Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (Nobuo Uematsu)

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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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Memories (Yoko Kanno, Jun Miyake, Hiroyuki Nagashima, and Takkyu Ishino)

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Director Katsuhiro Otomo is most famous for his epochal animated film Akira, which introduced many Westerners to the conventions and stylistics of Japanese animation. Otomo’s output since then has been sparse, with few subsequent films to date of which Memories (1995) was the most immediate follow-up to Akira. Memories is an anthology film which consists of three quite different short films written by Otomo, and the film employs a different composer for each segment.

Anthology films can be tricky, especially when there is little in common among the stories presented, and using a single composer for the entire project is one way to lend it a sort of unity, much as Jerry Goldsmith did for The Twilight Zone: The Movie or The Illustrated Man. Using four different composers, one for each segment and a fourth for the opening and closing titles, Memories creates a frighteningly fragmented soundscape, where the brilliant and the banal exist side-by-side.

“Magnetic Rose,” the first segment, tells the tale of a crew of astronauts who stumble upon an opera diva impossibly living in deep space. Yoko Kanno, well-known to many Westerners for her work on several popular anime series including Cowboy Bebop, employs the only real orchestra on the album in creating her score and mixes it with a full chorus representing the opera singer. At the same time, Kanno acknowledges the deep space setting of the story by using electronics as well, and manipulating the orchestra and chorus to sound disembodied or free-floating. Fragments of the famous aria from Puccini’s Tosca drift in and out of the music as the story’s clouded narrative progresses.

It’s a relentlessly bleak musical approach that results in beautiful opera solos, some original, some from Tosca, transposed with clanking and grinding electronics. There are moments of tremendous power in the score, usually when the chorus and orchestra come together as in the middle of “Mad Butterfly” or the chaotic “End.” The orchestra performs some gentler music on its own, notably in “Memories,” and the chorus features in many opera solos sprinkled throughout Kanno’s score, as well as the lovely “Chorale” and its reprise, which features an impressive if slightly incongruous solo saxophone accompaniment.

The main problem with Kanno’s thirty minutes of score is that the tracks tend to be uneven, reflecting the bizarre scenes the score accompanies. Several tracks only reach their full potential after several minutes of grinding electronics or meandering opera lyrics; “Mad Butterfly” even features the choir altered so it appears to be filtered through a radio. Still, the music contains many beautiful melodic moments and choral interludes, and Kanno’s work is the best that Memories has to offer.

The second segment, “Stink Bomb,” is the tale of a man who emits a cloud of toxic gas after taking an experimental flu medicine and the military’s futile efforts to kill him. Its score is by Jun Miyake, an artist better known as a soloist and arranger, and is nearly the polar opposite of Kanno’s difficult and cerebral work. Miyake takes a kitchen sink approach to the music, which runs for about twenty-six minutes. The score is made up of dozens of short tracks, ranging from vocals (“Good Morning Yamanashi”) to urban funk (“Nobuo’s Groove”) to jazz (“Ants”) and every style in between. While this reflects the goofy nature of a story about a man who is an unwitting living biological weapon who accidentally kills hundreds of thousands of people while riding on a pizza delivery scooter, it suffers as a listening experience by trying to out-silly the silliness on screen.

“Stink Bomb” is the mickey-mouse approach to animation at its worst, always ready to change style abruptly to follow the action on screen. At no time does it ever come together with any sort of cohesion, and this is especially notable given the tightness with which Kanno combined disparate genres on the same disc: for all its difficulties, “Magnetic Rose” always sounds like “Magnetic Rose.” Also notable are the poor vocal performances, which give “Stink Bomb’s” songs a laughable quality. Miyake’s work is poor in almost every regard, and suffers even more greatly from comparison to the cerebral “Magnetic Rose.”

Hiroyuki Nagashima’s brief 15-minute score for the final segment, “Cannon Fodder,” is the most obviously synthesized of the three. An obscure figure compared to the Kanno and Miyaki, Nagashima’s credits are limited to a handful of Japanese feature films, most of which never had an international release. The music is generally fragmented, much like Miyake’s, though there is a stronger cohesion between the tracks. The lengthiest of these,  “The Cannon’s Fanfare” isn’t a fanfare at all, but grinding industrial music that synchronizes clanging metal and other sound effects to a militaristic drum kit, an embarrassingly literal take on the notion of mechanization so prominent in the segment. That militaristic feel is what holds the music together, even as the other elements diverge.

There is some milder music in the “Boy and a Portrait” tracks, as well as “Lunch Time” (where it’s offset by a rather horrid electronic squeal), though. Despite its greater cohesion than “Stink Bomb,” “Cannon Fodder” is too short and too fragmented to make a pleasant listening experience, and its excursion into industrial music is eardrum-splitting. “Cannon Fodder” is a too-literal tale of a society so overly militarized that every aspect of daily life now revolves around firing gigantic cannons at a distant (possibly imaginary) “enemy moving city.” Nagashima, like Miyake, seems to have tried to match or outdo the film’s industrial cacophony of loading and firing, resulting in a score that is basically unlistenable outside of its context and frequently irritating within it.

Synthesist Takkyu Ishino’s contribution is limited, amounting to about seven minutes of electronic and trance-influenced music. A member of the technopop group Denki Groove, a DJ, and an occasional scorer of films and video games, Ishino provides the brief and atonal “Prologue” and the lengthy end credits suite “In Yer Memory.” The former is too short and bland to make much of an impact, while the latter is lively but unremarkable, and is at its best when Ishino mixes in portions of Kanno’s “Chorale” which contrast nicely with the former’s aggressive electronic rhythms.

In the end, it’s Yoko Kanno’s contribution to Memories that stands out the most, but given the difficult bleakness of that score, it’s not enough to redeem the album as a whole. “Magnetic Rose” is conveniently placed on the first disc, but the soundtrack as a whole should be avoided unless you’re willing to tackle Kanno’s chillingly bleak and difficult suite for chorus and orchestra. The rest is a forgetable hodgepodge of acoustic and electric sounds, or synthesized militaristic/industrial fanfares, and all three wildly divergent styles feel like they shouldn’t be part of the same album.

Magnetic Rose: * * * *
Stink Bomb: *
Cannon Fodder: *
Prologue/In Yer Memory: * * *
Overall: * * *

Freedom Song (James Horner)

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A made-for-TV movie depicting the civil rights movement in Mississippi during the 1960’s, Freedom Song managed to attract top talent, including actor Danny Glover, singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and composer James Horner. The film was a success, earning Emmy nominations for Glover and “Song of Freedom” by Carole King, though it was rather quickly forgotten afterwards and has aired rarely in syndication.

Director Phil Alden Robinson had co-written Sneakers; perhaps it was this connection, or the generally high-profile nature of Freedom Song (for a television project, anyhow), that brought James Horner aboard. From the beginning, it was clear that much of the film’s soundtrack would involve the singing of spirituals, and Sweet Honey in the Rock provided the vocals for ten such songs on the album. Their performance of classic and era-specific tunes is strong, though the songs do lose much of their power when removed from the context of the movie.

But what of James Horner and the movie’s score? About eighteen minutes of music from Horner made it onto the album, although about six minutes of this material exists underneath narration and sound effects. Horner employs Sweet Honey in the Rock in the score itself, using their wordless vocals as the primary instruments while relying only on himself and an assistant to provide the instrumental backing. As a result, the score is extraordinarily low-key, at times barely even audible, and exists primarily as an extension of the vocal and blues style found in the songs.

Horner’s approach is therefore loyal to the film’s time period and songs, but not very listenable outside of this context, having little in the way of thematic material. In fact, the score is so anonymous that the dialogue and sound effects that obscure a third of it make little difference–the music is essentially the same as that in the score-only tracks. It is as if, by direction or design, Horner made the classic film scoring mistake of confusing blandness for respectfulness, a problem affecting many films that are weighty or issue-heavy.

As a result, Freedom Song is all but useless as a James Horner album. The album’s sole strengths are in its songs, and all but one of the album’s songs are traditional spirituals, and therefore available elsewhere. While the film was no doubt a fine and worthy endeavor, the album it spawned is of little use to anyone but Sweet Honey in the Rock fans and diehard James Horner completists. In fact, one has to wonder why, other than name recognition, the producers brought Horner on board at all; the film’s minimal score requirements could easily have been filled by a cheaper nobody. Avoid the album unless you specifically enjoyed the TNT movie or song performances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, and don’t mind that James Horner’s score is underachieving, bland, and partially buried under sound effects and narration.

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