Distant Worlds : music from Final Fantasy RETURNING HOME

April 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm (Soundtracks) (, , , )

Disc 1

  1. “One-Winged Angel” (Final Fantasy VII)
  2. “Victory Theme” (Final Fantasy Series)
  3. “Don’t be Afraid” (Final Fantasy VIII)
  4. “FINAL FANTASY I-III Medley 2010” (FINAL FANTASY I-III)
  5. “Love Grows” (Final Fantasy VIII)
  6. “Ronfaure” (Final Fantasy XI)
  7. “JENOVA” (Final Fantasy VII)
  8. “Dear Friends” (Final Fantasy V)
  9. “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” (Final Fantasy IX)
  10. “Aerith’s Theme” (Final Fantasy VII)
  11. “Chocobo Medley 2010” (FINAL FANTASY Series)

Disc 2

  1.  “Opening – Bombing Mission” (Final Fantasy VII)
  2.  “To Zanarkand” (Final Fantasy X)
  3.  “Those Who Fight (Let The Battles Begin!)” (Final Fantasy VII)
  4. “Dancing Mad” (Final Fantasy VI)
  5. “Blinded By Light” (Final Fantasy XIII)
  6. “Fang’s Theme” (Final Fantasy XIII)
  7. “March of the Dreadnoughts” (Final Fantasy XIII)
  8. “Fabula Nova Crystallis” (Final Fantasy XIII)
  9. “Saber’s Edge” (Final Fantasy XIII)
  10. “Navigator’s Glory – The Theme of Limsa Lominsa” (Final Fantasy XIV)
  11. “Twilight over Thanalan” (Final Fantasy XIV)
  12. “Answers” (Final Fantasy XIV)
  13. “Primal Judgement” (Final Fantasy XIV)
  14. “The Man With The Machine Gun (Final Fantasy VIII)
  15. “Terra’s Theme” (Final Fantasy VI)
  16. “Clash on the Big Bridge (Battle at the Big Bridge)” (Final Fantasy V)

Final Fantasy music has received a lot of concert treatment over the years all around the world. One of the more notable is the worldwide Distant Worlds concert series, which has gone on for many years now, even spawning two live albums. The concerts focus exclusively on Final Fantasy music, presenting the familiar themes with a grand live orchestra and even some gameplay and cinematic footage to help supplement the music, It all makes for a night of pleasant, perhaps even emotional reminiscing on many hours spent with the beloved characters that inhabit these games.

Helmed by conductor and arranger Arnie Roth, Distant Worlds made a stop in Japan after many years of absence from the country that spawned the series. Hence the title, Returning Home. The concert promised new arrangements from the latest entries in the series, Final Fantasy XIII and XIV. In attendance was the main composer for the Final Fantasy series, Nobuo Uematsu, as well as Masashi Hamauzu who has had input in many games, and was the composer for XIII. The concert was held on two nights, each featuring a slightly different setlist. For the DVD, we get performances from both nights, encompassing all of the songs that were played.

With heavy expectations, was Arnie Roth and his team able to deliver?

The night starts off with an interesting song choice, “One-Winged Angel”. It’s interesting because it’s almost always reserved as an encore piece. It works as a good concert opener too, as we see, but it’s a pretty standard performance of the song no different from older renditions. Afterwards, Arnie takes some time to welcome the audience (he chats a bit after most songs) and then we have the short “Victory Theme” that we all know and love.

Leading what I consider the serious part of the concert (I mean really, those two opening bits are throwaway pieces), we have “Don’t Be Afraid” which opens amusingly with gameplay footage of a familiar scene from VIII. To be honest, I’ve never really liked the orchestral arrangement of this song. The strings don’t quite fill out the atmosphere, and the the percussion doesn’t meld with the rest of the orchestra well. But that’s not to say that it’s completely not enjoyable, but it could be better (or maybe it just shouldn’t be done).

The “Final Fantasy I~III Meldey 2010” received a bit of a makeover from it’s previous incarnations, including new themes. At a full eight-and-a-half minutes, the medley covers a lot of ground, and contains enough staples (such as the Prelude and Main Theme) to be enjoyable for those who haven’t played the games themselves. I particularly like the footage shown, which especially helps to give extra character to those who are not familiar. Watching the harpist play the prelude is magical as well.

A personal highlight for me, “Love Grows” is essentially the orchestral version of “Eyes on Me” from VIII. Notable is guest performer Benjamin Nuss, a piano prodigy from Germany who has done much in the way of playing Final Fantasy music. The song features many impressive runs, a beautiful orchestration, and a powerful climax.

“Ronfaure” from XI is a great atmospheric piece although military themed composition seems to stick out a bit compared to many of the other songs of the series. “J-E-N-O-V-A” is more or less the same awesome arrangement that we’ve heard before, although it does suffer a bit from the factors that detracted from “Don’t Be Afraid”.

Our next guest performer is classical guitarist Meng-Feng Su for “Dear Friends” from V and “Vamo’ alla flamenco” from IX. The former is a calm, relaxing song with beautiful strings. It has a nice, home-y feeling to it, and is a nice change from the previous songs which were all epic in some way. “Vamo’ alla flamenco” also sounds very fresh, being more playful in both melody and arrangement. It’s a familiar arrangement, but it’s quite welcome, and it’s great to be able to see the impressive handiwork of the guitarist.

“Aerith’s Theme” pushes the emotional bounds of the night with one of the most beloved themes of the series, although it unfortunately also has a recycled arrangement, save for a small changes here and there. “Chocobo Medley 2010” ends the first portion of the first portion of the concert. The medley has now been updated to include bits from the XIV version of the theme, although most probably can hardly tell which arrangement goes with which game. It’s a relatively short affair, but it covers a lot of ground in terms of arrangements and styles of music. I’m glad they left out the dissonant mess that was on VI GRAND FINALE though.

Starting off after the intermission is “Opening ~Bombing Mission” from VII and “To Zanarkand” from X. Possibly my favourite tracks from both games, with (old) arrangements that stay true to the source material but really work well to flesh it all out. I really like the countermelody they added in the latter song.

Benjamin Nuss comes back, this time for a solo rendition of the Piano Collections version of “Those Who Fight” from VII. The original piano recording was already one of the most impressive pieces of music within the Piano Collections series, and Nuss takes it in a different direction from the original performer Seiji Honda, adding his own flavour to the performance. A slightly faster tempo mixed with heavier nuances make the arrangement feel quite fresh, and watching his fingers hammer away at the piano at such speeds while retaining accuracy is a major treat. As a piano player, I was quite envious.

Another real treat is the inclusion of the 10-minute track, “Dancing Mad” from VI (which is actually shorter than the OST version, but the OST has some repetition in it so nothing is actually left out here). The track is less familiar to many Final Fantasy fans, but nevertheless stands as a track of legendary proportions that pays homage to a villain who is arguably far more evil and twisted than the better-known Sephiroth of VII. Although we did see this very arrangement on the second Distant Worlds album, the performance here seems better refined, particularly during the organ solos. That’s right, organ solos. Plural. Mixed with a strong chorus, haunting chimes and 7/4 time signatures, the song proves effective in terms of composition and arrangement, speaking to the genius of Nobuo in his prime and the competence of Arnie Roth as an arranger. Makes me anxious to see if they will one day cover the VIII end boss songs.

From here, we move onto completely new arrangements, covering XIII. Although they’re not as fresh as one might think, since the original soundtrack was already heavily orchestrated. Opening the segment is the obligatory “Blinded by Light”, a great battle track that features a some beautiful violin work. “Fang’s Theme” is another great track, but placed next to “Blinded by Light” it loses a little ‘oomph’ since the two sound fairly similar in terms of the orchestral arrangement, even though “Fang’s Theme” is considerably more light-hearted.

Nuss comes back for the Piano Collections renditions of “March of the Dreadnoughts!”. Although it is not nearly as bombastic as “Those Who Fight”, “Dreadnoughts!” is a much more subtle performance arrangement. It’s a tiny bit repetitive but Nuss does his best job with it for a satisfying performance. “Fabula Nova Crystallis” is our first vocal theme of the night, featuring guest performer Frances Maya. It’s a pretty but short song built from “The Promise”, although I would have much rather had that instead. “Saber’s Edge” rounds off the XIII section, but unfortunately it again follows in the lieu of the opening tracks for the segment and does little to distinguish itself in terms of arrangement.

Transitioning to the second night of the concerts, we have the new section dedicated to XIV. “Navigator’s Glory ~The Theme of Limsa Lominsa~” sounds like a fanfare, and has a decent arrangement. The highlight though is easily “Twilight over Thanalan”, which has a beautiful melody and majestic arrangement. The arrangement is appropriately grand and impassioned, affirming that while XIV may have been a disappointment in terms of gameplay and interface, Nobuo was certainly still in his game composing the soundtrack.

The male chorus starts the prelude to “Answers”, setting the stage for another guest vocalist, Susan Calloway. One of the longer tracks of the night, “Answers” is also emotionally charged, featuring great lyrics and a strong melody and arrangement. I do have some gripes about Calloway though by the climax, as she doesn’t seem quite able to put the appropriate power into those high notes. It’s still an acceptable performance, and she does hit all the notes. Arrangement-wise, it’s pretty much the OST version, but that’s definitely alright. The last song of the XIV section is “Primal Judgement”, which is fast paced and much more foreboding than the other songs we’ve heard from XIII and XIV. Again, the arrangement is almost identical to the OST, but it’s a great arrangement, and many weren’t familiar with these songs to begin with.

Ending the night are two fan favourites, “The Man with the Machine Gun” and “Tina’s/Terra’s Theme”. The former can be a little rough to conduct with the percussion, but they do a fine job here. I’ve never been a huge fan of the arrangement, as it shares problems with some of the earlier pieces of the night, but the song is still great. “Tina’s Theme” is also the typical arrangement that we’ve come to know in concert, which is a little tired but it works well as a concert closer.

For our encore, we have a special treat, an arrangement for “Clash on the Big Bridge”. reportedly, this is the Japanese audience’s favourite Final Fantasy battle theme, over “One Winged Angel”. It’s a short arrangement, but an impressive and epic one. The strings glide fiercely, the percussion is loud, the brass section give urgency, the choir soars, and Nuss has some shining moments back on piano. Certainly a satisfying conclusion to a great night.

As a bonus, the DVD also includes a making of with some interviews with Nobuo, Hamauzu, and Roth. It’s great to hear their insights into the music at each stage, as well as what they think of each other’s music.

As for the packaging, the DVD comes with a decent booklet with some pictures, and a nice digipack case. The package also comes with two CDs covering all that was included on the DVD. The sound quality is essentially the same as the DVDs, with the tracks (even including the applause). Which means that the quality could definitely be better, but that would asking them to rerecord everything in studio. For live recordings, they’re just fine.

The pricing of the package is quite decent. The essentially priced for the DVD, with the CDs coming as bonuses. Although by our standards, Japanese DVDs are quite expensive. It’s also region 2. Fortunately, the group have also released it locally in some places (US, UK, some other asian countries) at a very affordable price. These releases include subtitles for the bonuses, and are even region free! If you don’t live in these areas, then you can do as I did and attend one of the concerts. They sell them there as well.

Arrangement – Many are recycled arrangements, but these were great arrangements to begin with. Some of the battle tracks can feel a little empty.
Spectacle – The soloists are impressive to watch, and some of the videos on screen are nice to reminisce on.
Setlist – A lot of repeats, but a lot of treats and new arrangements as well. A pretty decent balance.
Quality / Editing – Sound quality is decent, but the video is more or less just passable. But it’s not about the visuals, is it?
Extras – A nice bonus making of, and the inclusion of the CDs is definitely appreciated.

Final Word? You can’t go wrong with this package, even if many tracks and arrangements are more or less recycled. For the affordable price and region free DVD? You owe it to the fanboy/fangirl in you.

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