The Black Mages II: The Skies Above, is the second arranged album by Nobuo Uematsu’s rock group, The Black Mages. While the first album consisted of rocked-out versions of popular Final Fantasy battle themes, like “J-E-N-O-V-A” and Final Fantasy VI’s “Decisive Battle”, BMII: The Skies Above takes a different route, by incorporating rock arrangements of non-battle-oriented Final Fantasy tracks.
The first thing I noticed about this CD was its beautiful cover art which had a very draconic feel. The CD also came with a cover slip featuring the same cover art, with the “Black Mages” and their logo in raised text, which makes this an incredibly displayable album.
Now to the actual music (which, overall, is excellent). I feel that this album specifically deserves a track-by-track review, since there is a more varied selection of tracks brought to the table this time around. Opening up with “The Rocking Grounds” from Final Fantasy III, which features a nice balance between guitar and keyboard, I immediately became engrossed in the music. It has a very hyped, upbeat sound, complete with some nice guitar wails during the early part of the song, but emphasizing the keyboard further down the line. “Zeromus” is another of the harder tracks on this album, and also combines the guitar and keyboard quite nicely, but this one ends up relying a bit too heavily on the keyboard at times.
The Album’s third track “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” will be familiar to most FFIX fans as the theme music to the Chocobo Hot and Cold minigame. Upon first seeing that this track was used, I felt somewhat worried, due to the fact that it not originally being a battle theme might dull its effect on this album. Conversely, I think that particular feature served to amplify its effect on me. This is easily one of the best tracks on the album, beginning slowly, reminiscent of its original form, but soon escalating into something vastly superior, containing plenty of additional substance for its remix.
“Hunter’s Chance” is another piece from FFIX fame, it being the theme music of the hunt, which took place in Lindblum. The song is just how I remembered it from FFIX, but it also feels like it was given an overhaul so that it could be more rock-oriented. The ending part of the song mellows out a bit, but succeeds in continuing the overall feel of the rest of the song. I’d have to say this selection is my overall favorite in the album, with “Vamo’ Alla Flamenco” coming in at a close second.
Unfortunately, not all of the songs are completely excellent. “Otherworld” is a prime example of the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” My biggest complaint with this track is the vocals…yes, vocals. Both “Otherworld” and “The Skies Above” feature full blown vocal work. They are also the two worst executed tracks on the album. The original “Otherworld” was excellent, due in part to the gruff, angry, male vocal work that permeated the song. This remix replaces that characteristic vocal work with a pretty, clear, female voice which, while sounding nice, just doesn’t work with this particular song whatsoever. In the same respect, the voice work in “The Skies Above” doesn’t work with the way The Black Mages remixed the song. The first two minutes of the song seem to be the original music from FFX, not changed whatsoever. The song then breaks into a characteristic Black Mages feel, although I don’t personally think this type of song was truly meant to be executed in this fashion.
“Matoya’s Cave”, another song which seems uncharacteristic of a Black Mages album, begins with a softer tone, and plays through the original melody once before transforming into a slower paced guitar tune. Due to the fact that there wasn’t originally much to this song, a curious honky-tonk section was added to the middle of this piece. I can’t get over how undeniably goofy it sounds, though, and it feels very out of place in the song. Other than that, this is a nice arrangement, which takes you back in time to the days of Final Fantasy. The CD then throws you into the futuristic world of Final Fantasy VIII, with two pieces: “The Man with the Machine Gun” and “Maybe I’m a Lion”. Both tracks are no-nonsense rock to the core, but still containing the original elements that made me love them in FFVIII.
Although I was too young to remember playing FFIV on the Super Nintendo, “Battle with the Four Fiends” has a very classic Final Fantasy feel, with just the right amount of Black Mages flair added in to spice it up. The CD’s final track, “Blue Blast” (a new/original piece), is a fast, furious track, which emphasizes some amazing guitar solos. This track seriously must be heard in its utmost entirety to be fully appreciated. All in all, I was simply amazed by The Black Mages’ second CD, which, although containing some minor flaws, left me loving The Black Mages even more.