Square-Enix Piano Collections pt.4: Back to Basics

June 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm (Editorials, Soundtracks) (, , , , , , , )

Pushing the Final Fantasy series to even further borders, Square released Final Fantasy XI in 2002 (before the merge with Enix). It was the first in the series to be an MMORPG, and it was released to strong critical reception. With its many areas and expansions, the game demanded a large music library, too large for just one composer to handle. Again, Nobuo Uematsu was helped out by Naoto Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka. The later expansions were done only by Mizuta, as the others left the project. With so many tracks, it was understandably hard to keep all listeners satisfied. In the game, the music was great accompaniment, but as a standalone listen, some of the soundtracks were harder to recommend.

Perhaps it was this reason that they waited until 2007 to release “Piano Collections Final Fantasy XI”, when they had a better selection of tracks to choose from. But rather than the conventional release, the album was alongside its sheet music within the “Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack Premium Box”, which also included some of the other arranged albums.

Although not quite down to the level of the earliest Piano Collections, it was clear that given the exclusive availability of the album and sheet music within the box, the album was meant to be accessible for most players who would pick up the package, and thus featured straightforward and simple arrangements. Arranged by newcomer Kaoru Ishikawa, the arrangements were by no means poor, but they were not entirely satisfying to play or listen to on their own. This was a contrast to the Piano Collections to Final Fantasy IV  through to VI, which were all still pleasant listens, mainly due to the emotive source material.

It is not a bad thing then, that the following year they decided to release a separate “Piano Collections Final Fantasy XI” in the usual manner, with a separate book. This time though, the tracklisting was completely switched up, and the style was a little more to our expectations. Again arranged by Ishikawa, the album accentuated the melodies well, requiring technical proficiency from its two performers in order to hold them above the often complex underlying arrangements. Each track was still easily recognizable, but transferred well to the solo piano. Like Hamaguchi’s earlier arrangements, each song was well able to argue for its own existence, feeling full and complete. As a whole the album was a little more calm and tame than other albums, but it made for a more accessible listen. This was a wise move, considering that many of the series regulars had skipped over Final Fantasy XI; the album was able to be a satisfying listen even for them, unfamiliar with the music.

Mysteriously skipping Final Fantasy XII, the next entry into the series for Final Fantasy came in 2010 for “Piano Collections Final Fantasy XIII”. Marking the return of the duo that reinvigorated the series with “Piano Collections Final Fantasy X”, Masashi Hamauzu was to arrange (and he was the sole composer for Final Fantasy XIII), and Aki Kuroda was signing on as the pianist. Expectations were high for the album, but unfortunately it was not able to deliver on all fronts.

While the album still had the impressionistic sound that we had come to expect from Hamauzu’s arrangements, the melodies themselves were more or less fully intact from their OST form, giving the arrangements that familiar, straightforward feel. One might expect this to be a good thing, but confusingly it wasn’t. What was lacking from the album became a point of disagreement between most listeners. Many reviewers said that the arrangements were too straightforward, since the OST tracks themselves were already sometimes impressionistic. Others said that the pieces lacked passion and emotion, sounding stiff. Others still pointed to the relative ease of some of the tracks, with the exception of a few segments that were deemed unnecessarily complicated and grandiose. Some said that the songs felt very repetitious, with sections of songs going through only small changes with the repeat of each passage.

In my own personal opinion, I think that the album cover is a perfect representation of the feel of the album. Like the crystal piano on the white backdrop, the melodies are crystal clear, and the arrangements are quite pretty, even bright and in some way that makes sense to my mind, ‘sparkly’. As with the white room, it’s a distinctly relaxing feel, that can just wipe your mind of all extraneous feeling. But what was expected of the album was heart. And colour. Layers, not something transparent. Not something that just looked nice on the surface, but was otherwise quite empty and void.

But that’s just me.

All criticism aside, the album was not a complete failure by any means. It just wasn’t up to the high expectations set by previous works. At the very least, it was just a decent piano album, and it offered a bit of a different take on the music.

It seemed time, however, to seek different ground. Square-Enix had several other games and series out that had strong fanbases, and many were also noted for having great music. Should they not also receive similar treatment? Well actually, they DID receive similar treatment, a few years before the release of “Piano Collections Final Fantasy XIII”. I just like grouping things together…

pt.1: Shiro Satou’s Triad
pt.2: the Other Shiro, Mr. Hamaguchi
pt.3: Ten to Ten-Two
pt.4: Back to Basics
pt.5: Branching out
pt.6: the Other Collections
pt.7: Looking out ahead, filling the gaps

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