animefringe may 2003 / reviews

Final Fantasy: The Black Mages
Format: compact disc / 10 tracks
Production: Square Enix / Nobou Uematsu
Comments: Uematsu's combination of synth, guitar, and drums will probably only appeal to hardcore fans.
Animefringe Reviews:
Final Fantasy: The Black Mages

Outside of the Final Fantasy Concert 20022002 orchestra CD, there hasn't been a major, non-OST release of a Final Fantasy CD since X's "Piano". Nobou Uematsu fans were excited, then, when Nobou Uematsu announced the release of "The Black Mages" on his website earlier this year. Fans have been surprised at the new CD, which, unlike the last few Final Fantasy CDs, is not an orchestra disc at all. Instead, the CD, which was arranged by Nobou Uematsu (with Tsuyoshi Sekito, composer for Brave Fencer Musashi soundtrack, and Kenichiro Fukui, responsible for the Einhander soundtrack), recalls the "Final Fantasy V: Dear Friends" album and Final Fantasy X's "Otherworld" theme, as it is a very synth- and guitar-heavy rock album.

01 - Battle Scene
Though this is a track originally from Final Fantasy I, it has morphed a lot from its original incarnation. The track features some very hard electric guitars and synthesizer beats, but recalls the original Final Fantasy I theme. If nothing else, the guitar is very reminiscent of late 80's/early 90's action anime themes.

02 - Clash on the Bridge
The second track on The Black Mages starts out a bit like Uematsu's Phantasgamoria album (read: slow and very synth) but quickly adds guitars and a faster pace to this theme from Final Fantasy V. Many fans familiar with Uematsu's work will instantly recognize the song, despite the changes made to it.

03 - Force Your Way
Originally the Final Fantasy VIII battle theme, the synth hook in this song is especially catchy (if a little repetitive). This version of the song does, however, begin to go off on its own, with a building climax.

04 - Battle Scene II
This track begins with extremely heavy drums and a menacing-but-catchy hook; in between the electric guitar chords, it is possible to hear the familiar melody of Final Fantasy II's battle theme. Though similar to the previous tracks, the burial of the Final Fantasy melody under synth and drums makes it feel somewhat different from the previous tracks.

05 - The Decisive Battle
Track five takes the Atma battle theme of Final Fantasy VI and rocks it out. Starting out slowly, it quickly builds into the full-fledged Kefka battle theme.

06 - Battle Theme
Also from Final Fantasy VI, this normal battle theme is very reminiscent of early-90's anime (Iria anyone?). Later portions of the track feature a bubbly hook and an especially appropriate synth chorus.

07 - J-E-N-O-V-A
Of the various tracks on The Black Mages, "J-E-N-O-V-A," the theme when Cloud and Co. battle Jenova in Final Fantasy VII, was already the most synth/techno like. It translates extremely well onto this CD, except for the bizarre step down and use of a very bad synth chord around the 2:20 mark, where the song begins to deviate from the OST original. However, the melody remains extremely good throughout the song. For the most part, the Black Mages version of this track retains the feeling of technological fear and wonder that was a major part of Final Fantasy VII and Jenova in particular.

08 - Those Who Fight Further
Track eight is the boss battle theme from Final Fantasy VII. The beating sound effect/hook from the original version of this track is more subdued on the Black Mages CD, but as this track was very much a rock song, dumbed down for the PS1 sound chip, like "J-E-N-O-V-A", it translates extremely well onto this CD. Instead of sounding like remixes, the two Final Fantasy VII tracks sound like upgraded rearrangements.

09 - Dancing Mad
The other Kefka theme from Final Fantasy VI (certainly the more distinctive one), sounds even more grand here -- bested only by the rendition on Final Fantasy VI: Grande Finale. Because of the synth vocals, "Dancing Mad" sounds more like an upgrade of the 16-bit original.

10 - Fight with Seymour
The last track on The Black Mages starts off smoothly, and quickly picks up in pace. Of all the tracks on the CD, it is probably the weakest; it's one of the most synth tracks on the CD and ends up sounding very cartoony in some places and very anime-esque in others.

As you can see from the track list, The Black Mages is very different from previous Final Fantasy CDs. It is composed entirely of battle themes, many of which are generally overlooked when it comes time to make an arranged CD. While it is good to see some of these tracks for the first time, an argument can be made that this CD is made up of a lot of songs that were somewhat filler material in their original context. Additionally, these new arrangements are entirely synth, drums, and electric/bass guitar. The combination makes many of the tracks sound like action anime from the 80's (think Project A-ko or City Hunter). Because of the limited musical palette, the songs tend to run together as well. If anything, The Black Mages sounds like a much higher quality version of some of the more "rock" tracks on the Nobou Uematsu tribute album, Majestic Mix. Additionally, I don't want to sound like the joke about the guy at the bad restaurant ("This food is terrible and the portions are too small!"), but in this day and age, ten tracks hardly seems like enough for a full CD.

While I tend to recommend Final Fantasy orchestra CDs to anyone generally interested in music, it is harder to recommend The Black Mages to anyone -- even casual Final Fantasy fans -- only the most hardcore Final Fantasy fans. The CD's short track list and limited palette make it more of a niche product than previous FF CDs. Fans of Nobou Uematsu might enjoy the CD - it does tend to grow on the listener after several times -- but The Black Mages is definitely a "try before you buy" CD for most people.