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Amber Goggles: Beer SQ (Review)

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Purchase Beer SQ (LE): CDJapan | Play-Asia
Purchase Beer SQ (Standard): CDJapan | Play-Asia

One of Square Enix’s most creative albums in years, “Beer SQ” takes the kind of music you might expect to hear at a local pub, or “bar,” at different locales around the world, and merge it with classic Square tunes.

Ever wanted to hear the FF series main theme performed by a gypsy-punk klezmer band? How about all of the FFVI character themes, in succession, by a jazz ensemble?

All this and more is found in Beer SQ. And for those who purchased the limited edition set, there’s even more (in the form of a second disc). We’ll talk about both discs in detail after the jump.

Here’s how it goes. Let’s get world-tour drunk!

Swedish gypsy-punk band Räfven (who previously performed on echo -NieR Tribute Album- and Cafe SQ) open up with a wild Romuni romp through the entire Final Fantasy series by giving us the craziest arrangement of the series “Main Theme” ever made. How many beer steins can you empty in the course of this 3 minute track? Let me assure you, if I did drink regularly, I’d be clearin’ mugs with the best of ‘em while this song played. The brass, the quickly-strummed guitars, the oom-pa of the accordion and drum/cymbal combo … so much fun!

Now, set sail, because we’re about to have a drink out on the open waters. The crew (of pirates?) has a great fiddle player, and they’re jamming out to “Gold Saucer” from Final Fantasy VII. The arrangement is brought to us courtesy of the band Elequesta of Tabla. I love the recorded hand-claps. I’m definitely clapping along.

Next up, Keiketsu Ko and Hiroyuki Tominaga bring a surprisingly elegant and stately arrangement of Chrono Trigger‘s “Guardia Millennial Fair.” Trumpet holds the melody, though it’s sometimes accompanied by mandolin. The rest of the ensemble includes a nice jazz trap set for drums and an upright bass … and not much beyond that. This is probably the most sophisticated track on the album. Don’t chug this one … sip it.

And now for the track that was born for this kind of arrangement, we have a medley of music from Masashi Hamauzu’s SaGa Frontier 2. Are you excited? Because I know I am. Here we get tastes of European pub style folk and jazz mixed with American bluegrass. This track advertises only two songs from Hamauzu’s masterpiece, “Roman” and “Vorspeil,” but there are more songs in the medley. Most notably, the battle theme “Feldschlacht III” is featured (props to vgmdb staffer Kaleb.G for noticing this!). The arrangement comes courtesy of instrumental folk band Drakskip, which includes fiddle, viola, 12-string guitar, and all manner of awesome auxiliary percussion. These Japanese dudes are definitely worldly (they were on tour in Sweden and Finland when Beer SQ was released). Their style is perfect for this track; I hope Hamauzu listened and smiled.

Track 5 is a selection from Seiken Densetsu 3. I love this soundtrack, but there are only a handful of songs from it that seem to garner attention. One such popular track is “Can You Fly Sister?” — and it’s the track arranged on Beer SQ. Another folksy/bluegrass arrangement, this time from the group MOHIKAN FAMILY’S. The band’s vocalist is noticeably missing from the recording, but everyone else is there: guitar, bass, drums, accordion and tin whistle. As soon as you say “tin whistle” you know you’re in for a Celtic flavor. So grab your favorite ale and head to the Scottish highlands for this one. It is from here that we shall fly, sister!

WANDERER, from Live A Live was originally this spaghetti-Western sunset showdown gunslinger kind of theme. Miraculously, the track is transformed into a sparse little syncopated jazz number with guitar handling the melody. Electric bass is hot in the mix, and the drummer has some exceptional skill. The song transforms when the drums go double-time at the halfway mark (about 3 minutes in), and the melody is dropped as the guitarist does some sweet improvised solo. This is a real, honest-to-God transformation of the song. As for the ambiance of it all, it would certainly work at a jazz club where one could get a nice meal to go with a premium hard beverage. Ron Burgundy would be proud, even without the jazz flute.

Discounting disc 2′s SQ Party live sets, the longest track on Beer SQ is the enormous “Spinach Rag ~ Character Medley,” clocking in at 9 minutes and 42 seconds. This one is huge. Opening with Spinach Rag was a great choice … it makes me want to go to the auction house and attempt to buy some absurd item that you’re not allowed to have. But then, I imagine each of the game’s playable characters up on “auction” for a date (for charity, of course). The arrangement, courtesy Rio Okano, uses a variety of different instruments for each character in the medley, but it’s generally all within the realm of big band jazz. Throw out the drinking theme and just get lost in this one. It’s the spotlight-stealing track of the album, and it’s got EVERYTHING you’d want in it. Because Uematsu’s (awesome) character themes come with so much variation just in terms of emotion, mood, and tempo, this arrangement really does have it all. Whew! I’m worn out after listening to it again. But seriously, if you love Final Fantasy VI and consider yourself a collector (to the point where you own, say, the OSV and either Grand Finale or the Piano Collection, or both), this track on its own warrants a purchase of the entire Beer SQ album. Yes. It’s that good.

For a totally unexpected finale, it’s time to drown our sorrows in a Kalyani Black Label, because we’re traveling to India. A looped synth carries the familiar arpeggio of the Final Fantasy series “Prelude,” while the Japanese equivalent of Ravi Shankar, Daikiti Yoshida, performs (and elaborates upon) the high-pitched melody. And, yes, tabla drums are in order as well, and they sound groovy and funky as all get-out alongside Yoshida-san’s sitar-playing. This is just weird and wonderful and totally unexpected.

And that’s the album!! Unless you spring for the Limited Edition (catalog number SQEX-10315~6 as opposed to normal edition’s SQEX-10317). And here, again, are those purchase links:

Purchase Beer SQ (LE): CDJapan | Play-Asia
Purchase Beer SQ (Standard): CDJapan | Play-Asia

Now then, to the limited edition bonus disc. It opens with a song that could potentially fit with the rest of Beer SQ. It’s “The Seven Travelers” from Hamauzu’s UNLIMITED:SaGa, arranged by YUKIYOSHI (who that is, I have no idea). This is a new age piano-and-strings arrangement, the kind that would’ve fit on Norihiko Hibino’s arrangements for Etrian Odyssey I&II and 7th Dragon. It’s a beautiful, Asian-infused track that makes me want to play Sudoku. But definitely not play UNLIMITED:SaGa, because that game didn’t deserve its soundtrack.

The other two tracks are parts of a live show recording. A lot of people have expressed confusion at what, exactly, this is. But if you’ve been paying attention, you know that the Square Enix Music dept has been putting on live shows from time to time. “SQ Party Level.3″ is the third of those shows. That show featured BOKKADENcI, Hige Driver, and Stealth Boys. The first two sets are put on this bonus disc, and Stealth Boys appear on the “Battle SQ” LE bonus disc.

Both artists use chiptunes, source tunes, and other “SQ” arrangements and mix them together as one complete DJ’d set. BOKKADENcI has done a boatload of arrangements between the two SQ Chips albums, the VII – XI Chips albums, and some original stuff just for this live party. It’s a solid 30 minutes of joy, and it ends with Final Fantasy IV‘s “Theme of Rydia.” Great choice. Also, props to prodigious use of the mighty Speak&Spell.

“Hige Driver” has a more bass-heavy style to his set. His set is heavy on SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu (Final Fantasy Legend II) almost to the exclusion of anything else. Hige Driver uses Hirosato Noda’s (muZik’s) arrangement “Militant Meat,” which was a bonus track from the DS remake OST. But it also has a bunch of songs that weren’t used anywhere else and are exclusive to the party set. However, Hige Driver drops all the Game Boy madness by ending with his arrangement from SQ Chips, “Battle II” from the Famicom classic Final Fantasy III (most of you probably will recognize it from its frequent use in the two Dissidia Final Fantasy games). Great way to end the set, great way to end the album.

You don’t need to enjoy beer to enjoy Beer SQ, but hopefully you can appreciate the bevy of cultural influences that went into creating this album. The artists behind the arrangements are all great in their own way, and this album is an eclectic masterpiece. Get it!

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