Understanding the lore of Kingdom Hearts can be overwhelming, depending on how deep a dive you want to take. Even with just a cursory look at the main entries in the trilogy, you can come away with many legitimate arguments about the central theme of the Sora and pals vs. Xehanort saga.
But if there is any duo I trust to capture the themes of a game through music — arrangement, performance, aesthetic — it is ROZEN and REVEN. Case in point: the Glory to Mankind arranged album for NieR, their first endeavor of the sort. This is a group that gets it.
This time around, with the trilogy complete (and yet, a KH3 OST still nowhere in sight…?), ROZEN and REVEN set their sights on Kingdom Hearts, with “The Keyblade War” as the focus. Yes, the war that began further back than anyone knows (well before Birth by Sleep) and continued on to the seven keyblade wielders of light and the thirteen of darkness. A classic clash of light and darkness serves as our backdrop, and the most epic musical selections come together in one immense collection (featuring over a full hour of music) as a tour de force for series fans.
REVEN’s vocals across the album are fantastic, though they are a clear departure from Hikaru Utada. I think this is good and right: attempting to imitate the original artist would necessarily result in an inferior product. REVEN’s vocals are different, distinct, and for the most part, work very well. I was particularly impressed by her ability to switch between English and Japanese in “Sanctuary.”
As for the instrumentals? This is where things get intense because this is no synthesized symphonic arranged album. Those albums can be great and have their place, but the team here decided to put together the resources to work with a 40-person choir and orchestra from Sofia, Bulgaria to record almost half of the tracks on this album. For the other tracks, we have studio session recordings from talented individuals like Kristin Naigus, who handles multiple woodwind instruments on “Simple and Clean” and “Face My Fears.” The ETHEReal String Orchestra makes an appearance several times as well, with my favorite performance from them being on “Organization XIII” alongside Ro Rowan on cello.
The sheer amount of work that went into this production seems to make it stand out on its own. But this album is more than the sum of its parts. With a full listen, I would argue that it far surpasses many of the official Square Enix arranged albums for the franchise, including both piano collections and the 2015 Tribute Album. What makes The Keyblade War work is the consistency with which it presents the games’ themes, as though ROZEN and REVEN were defending a musical dissertation — and we, consumers and critics, stand in awe when we would typically be trying to find holes in the arguments.
Listen for yourself. In addition to our audio samples, publisher Materia Collective has generously uploaded the entire album for streaming on YouTube, including some fantastic visualizations and a recording session video for “Destati.” If you appreciate the free streams, consider picking up a digital copy via Bandcamp, or even order the physical CD if you’re so inclined.