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Battle of the Genres? Battle SQ (Review)

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

Though a somewhat lesser “controversial” album than Secret of Mana Genesis, this summer SQ release saw both high praise and heavy criticism thrown upon it.

What’s the deal? What expectations weren’t met? And to what extent is the encroaching fad of modulated bass (dubstep) dominating this album?

For answers to those questions and more, I humbly give you my take on the July 2012 release “Battle SQ” from Square Enix.

So, yeah, it’s not a “rock band” battle arrange album. If you’re looking for that, you’ll want to pick up Re:Birth II ~ Romancing SaGa Battle Arrange which came out a month after this album. This album has a diverse array of styles, but behind most of them is a sort of crunchy, industrialized electronica. Then there’s the bonus disc for the limited edition. We’ll get to that at the end.

But I want to do a mini-review of every single track on this lengthy album. Because each track has its own merits and demerits. Starting with the worst track on the album…

The Final Fantasy series has a few common melodic strains throughout it. The other SQ albums have hit them up: the prelude, the main theme, the chocobo theme. For Battle SQ, they *open* the album with battle victory music. That’s right, it’s the Victory Jingle — about 15 seconds’ worth of original content, stretched into 5 minutes. Sometimes, this kind of arrangement can be awesome. But in the case of dubscribe’s remix here, it’s simply obnoxious. You get the jingle, followed by insane modulated bass, then a little more jingle, then more outlandish (and, some might say, BAD) dubstep bass. Rinse and repeat for 5 minutes. Not my idea of a good time.

Now, I would continue in the order of the tracklist, but I want to jump around and hit all three tracks from Yoko Shimomura’s once-underappreciated, now properly-appreciated classic soundtrack for Live A Live. First up is track 2, a medley including “KNOCK YOU DOWN” and “Ultimate Strength -VICTORY ROAD-” … both of which are battle themes (obviously). This arrangement, by “Miss Modular,” makes use of some great chippy rolled chords and over a dozen of the game’s sound and voice effects. Great beats and great decoration all around some of Shimomura’s best, and earliest, work with Square. I’ll drink to that. Oh wait, this isn’t Beer SQ. Maybe Battle SQ is for the harder drinks, the mixed drinks!

The second track from LAL is “The Bird Flies in the Sky, the Fish Swims in the River.” This was featured as an orchestral arrangement on Shimomura’s amazing orchestral album from 2008, “drammatica.” This dance-floor-friendly techno/rock arrangement, by “THE LASTTRAK,” stays the same tempo, but cuts the pulsating percussion in the middle to introduce the main melody in its “non-battle” form. This piece of music is really one of the most iconic tracks from LAL, so it’s a no-brainer to arrange. I just wasn’t expecting this KIND of arrangement, nor was I expecting it on this album. Great choice, though, and I really like the arrangement.

The third LAL track is the “Live A Live Mega Mix,” found on the limited edition bonus disc. This is a massive medley, over 9 minutes of audio, introduced with someone saying the track’s title (take note: the title rhymes with “Drive Arrive,” not “Quiver Sieve”). Arranger DUCT works in a variety of character and battle themes, similar to the end credits track “Live for Live,” but with a different track selection. Much of the music is lifted straight off of the OST version and then some fun decorative cuts are added. It’s a simple, fun track with a lot of staying power.

Alright, back to the tracklist in order…

Track 3 is “Battle 1 ~ The Final Battle,” a medley of the two popular battle themes from Final Fantasy IV. Arranged by “shibuyamicrofuture,” this one tosses aside the dance/dub styles of other tracks on the album and goes into straight rock band territory. It could just as easily have been a “Black Mages” arrangement. Which is good, because if it had been too electronic or mono-instrumental, I would’ve tossed it aside in favor of the FFIV Piano battle medley. This one is good, though. Methinks “shibuyamicrofuture” should do a whole album of rock arrangements for S-E.

For track 4, we have the first of many Hamauzu tracks, “Missgestalt” and “Todesengel” from SaGa Frontier 2. This track was arranged by millstones, who previously submitted a great track for the NieR tribute album “echo.” Now, I think this track was a missed opportunity, as it really could’ve benefited from a couple more battle tunes from Hamauzu’s magnum opus. Particularly, “Todfeind” would have been perfect for the style of arrangement (piano, ambient trance/techno). But this 5 minute track is still good, even with a touch of modulated bass thrown in around the 3 minute mark. It’s really all about the piano and the beats.

The fifth track takes one of my all-time favorite Uematsu tracks, a completely under-appreciated marvel of a composition, and … doesn’t really go anywhere with it. The track is “Furious Battle,” the final battle music for the first game in the SaGa series, Makai Toushi SaGa (it was Final Fantasy Legend in the US, on Game Boy). The arranger, Novoiski, didn’t really do any damage to the track. And he elongated it significantly (from 1 minute to 6 minutes, impressive!). He does this by taking the first section of the tune and repeating it for 3 minutes, then taking the second section (also known as “the amazing part”) and playing it out for the final 3 minutes. What the piece loses from the original Game Boy, though, is the best part of the whole song: 16th-note (or is it 32nd-note?) arpeggiated runs below that high-pitched melody. You NEED that! It is essential for the piece. And while the melody stands intact, the new counter-melodic work is merely okay. I was so happy that this track got some recognition, but it needs more of that chippy finesse if it is to be properly enjoyed.

Next up is one of the best tracks on the whole album. I wasn’t expecting “nuclear fusion” from Seiken Densetsu 3 to have an especially impressive arrangement on this, or any, of the SQ albums. But arranger “Yuni” set me straight. Question: do you like arranged albums from CAVE? You know: the wild, unforgettable rhythmic percussion and a wondrous mix of acoustic and electronic instruments? Then you will love this track.

Track seven is another Hamauzu track, and it’s the first time this particular game has gotten some “SQ” attention. It’s from the game Sigma Harmonics, a DS graphic adventure / rhythm game that never came to the US (and yes, S-E, I am still mad at you for this!). The track they chose to arrange was the first, “standard” battle theme, entitled “Hope Giving: ‘Dance of the Dog’s Howl’” (all the battle music in the game had those two-part fancy Japanese track titles). This is one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite Hamauzu soundtracks. If you dug the sound of Final Fantasy XIII, but you want a little more electronica and a little more impressionism, Sigma Harmonics and this particular arrangement are going to be the answer you seek. This is absolutely fantastic work.

And hey, we’re up for yet another Masashi Hamauzu track! (we’re skipping track 8 since we discussed all the Live A Live tracks earlier). Track 9 is “Fight, Chocobo!”, the final battle music from Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon (the one that didn’t come to the US … are we picking up a theme, here?). The arrangement, by SmileR, really brings this orchestral track into some sweet synth-rock territory. It’s the shortest track on Battle SQ, just one second shy of 3 minutes. But what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. The drums are awesome.

Now here’s a big surprise. Track 10 is “The Spirit Chaser (SURLENT)” from the cult classic Super Famicom RPG that virtually no one in the West knows about, Rudra no Hihou (“Treasure of the Rudras”). This arrangement takes Ryuji Sasai’s already power-rock-ish song and cranks it up to 11. We’re even instructed, via the voice sample inserted by arranger “Stealth Boys,” to “TURN UP THE BASS!” This track has an amazing mix of crunchy rock guitar, double-pedal bass drum, synths and samples of all stripes, and some nice quiet breaks to help accentuate the louder sections of this frantic, fast-paced song. Nice going Stealth Boys on the obscure track selection and for helping it shine even more. I like this one!!

If there’s one thing that was just absolutely unexpected from this album, it’s a techno-rock arrangement of *anything* from Final Fantasy Tactics. And yet, here we are with AVTechNO! arranging Sakimoto’s “Battle on the Bridge” (not to be confused with “Clash on the Big Bridge” from Final Fantasy V). There’s a complex rhythmic pattern and structure to this piece, and that is preserved in this new arrangement. Otherwise, though, this feels like an entirely new song. And that’s not really a bad thing. Precious little has been done with FFT in general, but this was totally unexpected and really a fun way to celebrate a great piece of music from Square’s seminal Strategy RPG.

Now, I listened to these albums out of order of their respective release dates, but if you heard that amazing album from August 2012, “Re:Birth II: Romancing SaGa Battle Arrange,” you’ll know that only one track on there wasn’t a rock track. Romancing SaGa 2‘s “Seven Heroes Battle” was done in a subdued jazz lounge style for that album. Why? I think it probably has to do with the existence of a great rock version of the song already existing on the July 2012 release “Battle SQ” (yes, this very album!). Track 12, arranged by NOISIAVISION, is the version that Ito’s mini-JDK-band would have done anyway. No dubstep or dance here. This is just straight up rock band material, and it’s awesome. Four solid minutes of in-your-face instrumental rock with great guitar work (both melodic solo and the comp/chord backing).

YUKIYOSHI does an arrangement of “Decisive Battle with Magus” from Chrono Trigger on track 13. It’s got some amazing rock and ethnic percussion mixed, and the melody is handled by soaring violins and piano, much like his arrangement on the Beer SQ bonus track for UNLIMITED:SaGa. A great track, but not the best. No, I believe that title belongs to…

“You’re Not Alone” from Final Fantasy IX. Arranged by REXER, this arrangement is akin to “Seven Heroes Battle” in terms of it being a straight up rock track. But it’s like an intentional lo-fi, reverb-heavy recording for the guitars and drums. It’s like the world’s greatest rock band decided to record in an actual garage for warbled acoustics. Oh, and there’s organ, so it really feels like a Black Mages / EBP joint. This is a great song from a great game and really rounds out the album well.

Of course, if you got the limited edition, there are 5 more tracks to consider. I’ve already mentioned the “Live A Live Mega Mix,” so let me briefly mention the others. First, Fumuaki Kobayashi has an arrangement of Final Fantasy VIII‘s iconic “Maybe I’m a Lion.” It’s a good bit different from the Black Mages / EBP rock version; it’s more of a techno-industrial rock track, but still plenty heavy on guitar and keyboard synths. Then NOVOISKI has two tracks in a row: a fun, synth-dance “Frog’s Theme” from Chrono Trigger featuring female phoneme synths and a boatload of original Chrono Trigger sound effects. After that, he has an “FF Ending Medley,” that as far as I can tell focuses on FFIV.

Finally, at the very end of the disc, we have another Live Set from SQ Party Level.3 (the other sets were on Beer SQ’s bonus disc). This one is from “Stealth Boys,” who did the arrangement for Rudra no Hihou on Battle SQ’s “proper” disc. The Stealth Boys set is comprised mostly of a Chrono Trigger medley, though it also includes 3 arrangements made for Battle SQ, none of which were the work of Stealth Boys. They are the obnoxious opening track “Victory!” from FF1, the “Furious Battle” from Makai Toushi SaGa, and then finally at the end, the second half of Miss Modular’s Live A Live track, “Ultimate Strength -VICTORY ROAD-.” And that’s how it ends. It’s worth it for all the Chrono Trigger tracks, many of which are arranged uniquely for this concert. Thanks to vgmdb user Gyromite7 for help with the breakdown of this set.

AND THAT’S IT! What can be said in conclusion, in summary? Not a lot. This one really needs to be analyzed piece by piece, and not as a whole. Because, as a whole, there’s just too much going on and everyone’s going to have a wildly different take on it. Some people hated this album for not being a straight rock album, while some (like myself) really enjoyed the album for what it is. So many of the games represented on the tracklist have gotten zero attention for decades, and the attention they got on this album is almost entirely positive. The arrangements are cool, and while I have no idea what else 80% of these arrangers have done, I know that they ought to continue to work with SE for future albums. Except for dubscribe, maybe. Or maybe SE should just stop arranging the overdone, “too iconic” tracks throughout the FF Series.

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

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