Final Fantasy XIII (Masashi Hamauzu)


Despite a prolonged development period lasting from 2004 to 2009, Final Fantasy XIII met with mediocre to hostile reviews upon its release. Despite a strong story, it was criticized for being linear (even by the series’ already linear standards), with an agonizingly long setup, irritating characters, no towns or sidequests to speak of, overly copious and melodramatic cutscenes, and a number of narrative jumps that seemed dictated more by existing assets to be stitched together than any overarching plot. In short, it was a return to the excesses of Final Fantasy VIII by much of the same team behind the latter game.

One area in which the team was different, though, was in the music department. Nobuo Uematsu had long since left Square-Enix to freelance, and his energies were occupied by a number of projects during the protracted development (including several Mistwalker titles and the ruinous Final Fantasy XIV), while Hitoshi Sakimoto had gotten the Final Fantasy XII gig based on his previous relationship with that team (and the games’ overlapping development periods ruled him out as well). To pen the music, Square-Enix turned to one of the few composers still working for them full-time, and one of the few who had scored more than one mainline Final Fantasy title: Masashi Hamauzu. With major portions of Final Fantasy X and all of Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, the experienced and innovative composer and arranger seemed tailor-made for the assignment.

Like Sakimoto for the concurrently-developed twelfth installment, Hamauzu brought his own distinct style to the table with little or no modification, and the listener’s affinity for that style will, by and large, color their perception of Final Fantasy XIII. Hamauzu makes even less of an effort to give Uematsu’s themes a token place in his score: except for the Chocobo theme, there are no Final Fantasy themes in the game in any form. At the same time, the budget allowed, for the first time, a full live orchestra and chorus to be employed for nearly every track: the full power of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Warsaw Philharmonic Choir were at Hamauzu’s disposal for the project.

One would expect, given his rejection of most of Uematsu’s themes and his previous experience with Final Fantasy X, that Hamauzu would create his own themes for the project and adopt a similar style of brass and piano dominated action music. And, to an extent, the composer does: though never much of a thematic writer, usually preferring to use tone rather than theme to link his work together, Hamauzu conjures a very attractive main theme in “The Promise.” Initially on the piano, the theme is eventually put through a variety of paces and variations, from chipper (“In the Sky that Night”) to low-key (“The Archylte Steppe”) to pop vocals (“The Sunleth Waterscape;” see below). His themes for the main characters are a somewhat more mixed bag. The main character, Lightning, receives a string-led tune that is surprisingly classical and gentle, for instance, while the character of Sazh is saddled with a lame attempt at loungey jazz fusion. The militant Fang has a wonderful percussive and brassy fanfare, while the perpetually annoying Vanille is given a dour but attractive piano tune; the cocky Snow is saddled with the worst of the bunch, a limp attempt at a rock instrumental.

The game’s nebulous villains, the l’Cie, have a choral theme that is tied directly into some of the best music on the album. Introduced in the moving “Ragnarok,” the theme explodes into a truly satisfying battle theme in “Fighting Fate,” which offers the same lyrics sung in a frenzy against impressive apocalyptic brasses and thunderous percussion. It’s essentially Hamauzu’s take on the orchestral and choral fury that characterized Uematsu’s old final boss themes, and it succeeds beautifully. The game’s main battle theme, “Blinded by Light,” is similarly an adaptation of Lightning’s theme into a battle context, and despite some occasionally distracting shrillness from the violins, succeeds at being both engaging and pulse-pounding, without wearing out its welcome like many of the series’ other main battle themes often have.

A surprisingly large portion of the game’s music is action thanks to the fact that 2/3 of it is essentially an extended escape cutscene with random battles, and when he follows his old Final Fantasy X template, Hamauzu produces some impressive music. Songs like “Saber’s Edge” recall “Attack” from the latter with their engaging mix of subtle electronics and brass; “Forever Fugitives,” in particular, sounds as if it could have been ripped straight from the best portions of Hamauzu’s work from that game. Later tracks like “Eden Under Siege” or “Start Your Engines” work just as well, the latter being a fine attempt to combine unobtrusive electronics with orchestra and melody in a naturalistic, Uematsu-esque way.

But there are also a large number of strange misfires–“Defiers of Fate,” for instance, bookends excellent orchestral writing with brain-numbingly bad attempts at electronic rock music. “Hanging Edge” pits a rambling, shrill, almost avant-garde violin against a brass line rewritten to sound almost jocular despite the bizarre contrast it makes with the images onscreen, for instance. And “Eidolons” sounds all but identical to Hamauzu’s wretched “Challenge” from Final Fantasy X, using repetitive bass and squealing electronics to try, and fail, to generate a semblance of tension. These are among a number of places where Hamauzu seems unable to restrain his own natural tendencies toward the obnoxious avant-garde, despite the fact that they simply don’t suit the game as well as his other compositions. Perhaps the best example of this is “Nascent Requiem,” the final battle music, which pairs the obnoxiously upbeat piano part from the composer’s earlier “Decisive Battle” with bouncy mallet percussion and woodwinds into a themeless and counterintuitively jolly mush.

Worse: although every Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VIII has had an obligatory pop song attached, this game outdoes all others in misguided attempts to appeal to pop audiences. “The Sunleth Waterscape,” for instance, is a bouncy adaptation of Hamauzu’s excellent main theme ruined by the addition of a ludicrous disco beat and truly awful pop vocals. The addition of intrusive electronic beats and dreadful singing (either in the original Japanese or in the English versions available elsewhere) is a terrible one, spoiling tracks from “Will to Fight” to “Sulyya Springs.” Especially disappointing are the vocals over “Chocobos of Cocoon,” as the Chocobo theme is the only vestige of Uematsu’s themes to appear in-game. The song has the potential to be a Uematsu-esque confection on par with “Golden Saucer” but for the ruinous squawking that enters on the second loop. The other adaptation of Uematsu’s theme, “Chocobos of Pulse,” is thankfully an enjoyably straightforward big band adaptation along the lines of “Brass de Chocobo” from Final Fantasy X.

Masashi Hamauzu’s Final Fantasy XIII has to be viewed as a mixed proposition in the final equation. On the one hand, he was able to adapt his Final Fantasy X approach to create some resoundingly powerful and fully orchestral/choral music and several interesting themes, neither of which is his usual bailiwick outside of the latter game. On the other, by rejecting Uematsu’s themes in favor of stubbornly clinging to more avant-garde or bizarrely pop-oriented tendencies, too much of the music is too florid, too jarringly inappropriate, or slathered with awful singing to be appreciated by anyone but Hamauzu’s most diehard fans. Despite its mixed reception, Final Fantasy XIII would go on to receive two sequels; the fact that Hamauzu returned for only a small portion of each is perhaps the best assessment of how he succeeded with this major assignment.

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Hako no Niwa (Yasunori Mitsuda)


After making a tremendous splash with his earlier compositions, Yasunori Mitsuda abruptly transitioned to smaller and more obscure (and presumably less stressful) projects in the 2000s after withdrawing from the Xenosaga series after the first entry. Many of his post-Xenosaga efforts didn’t get album releases, or comprised only a few tracks out of a much longer album, with the composer settling into a producing or programming role. In fact, between Sailing to the World in 2002 and Armodyne in 2007, Mitsuda only produced a single solo video game score album.

That effort was Hako No Niwa, the soundtrack to a rather obscure game released as Graffiti Kingdom stateside. The composer is still best known for his weighty scores Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross; while they weren’t without moments of levity, Hako No Niwa is an essentially lighthearted composition with a heavy emphasis on percussion instruments from start to finish. The amount of creativity on display is startling as well; there’s no hint of a Celtic sound or any sort of thematic material recycled from previous albums. One gets the feeling that Mitsuda had a ball writing this, and his enthusiasm is quite evident.

While he never quite abandons other orchestral elements, the percussion is the defining feature of the album. Whether xylophone and marimba, as in “Scribblings,” or the bongo and tambourine as in “Thoroughly Prepared,” complex rhythm is Hako No Niwa‘s hallmark. The number of specialty percussion instruments–dulcimer, tap shoes, hand claps, güiro–is amazing, and the way in which they and more traditional instruments are layered together is marvelously complex and immensely satisfying.

Most of the tracks are lighthearted swing-style tunes, often with quieter interludes, with few darker or more mysterious songs, with the notable exception of track 19, “Forest of Illusion,” which uses echo effects, piano, and güiro to create an off-kilter sounds that oozes mystery and strangeness.

Other standout tracks include the triple whammy of “The Story Starts Here,” “Chikuridori,” and “Scribblings,” which combine the innovative percussion with light melodies and the occasional serious interlude, and “Invisible Toy Box,” which uses a broken music box to create a whimsical yet unbalanced mood. “Toy box” is an excellent descriptor of the album as a whole; it’s as if Mitsuda emptied his own toy box in orchestrating his composition, resulting in a wide variety of creative tracks.

Best of all is the synth quality: much like Mitsuda’s earlier work for the PS1/PS2 eras, it’s excellent, and it takes an audiophile to notice that Hako no Niwa isn’t acoustic. As a result, there are no barriers to overcome in enjoying one of the best video game music works of 2004, a lighthearted and instrumentally creative listening experience different from Yasunori Mitsuda’s usual fare, and a delight for anyone looking for original orchestral efforts.

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Final Fantasy X-2 (Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi)


The ending of Final Fantasy X was perhaps the most downbeat and open in the series so far, with the fate of the major protagonist left essentially unknown. It was therefore less surprising than it might otherwise have been when Final Fantasy X-2, the first-ever sequel to a Final Fantasy game (if one discounts the bizarre, awful anime OVA Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals) debuted two years later in 2003. The game divided fans, offering an incredibly light and jokey fanservice tone that seemed inspired by Charlie’s Angels and copious reuse of existing assets from Final Fantasy X alongside a return of the Active Time Battle system and Job System (after a fashion) from earlier games.

By 2003, Nobuo Uematsu had left Square and was freelancing, producing music for a wide variety of media at a languid pace (perhaps to make up for his massive output during the previous years); it’s therefore little surprise that he didn’t return for Final Fantasy X-2, or indeed any Final Fantasy, for nearly a decade. More surprising was the absence of Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano, who were still with Square at the time and had no active projects; perhaps the jarring tonal shift between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 precluded their involvement. In their place, the duo of Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi were brought in. Both had been with Square since the 1990s; Matseuda had done well-received work on Bahamut Lagoon and some prominent additional music for Chrono Trigger, while Eguchi had been primarily active as an arranger. The official album credits don’t specify which tracks were the work of Matseuda and which were from Eguchi; it’s therefore not clear to what extent they worked together on all of the music.

The elephant in the room relates to thematic material: absolutely none of the themes from Final Fantasy X or the Final Fantasy series at large is reprised in whole or in part by Matseuda and Eguchi. The one exception is a few bars of Uematsu’s Chocobo theme in “Chocobo,” but they are buried and mutilated almost beyond recognition. Essentially, the music reflects the tonal shift of the game: the often dark, weighty, and ambient music of Final Fantasy X is cast aside in favor of bouncy, upbeat tunes clearly influenced by 1970s caper movies (and, yes, Charlie’s Angels). This break is understandable, if disappointing: Matseuda and Eguchi scored the game they were given, one that often barely resembled the original despite using many of the same locations, enemies, and character models.

“Yuna’s Theme” typifies the new approach for the game. With electric keyboards, wah-wah guitars, Hammond organs, and a drum set, it’s a bouncy slice of 1970s funk melody, lightly contemporized. Its urban sound couldn’t be further from Uematsu’s sweet and innocent “Yuna’s Theme.” “Rikku’s Theme” is much the same, very pop-ish and light even in comparison to Uematsu’s lazy-Sunday original. Much of the music follows this same basic template: melodic, light, and full of 1970s funk accoutrements.

Some pieces dial back the funk elements in favor of melody (“Mi’hen Highroad”), and occasional acoustic elements will be more prominent than keyboards in the mix (“Mushroom Rock Road”). There are plenty of cases where the electronic and funk prove irritating, like the grating synth stew of “Thunder Plains,” the cheesy Japanese classical influences layered atop “Anything Goes For Leblanc,” and the thick layers of disco cheese slathered over “”We’re the Gullwings.” And the less said about the obligatory pop songs “1000 Words” or “Real Emotion,” the better–they are in the same dire league as “Otherworld” and “Suteki Na De” from the original (though they are at least available in English). Don’t expect much recurring thematic material, either; Matseuda and Eguchi are content to let tone and instrumentation provide cohesion rather than recurring themes.

Eventually, the story of Final Fantasy X-2 takes a slightly darker turn (though never even approaching that of its predecessor), with Matseuda and Eguchi providing “straight” music for some scenes. Much of this music is built from the same basic building blocks as the remainder of the score, but with the electronic elements dialed down and the brass moving from funk fanfares to action blasts. The “straight” music provides some of the best and some of the weakest material, with pieces like the intriguing organ-led “Vegnagun Awakes” co-existing with anonymous ambient muck like “Disquiet.” The game’s rather confusing villain, Shuyin, is given a menacing theme for wailing electric guitars and orchestra; a bit underwhelming on its own, it is nevertheless the thematic basis for many of the darker tracks in the game.

Action music is a similarly mixed bag. The game’s three main battle themes run the gamut from the same sort of bouncy funk (“YuRiPa Fight No. 1) to completely anonymous noise (“YuRiPa Fight No. 3, the game’s standard fight music). For the final sequence of the game, Matseuda and Eguchi adapt a straight posture for the twin “Ruin” and “Their Resting Place,” both generally relying on frantic brass hits and string runs to try and build an apocalyptic tone. “Their Resting Place” is perhaps the pick of the battle music, combining Shuyin’s theme with mild electronics and a strong melody alongside the brass hits. It’s surprisingly dark and effective, and a much better final boss theme than either “Overworld” or “Decisive Battle” provided for Final Fantasy X.

In the end, how much you get out of Matseuda and Eguchi’s work for Final Fantasy X-2 will be directly proportional to how much you are able to embrace the game’s tonal shift and the music’s complete break from Final Fantasy past and present. There is certainly plenty of attractive bouncy caper music, and even some moments of darkness here and there, but ultimately it’s hard to shake the feeling that the music could have been something more than the sum of its parts, and that Matseuda and Eguchi didn’t fully take advantage of their opportunity here. Perhaps the brass as Square-Enix felt the same way; despite doing yeoman’s work for X-2, Matseuda and Eguchi have not had a major assignment since. And while future Final Fantasy sequels would generally have a lighter tone than the originals, none would depart so far from the tone and tenor of the original (or its music) as X-2.

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Final Fantasy X (Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Junya Nakano)


Released in 2001, Final Fantasy X was the series’ first game on the new Playstation 2 console, and was in many ways a radical departure from what had come before. The Active Time Battle system which had been used in the previous six installments was abandoned, as were the concepts of a world map and a steerable airship. It was also the first Final Fantasy to feature voice acting, and the first for which the now-obligatory pop song was not translated into English. The game was favorably received, by and large, and later became the first Final Fantasy to get a sequel (though Final Fantasy X-2 was a complete tonal shift from the dark and downbeat original).

Final Fantasy X also saw the beginning of the end of composer Nobuo Uematsu’s tenure: Uematsu would reduce his role in each subsequent game until Final Fantasy XII was essentially composed without him altogether (though he would be lured back, in part, for the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV). It may be that his work on Final Fantasy IX, which remains his longest and most complex project to date (over three hundred minutes of music spread over five discs) left him drained, or it may have been his departure from Square-Enix to become a freelance musician. In any case, Uematsu recruited fellow composers Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano to aid him, the first time that anyone but Uematsu had written music for the series.

Hamauzu had been with Square for years, but had really burst onto the scene with his avant-garde piano-centric score for SaGa Frontier 2 several years earlier. He would later write extensively in the Final Fantasy series, perhaps due to his status as one of the very last composers to leave the company to become a freelancer, penning scores for Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus and Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, and XIII: Lightning Returns. Junya Nakano was, at the time, most recently a veteran of Threads of Fate and had been with Square in one capacity or other since the mid-nineties; his subsequent work would be much more low-key and eclectic than Hamauzu’s, with many arrangement and programming credits in addition to composing. Uematsu, Hamauzu, and Nakano (along with Yasunori Mitsuda) had previously worked together once before, on 1996’s Front Mission: Gun Hazard for the SNES.

Final Fantasy X is far more modernistic than its predecessors, with a far heavier reliance on ambient atmospheric tracks, contemporary keyboarding, and electronica. This may be due to the fact that Nakano and Hamauzu were more comfortable with this style, or perhaps it’s Uematsu’s reaction to the game’s harsher technological milieu. In either case, the sweeping, quasi-renaissance sound of Final Fantasy IX is nowhere to be found. Uematsu does retain his leitmotif structure, but it’s a pale shadow of its former self–most of the character themes are one-offs, with few later variations (with one exception: “Seymour’s Theme” has, if anything, far too many variations). Still, some of the themes, like “Auron’s Theme,” with its jagged piano and electronic beats, and “Yuna’s Theme,” which combines light electric guitar and concert bells, are among Uematsu’s best cues.

To his credit, Uematsu does give the game a remarkable main theme. First heard as a melancholy piano solo in “To Zanarkand,” the theme is far sadder than Uematsu’s usual fare, even when the melody appears in the buoyant “Sprouting.” The theme is also memorably present in the “Ending Theme,” but despite the melody’s strength, neither Hamauzu nor Nakano attempts to adapt it into their underscore. The theme for the mysterious “fayth” spirits of the story is far less effective–a weak Gregorian-style choral chant, the theme is repeated eleven (!) times with minimal variation, badly breaking up the musical flow on album.

Junya Nakano composed seventeen of the ninety-one total tracks, and collaborated with Uematsu on two more. His tracks have a strong contemporary feel, which is used to good effect in the minimalistic but busy “Luca” and “Illusion” but fares less well elsewhere, especially in the limp “Underground Activities” and “Underwater Temple.” Nakano is more successful with battle themes, contributing the impressive “Enemy Attack” and “Summoned Beast Battle,” the latter of which is the only effective interpretation of the “fayth” theme, turning it into an aggressive full (synth) orchestra workout. Nakano also provides one other arrangement of Uematsu’s themes in “This is Your Story,” an airy and electronic rendition of “Auron’s Theme.”

Masashi Hamauzu’s contributions are very much in his distinct style, with a modern slant that doesn’t gel with Uemastu’s material but matches Nakano’s relatively well. Hamauzu’s skills as a piano arranger are well-known, and he puts them to good use in the whimsical “Thunder Plains,” the highlight of his contribution, and the aggressive, tuneful “Attack.” There are some misfires, though; Hamauzu’s “Decisive Battle” is a laughable piano rhapsody that is completely out of place as a battle theme (especially given how comically easy the battle is). His “Challenge” battle theme is similarly weak–essentially a collection of random, distorted noise and repetitive techno loops. The composer is able to write some effective minimalistic music, though: the calm “Besaid Island” and New Agey “Wandering Flame” are both highly effective.

The album also includes several songs, the what-were-they-thinking “Otherworld,” a completely out of place death metal tune that serves as one of the final boss themes (!), and “Sudeki Da Ne,” the most banal pop song to be attached to any Final Fantasy album thus far. But the album’s real problem is its lack of stylistic consistency–the multiple composers led to a wandering focus and many watered-down and dull (or even inappropriate) tracks. Even the Final Fantasy series’ overarching themes are mixed: Uematsu’s contibutes a satisfying big-band interpretation of his Chocobo theme, but the “Prelude” is reduced to conterpoint in a a bouncy electronic piece, and the “Final Fantasy” theme is completely absent for only the second time in the series. Without a single strong style to hold the disparate music together, and minimal use of Uematsu’s themes by his co-composers, Final Fantasy X is just a collection of vaguely-related songs, some of which are strong but few of which contribute to any cohesion.

As a result, Final Fantasy X was at the time of its release the weakest Final Fantasy album, though it has since been eclipsed. Though there is a good deal of quality material, the album’s incoherence should make listeners think twice before ordering an expensive import copy. If some stellar tracks are enough for you to overlook the stylistic inconsistency in the first Final Fantasy score not wholly composed by Nobuo Uematsu, pick it up–just be prepared to assemble your own album cut or to cherry-pick the best songs from the iTunes release.

Uematsu:  * * * *
Nakano: * * *
Hamauzu: * * *
Overall: * * *

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (Nobuo Uematsu)


Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the Final Fantasy series was the catalyst that interested many people in video game music to begin with, and few of his works are more acclaimed than Final Fantasy VII. When Advent Children, a direct-to-DVD sequel to the Playstation game Final Fantasy VII was announced, fans disappointed by Uematsu’s absence from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within were overjoyed to see his name on the marquee. And just as Advent Children is the total tonal opposite of The Spirits Within, catering to series diehards to the exclusion of all others, Uematsu’s score couldn’t be further from Elliot Goldenthal’s. Somewhat surprisingly, it is also a long way from Uematsu’s outstanding Final Fantasy scores of old.

Uematsu did not tackle the album as a solo endeavor; perhaps due to his self-admitted inexperience in scoring films, the composer employed a large number of assistants and co-composers. Squaresoft veterans Tsuyoshi Sekito, Keiji Kawamori, and Kyosuke Himuro arranged or co-arranged tracks and wrote some additional music. Uematsu’s regular orchestrator Shirou Hamaguchi was involved in much of the orchestral work, as was arranger Kazuhiko Toyama. Groups as diverse as the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus were lined up to perform portions of the music, as well.

The two-disc original soundtrack set is a blend of orchestral tracks, synthesized music, and hard-rock songs–not entirely unlike the sound Uematsu conjured solo for the games, taking the limitations of video game synths at the time into account. The album debuts strongly, kicking off with a long-overdue, full-bodied orchestral version of the famous “Opening” track. Other orchestral highlights include the choral “Tenrai” tracks, and the finale, “Cloud Smiles” and the “End Credits.” “Cloud Smiles” in particular twists the familiar “Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII” into a charming piece that builds up to a stunning climax, easily the overall bright point of the album.

Advent Children‘s electronic pieces are closer to Uematsu’s original composition style for the Playstation game; the piano-based “For the Reunion” is particularly notable for its jagged but beautiful integration of synth effects. “Water” is an album highlight, combining a subtle variation on “Aerith’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII with a new compositions. It is puzzling, though, that so many tracks are synthesized, since Uematsu clearly had an orchestra at his disposal as well (though the synths are lightyears beyond those from the original Final Fantasy VII).

The hard-rock tracks are among the weakest on the album, adding little but a sense of motion and chaos. Heavy metal interpretations of the once-menacing “Shinra Theme” and generic mayhem don’t fit in well with the orchestral or synth portions of the score, nor do they really gel with the sound established in the original game. More than anything else, they seem an extension of the style in Final Fantasy X‘s “Otherworld,” a track that is unpopular and divisive among many of Uematsu’s fans. Worse, most of the hard-rock material fails to quote any of Uematsu’s multitude of themes from the original game.

Perhaps the most difficult criticism that can be leveled at Advent Children is the number of direct rehashes from previous albums that were shoehorned into the film. The piano tracks are identical to songs from the FFVII Piano Collection; “JENOVA” is indistinguishable from the version that appeared on Uematsu’s Black Mages album. Parts of the “One-Winged Angel” track appear to have been lifted directly from the earlier Final Fantasy VII Reunion Tracks album, featuring extremely poor transitions between the new rock arrangements and the original orchestral music.

It’s difficult to understand why so many songs were essentially rehashed, especially given the brilliant way that other songs from the original game are reinterpreted (such as in “Water” or “Cloud Smiles”). Unlike the older games in the series, in which Uematsu juggled and mixed genres very deftly, the simultaneous existence of synth, orchestral, hard-rock, and solo piano lends the album a very inconsistent feel. An orchestral track may be followed by a hard-rock ballad with a piano melody hard on its heels, and they rarely feel as if they belong in the same sonic universe, much less the same film. The obligatory J-Pop tune at the end adds yet another genre without adding much to the mix, and is itself rather banal.

Final Fantasy: Advent Children, regardless of how it may or may not work in the film, is a frustrating listening experience on album. There is brilliant work by Uematsu arrayed side by side with near-unlistenable material and unaccountable laziness. Fans of any one of the genres of music on display in the album will wind up disappointed by the inconsistency on display, especially given Uematsu’s strong past record of cross-genre success with other Final Fantasy albums. Perhaps a more experienced orchestrator would have been able to lend the music a more cohesive feel, or perhaps Uematsu should have provided themes for others to flesh out. In any event, the album is a disappointment, recommended only to fans of Final Fantasy VII and Nobuo Uematsu who are willing to forgive the album’s stylistic inconsistency and outright laziness in order to hear occasional above-average reinterpretations of the composer’s prior Final Fantasy VII work.

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Elektra (Christophe Beck)


2005’s Elektra was a quasi-sequel, quasi-spinoff to 2003’s Daredevil, resurrecting Jennifer Garner’s slain character from the earlier film and placing her in a murky realm of assassinations and magic. If the response to Daredevil had been rather tepid, Elektra was greeted with even greater indifference and died a quick death at the box office, putting the franchise to rest until the inevitable reboot. As virtually none of the first film’s cast or crew was carried over, it was no surprise to see Daredevil composer Graeme Revell replaced by Christophe Beck.

Beck was, at the time, making a transition from television scoring (with credits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), one which would see him gradually become attached to higher-profile films over the course of the 2000s and into the 2010s. For Elektra, Beck chose to eschew Revell’s approach, which had been to follow the basic pre-Batman Begins Danny Elfman superhero template with a main theme, love theme, and occasional contemporary or world music elements. Instead, the composer decided to embark on an experiment, using pitch manipulation, dark orchestral textures, and other forms of orchestral timbre and electronic modulation.

What results is a score that is heavy on noise but light on thematic substance. Duduk (perhaps a nod to the title character’s Greek heritage), percussion specialty instruments like taikos, and effects created in the computer blend together to create and aggressive and often oppressive sonic atmosphere. At times, as in the brief but intense “Gnarly Gongs,” the effect is more that of in-your-face sound design than music. It’s a sound that suits the action-heavy and martial-arts-suffused picture well, but isn’t exactly pleasant listening apart from leather-clad, sai-weilding bosoms.

Beck’s biggest misstep in the score is failing to create a solid thematic core around which to wrap his experimental sounds. Some scores are able to rely on texture and style to hold them together in the absence of overt thematic material, but music as difficult (if creative) as Beck’s cried out for more islands of tonality. He does offer a few glimpses of more traditional scoring, most notably in the warm closing track “Elektra’s Second Life;” if only that theme had been broken up and deconstructed into the mix along with everything else, a much more intriguing score would have resulted.

In the end, one can’t fault Beck for his experimentation, and percussion lovers will certainly find more interesting textures here than in contemporary Remote Control/Media Ventures scores. But it’s not an easy listen, and often a tiring one. The composer would have to wait until The Lightning Thief in 2010 to deliver a truly satisfying large-scale action score, and he has had relatively few opportunities to revisit the genre since. Record label Varése Sarabande released Beck’s score some time after the inevitable lousy song album, but later liquidated its remaining inventory of the score in its “Family Dollar Housecleaning” in the early 2010s; as such, Elektra can often be found for as little as $3-4 new.

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Stealth (BT)


Director Rob Cohen isn’t known for his cerebral cinema, yet his would-be summer 2005 blockbuster Stealth makes the rest of his oeuvre look like Citizen Kane. A bizarre mashup combining, of all things, Short Circuit and Top Gun, the film’s story of a suddenly-sentient drone aircraft and its human wingmen was shunned by audiences. It was one of two large-scale action movie flops that summer (alongside Michael Bay’s The Island) which were seemingly part of the impetus to put more money behind safer remakes and sequels, rather than original fare, that resulted in Cohen and Bay’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Transformers over the next few years.

Rather than his usual collaborator Randy Edelman, Cohen reunited with Brian Transeau, known to his fans as BT, who had scored Cohen’s earlier hit The Fast and the Furious (though neither man would have anything to do with its innumerable sequels). Transeau, best known as a composer of electronic music, a remixer, and a DJ, moved into film scores in the early-to-mid 2000s and composed for several high-profile films (even attempting a serious drama score with Catch and Release in 2007) before largely returning to his roots in popular music.

On The Fast and the Furious, Transeau had been assisted by composer Randy Miller, who orchestrated and conducted the score. For Stealth, though, which included a much larger 100-piece orchestra, the composer was taken under the wing of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studios, with several Zimmer pupils responsible for orchestration, conducting, and additional music. Chief among them was Trevor Morris, perhaps best known for Immortals and The Tudors who not only helped arrange the work but also composed or co-composed nine cues (nearly 20 minutes of the album’s 63-minute runtime). Fellow arranger and Remote Control associate Michael DiMattia contributed or co-contributed six more cues totaling another 15 minutes, meaning that Transeau was solely responsible for only about half of the music.

BT’s portion of the music includes some interesting ideas. In addition to the composer’s trademark aggressive and hard-edged electronics, he provides a descending piano-led theme with harp accents that debuts in “Stealth Main Title” and presumably represents the computerized hero/villain of the film. Parts resurface in “I’ll Tell You Back At The Boat” and much more aggressively in “Henry’s Death” among other places. BT also attempts to give the music an international flavor with vocals in “Thailand” and “Tin Man Will Prosecute,” but relying as it does on the stereotypical mid-2000s “wailing woman,” the effect is limited at best. The rest of BT’s tracks primarily rely on his abrasive electronics, often presented alongside surprisingly ballsy brass, to unify their sound.

Morris’s music is rooted in electronics in much the same way, but his synths lack the harshness of BT’s, making the difference immediately clear to anyone with an ear for it. His primary contribution is a heroic theme for the human pilots, appearing first in “The Pilots’ Theme” and incorporated in many of his other tracks as well. The theme is very much in the heroic/masculine/patriotic Remote Control scoring mold, and could easily be dropped into Transformers or Battleship without anyone noticing the substitution. Morris’s use of the “wailing woman,” in “EDI’s Sacrifice” and elsewhere, is scarcely better than BT’s.

DiMattia does a much better job of integrating his music with BT’s, with his electronics bending in much more smoothly. He also makes use of harp arpeggios in fragments throughout his portion of the score to match up somewhat with the “EDI Theme” from BT. However, his music often lacks the clever production of the former DJ’s, and the electronics often become completely overbearing, especially when paired with an orchestra for many of the album’s centerpiece action cues.

In the end, Stealth sounds surprisingly like many of the other action scores in contemporary American cinema. And therein lies the problem. While there’s nothing wrong with collaboration, the Remote Control artists are experts at integrating disparate voices into a single, watered-down whole. When their skills are used to smooth over a neophyte scorer’s inexperience, though, whatever distinct voice that person brings to the table is often lost. This leaves a score that, despite the names on the credits, sounds like it was an everyday product of the Remote Control studios, begging the question of why the assignment wasn’t simply given to them in the first place. M83’s Oblivion is a prime example, and BT’s Stealth is another.

While there are some interesting ideas, and many of the electronic textures will be pleasing to fans of that particular sound, it’s hard to imagine a BT fan being satisfied with the album–the sound is just too watered-down. Therefore, the album can only be recommended to people who enjoy the overall sound of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio and would like to hear it livened up a bit with some interesting electronics and textures.

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White Oleander (Thomas Newman)


A best-selling novel turned arthouse film, White Oleander attracted an impressive cast of female stars but ultimately failed to make much of an impression at the box office or award shows. After his resounding success with Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, Thomas Newman was for a time the composer of choice for arthouse Oscar-bait (which led to his record-setting streak of failed Oscar nominations) and it was no surprise to see his name on the marquee. Newman put together an unusual ensemble for the project, combining a few specialty instrument soloists with only a handful of studio players, in an extreme version of the quirky ensemble and quirkier instruments that he had assembled for Beauty and its ilk.

The result is, somewhat predictably, a continuation of the style found in scores like American Beauty and In the Bedroom with far less rhythm,  motion, and interest in the music. White Oleander never rises above a whisper, and without a theme or Newman’s trademark quirky rhythms, there’s nothing to sustain the music. Instead, it becomes a dull, monotonous drone, firmly backgrounded both on screen and on album. More than anything, the album resembles a New Age relaxation tape, designed to wick away stress and induce slumber. Nothing of the troubled or contentious nature of the film is reflected in the underscore, which is essentially reduced to sonic wallpaper. There is some admittedly attractive piano work at the beginning and end of the disc, but even this seems like it’s building toward a climax that never arrives.

In many ways, White Oleander represents the nadir of Newman’s post-American Beauty experiments with strange instruments and minimalism. Beauty was one of the most-aped sounds of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and as a result of its success (and perhaps of Newman’s own changing tastes) he hewed strongly toward that style for many of his scores in the following years at the expense of the orchestral sound of scores like The Shawshank Redemption which had won him many of his most passionate fans. The Oleander score was the culmination of a three-year period of similar music and diminishing returns for the composer, who shortly thereafter began blending his quirky minimalism with a more traditional orchestral palette. It was this latter approach that led to later scores with a much better balance to their Newmanisms, acclaimed works as Finding Nemo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and even the Mendes-helmed Bond score Skyfall.

As the most extreme example of a style that doesn’t resonate strongly with many fans outside of the context of its film, White Oleander is therefore recommended only for extreme fans of Newman’s minimalism, or people who enjoyed the score as cut to picture. To be fair, there are Newman fans who thoroughly embrace the composer’s scores of this ilk, and there are certainly  those who can appreciate the composer at his most minimalistic, even when he is producing themeless, meandering music that wouldn’t be out of place on a New Age relaxation disc.


Willow (James Horner)


Clearly, the powers that be were hoping for Willow to be a fantasy Star Wars. The film was produced by Lucasfilm, with a story by Lucas himself, Ron Howard behind the camera, and a slew of high-budget special effects (including some of the first digital movie effects of the sort Lucas would later fall hopelessly in love with). The movie failed to find its audience and had to settle for later cult success; plans for a trilogy were scrapped, and it would be over a decade until big-budget cinema fantasy came into its own with the back-to-back successes of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. James Horner had collaborated with director Ron Howard once before, on 1985’s Cocoon, but Willow was an altogether different undertaking, with over 90 minutes of music needed to accompany dozens of exotic locales and characters. It was a situation not unlike that which would later confront Howard Shore; like Shore Horner endeavored to present a multitude of strong themes to bring the fantasy milieu to life.

Willow opens with an extended prologue, not unlike that of the concurrent The Land Before Time, which introduces many of the key themes and motifs of the score: an eerie three note choral theme, a sakauhachi-led theme that appears over the main titles, and an ominous, dissonant theme for Nockmaar Castle and its denizens which heavily incorporates Horner’s tried and true four-note danger motif. The next track, “Escape from the Tavern,” offers up the score’s centerpiece, a heroic brass anthem performed in rousing, swashbuckling fashion. There are several other minor motifs as well–indeed, Willow rivals The Land Before Time as the most thematically rich of Horner’s works to date.

The heroic theme is one of the strongest that Horner has ever penned, and is given lengthy and varied performances in virtually every track on the disc, with the aforementioned “Escape from the Tavern” as a highlight. Listeners have often claimed that this theme is lifted almost wholly from Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3; it’s certainly easy to see where Horner was inspired by the latter, but the swashbuckling Erich Wolfgang Korngold feel of Horner’s song is quite different from the much more stately chamber atmosphere of Schumann. Compared to other alleged Horner borrowings in Battle Beyond the Stars or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the Schumann influence is more on par with that of Verdi on John Williams in Star Wars.

Horner’s sakauhachi flute theme, representing the more tender side of the fim, is impressive as well; the instrument lends the music an otherworldly yet melodic feel that perfectly captures the feel of a vast and ancient world. The composer would fall in love with the instrument after its major appearances in Willow, and sakauhachi solos would become a calling card for the composer in the future, appearing in scores as diverse as Braveheart, Clear and Present Danger, and Avatar.

Not all of Horner’s material in Willow is as strong, though. In particular, the Nockmaar Castle theme associated with the evil Bavmorda (and her almost parodically Vader-like henchman Kael, named after the movie critic Pauline Kael) is very difficult to enjoy. Assaulting the listener with repeated performances of Horner’s favorite four-note danger motif over a bed of seemingly random, shrill sakauhachi blasts. The danger motif, a musical signature appearing in most of Horner’s scores since its introduction in Star Trek II, is distracting enough on its own, but as it’s the lone tonal piece of an otherwise atonal and abrasive sound, its prominence is increased tenfold. The Nockmaar material is prominently placed as well, breaking up several of the lengthier performances of the other themes with its shrill dissonance. Compared to compelling villain themes from Star Trek II‘s Khan theme to Avatar‘s militaristic human theme, Willow‘s musical representation of its villains simply falls flat.

The album’s presentation merits discussion as well: despite being a robust 77 minutes long, Willow has only eight cues, including three that top the ten-minute mark. Many of the most rousing and enjoyable parts of the album, like the latter halves of “Canyon of Mazes” and “Bavmorda’s Spell is Cast” are buried by comparatively dull material or statements of the weak Nockmaar theme beforehand. This can lead to a frustratingly inconsistent listen, as the music veers from the heroic heights of Horner’s best thematic material to the meandering doldrums of comparatively uninteresting motifs. It’s not clear if the music was written that way of if tracks were combined for the album release, but in either case breaking them up into shorter cues (if gapless ones) would have aided the album as a listening experience.

Despite these weaknesses, the thematic complexity of Willow, as well as the powerful nature of the heroic and sakauhachi themes, make it highly recommended. If you’ve ever wondered how a Horner Lord of the Rings would have sounded, or are curious to see the composer’s take on John William’s Ewok celebration music (near the middle of “Willow the Sorcerer” and the clearest Star Wars influence on the music), Willow is your opportunity to do just that. If you’re seeking some of James Horner’s strongest thematic material and are undaunted by the duller and more dissonant parts of the album or by frequent use of the composer’s four-note motif, the comparatively rare album can find a place among the grand fantasy genre scores in any collection.

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X-Men: The Last Stand (John Powell)


The third X-Men movie was an early summer 2006 success, topping the box office take of its two prequels while garnering decent reviews from the public (if not die-hard series fans). The film saw a change in directors, as Bryan Singer departed the series to helm the disastrous Superman Returns, taking composer/editor John Ottman with him. With Michael Kamen’s untimely 2003 death ruling out his return to the franchise, Brett Ratner, Singer’s replacement, chose former Media Ventures composer John Powell to score the film.

Powell seemed an unlikely choice at the time, and many feared that X-Men: The Last Stand would be saddled with an overly electronic Remote Control/Media Ventures dial-a-score. He would go on to prove his doubters wrong in a spectacular fashion, building on strong previous efforts like The Bourne IdentityMr. and Mrs. Smith, and Ice Age 2 to produce a powerhouse action/adventure score for the X-Men. Michael Kamen’s score for the first X-Men was serviceable but disappointing, with little thematic material to speak of. John Ottman’s X2 score provided the mutants with a strong main theme and subthemes, but was unable to develop them effectively in the underscore. Powell united the two approaches, combining Kamen’s robust action scoring with Ottman’s thematic approach.

The score is anchored with a brassy and heroic main theme that retains structural similarities to Kaman’s X-Men and Ottman’s X2 material and is first heard in “Bathroom Titles.” Powell is able to effectively integrate the theme into the underscore, using it in a more subdued form as counterpart throughout the album’s quieter cues while returning to the brassy march when necessary. Magneto and his underlings get a pounding, percussive theme that again has echoes of Ottman’s Magneto material but develops the basic soundscape in a far more aggressive and menacing way. Powell, unlike Ottman, is able to develop this theme in the album’s many large-scale action cues as well.

However, the real highlight of the score is the music for the Dark Phoenix character. First introduced as a swirling love theme of sorts in “Whirlpool of Love,” the darkly choral music builds to a frenzy in the “Dark Phoenix’s Tragedy” and “Phoenix Rises” cues. Powell’s orchestration of the theme is spectacular, offsetting the choral fireworks with robust action music; these building blocks intertwine and build off one another as the songs reach their climax, often subtly incorporating fragments of the title theme and the Magneto material.

X-Men: The Last Stand develops several other outstanding motifs, and its latter half is packed with impressive action cues. Powell wisely doesn’t seek to invent the wheel, and several of his cues contain hints of the distinctive Elfman superhero flair; though this is subtly done, it is a welcome decision in an era where the anonymous grinding of Batman Begins is increasingly the superhero scoring standard. The pounding metal-on-metal hits prevalent in the action material also owe something to Horner’s early 80’s style, but again the musical voice is strictly Powell’s.

In addition to being one of Powell’s highest-grossing films, X-Men: The Last Stand served as an impressive resume-builder for John Powell, giving notice that he was someone to watch in the soundtrack community.  Powell was able to parley this success into other assignments, like the gritty superhero flick Hancock and the Oscar-nominated orchestral score for How to Train Your Dragon. Sadly, he would not be asked back for a repeat performance with the X-Men franchise, which would continue to rotate through composers in its increasingly disappointing further entries. Powell’s ex-collaborator Harry Gregson-Williams (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), fellow Remote Control/Media Ventures alumnus Henry Jackman (X-Men: First Class), and even Marco Beltrami (The Wolverine) were all unable to match Powell’s exhilarating music.

The superior material and development on display in The Last Stand make it the best superhero score of the decade, and it comes highly recommended for anyone looking for a fully developed, thematic score for the X-Men that remains true to the series’ musical roots while maintaining John Powell’s distinct musical voice. Like many Varése Sarabande releases from the mid-2000s, X-Men: The Last Stand was part of the “Family Dollar Housecleaning” in which large numbers of unsold CDs were written off and sold to the retailer; it can therefore easily be had new for as little as $3 to $4.

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