Final Fantasy VII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Developer Squaresoft had earned a following with their Final Fantasy series of role-playing games for the Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems, but it took their defection to Nintendo rival Sony to take them into the stratosphere. The company’s first Playstation effort, Final Fantasy VII, was like nothing gamers had ever seen: movie-style FMV cutscenes, pre-rendered backgrounds, and fully 3D character models and battles. The game’s plot, an epic spread over three CDs and stuffed with endearingly goofy characters alongside dark and mature themes, earned it an instant following. Virtually every plot-driven RPG to follow owes something to the title, and it was a massive sales success both in Japan and abroad, fondly remembered today even as its presentation and aesthetic seem increasingly quaint. As later entries in the series became increasingly cinematic and driven by the need for spectacle over character, Final Fantasy VII is arguable the pinnacle of what the late developer had to offer.

Even as several key members of the Final Fantasy team swapped out for the project–Tetsuya Nomura’s leather and belt-crazy character designs supplanting Yoshitaka Amano’s wispy ukiyo-e ones, for instance–director Yoshinori Kitase and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi brought composer Nobuo Uematsu back to the franchise. The self-taught musician Uematsu had been with Squaresoft since 1985, and had written the scores for every one of the previous six Final Fantasies as well as contributing to side projects like Chrono Trigger. His previous score for the series, Final Fantasy VI, had been extremely well received for its integration of elements as diverse as classical opera, Wagnerian leitmotif, and progressive rock, and Uematsu was to build on this sequel score using many of the same pieces. Indeed, Uematsu’s approach is very similar in terms of construction, with the score built around a main theme with individual themes and variations for each major playable character (aside from, oddly, the main one) and prominent villains. He built on the operatic elements of the previous title by utilizing live voices for the first time in the series in one pivotal sequence, though overall the Wagnerian rock-opera sound that distinguished Final Fantasy VI is toned down in favor of a more eclectic approach.

Uematsu’s main theme, not associated with any one character, appears in the eponymous track as the world map music, and is surprisingly lengthy and ambitious: unlike his map themes past and present, with a loop of 1-2 minutes, a single loop of Uematsu’s main theme takes six and a half minutes (!). Its opening phrase, especially the first five notes, are reused and referenced across many other tracks, while the extensive variations in the map theme itself run the gamut from pastoral to triumphant to darkly troubled. It’s a very symphonic and ambitious piece, something Uematsu would not attempt again for future main or map themes. He adapts his “Main Theme” into a number of other tracks befitting its place: the beautiful “Holding My Thoughts into my Heart” gives the melody to an oboe set against scintillating harps and mallet percussion, while the game’s airship theme “Highwind Takes to the Skies” gives the theme a resounding, triumphant, yet bittersweet outing. It’s a sign of the theme’s strength that nearly all its adaptations are album highlights.

For the game’s characters, Uematsu returns to the leitmotif structure that he first used in Final Fantasy VI, giving the major characters and major villains each a theme and variations thereof (aside from the main character, who might be more associated with the “Main Theme”). The busty heroine and possible love interest Tifa is given a surprisingly sensitive theme that belies her status as a bruiser, a tune based on one of Uematsu’s lovliest early compositions, “Town of Alm” from Final Fantasy III. Oddly, the theme isn’t adapted until it forms a resounding part of the final cutscene track, “World Crisis.” Barret, the hotheaded Mr. T wannabe rebel leader with a robotic gun-arm, gets a delightfully pompous but optimistic military march in “Barret’s Theme,” one that is interpreted in a far more morose vein for “Mining Town” and “Mark of the Traitor” for scenes detailing the character’s tragic backstory. The Final Fantasy VII incarnation of Cid gets a soaring march of his own in “Cid’s Theme,” with elements thereof appearing in “Highwind Takes to the Skies” and “Stealing the Tiny Bronco” with a full-on morose adaptation for the character’s dashed dreams of spaceflight in “Launching a Dream into Space.” The bizarre and mysterious Red XII’s theme is an arrangement of “Cosmo Canyon” set against quizzical synths; both tracks have a very energetic tribal feel to them, reflecting the location’s status as close to nature and a nexus for hippies. The optional character Yuffie gets a surprisingly sunny theme that’s twisted into the mischievous “Stolen Materia” and subtly into the pan-Asian “Wutai.” The other optional character, Vincent, gets a baroque nightmare of a theme in the aptly-named “The Nightmare Begins” while the bizarre Cait Sith is given an upbeat leitmotif full of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, Hammond organ fun; neither theme gets any variations at all. And, of course, much ink has been spilled over the character Aeris’s theme, both in its original warm and uplifting form in “Flowers Blooming in the Church” and in its tragic, heartbreaking outing as “Aeris’s Theme.”

Uematsu’s approach to the game’s villains is more subtle than the rock-opera theatrics of the previous game. The game’s primary villain, Sephiroth, is given a dirge-like motif in “Those Chosen by the Planet” full of moaning synth voices, roiling percussion, and tolling bells. It’s a menacing piece primarily played for atmosphere in some of the game’s most pivotal and disturbing moments, and Uematsu occasionally breaks the piece apart into solo drums and chimes in-game (though not on the soundtrack). For the secondary antagonist, the ineptly brutal megacorporation Shinra, Uematsu uses many of the same pieces–heavy percussion and synth choir–hinting at the deep connection between the two villains. “Shinra Company” has more layers and more synth, though, with its shuffling two-step and moaning voices deftly capturing both its evil and its ineptitude. The theme gets a Muzak interpolation in “Infiltrating Shinra” for their corporate headquarters and its own delightfully pompous and quirky military march in “Shinra’s Full-Scale Assault” with further references in the dire “Mako Reactor.”

The battle themes on display in Final Fantasy VII also have important differences from those in Final Fantasy VI. Uematsu’s normal battle theme, “Let the Battles Begin!,” abandons his usual battle ostinato with its characteristic ascending arpeggios for a much more modernistic sound driven by synth brass and strings with pounded tambourine and metal hits to provide rhythm and a whirling woodwind interlude. Notably, Uematsu also abandons all but the opening notes of his 6-game-old victory fanfare, replacing it with a driving percussive piece (though the full fanfare is heard during the game’s chocobo races elsewhere). The boss battle theme, “Fight On,” combines the electric guitar from the previous game with the same metallic percussion as “Let the Battles Begin!” with a healthy dose of Hammond organ (Uematsu’s first use of the instrument, which would come to dominate his battle themes for the game’s sequel) and only a modest synth orchestra presence. The music for the game’s special event battles is among its most notable innovations: the synthy and pulse-pounding “J-E-N-O-V-A” uses descending electronic pulses set against brass and off-kilter melodies to suggest science gone horribly awry, while the later “JENOVA Absolute” rearranges “Let the Battles Begin!” into an even more percussive and hard-edged form, with a desperate piano and brass interlude that’s not to be missed. Uematsu arranges the villain’s theme into the final two battles; for the penultimate “Birth of a God” he returns to his usual battle ostinato with Hammond organ and a powerful interlude consisting of “Those Chosen by the Planet” over a bed of synths. The game’s final battle takes that even further, rearranging “Those Chosen” into a slashing percussive aria set against Latin lyrics sung by a live choir of Squaresoft employees (including future Dirge of Cerberus composer Masashi Hamauzu) in both an echo and expansion of “Dancing Mad” from the previous game.

Aside from one or two dud tracks (“Trail of Blood,” “The North Cave”), the score’s overriding weakness in the face of all its melodic strength and instrumental creativity is its use of MIDI. The Playstation platform offered the opportunity for a greatly improved, even CD-quality sound or even a greatly enhanced synthesizer sound–as would be shown by Uematsu’s own later efforts. Other Square projects that came out the same year, like Sakimoto and Iwata’s Final Fantasy Tactics (which came out less than six months after Final Fantasy VII) showed the possibilities inherent in evolving synthesizer technology, making Uematsu’s decision to use MIDI seem even worse in retrospect. The MIDI sounds are competent for electronic effects and percussion, but wind up making Uematsu’s brass sound incredibly tinny–at times, the music’s sound quality is audibly inferior even to that of Final Fantasy VI‘s SPC hardware-based sound despite the quantum leap in technology between the two titles. This primitive MIDI sound will serve as an insurmountable barrier to many listeners, and it’s unfortunate that Uematsu’s brilliant melodies and groundbreaking fusion of disparate elements often winds up sounding so muffled and tinny. Some key tracks wound up being arranged and upgraded later, but sound quality remains the single greatest bugaboo for Final Fantasy VII.

Squaresoft, through its ill-fated DigiCube subsidiary, gave Final Fantasy VII a full 4-disc soundtrack release a month after the game bowed in 1997. While the physical version was a Japanese exclusive, its ubiquity makes it relatively affordable for Western fans; a later iTunes release made it digitally accessible to American audiences for a first time (albeit at a premium price). While several tracks from Final Fantasy VII would be arranged by Uematsu and others for future projects, the composer had no hand in the game’s sequel titles, which received better-synthesized but extremely disappointing scores from Masashi Hamauzu and Takeharu Ishimoto. Uematsu’s own follow-up, the animated Advent Children, was also a disappointment, squandering its resources on a lazy combination of reused music from other albums and limp new music with very few of the original’s themes adapted or expanded in a satisfying way. The lack of a proper full arrangement, recreating Uematsu’s innovating combination of orchestra, electronic, and progressive rock elements in crystal-clear and (where appropriate) acoustic elements still galls even after almost two decades. Still, the music’s creative and melodic strength and its undeniable influence on later composers and compositions make it an essential listen for fans of the medium and a key part of the game’s astonishing success.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Final Fantasy VIII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Final Fantasy VIII was Squaresoft’s followup to its breakout hit Final Fantasy VII, which had been a tremendous success in its native Japan and and even bigger smash abroad, bringing countless new gamers to the RPG format. As a result, no expense was spared on the new game, which featured the most advanced CGI cutscenes of its day, impressive, fully-textured ingame graphics, and a massive marketing push. The game also took exactly the wrong lessons from its predecessor by amping up those same animated cutscenes without providing a coherent world for them to occupy or likable characters to inhabit it. As a result the game has aged badly, with the lack of effort put into streamlining the confusing battle system or fleshing out the paper-thin characters and plot painfully apparent as once-dazzling visuals now seem trite and faded. It’s a stark contrast to the simple graphics and endearing characters that had been hallmarks of the Final Fantasy series up to that point, and sadly the developer would make the same mistakes again in the future. For all Final Fantasy VIII‘s failures as a game and as a followup to Final Fantasy VII, though, the game was nonetheless successful though it fell far short of its predecessor’s widespread appeal.

There was never any real doubt that Nobuo Uematsu would return to the franchise; Final Fantasy VII had made him legions of new fans worldwide, and the new game’s higher budget meant that his efforts would be far more realistic, devoid of the tinny synth that dogged that game, at times making it sound worse than Final Fantasy VI a whole console generation earlier. Working directly with a Roland SC88 synthesizer and programmer Keiji Kawamori, Uematsu created a clear and high-quality synth sound for the game that stands up to other high-quality efforts like Legend of Mana or Vagrant Story released for the Sony PlayStation shortly thereafter.

At the same time, Uematsu would abandon the leitmotif-based structure that had been the cornerstone of his two previous Final Fantasy scores, instead opting for a smaller number of overarching themes and strong incidental scoring. Implicitly recognizing the banal shallowness of Final Fantasy VIII‘s cast, Uematsu swapped his John Williams approach of individual character themes and variations for a Jerry Goldsmith methodology of fewer themes to represent story concepts. He develops three major themes throughout the work: a snarling theme for the game’s villainous (if ludicrous) sorceress villains, a lush love theme for the juvenile romance between the two main characters (such as they are), and an upbeat friendship theme to represent the main cast as a whole (lazily identical backstories and all). In many ways–and again, much like Jerry Goldsmith–Uematsu’s score is forced to do much of the heavy emotional living where the game itself cannot.

Building on the success of his “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII, Uematsu often gives his prominent and powerful sorceress theme a resounding choral backing with Latin lyrics, based around the nonsense words “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.” It opens the powerful “Liberi Fatali,” anchors the menacing “Succession of Witches,” and appears in full in the track “Fithos Lusec Vecos Vinosec.” This choral sensibility is one of the album’s great strength, and the live singers’ voices enliven the otherwise synthesized tracks they appear in. The sorceress theme is given plenty of airtime in instrumental tracks as well, snaking through some of the game’s most pulse-pounding battle sequences before being sent off with a solo piano in the contemplative and gorgeous “The Successor.”

Uematsu’s prominent love theme is based on the pop song “Eyes On Me” which he wrote with lyricist Kako Someya for Japanese pop sensation Faye Wong (with English lyrics in all its incarnations in game and on disc). One of the more unfortunate side effects of Final Fantasy’s explosion of popularity was the inclusion of pop songs, which first appeared in this installment of the series and have since been present in most major releases since. They have never really fit in, despite being penned by Uematsu, and the banal “Eyes On Me” interrupts the otherwise lovely (and fully orchestral) “Ending Theme” in addition to its solo outing. The love theme is far more effective when interpreted as an instrumental, and it serves as a main theme of sorts. The attractive solo piano “Julia” first introduces it, reflecting the conceit that the song was composed in-universe about one of the characters. Uematsu references it in music-box form in the soft “My Mind,” twists it into a triumphant fanfare in “Blue Sky,” and otherwise has a field day with the strong melody separate from the unnecessary pop song that is its raison d’etre.

Finally, the game’s band of hollow but attractively rendered characters is given a friendship theme to provide warm pathos where their antics cannot. The early “Balamb Garden” features the first outing of this theme, alternating with a melody specific to that track; its later appearance on a mournful guitar in “Where I Belong” is a direct reference. “Tell Me” puts the theme through a more melancholy but equally lovely variation, while the theme gets its longest and most complete outing in the beautiful “Ami” which begins as another piano piece on an album stuffed with them before adding additional layers of orchestral synths. While it is often the most low-key of Uematsu’t themes, the friendship theme is perhaps the most satisfying and sunny overall.

The incidental scoring independent of the album’s main themes is quite strong, and Uematsu’s style is prominent enough to tie the pieces together without explicit thematic references. He goes about his task with aplomb, creating tracks as diverse as the gentle, melodic “Fisherman’s Horizon,” the acrostic “Breezy,” and the delightful, string-based “The Mission.” Even though the game lacks a proper airship, Uematsu even turns in a rousing airship theme in the form of “Ride On.”

Final Fantasy VIII’s battle and action themes are particularly noteworthy, especially the standard battle theme, “Don’t Be Afraid.” Normal battle themes have long been Uematsu’s weakest tracks, often much more bland and modernistic than the surrounding music, but “Afraid” takes an effective classical approach, underscoring the brass with racing staccato strings and strong percussion. The boss battle theme “Force Your Way” is more modernand innovative, setting a Hammond organ, synths, and electric guitars against an orchestral backing to great effect. The larger-scale battles are album highlights, particularly “Premonition” and the climactic “The Extreme,” both of which interpolate the sorceress theme and build from soft beginnings to explosive action statements. The final sequence of the game, an unbroken series of “Premonition,” “The Legendary Beast,” “Maybe I’m A Lion,” and “The Extreme,” rivals “Dancing Mad as Uematsu’s finest moment in action scoring, giving the nonsensical battles the music accompanies a strong set of gravitas.

For anyone looking for a variety of strongly thematic and innovative music in Nobuo Uematsu’s distinctive style, and doesn’t mind the composer’s total abandonment of the leitmotif structure he used in the two previous Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VIII is a must-have irrespective of the weak game it accompanies. It is Uematsu at his best, refusing to rest on his laurels and crafting engaging new music that in many ways takes his previous achievements to the next level–it is, in many ways, the composer’s finest all-around Final Fantasy score. The superior synth is a great boon to sensitive listeners as well, making the music much more palatable and accessible and a good choice for series novices looking to sample it. Though Uematsu would contribute to further games in the series in whole or in part, he was never quite able to equal or top his musical efforts in this game or its two predecessors.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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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