For the past three years Arnie Roth and Nobuo Uematsu have, with the generous support of Square Enix, brought the music of Final Fantasy to fans across the world with their wildly popular Distant Worlds concert series. From the inception of the program, Distant Worlds has sought to bring a polished, highly professional approach to their stage shows which are of peerless musicianship. While some videogame concerts may rely on lasers and smoke machines to supplement their orchestral performances, Distant Worlds instead uses simple, stunning and often humorous in-game videos which are synchronized with the music to provide visual references to some of the most famous musical themes from the 25-year-old franchise. Opting for this understated approach has helped Distant Worlds attract fans from inside and outside the game community without ever feeling tawdry or gimmicky.
Since the very first concert in Stockholm back in 2007, fans have been requesting a DVD of the concert to help them live, or relive, the Distant Worlds experience. This year, Distant Worlds has released Returning Home, a live DVD and CD set of the November 2010 concerts in Japan. At the low price of $30.00 (for two CDs and one DVD), some fans have been skeptical of Returning Home's ability to supplement the music from the Distant Worlds I and Distant Worlds II albums while simultaneously delivering both an engrossing video of the concert performance. Those fans, and newcomers to Distant Worlds, can all rest easy knowing that set does all of that and more. This combination set is a must-have item for fans of Final Fantasy music whether they have seen the concert in person or not.
The music on both CDs is recorded live from the concert performances in Japan and is not digitally remastered. There are occasional wrong notes and delayed entrances on a few pieces, but there are also great bends on notes, subtle improvisational flourishes, and new arrangements of tracks from earlier Distant Worlds album releases. What this album does not have is distracting crowd noise and intrusive commentary from Arnie Roth (or anyone else for that matter). Not a single word is spoken to introduce any of the songs on the recording CDs, and what crowd noise there is so understated that it seems artificial. Distant Worlds knew well what they were doing in recording these concerts in Japan, since the Japanese concert culture is both very polite and very reserved. Only one track ("Answers") has an interruption of crowd noise in the course of its run, and that is due more to a long break towards the conclusion of the song and the audience's unfamiliarity with a debut arrangement.
One thing that distinguishes Returning Home from previous CD releases is the new arrangements of music from Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIV available on the CDs. While there is considerable overlap with the earlier Distant Worlds albums (14 out of a total of 26 tracks from Distant Worlds I and II are repeated on Returning Home) there are a few new arrangements to satisfy ardent critics. "Medley 2002", for example, no longer features the chocobo theme and instead has the Main Theme of the original Final Fantasy inserted in its place. This arrangement brings the series-defining theme into the Distant Worlds catalog for the first time which should satisfy hardcore fans of the franchise while pleasing casual ones simultaneously since it segues into the concluding "Rebel Army" theme of the medley more naturally.
On the topic of chocobos, the crowd-pleasing "Swing de Chocobo" has a new arrangement as well which features a preview of the Final Fantasy XIV chocobo theme at its opening. The new theme is decidedly more western (think cowboy hat, not western civilization) in its feel, and feels somewhat shoehorned into the big band styling of "Swing de Chocobo" Still, it is a short piece and provides future-facing context for a theme familiar to most anyone who has played a single Final Fantasy title and it's also quite catchy. "Dancing Mad" is the final preexisting piece to debut a new arrangement, and does so with a fully orchestral and choral performance that features no electric keyboards or guitars. While I am a huge fan of the Earthbound Papas debut on the arrangement for Distant Worlds II, I prefer the more understated and coherent feel of this arrangement for its raw orchestral power.
The real allure of the Returning Home CDs, however, is the new arrangements that they provide for aficionados of Distant Worlds music, all of which are present on the second CD. 22-year-old piano wunderkind Benyamin Nuss makes his Distant Worlds album debut with "Those who Fight", a fan favorite from Final Fantasy VII that begs for a full orchestral arrangement. Nuss' impeccably madcap performance is scintillating enough, however, that many listeners may not realize that they're listening to a solo piano performance until a minute or so in. The intensity and dynamics vary wonderfully throughout the piece and the main melody is conveyed cleanly throughout without being lost in stylistics or supporting off-hand phrases.
Music from Final Fantasy XIII is represented strongly on the disc too, with five arrangements from Masashi Hamauzu's critically acclaimed soundtrack. "Blinded by Light" is a fast-paced battle theme driven by a relentless snare drum cadence and features the brass and string sections alternating (and wonderfully). The arrangement has a slight John Barry/James Bond quality during the brass themes, which is something I would not have imagined the soundtrack version lending itself to... but it is exciting, and it provides appropriate tension and energy throughout the piece. "Fang's Theme" is slightly lighter action theme than "Blinded by Light". but shares a similar, if not identical, snare drum cadence from beginning to conclusion. The woodwind section (particularly flutes and clarinets) shine on this arrangement, as does the piano and harp which help counterbalance the aggressive attacks from the trumpets on their entrances.
"March of the Dreadnaughts" is delivered as an expert solo by Benyamin Nuss, who is featured on "Saber's Edge" as well, and is every bit as chipper and mercurial as Hamauzu's soundtrack arrangement. While Nuss' performance may provide the piece with a sense of gravity that it originally lacked, the same sense of childlike fascination is heard in every one of his notes, although, the title and lighthearted feel of the piece may confuse those unfamiliar with Final Fantasy XIII. Soloist Frances Maya delivers a compelling vocal performance on "The Promise - Fabula Nova Crystalis", with the string section backing her up wonderfully.
"Saber's Edge" is the final arrangement from the title present on Returning Home. While one of the less traditional boss fight themes from Final Fantasy, but it lends itself quite well to an orchestral arrangement. While it may lacks the sense of urgency and foreboding of other boss fight tracks ("Tough Battle" from Final Fantasy XI comes to mind), the dissonance and minor chord progressions help imbue it with a subtle threat that the orchestra has fun playing with. I do find this track difficult to distinguish from "Blinded by Light" or "Fang's Theme" on random shuffles of the Returning Home playlist, but that is perhaps due to my lack of familiarity with XIII than the arrangements themselves.
Final Fantasy XIV is also featured prominently with four new arrangements making their way into the Distant Worlds catalog. "Navigator's Glory", a strident and militant march features powerful swells from the brass and strings over driving, if slightly repetitious, percussion. Although the piece softens considerable at the 2:30 mark, it builds to an epic, sweeping reprisal of the main theme recalling elements of Star Trek, The Magnificent Seven, and Naoshi Mizuta's "The Republic of Bastok" from Final Fantasy XI. "Twilight Over Thanalan" by contrast is a far more subtle piece, moving in a soft, almost bittersweet, style punctuated by several big orchestral hits which should dispel any misconceptions a listener may have regarding the sleepy title of the track. The break to a solo violin melody at 2:14 in is by far my favorite moment of the piece, although I may be prejudice to the soloist's exceptional performance.
"Answers" is a terrific addition to the Distant Worlds catalog of music and reason enough alone to consider purchasing the Returning Home set. It opens with deep, but clear, a capella male vocals before soloist Susan Calloway's impressive vocal range is featured above the supporting orchestra. The chorus and Calloway then have an antiphonal exchange over the orchestra, varying between harmony and dissonance before the piece builds to a shaking climax and then concludes with a premature round of applause from the audience and a final a capella choral conclusion. If you like Stairway to Heaven and Final Fantasy, this track will become a new favorite of yours.
The same can be said for "Primal Judgment", the final offering from Final Fantasy XIV which is suitably dramatic and minor in its opening before punishingly precise woodwind 16th note syncopations, fast string phrases, and truly excellent supporting choral vocals play counterpoint with brass lines. Sure, it may sound a bit too much like Holst's "Mars Bringer of War" at points, but taken as an example of Uematsu's latest work it is an exciting indication of what he, Final Fantasy, and Distant Worlds, have yet to offer to fans.
The final new piece to be featured is "Clash on the Big Bridge" from Final Fantasy V, which replaced "One-Winged Angel" as the encore for the Japan concerts. While Sephiroth's iconic theme holds a place near and dear to the hearts of international Final Fantasy fans, Arnie Roth's arrangement of Uematsu's classic shows exactly why "Clash on the Big Bridge" is rated as one of the most popular video game music tracks of all time in Japan. Boasting one of the most difficult arrangements of any Distant Worlds offering, "Clash on the Big Bridge" is delivered flawlessly save for a relatively minor wrong note heard as a featured trumpet slides into the correct pitch. The low brass section is clear and powerful throughout (something which was lacking from the North American debut in Brooklyn) and the supporting chorus addes a layer of complexity over the demanding orchestral performance. While only 3:24 in length, this performance shows the potential that this piece has to upstage "Dancing Mad", "Opera - Maria and Draco" and perhaps even "One-Winged Angel" when performed properly.
"One-Winged Angel" opens the Returning Home DVD setlist and, despite the tremendous performance, the audience is silent to the point of being unsettling. Once the piece is finished and Roth turns to them for his bow, the auditorium is flooded with appreciative applause and a few enthusiastic vocalizations. This established the tone for the entire concert as the audience is careful to never intrude on the performance of the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra or Keio University Wagner Society Choir. Even during the credits over "Terra's Theme", the audience is careful to hold their applause until the end while North American audiences normally erupt in roars of appreciation as soon as Nobuo Uematsu's name is displayed on the screen.
In terms of the visual aesthetic, the DVD balances performance shots of the orchestra nicely with supporting game footage, with highlighted moments from the visuals being given full-screen prominence when appropriate. Often, the standard perspective is taken from the lower mezzanine or from pit, just below the lip of the stage, and captures both the orchestra and the visuals on the screen behind them. I would have loved a "game visuals only" viewing mode to be added to the DVD as an option, but with the focus of the camera split between the orchestra and visuals almost evenly, I don't see this as too much of an omission more like the difference between an "A" performance and an "A+" performance. Many of the more compelling visual arrangements like "To Zanarkand", "Vamo' alla Flamenco", "Don't be Afraid", "Swing de Chocobo" and others are preserved and given priority over orchestral shots.
The cameras pan around the spartan stage of the Tokyo International Forum Hall comprehensively, and not intrusively, providing the viewer with a perspective on the orchestra's performance that they would never be afforded at a live concert. This bird's eye view shows that each section is provided with sound reinforcement (that's microphones, for you and I) much to the benefit of the listener since this makes sound balancing far easier and allows for key melodies and phrases to make their way onto the DVD and CD clearly. The egalitarian camera is not prejudice to one section over another, and every musician from the auxiliary percussionist to the bass clarinetist are all given screen time.
Arnie Roth's interactions with the audience are limited, but a welcome glimpse of the full Distant Worlds experience that I am happy to see preserved. His concert introduction before "Victory Fanfare" is the most that he speaks to the camera at a given time outside of his introduction of selections from Final Fantasy XIII and Final Fantasy XIV. When he introduces soloists is affable and brief, providing context and due honorifics without detracting from the music which would be a shame since the soloists chosen for this concert series are, in a word, flawless. All perform their pieces from memory, often with their eyes closed (as is the case with Meng-Feng Su on guitar) and are able to deliver performances that 10 of their contemporaries with scores would be hard-pressed to emulate. Benyamin Nuss's from-memory performance of "Those who Fight" is brilliant to the point of being frightening.
"Dancing Mad" is one of the true gems of the DVD and will accordingly be treasured, since not every fan of Distant Worlds will have the opportunity to the piece performed live (the requisite organ somewhat limited by the venues which can provide them) The new arrangement, solely driven by the orchestra and chorus, mixes in many of the beautiful full-motion videos from the Playstation version of Final Fantasy VI as well as some 16-bit sprite battles and scenes from a Kefka/Terra battle from Dissidia marking the crossover fighter's first appearance at a Distant Worlds concert. The orchestra, organ soloist, and choir are all featured as well, shown to be hard at work on Roth's sweeping arrangement of one of Uematsu's most popular boss fight themes. Other notable selections from the DVD are the pieces from Final Fantasy XIII and XIV, with the visuals being made available to many fans for the first time. The all-new arrangements are fresh and energetic, matching awe-inspiring videos with excellent musicianship. Even the quieter pieces such as "Twilight over Thanalan" and "The Promise - Fabula Nova Crystalis" are matched with captivating visual accompaniments that keep the viewer's interest despite the more sedate natures of the piece. The excellent orchestration on XIV's "Navigator's Glory" and the magnificent supporting visuals which are nothing short of staggering serve as the best advertisement for the MMORPG to date. "Answers", the featured theme of Final Fantasy XIV, focuses almost exclusively on the beautiful and talented Susan Calloway but offers only a few dramatic screenshots of the game to lend context to the epic nature of the piece without detracting from the musical performance. This lack of visuals is made up for in "Primal Judgment" which places a good mixture of actions scenes above one of the more demanding arrangements Distant Worlds has debuted in a long time.
The special features are limited to a ~10 minute long "Making of Distant Worlds" documentary which offers unsurpassed access to the rehearsal process as well as the relationships between Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Arnie Roth, as well as Uematsu's reflections on bringing the music of Final Fantasy back to Japan through Distant Worlds. What is most insightful about the documentary is the genuine air of humility that both Uematsu and Hamauzu display when reflecting on how many people their music has touched.
Accompanying the DVD and 2 CD set is a 20 page full color booklet which chronicles the Japanese Distant Worlds concert experience as well as personal messages from of Arnie Roth, Nobuo Uematsu, and Masashi Hamauzu. Photographs taken backstage and during rehearsals give the audience a glimpse into the work that goes on behind the curtain of a Distant Worlds performance while pictures taken during the concerts show some of the more impressive, and well-received, game videos chosen to accompany their respective songs. While many of the photographs are on the small side, the production value behind the booklet is impressive and it is a very nice display piece to accompany the Returning Home set. Hardcore fans will likely find it a nice collector's item, while those unfamiliar with Distant Worlds will benefit from its inclusion as it will provide them with some idea of what to expect from the concert DVD.
The CDs are of absolutely excellent recording quality and are top-notch additions to the remastered recordings of Distant Worlds I and II. If you normally avoid live albums because of crowd noise, you can buy Returning Home with confidence knowing that while the applause is there, it is always at the end of the track and follows a 2-3 second pause from the last note... so you can always either trim the MP3 or set the stop time in iTunes to remove it altogether.
The DVD delivers a faithful representation of a Distant Worlds concert experience while giving even veteran fans a new perspective into a wonderful concert series. If you are a fan of videogame music in general or Final Fantasy music in specific, there is no reason not to own a copy of Distant Worlds Returning Home. If you have never seen a Distant Worlds concert, buy a copy of this set to see what a videogame music concert should be like.