Tournament Arc


Review by · February 17, 2024

We’re early in 2024, and I’m already looking at a strong contender for arrange album of the year. The jazz/funk/rock ensemble Tournament Arc came out of left field with a debut album that launched alongside a live performance at Super MAGFest 2024. After multiple listens to this senses-shocking album, I now regret even more deeply that I was not able to attend MAGFest this year. Hearing their takes on Final Fantasy VII, Persona 5, and more in a live setting would have been quite a treat!

Tournament Arc is the brainchild of Mason Lieberman, one of the great movers and shakers from the Boston game music scene—alongside folks like Shota Nakama and the Video Game Orchestra (who are in the thick of touring a Sonic Symphony 30th anniversary world tour). Lieberman, a multi-instrumentalist who primarily handles bass guitar in his album performance, is one of four credited arrangers for this 12-track album: guitarists David Gibson McLean and Yousef Mousavi, as well as keyboardist Trevor Alan Gomes, took care of arrangements. These four, alongside Jess Destramp (sax), Casey Lee Williams (vocals), and Dom Palombi (drums), make up the core band; however, there are so many other performers who make this album special.

I’d like to touch upon a handful of examples of stellar performances across the album. First and foremost, in my mind, is the presence of Masahiro “Godspeed” Aoki. You may be familiar with his work as a guest guitarist in the special final battle of Hades, or in his multiple performances with the Break/Boost/Beyond band for Octopath Traveler. Aoki’s contribution to Tournament Arc is “Let The Battles Begin!”, the normal battle theme from Final Fantasy VII. How interesting to see Aoki recording with Square Enix on their own recording label for Octopath, and then with a Western third-party group like Tournament Arc (published by Materia Collective) for another Square Enix IP. Affiliations aside, Aoki’s shredding solos placed alongside Jess Destramp’s killer sax is a marvel to behold. Though McLean built an incredible structure in the band arrangement, equal credit must go to Aoki and Destramp for the fantastic solo sections.

Violinist Jeff Ball (composer of Timespinner, violins and arrange for Steven Universe, among many other credits) appears as one of the shining stars on the Chrono Trigger “Main Theme” arrangement. He, alongside Zac Zinger on sax and Trevor Alan Gomes on organ, put on a master class in jazz arrangement. Actually, upon further listening, there’s also a solid bass solo from VGO regular Louis Ochoa near the end of this track. If you want to hear this classic Mitsuda track expounded on perfectly, you’ll want to check out this track.

While there are plenty more instrumental performances worth discussing (Stemage from the band Metroid Metal, composer Darren Korb performing on his own track from Bastion, composer Austin Wintory playing accordion on his own track from Journey), I need to take some time to talk about Tournament Arc‘s great vocal tracks. In total, half of the tracks on this album are vocal-led, and they are all powerful, even emotionally brutal at times. The two Persona 5 tracks (“Rivers in the Desert,” “Beneath the Mask”) are obviously vocal tracks. For the former track, we get a soulful performance from veteran vocalist Donna Burke. Elsewhere on the album, Burke brings down the house with her rendition of Metal Gear Solid 3‘s “Snake Eater.” This is the kind of song I would describe as brutal. I love it.

The latter Persona 5 track, “Beneath the Mask,” features vocals from the talented Casey Lee Williams. The stripped-down, silky-sweet band arrangement helps to lift Williams’ vocals to the top of the listeners’ ears (alongside great mixing and mastering). In the album’s liner notes, Lieberman mentions that this performance was done with the group together in a single take. Given the talent and cohesion I hear throughout the album, I’m not surprised!

Later on the album, Williams joins Darren Korb on “Setting Sail, Coming Home” (Bastion) in a unique twist from the OST version. The style of this arrangement pushes the direction and genre of this fledgling band, but Williams and Korb work well as a pair. One wonders how Williams would do taking on other Korb vocal tracks, particularly from Hades. She seems to have the range!

In fact, Williams teams up with Laura Intravia and Shihori for a massive multilingual cover of the NieR: Automata anthem “Weight of the World.” Anyone expecting a watered-down imitation of the incredible Emi Evans and J’Nique Nicole will be pleasantly surprised by the bold choice to rebuild this song from scratch. Drummer Kevin Brown makes some distinctive choices that fill out the piece perfectly, and Lieberman’s direction allows the band to flex creative muscles all over the place. And look, I think most readers know I adore Evans and Nicole for their incredible original work. This piece serves as a beautiful companion and tribute, and I would urge you to give it a listen.

The final vocal track is not an arrangement at all. It is instead an original track written by Lieberman and co-written by Grant Henry (aka “Stemage”). With vocalist Johnny Gioeli (of Sonic fame) at the helm, this peppy rock ballad feels like it may as well be the theme song for the inevitable next Sonic game. You paying attention, Sega? Gioeli and Tournament Arc know how to cook up something with just the right vibe. And, given Shota Nakama (lead of VGO) recorded guitar for this track as well and they’re leading the Sonic Symphony, all the more reason…?

Indeed, cooking up the right vibe is what Tournament Arc is all about. In promotional materials and liner notes from the album, members of the band describe their vision of what they offer as ‘often jazzy, always classy.’ Guitarist and arranger David Gibson McLean took point on arranging what is easily the most overtly jazzy number on the album, “Cinco de Chocobo” from Final Fantasy VII. This variant from Nobuo Uematsu’s celebrated theme is named “Cinco” as its tempo is in 5/4, giving that perfect vibe that lets jazz fans recall perennial favorite “Take Five” (Brubeck). Much like Brubeck, McLean wisely chooses to keep saxophone on lead melody, though instrumentalists get to change leads during the improv section.

I focused on the RPG-centric tunes, but trust me, every track on this album is beautiful. I didn’t even get around to “Stickerbush Symphony…” whew. Seriously, just listen to it. You’ll see what I mean. There is much, much more to dissect with this incredible album. The genre-hopping stays generally in the scope of “jazz,” though you’ll also hear ballads, rock anthems, funk, and soul if you give it a full spin.

Giving Tournament Arc a full spin is, of course, something I suggest you do. This one comes with very strong recommendations from yours truly. If you want to purchase the album, it is available in four different formats! Digital, cassette tape, CD, and vinyl, all depending on your preference and budget, are available via Bandcamp. Additionally, the album is available for free streaming via Spotify, aforementioned Bandcamp, and other services! You will not be let down by this one.

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Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann

Therapist by day and gamer by night, Patrick has been offering semi-coherent ramblings about game music to RPGFan since its beginnings. From symphonic arrangements to rock bands to old-school synth OSTs, Patrick keeps the VGM pumping in his home, to the amusement and/or annoyance of his large family of humans and guinea pigs.