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Beating the Game at Level 1: Square Enix SQ Party LEVEL1 Impressons

October 11, 2011 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook Beating the Game at Level 1: Square Enix SQ Party LEVEL1 Impressonson Twitter

Mind. Blown.

If anyone doubts the legitimacy and possibility of videogame music, let SQ Party LEVEL1 stand as proof that not only can MIDI music be orchestrated a la Distant Worlds, but DJs also can sample, mix, amplify, chop up and distort Final Fantasy to hipster hell and back – and make it sound brilliant.

SQ Party Level1 was the first of several scheduled fully licensed concerts featuring Square Enix tracks styled at the forefront of digital music. Four renowned Japanese DJs were to perform their takes on classic Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest, and other SQEX tunes

Check out our impressions from the evening after the jump.

The concert took place in the Tokyo club “B2,” appropriately located in tight ‘niche’ basement quarters. A line of chatty fans trickled out onto the sidewalk, offering thoughts on the Tokyo Game Show, music and more. The attendees were an offbeat bunch, women in frilly gothic dresses, French berets, and limp-handed cigarettes.

Inside, people animatedly talked while ordering their drinks, but soon people were so squeezed together, accidental spills could be seen on the floor. The audience’ attention was directed towards three areas – the mix table and projected visual by the VJ, and perpendicular on each wall was a projected Twitter feed and Ustream broadcast of the event, onto which clamoring fans tweeted their envy of each and every one at the concert.

BOSS: DeadBall P

Final Fantasy VI’s “Dancing Mad” with ominous synthesized organs bellows as the show beings in climax. The grey concrete is splashed with a technicolor palate of projected pixels via the VJ, the Ghost Train roaring through the club.

Adorning an unassuming grey hoodie, the DJ artist DeadBall P has an unclouded expression. The sides of his lips curl occasionally, eyes closed as he tosses his head back. He is the orchestra, the conductor – all but the composer. Yet, as the melodies cascade seemingly effortlessly, dramatically across the Final Fantasy landscape, you can’t help but feel it’s his creation. By no means dissing Uematsu or any of the other composers intertwined in DeadBall P’s creation, it’s clear he owns these songs.

The manic progression captures the essence of the opening number. The medley detours through SaGa Frontier, then into Unlimited Saga, shining light onto underrated titles obscured by their sibling series’ shadows.

When the music finally shores onto Chrono Trigger’s mainland, DeadBall P’s mastery over range and tone is experienced. Paralleling the game’s theme, the performance spans the melancholy overworld map theme to the pulsing race battle in the future wasteland, leading to the bravery of Frog before battling Lavos. And presumably, the battle was won, returning to a bossanova rendition of the overworld theme [Editor’s Note: some of the Chrono Trigger segments performed were directly from the Brink of Time arrange album].

The last sequence was a reverse sprint through the history of Final Fantasy, regressing from “Theme of Love” from IV to the original Final Fantasy, the sound simplified from an Electro-Celtic hybrid to an extravagant chiptune arrangement. The finale arrives – at which point the buildup heads bobbing, feet stomping everywhere – with a hyper-speed final battle with Chaos (Final Fantasy I).

And with fanfare – literally! – the battle is won by all, thus concluding the show’s first act.

BOSS: RE: NDZ

With a congratulatory bro-hug, the baton is passed to RE:NDZ seemingly the antithesis to DeadBall P’s unassuming appearance. With his bobbing colorful pixelated oversized hoodie, RE:NDZ adorns a comfortable mastery over the classic DJ archetype.

However, any superficial differences are nothing but a hint of their vastly differing styles. If the first performance was an inner trip into the psyche of a gamer, the second performance with RE: NDZ was an ode to videogames through play – the table his console, music his game.

The VJ beginning with chanting vocals, a la Perfect Blue, vocals slowly synthesized into a booming rendition of “Eternal Wind” from Final Fantasy III.

Yet here, as Daft Punk’s “One More Time” crescendos, the performance takes a sharp turn from videogame territory. Sampling from mainstream and obscure tracks, the song structure surfaces, revealing practically what is an original composition. “Celebration” leads the way to a booming wave of hypnotic beats; this, intertwined with bubblegum pop, African chants, treble maxed to give it a crisp digital crunch.

A striking element of the performance was how ultimately the progression of mainstream tracks served as a road map home, as it were, to the “Crystal Theme.” His biggest strength in transitions, bringing the performance to rest with Chrono Trigger’s main theme – its ‘time travel’ perhaps a parallel theme as the songs periodically skipped between classical and contemporary.

DJ DMKT rises to the stage, and slowly integrates himself into the act. Piano Jack, pop ver. of the opera sequence “Aria” appears – possibly a spontaneous track addition. The split duties seemed to open up RE:NDZ’s : Using “Take Over Control” by Afrojack feat. Eva Simons as a jump-off for a sing-off between Lady Gaga and Madonna.

Most impressive of all, Evangelion’s main theme, “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis” was ripped of its beat, instrumentals – everything but it’s essence. A soaring, hauntingly raw rendition of the renown verse: “Young boy, like a cruel angel’s thesis, Live up to be a legend…” bringing an unexpected, piercing climax to RE:NDZ.

BOSS FIGHT: DJ DMKT

The music never stopped, really. In an impressive takeover, as RE:NDZ steps down, DJ DMKT breaks into a techno version of FFVII’s “Aerith’s Theme,” slowly bringing the concert back to familiar chiptune grounds.

The simple beats underscoring the layered complexity of the compositions struck a chord with the bobbing, raving, audience. I actually grab the table quickly having felt the floor shake; but I quickly realized it was 100 people simultaneous stomping to the beat. Especially since March, people have become especially sensitive to earthquakes – and I notice several others quickly survey the dance floor, sharing the same response.

“Aerith’s Theme” unassumingly morphs into Chrono Trigger, probably the most played of that night– but also with the freshest arrangements. The medley sequence skips between “Frog’s Theme,” “Festival of Stars,” and “Chrono Trigger,” the main theme.

It fascinates how uniquely to videogame music, how much imagery condensed into each song, and DJ DMKT’s talent shines in his efficiency at laying bare the essence of a track. A song is pared down to its most memorable notes of instantly recognizable moments, and looped as the backbone of his performances. At any point, there may be several songs in tandem, concocting a potent sonic punch that, depending on your affinity for the games in play, can leave you raging, weeping, or everything in-between.

Following a byte of a manic Chocobo solo, the performance reaches climax with “Clash on the Big Bridge” in which the crowd and audience online rocking out – it’s frequently the most requested song at concerts.

Against the flowing intro, DJ DMKT’s performance came to an abrupt close, followed by a much needed interlude. I hardly had noticed that music had played non-stop for over 2-hours.

BOSS FIGHT: Sexy-Synthesizer

Sexy Synthesizer must be the world’s happiest man. Under his top hat is a jovial build, grinning eyes and a wide constant smile, looking at least like he could try out for the part. The onlooker is naturally drawn to him, and perhaps it’s his superpower of sorts, his performance corresponds to the crowd’s enthusiasm. In fact, the concert had a good 15 extra minutes; safe to say, he knows a good vibe.

His palate consists of funky house beats, a chiptune mashup of 8-bit sounds, and vocals that at times can sound like a bleepy version of Daft Punk. Of the night’s performances, his was the ‘purest’ homage to videogames.

Complexly layered songs are constantly tweaked as he often has his hands playing separate audio devices. But perhaps Sexy-Synthesizer’s foremost strength is his ability to elevate the original songs so skillfully with improvisation, nostalgia never used as a crutch.

The most pronounced example was the emergence of vocals at the end of the Chrono Trigger theme – which turned out, after a few seconds delay to process it, hadn’t ended, but simply brought out the unrealized potential of the song by giving it a synth-vocal dimension.

Fully aware that his performance would bring the night to rest, he pulled no stops, bringing Dragon Quest and several other Enix series into the mix. As the finale approached, his posture and unbridled smile reminded me of that iconic way Ray Charles would play the piano, swaying and leaning his head back in euphoric rhythm. I’m not about to equate artists against each other, but to say the least, the catharsis was palatable in the air.

Epilogue

It’s bizarre to reflect how the small space of club 2.5D was severed from reality that night. The unrecorded event successfully encapsulated performance art’s ephemeral and temporal nature – the ultimate ‘you had to be there’ moment. The dynamism engaged between the audience and performers made the event itself a sum greater than its individual parts – perhaps an amalgamation not unlike the classic games exhibited, also a mix of artistry and interaction.

The SQ Party concert series is an experimental one, with “LEVEL2” planned at the end of this month likewise in Tokyo. The good news, however, is SQEX has its sights set to the rest of the world, where in fact I was asked whether there would be interest in a similar event in the United States or Europe. SQ Party LEVEL1 was certainly a hopeful experiment, and if this is level 1, I can’t wait to max out my stats.

On second thought, let’s wish for no level cap.

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