I’m going to keep this short and sweet. I could easily ramble on for pages and pages about this recording, but I won’t. The music speaks for itself.
First of all, this is the best game music arranged album of 2010. It may be the best in years, with the only things rivaling it being other recordings from the WDR (drammatica, and outside of RPGs, Chris Huelsbeck’s “Symphonic Shades” album).
The content of the album is a series of four medleys: Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger/Cross, and Final Fantasy. All arrangement was handled by the wildly talented Jonne Valtonen.
This album is a recording of a live concert that took place in Cologne, Germany in 2009. All four “source material” composers were in attendance. Anecdotal evidence, including feedback from concert attendees, suggests that even these composers were impressed by the arrangements. The quality, and the choices in arrangement, are totally unprecedented.
You’ll notice that the CD is broken into five parts. First, an original composition from Valtonen, a fanfare to set the tone of the evening. Not as bombastic as I expected: more fluid, more like a river flowing into an ocean than a mountain being blown to bits by dynamite. That’s definitely a good way to start.
The first medley is the shortest: 15 minutes. Yes, that’s the shortest. It’s Kingdom Hearts music, composed by Yoko Shimomura. Surprisingly, these orchestrations are in no way borrowed from drammatica. This is a fully original set of music. Mostly slower, happier tracks are to be found here. Good stuff all around.
The second medley is the most surprising of the bunch. Using the source material of only one game (Secret of Mana), Hiroki Kikuta’s music is expanded into an 18 minute medley. You may be thinking, “wow, they must have worked a dozen or so source melodies into this medley.” Not true! The first five minutes is all “Fear of the Angels.” After that, you get the standard field theme, the creepy Lich boss music, and the temple theme music. Incredibly, these lengthy arrangements never become boring. I love the opening minute, where the orchestra members do some fancy stuff to re-create animal sounds to simulate that beautiful opening shot of SoM with the forest and the pink birds. It was here that I first noticed Valtonen’s ability to make heavy use of the choir, even in places the source material would not call for it. But it works very, very well.
My favorite of the medleys is the third: Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, composed by Yasunori Mitsuda. More than any other medley, here we find a layering of a variety of melodies. In the first 30 seconds alone, they take the opening of CT and pair it against the opening of CC. It’s genius. Perhaps it’s because this one had a little extra muscle: Roger Wanamo co-arranged with Valtonen, and he did a great job. By the end of this 17 minute medley, we have 3 melodies thrown against one another, occasionally with a 4th motif hidden amongst all the noise. It gives me goosebumps listening to it; even thinking about it can make my hair stand on end. This is a powerful, emotional experience. This medley also has a lot more in terms of sheer quantity of songs. Really, truly, a great medley.
And of course, we end with Uematsu’s medley of Final Fantasy music. Despite its incredible length (18 minutes, 30 seconds), the medley is almost entirely FFVI and FFVII. From VII, we get multiple battle themes, Opening ~ Bombing Mission, and a few moments of the Sephiroth’s music. Here we also learn, in the form of a musical joke, that Chocobos are stronger than Sephiroth. The Chocobo Theme actually appears twice in the medley, and it gets a lot of attention. Outside of that, “Mystic Forest” from FFVI is included, and it’s an excellent addition to the medley. Fans of FFV will recognize a quick tribute to Gilgamesh, via the “Clash on the Big Bridge” arrangement. Then you have the Prelude and the “Main Theme of Final Fantasy,” which transcends all FF games. What makes this medley so special is that the arrangements are so rich, so developed, so full of life, that they allow you to enjoy them on a completely different level than what you’ve heard on “Dear Friends,” “More Friends,” “Distant Worlds,” and so many other orchestral FF concerts. I didn’t think this franchise could have its music milked any further, but thanks primarily to Mr. Valtonen, I stand corrected.
I wanted to keep this “review” as informative as possible. My skills as a reviewer, and as a student of music, would not do justice to the nuance of the arrangements. Seriously, the music will have to speak for itself. Those willing to go the cheaper route should consider getting the digital-only copy. Presently the digital version is similar to the CD, but a digital-only encore track has been planned for the future – a recording of the 8 minute encore, which has bits and pieces of music from all four franchises covered here, ending with One-Winged Angel of course. Those who want the CD can, presently, go for either the European version (from Decca / Universal) or spring for the Japanese import (published by Square Enix). In any case, oldschool Squeenix fans, those who really loved Squaresoft between 1990 and 2000, simply must get this music into their ears, into their minds. It is a beautiful, beautiful fantasy – or rather, a series of fantasies.