not on “Legend of Music,” they were most certainly on the Scarlet Grace OST, complete with a symphony orchestra, arranged by Kosuke Yamashita. I performed a quick track-by-track comparison of the OST version and the live version, and the arrangements remain unchanged. The key difference, in my opinion, is that the vocal theme “Engraved on Our Hearts” features a more heartfelt and improvised performance from Ayano Nonomura — which is impressive and strange, considering Nonomura’s classical style.
And now! “Is This the SaGa of Living Things?” Yes, yes it is. This battle medley, according to the album’s liner notes, includes the following themes:
Furious Battle (The Final Fantasy Legend)
Lethal Strike (Final Fantasy Legend II)
Divine Battle (Final Fantasy Legend III)
Battle 1 (Romancing SaGa)
Battle with Kzinssie (Romancing SaGa 2)
Battle 1 (Romancing SaGa 3)
Last Battle -Blue- (SaGa Frontier)
Mißgestalt (SaGa Frontier 2)
Battle Theme EX (UNLIMITED:SaGa)
Invitation to Death -The Battle With Death- (Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song-)
Sound the Charge! (Imperial SaGa)
Divine Star – Guardians (SaGa Scarlet Grace)
What stands out here? Quite a few things. First of all, an orchestral attempt at the final boss battle from the first SaGa, “Furious Battle.” There was no way an ensemble could emulate those ridiculous 32nd (64th?) note runs in the song’s “B” section. However, Natsumi Kameoka came up with a clever replacement effect with a subset of the string section. The result helps keep the frantic pace of this classic battle theme alive.
Choosing another final battle theme, “Divine Battle,” from SaGa 3 was a bold choice. It would have been far easier to orchestrate the standard battle theme. But they did what they had to do, and the end result was fantastic.
Kameoka’s choice for SaGa Frontier shocked me. She had already arranged Emelia’s final battle theme on “Legend of Music,” and it would have been easy to include it in this medley. Instead, Kameoka does a lengthy arrangement for Blue’s final battle! I believe this is a historic moment in SaGa history, as no official/licensed arrangement of SaGa music has ever covered Blue’s theme before. It was far more appropriate to arrange this one for orchestra than for a rock band (probably why it never appeared on the “Re:Birth II” albums). But, now, here it is. And it turns the OST version, which I always found somewhat lackluster, into something bombastic and truly memorable. I love this! I love it so much that I wish it could stand as its own track on the disc. Even better, I’d like to see Kameoka arrange all seven of the character “final battle” themes from SaGa Frontier.
The next two, our Hamauzu arrangements (SaGa Frontier 2 and UNLIMITED:SaGa) are good, but they’re nothing unexpected. I knew going in that these would sound great, and I was right. Moving on… I didn’t know what I’d think of the “Battle with Death” theme from the Romancing SaGa PS2 remake (“Minstrel Song”) in the context of a full symphony orchestra. Well, surprise!! The SaGa Scarlet Grace vocalist Ayano Nonomura makes a truly unexpected return during this part of the medley (for those who own the album, her featured section starts at 11:30). It’s a good thing they didn’t arrange Passionate Rhythm, as I’m not sure Nonomura’s vocal style would have worked there. For this song, however? A classically-trained voice is the perfect match for the musical style.
But we are not done, ladies and gentlemen. The distinct lack of music from the PC/web-based game “Imperial SaGa,” which sports a surprisingly strong soundtrack, had bothered me when I first looked at the tracklist. Little did I know that Kameoka would include the game’s standard battle theme in her over-the-top battle medley. This was a great choice! It makes for a nice break from the dark tension of “Battle with Death,” and sets the listener in a good head-space to prepare them for the big finale. “Sound the Charge,” indeed!
When Kameoka brings us to said finale, she does so with one of the best tracks on Scarlet Grace, “Divine Star – Guardians.” Two worthwhile facts here: 1) On the OST version of this song, Kameoka did the arrangement; 2) Said arrangement was a rock arrangement with light orchestral ensemble. In other words, Kameoka took her prior arrangement of Kenji Ito’s source material and re-purposed it for an entirely new sound palette. Did she succeed? In a word: yes.
All told, this is a great live two-disc set. Its value is significantly diminished for owners of “Legend of Music,” but the original content tends to make up for it. The live orchestral experience is also a notably different experience than a studio orchestra.
As I write this, I am aware that we are on the heels of yet another SaGa arrange album. “Re:Tune” will feature jazz arrangements of songs all across the SaGa series. This, truly, will be uncharted territory for the franchise. Rock bands totally worked, orchestras definitely worked, but what of a jazz ensemble? Time will tell. Until then, I’ll be switching between the Re:Birth albums and the two Orchestra albums to keep my SaGa music needs satisfied. Personally, I am just glad that Square Enix continues to invest in their “black sheep” franchise rather than throw every ounce of their Music Dept budget to Final Fantasy.