Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy (Chicago, December 2009): Concert Report
As I mentioned in my Baltimore report, Final Fantasy was the game series that really ignited my interest in game music. Even though I rarely listen to the music from this series these days, only revisiting classic favorites and listening to new releases, the words Final Fantasy really help ignite passion into most listeners. They may only listen to Final Fantasy music and that's OK with me. I had already attended a Distant Worlds concert in Baltimore earlier this year. However, I decided to head out to Chicago upon learning that the last concert of 2009 would be held in Chicago and would feature brand new music, along with Nobuo Uematsu as a special guest. I was sure it would be an experience I'd treasure. The opportunity to meet the team and interview Nobuo Uematsu made it even more special. Given much of the concert featured music I had heard before, this write up will focus more on the music that was new to the concert and new to me.
Unlike the Baltimore concert, this concert featured four vocal themes from the Final Fantasy series, all sung by Susan Calloway. The first half of the concert featured two of these themes. The first song to be featured was "Memoro de la Stono ~ Distant Worlds" from Final Fantasy XI. Much like the version I heard it Baltimore, it was very touching. The opening was brooding and emotional and Susan Calloway brought, first and foremost, an easier listen than the version in Baltimore — her voice was very much more discernable, given she wasn't an opera singer trying to sing "Distant Worlds". For those who would like to hear her interpretation, you can! She is the singer featured on the first Distant Worlds CD. The second vocal piece to be sung was "Melodies of Life" from Final Fantasy IX. While I will always find the original to be the best version, it was quite nice hearing it in purely orchestral form. This was another song in which I felt Susan Calloway did a fantastic job. She definitely brought a lot of emotion to this song and I was singing along, to myself of course, while it played.
The second half, on the other hand, brought with it something interesting, in terms of vocal themes. Not only would "Suteki da ne" from Final Fantasy X feature, but it would also be the first time it was sung with English lyrics. I think that Susan did a fantastic job singing, and it was nice hearing what the lyrics meant in English. At the same time, as pleasant as the music was, and always has been, I think some of the oomph that made the original so good was lacking. I blame this on the fact that, when you write music for Japanese lyrics, things are a bit easier to translate melodically. When you translate into another language, sometimes the same notes that would only play one or two syllables are now trying to stretch out into more syllables, and because of this, some of that magic is lost. It was still a fantastic piece, but I'd have much preferred the Japanese version of the lyrics. The last vocal theme to be sung was "Kiss Me Good-Bye" from Final Fantasy XII. Out of all the songs sung by Susan Calloway, I think this one suited her best, due to her singing background. In the end, it was a very nice interpretation and I enjoyed it as much as I did Angela Aki's version. Overall, Susan Calloway's performances were a highlight of the evening.
Of course, the main reason I went to Chicago was to hear the new arrangements of "J-E-N-O-V-A" and "Dancing Mad". A month before the concert, it was revealed that some music from Final Fantasy XIV would also be played, so that was sort of an added bonus. The first half of the concert ended with the first new arrangement, "J-E-N-O-V-A". The new arrangement featured a driving rhythm on drums instead of the synth that made the original so popular; however, at times the percussionist seemed to have trouble keeping up with the pace — something I'm sure, with a bit more practice, could be corrected. Nevertheless, the team at AWR Music succeeded in producing a very energetic arrangement that really helped keep the atmosphere of the original. I especially enjoyed the choir work and the extravagant jazz-tinged solos by the trumpet. It'll be interesting to hear a more refined performance on the Distant Worlds II album.
The second half featured the other two themes. First up, "Dancing Mad" — easily my favorite final battle theme for the series — was played. It was a very enjoyable experience, at least from what was played. The first three tiers really captured the essence of the original with a mixture of ominous pipe organ solos and epic orchestration. From what I remember, the performance was similar to that played by PLAY! A Video Game Symphony on a special Stockholm performance, except slightly simplified. However, the additional visual component of Kefka's transformation helped it to be a more immersive listen. Unfortunately, the meat of fourth tier — that driving synth melody with hints of "Kefkas Theme" — was not featured. Instead, after the third tier, the arrangement moves into the slower sections of the fourth tier before concluding. As a die-hard fan of the original, I was absolutely heartbroken that the best part of "Dancing Mad" was cut. I truly hope that, if it makes it onto the second Distant Worlds CD, the arrangement will feature all parts. I understand it's a long piece, and that may have been part of the reasoning behind the cut, but at the same time cutting the climax was a big mistake. Don't get me wrong, though. From what was actually played, it was a very good performance, but it was missing the part that was the most magical for me.
The Final Fantasy XIV music was also a nice treat. We were told in our interview with Arnie Roth that it was a medley of "Twilight over Thanalan" and "Beneath Bloodied Banners". For those who want to hear what it sounds like, just listen to the Tokyo Game Show 2009 trailer — it's the opening music and the music that sounds like a battle theme. Anyway, it was fantastic to hear these epic themes be presented by Chicagoland Pops Orchestra and the live experience made them all the more special. It was also enjoyable to see the promising trailer for the game projected above the orchestra. Admittedly, the performance was quite brief — probably about three minutes long — but what was given was definitely a pleasant surprise for the fans. I can't wait to hear those themes in full.
Similar to Baltimore, and as expected, the encore was a performance of "One Winged Angel". However, rather than opt for the classic orchestral version, they decided to do the "Advent: One Winged Angel" version, not once, but twice. The Chicago Mages were effective, although the lead guitar was very hard to hear, even from the 7th row. This may have been due to some acoustic issues or perhaps some mixing errors, but I didn't feel the power that I had heard on the official soundtrack release, due to the muddled guitar. The bassist for the Chicago Mages was a bit on the odd side — the way he moved on stage was as if he was made of Jell-O. I'm not sure how else to describe it. Fortunately, Nobuo Uematsu was a special guest for the night and also played the Hammond Organ for the encore, while the audience helped sing the "Sephiroth" portion of the lyrics. It was a fun romp and a nice way to end the evening. As anticipated, the audience loved it.
Given this was a three hour concert, fortunately few items popular in the main program were cut. Familiar arrangements of FFIV's "Theme of Love", FFVI's "Terra", FFVII's Reunion Tracks, FFVIII's "The Man with the Machine Gun", FFX's "To Zanarkand", and FFXI's Ronfaure" were among those incorporated and each was performed well. As well as these fan favourites, there were plenty of exclusive arrangements and performances. There were some disappointments among the material, especially with the cut "Dancing Mad" arrangement and the slightly troublesome performances of "J-E-N-O-V-A" and "Advent: One Winged Angel". However, most of the arrangements were promising and the vocal performances were a particularly. In the end, this was a very enjoyable and special experience to commemorate the end of a very successful year for Distant Worlds. If you still haven't seen it, try to check it out if it comes to a town near you.