The Black Mages


Review by · March 19, 2003

I’ll be perfectly honest with you, up until The Black Mages‘ release, I have been totally appalled by the arranged albums Square normally releases for their Final Fantasy games. It seems that we can always count on a piano collection that seems more mandatory than anything else, or something that has little purpose other than to put someone to sleep. Recently, the pattern has taken a turn for the worse with compilation albums such as Square Vocal Collection, Final Fantasy Potion 1 and 2, plus the Final Fantasy 20020220 concert, which is mostly songs that had already been orchestrated on previous albums. I’m not saying these are bad, but the market can only over-saturate so much before people start to lose their patience. Meanwhile, for people like me, who don’t enjoy piano collections at all and like the other relaxing styles only marginally so, it can get quite frustrating to see such great compositions go to such a horrible waste in the arrangement department (In contrast, others like Falcom and Konami kept a steady flow of both relaxing and exciting arrangements coming throughout the years). The idea of making an arranged album based on the excellent Final Fantasy battle themes is such a no-brainer, it’s a wonder it took Squaresoft all these years to FINALLY make their first full rock arrangement. That’s exactly what we have here.

Ten tracks have been selected from the Final Fantasy game series and have been given the hard-rock treatment with blazing synthesizers and guitars that bring back the glory days of pummeling foes with Fire 3’s and Atma Weapons. The arrangements, while originally thought to be done by Mr. Uematsu himself, were actually done by Kenichiro Fukui (who did the score for Einhänder) and Tsuyoshi Sekito (who has Brave Fencer Musashi and the Final Fantasy II Remake under his belt). I was a little disappointed in hearing this, as I was hoping that Uematsu would take a bit more pride in his own battle themes and do the arrangements himself. However, after hearing this effort, I’m more than pleased with the job Fukui and Sekito did in arranging these classic themes.

The track selection is a healthy one complete with no-brainers selections for rock arrangements and some that are more curiosities than anything else. Chances are if you’ve played Final Fantasy I, II, V, VI, VII, VIII or X, you have fond memories of the tracks listed. Of course, any true Final Fantasy fan is going to gripe about the tracks that have been (or haven’t been) selected and since I’m doing the review, here are mine: I’m happy that Final Fantasy III and IX aren’t represented here, as their battle themes weren’t their strongest points, but leaving out FFIV was a giant mistake. Themes such as the two boss themes, the main battle theme and the colossal battle with Zeromus are screaming for arrangements (and their fans are screaming along with them). Other glaring omissions is the music from the battle with Atma Weapon in FFVI and the final encounters in FFVII and FFVIII, when Uematsu really began to hit his stride with battle themes. On the flip side, there are some tracks that after hearing them really shouldn’t be here (I’ll deal with these later on). The arrangements themselves fall into three categories: Full-blown arrangement, marginal upgrade and experimental.

The full-blown arrangements include “Clash on the Big Bridge” (affectionately referred to as Gilgamesh’s theme), “Decisive Battle,” and “Battle Theme.” Simply put, these are the best tracks here, and the fact that they represent their 16-bit counterparts with a good amount of style and intensity makes them the three main reasons to purchase this disc. The guitars get a full workout here, adding solos and extra parts while keeping the overall feel that made the SNES originals so great in the first place. By far, “Clash on the Big Bridge” is my favorite arrangement. At about 20 seconds in, the guitars come bursting out of nowhere along with the cool “dancing synthesizer” effect that is heard in the original. The effect is unlike anything you’ve heard before, and it’s a four minute roller ride that you’re going to want to experience again and again. “Decisive Battle” is by far the most relentless track on the album, something I wouldn’t have figured from the original (which was never a favorite of mine). Three loops with enough power added each time around make this one a classic. Finally, the classic FFVI battle theme is slowed down and given a much harder edge than the original piece, which struck me as being a bit too lighthearted in the first place. All I can say is that it works well enough that I can say, performance-wise, this is the best track on the CD.

Next up, we have the marginal upgrades, which are “Still More Fighting,” “Force Your Way,” and “Fight With Seymour” from FFVII, VIII and X respectively. Don’t get me wrong, I like these just as much as the other three tracks I’ve mentioned. It’s just that because they are much more complex than the NES/SNES themes, they don’t sound like big improvements over their originals. Of course, adding guitars to already-kickass tunes is a surefire formula for success, so I don’t have that much to complain about; it depends more on what you expect from an arrangement that anything else. Of these three, the one that sticks out the most is “Force Your Way.” Addicting is the key word here (just like it was with the original) as the piece is given enough added guitar and some extra background harmony to make for one very powerful extended loop. “Fight With Seymour” was my favorite of Uematsu’s contributions to the Final Fantasy X OST and I’m glad to see it intact here, right down to the cool banging-effect. Still, the only real difference is a awesome guitar solo about four minutes in. Finally, “Those Who Fight Further” is the only marginally upgraded track that I find myself sometimes getting tired off. It comes exploding out of the gate, but the guitars quickly fade into the background, making this piece a lot less interesting than it should be. Then again, it could just be the fact that I listened to the original so much…

Finally, we have the experimental tracks. These are the tracks where most opinions on the disc will begin to change. For example, “Battle Scene II” really isn’t that great of a track to begin with, and the attempt to slow it down (I suppose to give it more of an epic feel) doesn’t help matters. The guitars help its cause, but this really was a poor choice for an arrangement. I found myself getting quite bored with it. On the other hand, “Battle Scene” is a nice version of the original Final Fantasy battle music. Only part of the theme is here, however (the first part, right when the piece starts), and the other parts sound like they’ve been overlapped onto it. It sounds somewhat messy at times, but is a pretty good piece to start the album with…It’s just not that great on its’ own.

“J-E-N-O-V-A” seems an odd choice for a rock arrangement. This track could easily have been a disaster. The original is sorta-techno, sorta-something else. Here, the arrangement keeps the original melody, while adding a throbbing techno beat and what seems to be random guitar work. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t (sometimes the beat drowns out the melody or the guitar is wailing by itself for no reason) but the end result is incredibly fun to listen to, especially when the guitar gets its act together towards the end. Given that Einhander was primarily a techno soundtrack, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to find at least one techno arrangement here.

Now we have the ultimate experiment, a full arrangement of “Dancing Mad,” the piece that played during the four-tier battle up the ominous tower in Final Fantasy VI to reach Kefka. Yes, you heard me right. This isn’t just the part where you meet Kefka at the top, this is ALL of “Dancing Mad”, literally from the ground up. The arrangers deserve some credit for taking on such a monster, but they do not deserve any credit for the way it was handled. For one thing, the synthesized voices that are used sound terrible. When I say the ones at the second part sound like they are hiccuping, I’m not exaggerating. The ones from the SNES OST actually sound better. Secondly, disregard anything I’ve said about rehashes on this album. Unlike the other arrangements, this is a carbon copy of the original and I honestly can’t say that it sounds much better (some parts, even without the voices, sound worse if you can believe it) The only true arranging comes at the second half of the final part, which roughly gets a three-minute guitar treatment. This section is actually pretty cool, but not worth waiting around eight minutes for it to come up. I wouldn’t say this track ruins the album, but it really is a joke. In fact, you could say that I was “feeling sad” after I was “dancing mad”…

One major complaint I have heard about this album is that sometimes the synthesizers take the full stage of the arrangements over the guitars. It’s a legitimate complaint; this album would be a lot better if it would go the route of, say Guilty Gear X: Heavy Rock Tracks, and use all live instruments, but since it doesn’t, it has to be taken for what it is. The synths are definitely high quality reminding me a lot of those Motoi Sakuraba uses in his arrangements (a very good compliment, for those not familiar with Sakuraba), but there really isn’t anything like a guitar wailing away at a well-known melody, or just flat-out creating its’ own mid-piece. Some people will never get over the synthesizers, but in my honest opinion they don’t detract enough from the music to lower my high opinion of this album (“Dancing Mad” being the exception). That said, Fukui and Sekito have gotten their feet wet with this style and I will be expecting them to improve on their next effort.

The final comment I will make on this album is that it is very addicting. The pieces flow very nicely, to the extent that they seem shorter than they really are. As such, I find myself hitting the repeat button quite a bit. Some tracks take longer than others to sink in, but once they’re there, you’ll wonder what it was like before Square decided to make a disc full of Final Fantasy battle arrangements.

The monotony of endless Squaresoft piano albums has been broken. The Black Mages should be widely available by the time you read this. You can likely find it for around $20-$25.

“Feeling sad” after I was “dancing mad”…That’s a good one. Maybe I “wasn’t glad” that “Dancing Mad” was “acting bad.” Or maybe…oh, never mind!

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