Among the indie darling games out there, perhaps none have gone from “who?” to “YOU KNOW WHO!” as quickly and as radically as Undertale. The game’s chief development (story, programming, most art assets, and music) was performed by one-man wonder Toby Fox. Fox has been very generous with his fanbase, happily interacting with them and doing such altruistic things as donating $10,000 during the Awesome Games Done Quick [AGDQ] 2017 speed run of his own game.
Fox has also allowed any number of fan-made musical arrangement to go public and even be sold. He also agreed to some officially-sanctioned albums, with the understanding that his source material would receive the highest quality treatment. The two that come to mind, for me, are the Prescription for Sleep double-disc album, and this recently released Piano Collections album. Which is better? I cannot say for sure. What I do know is that, as great as the source material is, I’d rather listen to these arrangements than the OST. At this point, I am spoiled: this arranged music is simply too good to be ignored.
This official piano collection album was created by the “Materia Collective” group, who last made a Piano Collections album for the Square Enix classic Chrono Trigger. This collection, however, sports a different team. The arranger, David Peacock, seems to have a penchant for the concerto-style piano arrangements of the recent “Final Fantasy Piano Opera” albums. And, to match those talents, Peacock had his arrangements performed by accomplished pianist Augustine Mayuga Gonzales. Gonzales has worked on other Materia Collective projects, including “Hero of Time” and the FFVII and FFVIII remix albums “MATERIA” and “SUCCESSOR.”
Want to hear how good Gonzales is? Start at track 2, “Spear of Justice,” and prepare to be amazed. Here, I’ll even give you a moment to catch your breath.
I know, right?! Did you hear those running third-harmonies in the right hand near the end of the sample? It’s like that one Chopin Etude on steroids!
And it isn’t just that Gonzales is a pro, or that Peacock’s arrangements are both faithful to the original score and delightfully playful: there’s also the matter of production quality. Whether you’re running a quarter-inch cable out the back of a weighted keyboard or setting up microphones around a grand piano, getting a piano sound that is crisp, smooth, and free of ambient noise is much harder than you may suspect. The tones, the dynamic levels, the clarity of sound and sparse but appropriate use of sustain pedal — all of it boggles my mind. As an amateur pianist, I could only pray to create something this good, with a team of other professionals such as David Peacock, before I die.
Before we take a look at Undertale Piano’s softer side, let’s hone in on more of those battle tracks.
Look, I know everyone and their mom likes “Bonetrousle.” It’s incredibly catchy. It’s also one of the harder pieces to properly capture on piano alone. There are things any arranger can do to spice it up: for example, one team recorded a Klezmer style arrangement for a Fox-approved fan album called Undertones. The steadily increasing tempo that eventually results in all-out insanity works well. Peacock and Gonzales also utilize this technique, though not as drastically as the Undertones team did. Instead, Gonzales seems to focus on a light/heavy dynamic (volume) change between, and sometimes inside, repeats of the refrain.
“Death by Glamour,” in contrast, feels like it was built to be arranged for a single instrument. As a piano piece, it feels like it ought to be accompanied by a modern jazz dancer. You can feel the presence of a pulsating electronic beat, even though it isn’t actually there. The syncopated melody is as fun as it is intense. This is one of my favorites. And seriously, how about that glissando? It feels good every time!
And then, there’s “Asgore.” I think I would have preferred an arrangement of “Heartache,” but if you want that, I once again suggest the high quality album “Prescription for Sleep: Undertale.” From a compositional standpoint, “Asgore” always had that royal procession thing going in its intro: three big chords on beats 1 2 3, then hold the third chord across beat 4. The chords are dense, and they make a powerful statement. But then, we break out of the chords, and things start to get interesting melodically. And by interesting, I mean fast. Keeping up becomes a task, even if the left hand doesn’t have to carry an equally challenging weight.
Last, but not least, Megalovania. I won’t even comment. And I’m not offering up an audio sample either. You can take a guess at how epic this thing is, or just buy the album…
Elsewhere on the tracklist, we find all the not-so-battle-ish stuff. First, I’d like to make a statement about “Uwa!! So Piano” and “Alphys.” The former is a medley of the many “Uwa!!” tracks from the OST, the latter is Alphys’s character theme. Both songs were composed in an impressionist style. If you don’t know what that word means, but you know who Masashi Hamauzu is…basically, like that guy. As a result, turn those songs into piano arrangements (piano being Hamauzu’s area of expertise), and suddenly David Peacock is creating works that sound like they’re right off of “Piano Pieces SF2,” but for Undertale. This is especially true for “Uwa!! So Piano,” as its chief melody is actually quite close to the SaGa Frontier 2 main theme. “Alphys,” on the other hand, is just fun, bouncy, and rhythmically complex (irregular time signatures everywhere!).
Now, I don’t know why track 8 is called “Snowy” when, as far as I can tell, it is not a medley or mash-up, but a straight arrangement of “Snowdin Town.” In any case, it’s one of the best tracks on the whole album. Why, you ask? Because it’s one of Fox’s best compositions, and it’s almost impossible to make a song this good bad. I should think that when Peacock went to arrange this, he was able to kick back, relax, and assure himself that this one was going to arrange itself. And for the most part, it did, though Peacock made a handful of adventurous choices, particularly in the tremolo chords.
There are a number of songs with a very slow tempo that deceive the listener into thinking “slow equals easy listening.” Give it time, friend. Songs like “Fallen Down,” “It’s Raining Somewhere Else,” and “Another Medium” are all impressive because of how expressive they are. This is one of the things I appreciate about pianists like Gonzales: they can do the big bombastic stuff (Megalovania), but they can also provide all the appropriate level of nuance and detail to a softer piece. Well played!
As a final note, I must address the ending medley, “Hopes & Dreams ~ SAVE The World ~ His Theme.” This piece is the longest on the album, clocking in at just under seven minutes. The bouncy chords that hit on every eighth note except the downbeats of “two” and “four” make for an instantly upbeat piece. And then there’s the incredible melody, which just continues to build and get more and more fantastic, and just when you think the song cannot get any bigger, Peacock and Gonzales pull back, only to approach these songs from a different angle, again building all along the way.
Earlier, I said that this piano collection had a style similar to the Final Fantasy Piano Opera albums. I will say, further, that the overall quality of this album is right up there with all of those tried-and-true Final Fantasy Piano Collections, including the Piano Operas. In some ways, in some places, this two-man team from Materia Collective even outperform the professionals over at Square Enix’s music department. Could Hiroyuki Nakayama have made arrangements this good? Natsumi Kameoka, perhaps? What about Masashi Hamauzu himself? I honestly don’t know the answer. What I do know is that this album is one of the greats. It belongs right there, along with the classic FF Piano albums, as some of the best VGM on Piano money can buy.
There are plans for this album to be released on a double vinyl as “Undertale On Piano” through iam8bit, but as of the time of this review, its pressing has been delayed. Until then, there are plenty of digital outlets for purchase, including Bandcamp and iTunes. If you go to Bandcamp, you can also separately purchase either digital or physical forms of the sheet music. Can you conquer David Peacock’s arrangements? I preordered the physical book, so it will be a fun summer project for me just to learn the easier pieces. If I can master “Snowy,” I’ll be content. I won’t even attempt Megalovania.