The World is Square was released on Valentine’s Day this year, and it is every bit a love letter from Mustin intended for Squaresoft RPGs. Between Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, chances are most RPG fans will find one of their top games represented here. Three major composers of that era — Yasunori Mitsuda, Hiroki Kikuta (who seems to be spending a lot of his time recently contributing to indie game soundtracks with musicians like Mustin), and the venerable Nobuo Uematsu — are all accounted for. Arranging these favorites is a daunting enough task, but factor in that the oft-collaborating Mustin considers this his first solo endeavor, and it makes sense that it took time to bring everything together. 15+ years, to be exact.
The first track on this album was recorded in 2003. You read that right. The beautiful, nature-filled arrangement of “Fear of the Heavens” was recorded long ago. Naturally and possibly as a result of this, the album features a number of different musicians despite being labeled as a “solo” project. The last track on the album, “Serenity,” was even featured as part of the OC Remix collection Voices of the Lifestreram back in 2007. I’m happy to say that the smattering of performances here are generally a treat to listen to. William Carlos Reyes’s guitar performance in “From the Bottom (Depths of the Night)” deserves some attention. Elaine Li’s soaring violin in “Theme of Love” and “Coin Song” is very fitting as well, even when her part is more subdued near the beginning of the former. Most impressive, though, is how all of these performances are arranged in a manner that gives the album as a whole a consistent feel. The synth and electronic elements don’t clash with the instruments, and even though I’m always slightly nervous about singing on arrangement albums, the vocals here are extremely well integrated and performed. Thanks to a mix of Yusef Kelliebrew on drums and general synth backgrounds, the percussion on the album is also very strong.
The songs flow together nicely throughout The World is Square, and they’re all steady and downtempo enough to study or rest to. Plenty of channels and mixes of video game music exist as background for daily life activities, whether it’s sleep, focus for work, or even to accompany exercise. However, I would say that this album takes things a step further, creating tempered versions of each well-known song that get you the full impact of the music but aren’t distracting during your daily routine. Jayson Napolitano of Scarlet Moon Records, who published the album, is a bit of an expert in this area; he’s also brought this expertise to venues such as MAGFest, and lifestyle game music is a guiding principle that informs his work at Scarlet Moon.
Through a stylistic range, Mustin creates a soundscape in each song that is rich and complements the melody. Many of us grew attached to these particular songs because of the in-game events and environments surrounding them, and the lush sonic backgrounds of this album honor and respect that context. This is an absolute must when arranging such highly regarded tunes. Whether it’s the soft guitar and vocals in “Fear of the Heavens” or the way everything but the melody fades out for the bridge of “Lonely Girl (Terra),” the arrangement choices generally enhance the mood of the original work.
Perhaps that’s also the reason I feel the embellishments and improvisational touches throughout the album fit. They support the familiar melodies, providing a pleasant respite from the weight and intensity of these beloved pieces. There were a few points in “Theme of Love” where I found the juxtaposition of downtempo beats with the extremely…spoony(?) melody somewhat jarring, but the violin eventually joins in with those beats by delaying the timing of the melody and the whole thing melds, becoming an invitation to look at the song in a new light. This is not an easy feat when working with a song that’s been on a bevy of Final Fantasy albums. Where that invitation leads probably depends on whether you like that melody and if you’re a big ol’ softie at heart.
But maybe that’s the point here: making the expected just a little bit unexpected (like the funky interludes in “Forest Butterflies (Secret of the Forest),” for example) while staying true to the core of the original. Along this line, I would like to have seen the track order defy expectations as well, rather than organizing things by game, though I understand the efficiency of that grouping given the production time. Even so, transitions between songs are still quite smooth on the ears. Minor gripes aside, The World is Square hits the mark. The cohesiveness of the music and the album as a whole and the quality of individual performances are key determining factors in an arrangement album, and The World is Square excels at all of these things.