Square-Enix Piano Collections pt.5: Branching out

June 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm (Editorials, Soundtracks) (, , , , , , )

In 2003, a crossover game of sorts was released called Kingdom Hearts. It was a bit of a controversy at the time for fans of Final Fantasy, as it was to be a mix of characters from Final Fantasy and Disney. Given the different target audiences for both series, it was understandably a cause of concern that one of the groups was going to be altered so that they could cater to the other group’s audiences (although it should be noted that many people were easily fans of both series). Thankfully, the concerns must have been heeded by the developers, as the game was released to strong critical reception and sales, being able to cater well to both audiences. It later went on to feature several spin-offs and sequels, each moderately or well received. Even at the time of writing this, it looks like there are a few years and iterations left for series.

More than what was found in Final Fantasy games, Kingdom Hearts focused heavily on the development of the characters and their relationships, with friendship being a recurring theme between the games. Characters in the games gained a strong sense of unity, loyalty and trust, but also experienced losses, separation, and loneliness. With all of these emotional aspects, an appropriate score was required to help portray these feelings. Yoko Shimomura composed for majority of the series, only being helped later for Kingdom Hearts 3D. Not only was Shimomura able to cover the ground for these emotional needs, she also provided appropriate backdrops for the various Disney worlds that the characters visited, so well that one might’ve thought that they were in the original movies. While most of the music was never particularly complex, the melodies were easy to remember, and the arrangements were full and diverse.

It was no surprise, then, that Kingdom Hearts was chosen as the first branch in the Piano Collections franchise. Released after the first three games (Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, Chain of Memories), the album featured a selection of songs voted by fans. Featuring four new arrangers and pianists, the album was able to separate itself stylistically from the previous Collections, but also managed to be a unified work. As a whole, the album was well received, but it was certainly a flawed work.

First noted would be the tracklist, which more or less had two repeats; “Dearly Beloved” and its Concert Paraphrase, and “Roxas” with “The Other Promise”. The former of the pairs being simpler and slower, the latter of the pairs dramatic and grand. While each was able to be a standalone song, there were plenty of other deserving tracks that could have made it onto the album, and it could’ve have been possible to merge the pairs into one arrangement.

As for the arrangements themselves, it was clear that the simplistic nature of the source material was making it difficult to translate the pieces into full songs. As a result, many songs felt repetitious, and went through unnecessary and minute variations and key changes. The centerpiece of the album, the Sonata on Themes of Kingdom Hearts featuring a movement for each of Sora, Kairi and Riku plus the “Working Together” finale was the biggest offender in the repetition department. But really, every song on the album featured at least one or two segments that it could have easily done without.

Another problem that arose was the contrast between the simple nature of the melodies, and the difficulty of the pieces. Indeed, majority of the tracks were much harder than the songs on other Piano Collections, save for perhaps the boss tracks from the newer albums. How did this happen? Lots and lots of unnecessary arpeggios, jumps, scales, and other decor. Sure, they made the songs sound grander and more impressive, but at a certain point it wasn’t really contributing to the song at all, making the arrangements feel a bit disconnected from their OST counterparts.

All in all, the album was still a decent one. At the very least, it had a pretty theme and casing. And it left people wanting more. Within the year, an announcement was made for a follow-up album, “Piano Collections Kingdom Hearts: Field & Battle”. Where the first album featured more character themes and cinematic themes, the second sought to arrange the world themes and battle themes, which more players would probably have been familiar with since they come up more in the games. And to the delight of us listeners, the arrangers and performers (plus one new performer) took to heart the criticisms of the first album, and for the most part fixed it for the new collection.

The first remedy was the combination of world themes and battle themes into single tracks. This was done for the areas that had shorter and simpler compositions, allowing them to make full pieces without stretching out the material as they had done in the first album. This also covered the problem of the tracklist, allowing them to cover much more ground than the first album (despite actually having fewer tracks). The next was the difficulty of the arrangements. Well, it wasn’t so much fixed as it was made more appropriate. The new collection was indeed just as hard as the first, but since these parts were saved primarily for the battle tracks and dramatic themes, it was much more understandable. There were still some parts that seemed excessive, but those times were few and far between.

Although this particular branch is finished for the time being, there is still room for another album. Perhaps once the series is finished, and they have some more material to work with. But even now, there are plenty of tracks that many of us would like to see arranged, such as “Destati” or “Destiny Islands”. We’ll just have to be patient until then.

Fast forwarding to 2011, we see another game that stole the musical spotlight within Square-Enix; NieR Replicant and NieR Gestalt (simply NieR outside of Japan). The game was hyped up before its release, but performed critically much lower than expectations. It was universally agreed however, that the score was beautiful and rich. Composed by a team led by Keiichi Okabe, the album was almost entirely sombre or dramatic, with haunting vocals by Emi Evans and strong performances from the accompanying orchestras and instrumentalists. By the year’s end, the soundtrack had won some awards, and spurred a few spin-off albums (an arranged, tribute, and drama album). Within the soundtrack and on the arranged album, there were a few piano solo tracks, the scores of which were all contained with the Official Score Book. Like other official score books which are released for games, they are separate entities from the Piano Collections albums, often featuring beginner to intermediate arrangements, and they usually contain every song or a large selection of songs from the soundtrack. While these arrangements are often nice, they’re a little simple, and for NieR people were looking for arrangements more fulfilling than what was presented in the book (other than the two piano solos from the arranged album, which were quite advanced).

Early in 2012, a “Piano Collections NieR Gestalt and NieR Replicant” was finally announced. Featuring another new roster of arrangers and performers, the collection became another distinct entity in the Piano Collections series, and was well-received critically.

Notable was the strength of the songs despite lacking the vocals of Emi Evans, which many had voiced concerns about prior to the release of the album. Thankfully, the compositions were strong enough to hold the songs up, and it helps that many of the arrangements strongly accentuated the melodies of the songs. Indeed, some of the arrangements were a little straightforward, but it had been a very conscious decision to make them so, in order to highlight the melodies.

However, the final two tracks of the album completely took things out of the ballpark. For the first time in the series*, there existed arrangements that had more than just piano in them. “The Wretched Automatons” featured a very sparse piano arrangement, which was filled with distortions and blips to make an ambient electronic piece. While it was a big departure, it arguably suited the song much better than a traditional arrangement would have done, with the original also featuring mechanical elements, separating itself from the rest of the soundtrack. “Ashes of Dreams” had many gloomy iterations on the OST, so in the Piano Collections they decided to lighten things up with a jazzy arrangement with a tinge of underlying sorrow, even giving it a sound filter that made it sound like it was being played from a record player from that musical era. These two tracks didn’t necessarily fit in with the rest of the album, but most agreed that they were quality tracks, and quite welcome entries into the long standing series.

Kingdom Hearts and NieR are so far the only official entires into the “Piano Collections” series, but there is of course room for much more. It does take a certain audience though to push Square-Enix to make these albums (it seems unlikely that Dragon Quest will ever get a Piano Collections album**), but whatever they do put out, it seems that we can trust that the quality will be quite on par with what we’ve seen before, and may even push things into new, unexplored territories.

*”The Oath” from “Piano Collections Final Fantasy VIII” features an echo effect in two of the measures, although that can easily be recreated on piano to an extent.

**Dragon Quest actually has several piano albums, but they are all lower level and feature minimal arrangement. On par with Official Score Books.

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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