Friday, January 30, 2009

Darkness and Starlight, or When the Nostalgia Well Runs Dry

He just wants a drink. How he ended up in the desert I have no idea. Video game music, especially from the 8- and 16-bit era, holds a special place in the hearts of most gamers. If it didn’t, groups like The Minibosses and The Advantage wouldn’t be around. If it didn’t, Video Games Live – a cacophony of choirs, orchestras, and video footage – wouldn’t currently be touring the US and Canada, luring manboys from their basements and into arenas with snippets of Mario and Zelda.

Other game musicians have gotten in on the NostalgiaRockact. In 2003, Nobuo Uematsu, the renowned Final Fantasy composer whose work includes every numbered entry in the series formed a rock band called The Black Mages. Their style: what I can only call progressive metal (not unlike your Trans-Siberian Orchestras). Their outfit: Uematsu on the synth/organ, two guitarists, a keyboardist, bass, and drums. Their repertoire: Final Fantasy songs. Their freshman outing included some of the most well known of the series’ battle themes, including tracks from VI, VII, and the fight theme from the original Final Fantasy that started it all .

In March of 2008, The Black Mages released their third effort Darkness and Starlight. I’m blaming the Pacific Ocean for my not having heard of it sooner. Hit the jump for my review.

My impression after listening to this album is that Uematsu’s well is beginning to run dry. As I mentioned above, he used up most of his best rock-ready songs on the first CD. Their second release saw a few FFIV tracks (which made me happy), but it also included a few FFX tracks with some awful vocals. Check out this sample of “Otherworld.” On Darkness and Starlight, vocals are reserved for a fifteen minute rendition of the opera from VI. More on that later.

Back to the dry well. There are two FFVIII tracks on here. Two. Nobody liked that game. There’s a track from FFIII, the Famicom one that no one played until Squeenix wanted more money and redid it for the DS. There’s a song from FFXI. XI? You mean the MMO that I’ve never heard of anyone playing? Suffice to say, I didn’t have high expectations when I started listening.

First, let’s get the average ones out of the way. “The Extreme” is an adequate arrangement of the VIII track by the same name. It’s got a good mix, blistering guitar, but remains a song for which I have no nostalgia. “Assault of the Silver Dragons,” from the end of FFIX, features a machine-gun guitar riff for a theme and a helluva lot of synth solos. The general theme in FFV’s “Neo EXDEATH” is a little too “I’m trying to be spooky,” but the staccato guitar melody that pops up now and again is really tight. “KURAYAMINOKUMO” is from FFIII – you know, the one with the onion kids. It’s probably the boss battle, who knows. Uematsu’s melody is insane, I get the feeling he’s trying to show off. The guitar solo stands out on this one, channeling some Joe Satriani (not illegally though). Every once in a while the guitarists sound like they’ve been listening to a lot of Zakk Wylde. “Grand Cross” is one of those times. It’s the final battle theme from IX which I guess means I should remember it (I don’t). It fits into the running theme of this paragraph: “These were fine, but maybe you could have found an even better song?” There is a great metrical moment, however, about three minutes in. It goes from a measure of 8 to a measure of 7, back to an 8 and then a 9 before kicking into a new section. It tickles my cerebellum.

Remember before when I mocked Uematsu for the VIII tracks? Well, I forgive him for including “Premonition.” Since I’ve done my best to strike the game my memory, I have no recollection of what this track’s original sounds like. And I don’t want one. There’s a great sense of forward motion to the arrangement – the main theme travels up and down in register effortlessly, and shifting phrases organically cue the solos, as opposed to the solos attacking the songs as they do on other tracks.

Do you recall that time before when I ridiculed the choice of a FFXI track? Yeah, well I had good reason to. “Distant Worlds” doesn’t belong here. It’s a ballad done by a band that shouldn’t do ballads. It’s not that the chord progression or melody are bad. It’s that it sounds like it should on Now That’s What I Call Power Ballads! It’s Uematsu at his 80s-lighter-waving sappiest. Right down to the kick-down-the-door guitar solo key change. Would anyone who has actually played FFXI care to tell me where the hell this schmaltzy nonsense goes in your Second-Life-has-more-users-than-me waste of an MMO?

Then there was the 15-minute version of the opera from FFVI that I mentioned. Surely, Uematsu is trying to capture the magic of his epic “Dancing Mad” arrangement from the first album. Nice try. “Darkness and Starlight” is an awkward song, which stands out when (regardless of song selection) the band and their arrangements are remarkably tight. There’s awkward Japanese voice acting. There’s awkward Japanese opera-singing. Listening to not-so-great operatic singing over crunching guitars and a synthezier orchestra is the auditory equivalent of two middle-schoolers dancing. Holding each other at uncomfortable arm's length, they want to enjoy their time together - they just don’t know how. And neither do I.

The standout track is “Opening ~ Bombing Mission,” which is a wonderful rendition of the opening of FFVII. The synth strings at the start sound just like the original, and the big fat guitar melody matches the grandeur of the game’s opening screen. It then launches into a furious bass ostinato, echoed in some impressive palm-muted rhythm guitar. The solos, electric guitars and wailing synth, fit the post-steampunk industrial hell of FFVII’s Midgar. Furthermore, the song evolves organically underneath the solos, with synth horn fills progressing just as they do in the original. It’s an extremely tight arrangement, worth the 99¢ on iTunes if you’re like me and aren’t in love with the whole album.

For whatever reason, Uematsu also included a piece called “Life – in memory of KEITEN-.” It’s just him playing the piano. I’d just as rather listen to, you know, Chopin if I wanted some chill piano music. But I shouldn’t knock Uematsu’s keyboard skills, his stuff is taught in Japanese music theory classes after all.

Overall, Darkness and Starlight bears resemblance to its title: largely featureless, with a few brightly shining lights. If you were going to buy just part of the album, stick with “Opening ~ Bombing Mission” and “Premonition.” It might be my personal experience with the series speaking, but I’m pretty confident Uematsu’s running out of worthwhile Final Fantasy songs for his prog metal band. I hope he realizes this and moves onto Chrono Trigger songs next. In the meantime, I still have OverClocked.