Beer SQ is certainly the most niche production in Square Enix's ever-growing line of cover albums. As the title and artwork suggests, all the arrangements are inspired by the type of music found in pubs and bars, with a particular focus on folk. The combo seemed to be a strange fit, but plenty of people were excited by the concept and samples.The featured pieces certainly tend to be enjoyable, but they're not substantial or numerous enough to fully satisfy. The album was released in two versions, a regular edition featuring eight tracks and a limited edition featuring a bonus disc, the former of which is reviewed here.
One of the most interesting aspects of the SQ series is the way it offers fresh takes on themes many have heard hundreds of times over. Take the opener, for example, a gypsy jazz performance of the main theme of the Final Fantasy series. To a brisk polka-esque backing, the experienced lead instrumentalists from RÄFVEN fiddle, trombone, and alto sax inject new life into the melody. There's a fine balance of straightforward interpretations and liberal improvisations, ensuring the gypsy influence is fleshed-out without losing the essence of the original. While by no means a creative masterpiece, it is an enjoyable little experiment. Later in the album, listeners are also given a considerably less successful remake of the Prelude. Daichiki Yoshida creates a unique, dreamy timbre by blending wavering sitar leads, electronic arpeggios, and earthy percussion. But once he's presented this concept, he doesn't expand upon it and instead repeats the same ideas ad nauseum. Emphasising the downside of the series, the final result comes across more as a gimmick than a fully realised artistic venture.
Despite taking new directions, the featured artists generally seem to respect the original games and soundtracks here. Written and performed by folk rock outfit Mohikan Family's, "Can You Fly Sister?" captures the gliding feel of the Seiken Densetsu 3 original. The accordion and tin whistle leads really bring out the lyricism of the original melodies, while offering more colour and richness than the six channel SNES original could possibly do. It's easy to imagine punters in an old tavern dancing to this one, as portrayed by the cover. In the end, its style is a little unorthodox, but its appeal is likely to be widespread. By contrast, Blue Moon Quartet's lounge jazz performance of "Guardia Millenial Fair" inspires one to take a seat and relax. The performance remains soft and unobtrusive throughout, but still highlights the melodic wit of the Chrono Trigger favourite. It's easy to imagine Hiroki Kikuta and Yasunori Mitsuda being pleased with the takes on their respective originals, since they retain the mood and melodies so well, while offering a modern, artistic take.
Unfortunately, the intended centrepiece of the album a nine medley of Final Fantasy VI's much-loved character themes ends up being by far the least competent track of the entire SQ series. It starts off promisingly with a 1930s big band rendition of the ever-catchy opera house theme, before moving into a series of renditions of successive character themes (Gogo oddly the first of them). Rio Okano manages to emphasise Nobuo Uematsu's melodies, while retaining the vintage influence, but never takes the opportunity to expand or improvise upon them. Most themes are featured briefly and the transitions between them are so minimal that they are jarring. But even worse is their implementation. While live instrumentalists were involved, the poorly mixed recording fails to do them justice and there is copious electronic manipulation present. As a result, the ever-present trumpet and saxophone leads not only fail to energise the melodies, but sound distorted, artificial, and directly unpleasant. It's an atrocity to hear, especially for a wind performer such as myself.
After this damaging blow, there are only a few other additions to round off this eight track album. Live A Live's "Wanderer" shifts away from the bold Morricone-influenced stylings of the original in favour of a more intimate acoustic approach. Masanori Narikawa's acoustic guitar performance is spot on soulful yet rustic and is punctuated effectively by the bassist and drummer. After the aforementioned disaster, this track once again showcases what talented musicians are capable of. The performance of Final Fantasy VII's "Gold Saucer" has an even stronger Irish influence than the other tracks on the album. Perhaps inspired by "Fiddle de Chocobo" from the same sequence, it's a fiddle-focused jig that is bound to get foots tapping. Finally, the SaGa Frontier II arrangement is more complex, interweaving the melodies of "Roman" and "Vorspiel" between violin and viola. Though the final timbre verges on the thin side, it's a relatively inspired work with a clear Scandinavian influence.
Beer SQ was conceived as a niche side-album in a larger album series. Plenty of tracks boast creative arrangements and rich performances here, and are bound to appeal to those with a taste for folksy stylings. However, the overall offerings are meagre given there are just eight arrangements and the centrepiece is a stinker. It is better to skip the regular edition for the limited edition, which features a lot more content.