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Final Fantasy. For many gamers, especially those who hold the SNES and Playstation close to their hearts, this series of games is one of consistently excellent role-playing games; each one slightly different to that before, with a new world to explore and new characters to learn about. While there have been some false starts within the series, most would agree that there are some real gems amongst them; Final Fantasy VI ending the SNES' reign with a huge array of characters and a beautifully-drawn world, Final Fantasy VII introducing a new generation to the genre, or even the original Final Fantasy for reviving the stagnating Squaresoft.

One aspect that can get overlooked when talking about any video game is its musical score, but for many it is precisely this which gives the Final Fantasy series so much life. Much of this is the handiwork of one man, Nobuo Uematsu. His music has been played on the simplistic tones of the NES and the CD-quality audio of the Playstation, the primitive Game Boy and MIDI Super NES. Be it the classic victory theme, or the Aria Di Mezzo Carattere, many gamers can immediately recognise his work, and judging by the consistently good sales of the OSTs, love to listen to them.

Of course, there is quite a difference between programming a sound chip in a games console and actually playing the music on real instruments. And this is exactly what Uematsu has done. In 2003, he formed a band named the Black Mages, after one of the recurring character classes in the Final Fantasy series, with the express purpose of playing the music from the games. In February 2003, the new group released a self-titled debut album, proceeding to play a two-day concert in Tokyo.

Their first album being a success, and featuring ten tracks of tasty Final Fantasy goodness, the group have recorded a second LP, this time titled The Skies Above, due for release in July 2005. Having bought, and loved, their first album, I am eagerly awaiting its release and would strongly recommend anyone who enjoys the music of the series, or indeed videogame music in general, to give either of the albums a play.

The Black Mages are:

The cover artwork for the first album is a very simple design; the band's name written in a white serif typeface, with a winged black mage standing on a rock between the words "black" and "mage". The track listing is as follows:

  1. Battle Scene - Final Fantasy - The album begins with a gentle piece of synthesiser, before the guitars cut in, establishing their riff then escalating into the full battle theme. The theme is instantly recognisable as the generic battle music from the original Final Fantasy, given a rock edge, with the keyboards floating over guitars with a haunting motif.
  2. Clash on the Big Bridge - Final Fantasy V - The second track again begins with a solo keyboard, before high-tempo guitars again cut in to drive the piece. After a frantic introduction, the song takes a momentary pause before diving into its catchy organ melody, again accompanied by strong guitarwork.
  3. Force Your Way - Final Fantasy VIII - A keyboard-driven piece, working in an almost call-and-response fashion with the lead guitars. Track three is full of nerves, strings and organs clashing against urgent guitars.
  4. Battle, Scene II - Final Fantasy II - Slowing down the pace considerably, this insistant organ-backed piece drives onwards, before breaking out into almost harpsichord-like sounds then settling back down. More of a filler than other tracks, this is the only track to represent the NES Final Fantasy II.
  5. The Decisive Battle - Final Fantasy VI - An acoustic guitar opens up, before the same powerful pair of electric guitars as in track two take us into the classic boss music from Final Fantasy VI. As excited and driving as ever before, this ought to bring back fond memories.
  6. Battle Theme - Final Fantasy VI - At first almost unrecognisable, considerably slower than the track it seeks to emulate and with a wholly different introduction - but the second track taken from Final Fantasy VI is every bit as well-played as The Decisive Battle.
  7. J-E-N-O-V-A - Final Fantasy VII - One of the few keyboard-led tracks, with the guitars taking a back seat as the lead keyboard plays its melody. This track has always been a favourite, and it is certainly done justice here, with insistant, high-tempo drums and a haunting synthesiser coming in half-way through.
  8. Those Who Fight Further - Final Fantasy VII - Better known as Still More Fighting on the OST, this track is dominated by its guitar work. Arguably the strongest track on the album, this version of Final Fantasy VII's boss theme is an almost exact reproduction, and works excellent because of it.
  9. Dancing Mad - Final Fantasy VI - The final battle from Final Fantasy VI had some absolutely stunning music, starting with medieval-sounding organs before turning into a tribal organ-and drum piece, then crashing back down with the organs. Here we see just how good this piece can be; a stunning, 12-minute long track that comprises the third song from Final Fantasy VI. Worth the price of the CD on its own.
  10. Fight With Seymour - Final Fantasy X - Closing the album, the sole song from the most recent (as of the album's release) Final Fantasy game is an up-tempo piece which fits in well with the album's overall keyboard and guitar blend, closing off with a stong series of keyboard, organ and guitar chords.

None of the tracks on this album are completely faithful to their console counterparts, and work much better for this. Had they been restricted to exact reproductions, many would get entirely too repetitive, and would have wholly uninspiring introductions or climaxes (many of these tracks, the battle themes especially, were intended to be looped continually and thus have little, if any, to make their starts and finishes particularly special). While at times the focus on largely two instruments, the keyboard and guitar, can become overwhelming, the album works very well with this, and rarely does it seem tiresome.

With standout tracks such as Dancing Mad and Those Who Fight Further both breaking from that mould, it bodes well for the follow-up album, and hopefully we can expect a more varied set of instrumentation on The Skies Above. Even if this is not the case, it will still be a fine album if it comes anywhere close to how the debut turned out. And, with eleven canonical games to draw from, we can expect much more to come.

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