Distant Worlds II: more music from FINAL FANTASY
On its December 2007 release, I was perhaps the first of many to declare the original Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy album the 'definitive symphonic recording of popular Final Fantasy music'. Two and a half years on, the album continues to endure plenty of playtime in the iPods of numerous Final Fantasy fans, including myself. In addition, selections from the album have proved popular when performed live at the numerous Distant Worlds concerts across the world. No doubt there was room for even more, however. The original album only represented a proportion of the material originally featured in the concert tour and, since then, a range of new and pre-existing arrangements have been added. In spring 2010, AWR Music decided to satisfy the needs of hungry customers and release an album featuring brand 13 new studio recordings of series favourites by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. Entitled Distant Worlds II - More Music from Final Fantasy, the album offers plenty of additional symphonic favourites for fans to listen to, though doesn't match up to its predecessor in terms of its overall quality or impact factor.
The album opens with an extended rendition of the series' trademark theme, the prelude. The arrangement itself is recycled from the Japan-only VOICES - Music from Final Fantasy concert and, having conducted its premiere, Arnie Roth has no trouble emphasising its qualities for a live recording. The harp arpeggios in the introductory segment sound exquisite thanks to Laura Stephenson's sensitive performance and the crystal clear recording quality. The harpist is soon joined by the celestial sounds of a well-balanced mixed chorus, which introduce the theme's melody, before slightly thicker orchestral elements enter and give a sense of the epic journey about to unfold. "Zanarkand" also provides an emotional journey, opening with the simple but heartfelt piano passage from the original, before blooming into a woodwind-focused romance filled with Shiro Hamaguchi's lavish fingerprints. While this arrangement is also taken from an obscure source — Tour de Japon - Music from Final Fantasy — its appearance on the album provides the opportunity for a whole new legion of fans to listen to it from the comfort of their home. It'll be a delight for anyone who gets nostalgic and teary-eyed about Tidus and Yuna's romance on Final Fantasy X, though of course will be a nightmare for anyone who finds composers like Rachmaninoff too gushy.
Those looking for exclusive arrangements will largely be disappointed by the selections from Distant Worlds II - More Music from Final Fantasy. The majority of them have been heard before — some more prominently than others — and only a couple of entries are true exclusives. This feature was not a problem on the original Distant Worlds recording, since the performances were generally the finest available. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for Distant Worlds II and some performances certainly disappoint compared to existing versions. Take the second track, "The Man with the Machine Gun", for instance. The performance seems to lack the flair of its original studio recording on Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec or the grace of its adaptation by the WDR Radio Orchestra. While brisk and exciting, the harmonic section sounds even less comfortable in conjunction with orchestra than in older recordings due to the prominence of the trap set. A further disappointment is the brass use at the secondary section at the 1:27 mark, which sounds more jarring than courageous. The choice to mute the brass at tense section from 2:28 was an interesting choice, though the resultant timbral clashes did not work for me. Collectively, these features spoil what is otherwise an energetic and balanced interpretation of a popular arrangement and leave me, at least, longing for the original studio version every time. In contrast, no track in the original Distant Worlds album left me feeling this way.
In terms of interpretation, perhaps the biggest disappointment is the intended magnum opus at the centre of the album, Final Fantasy VI's final battle theme "Dancing Mad". This arrangement appears to be a watered-down and rocked-up version of the ambitious arrangement that appeared on the Fourth Symphonic Game Music Concert. The first two tiers of the arrangement offer plenty of contrasts through their use of orchestra, chorus, and organ. Unfortunately, the orchestra is principally used for the sake of loudness — limited mainly to rasping brass lines and aggressive percussion elements — while the other two forces are used in a more intricate yet sparing way. The centre of the arrangement is dominated by a series of complex solos from Oskar Ekberg on the pipe organ. The solos themselves are splendidly arranged by someone who clearly has had plenty of experience writing Bach harmonies. However, Ekberg seemingly struggles even in the studio setting to pull them off, resulting in many tempo changes and flustered moments. The effect doesn't sound dazzling, menacing, or aggressive as might be expected from the instrumental personification of Kefka, but rather desperate and feeble. The arrangement is even more perplexing during its final minutes, since a rock band led by Nobuo Uematsu — called the Earthbound Papas — enters from nowhere as if to admit that the other forces have exhausted themselves. Thankfully, the fourth tier does manage to redeem the arrangement with breathtaking interpretations of the climactic melody — first with an elegaic chorus and then with a Black Mages style rock fest — yet the parts that precede it are so underwhelming and perplexing that, even after this, most listeners will be wanting more.
While their action performances are dubious, the talent of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic is still evident in some of the slower entries to the album. For example, their interpretation of the "Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII" is of a comparable quality to most performances on the original Distant Worlds album. It is clear that conductor and orchestra alike truly understand the nature of the original piece and Shiro Hamaguchi's arrangement. There are still niggles — specifically the overly detached answering phrases in the introduction and the laborous woodwind performances from 2:13 — that could have been resolved with more authoratitive direction. Nevertheless, Arnie Roth brings out all the colour and expression in the tutti sections of the performance. His treatment of the crescendos at 2:45 and 3:26 is especially beautiful, while the haunting conclusion adds an interesting new flavour to the album. The performance of "Dear Friends" also deserves special mention. As with the original Distant Worlds album, Arnie Roth proves adept at integrating an acoustic guitar performance with orchestra, though this time to a very different effect. Per Skareng's performance beautifully resonates with the various transient woodwind passages. It's also fascinating how the arrangement often grows more improvisatory and expressive, while still retaining an air of subtlety and continually referencing the minimalistic central motif.
Other central additions of the album include performances of two vocal themes, Final Fantasy IX's "Melodies of Life" and Final Fantasy X's "Suteki da ne". They each feature the voice of the concert series' diva Susan Calloway and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic's interpretation of Shiro Hamaguchi's glorious orchestrations. Calloway is clearly a talented and expressive pop singer with a highly distinctive voice. However, I did not feel that she was the appropriate singer for the once-operatic "Distant Worlds" on the previous compilation, so I was worried how she would treat the vocal themes here too. For the most part, I found her voice to be a barely tolerable misfit for "Melodies of Life". Indeed, her emphatic pronunciation, pop-influenced stylings, and melodramatic elaborations are entirely incompatible with the mild and subtle melody lines of the original piece. It would have been much more desirable to listen to her perform a song originally intended for her voice. Surprisingly, her interpretation of "Suteki da ne" is quite powerful and will provide a welcome alternative for the 'Rikki haters' there. The song has been translated into English for the first time for the purpose of Distant Worlds. The decision to translate them has proven controversial and many will still consider the Japanese lyrics to be definitive. Yet while often sappy, the lyrics still intersynch surprisingly well with the original melodic lines and can sometimes be very emotional and nostalgic. Between the lyrics and performance, the Okaniwan flavour of the original is certainly lost, but the vocals certainly complement the elegant balladic orchestration. The final result is an entire re-imagining, not just a different performance.
Overall, this album does have the feeling of being a 'compilation of left-overs' than a 'definitive tribute to Final Fantasy'. Certainly, the majority of the original pieces are well known and enjoyable, but few of their arrangements have gone on to achieve the same status as those featured on the original Distant Worlds album. Perhaps the most obvious reflection that this album is a supplement is provided by the seemingly random inclusions of two short tracks, "Prima Vista Orchestra" and "Victory Fanfare". The former was a charming bonus addition to the VOICES - Music from Final Fantasy concert yet seems to add nothing to this particular collection with its 90 second playtime. Though a matter of personal taste, I also found it regrettable that this arrangement chose mainly to focus on the pompous and bombastic features of the original theme, than the more dainty and humorous ones. Also awkward is the placement of the eight second victory fanfare at the centre of the album. It sounds gimmicky at best, interruptive at worst — perhaps even superficialising the climax of "Dancing Mad" that preceded it. In part due to these additions, the album doesn't come together cohesively as a collective whole and seems to lack both the track-to-track flow and dramatic arch that define truly excellent compilation albums. The second half of the album is particularly perplexing in structure and it may have made more sense to place "Suteki da ne" or "Dear Friends" after the final track, the battle theme "J-E-N-O-V-A". Although many of the individual listening experiences are satisfying, the album doesn't come together well as a whole.
The aforementioned closer, "J-E-N-O-V-A", is the only true exclusive arrangement of the album. This arrangement is produced by the team at AWR Music, rather than Shiro Hamaguchi, resulting in a rather jazzy sound overall. It's impressive how the arrangement manages to maintain the dynamic and electrifying feel of the original while still focusing on an orchestral ensemble. The brass leads also capture the vigour of the melody lines and bring some interest with various jazzy elaborations. That said, the track would still benefit from numerous adjustments before being fully integrated into the Distant Worlds repertoire. As with "The Man with the Machine Gun" before it, the use of the trap set nevertheless sounds awkward and lazy. The arrangement also suffers greatly from lack of harmonic variety, especially in the initial sections, meaning it drags in several sections. In addition, the brass leads from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic deal with the lead melody and jazzy improvisations less well than the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra did in the live premiere, presumably due to their lack of training in this field. The verdict? It's a good translation of the original that adds a unique touch to the album. However, it's not sufficient as the only exclusive arrangement on the album and certainly closes the album experience in an abrupt way.
Distant Worlds II - More Music from Final Fantasy is ultimately a supplementary, rather than definitive, compilation of symphonic performances. It's intended for those who already liked the Distant Worlds album and want even more, but doesn't stand up that well in its own right. For the most part, the performances and recordings are of a high quality, though several sections and soloists of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra do not impress at points. As a result, most performances are either inferior or equal to those on pre-existing recordings, unlike the Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy album. In terms of arrangements, while most are recycled, the majority are from obscure sources. This means that there will be plenty of novelty for casual listeners and some opportunities to hear studio recordings of items that have only been performed live before. While additions such as "Zanarkand", "Dear Friends", and "J-E-N-O-V-A" were inspired, some choices such as "Victory Fanfare" and "Prima Vista Orchestra" weren't required and make the album somewhat unstructured.
What the team offer on Distant Worlds II is acceptable and worthwhile, but there is room for much further expansion and improvement now that Distant Worlds has been established in a live and studio setting. For the future, the Distant Worlds team should seriously consider bring back Shiro Hamaguchi to offer a range of brand new and high quality arrangements, given it is clear they are exhausting the available repertoire at least for hardcore fans out there. They also need to ensure they continue to rehearse sufficiently and employ excellent soloists in order to maintain a high reputation among fan and professional circles. In the meantime, fans of symphonic Final Fantasy music would be advised to purchase this set — either spending $9.99 for the currently available digital release or waiting a few months for the more expensive physical release. After all, it features a range of rare and exclusive arrangements in conjunction with good performances and excellent recording quality.
Second studio recording of the world tour concert series Distant Worlds.
Digital Download advance release of Distant Worlds II will be available on May 1st at store.ffdistantworlds.com.
all music composed by: Nobuo Uematsu
conductor and executive producer: Arnie Roth
performed by: Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Elmhurst College Concert Choir, Nobuo Uematsu's band Earthbound Papas
vocal soloist (tracks 4,8): Susan Calloway
guitar soloist (track 12): Per Skareng
pipe organ soloist (track 6): Oskar Ekburg, Stockholm Concert Hall Organ, Grönlund 1982
harp soloist (track 1): Laura Stephenson
orchestra arrangements by: Kenichiro Fukui, Shiro Hamaguchi, Adam Klemens, Sachiko Miyano, Arnie Roth, Eric Roth, Nobuo Uematsu
recorded on location at: Stockholm Konserthus, Elmhurst College Hammerschmidt Chapel
orchestra recording by: Michael Dahlvid, Lars Nilsson of Nilento studios
additional recording at: AWR Music Studio, Ping Pong Pit Studio
additional recording by: Mathew Prock, Katsumi Sanbongi
editing & mixing by: Arnie Roth and Mathew Prock
High resolution recording at: 88.2khz / 24bit
mixed at: AWR Music Studio
mastering by: Dan Stout of Colossal Mastering
awr music production team: Leanne Araya, Fritz Hocking, Eric Roth, Marcy Roth, Chris Szuberla
art director: Bill Dolan
photographers: Jan-Olav Wedin, Stefan Ellerich, Shinjiro Yamada
production consultant: Thomas Böcker
published worldwide by: Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
original publisher: SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.
special thanks to: Stefan Forsberg and all of our friends at the RSPO and SQUARE ENIX CO., LTD.
Prelude (Final Fantasy Series)Nobuo Uematsu
The Man With the Machine Gun (Final Fantasy Viii)Nobuo Uematsu
Ronfaure (Final Fantasy Xi)Nobuo Uematsu
A Place to Call Home - Melodies of Life (Final Fantasy Ix)Nobuo Uematsu
Zanarkand (Final Fantasy X)Nobuo Uematsu
Dancing Mad (Final Fantasy Vi)Nobuo Uematsu
Victory Theme (Final Fantasy Series)Nobuo Uematsu
Suteki da Ne (Final Fantasy X)Nobuo Uematsu
Terra’s Theme (Final Fantasy Vi)Nobuo Uematsu
Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII (Final Fantasy Vii)Nobuo Uematsu
Prima Vista Orchestra (Final Fantasy Ix)Nobuo Uematsu
Dear Friends (Final Fantasy V)Nobuo Uematsu
Jenova (Final Fantasy Vii)Nobuo Uematsu