Anime, Game Music, Reviews

So Much Better Late Than Never: A Night In Fantasia 2009 CD (Review)

March 29, 2010 | | 6 Comments Share thison Facebook So Much Better Late Than Never: A Night In Fantasia 2009 CD (Review)on Twitter

Ever waited for something so long that you were sure it was just never going to arrive? Maybe when you were young and it was barely June and you already knew what you wanted for Christmas? This is pretty much how we felt after the Eminence Symphony Orchestra’s A Night In Fantasia 2009 back in September. As mentioned in our comprehensive report, a live CD recording was always in the works and the pre-orders flooded in. So many, in fact, that the staff of Eminence admitted that the original release date of December 8 would have to be put back. So we waited. And then it was remastering issues. Another delay. And then quite a bungle with the distribution. Teasers popped up around the net, such as the track list and even a snippet of a video from the bonus DVD. Fans were like kids rattling the boxes and speculating on the contents.

Just over six months after the concert, Christmas has finally arrived. In the spirit of giving, we’re going to say it outright: this was worth the wait. Read on to join us in discovering what Eminence has left us under the tree…

Okay, so March isn’t exactly Christmas, but let’s overlook the three month gap. Let’s just say Eminence set the original release date for March 2010; six months isn’t such a bad wait for a live recording CD. I won’t pretend I haven’t gone through the stages of eagerness, patience, tolerance, annoyance and disbelief at the lateness of this baby, but…fine. Once I popped the first of two CDs into the player, almost all was forgiven.

Because if you set aside the delays, the misinformation and the confusion, what you get with this album is the best live recording of any anime and video game concert – possibly the greatest live recording of orchestral game music ever. Forget the dismally poor releases from the other orchestral game outfits, their less-than-inspired selections. If it weren’t for the applause and the stray note after a piece is completed, you could easily confuse this for a studio recording. The balance of instruments and choir is perfect, and you won’t have put the volume to 11 to enjoy the music, as has been the case with other live releases.

The first thing to consider is that the order has been changed from the concert quite significantly. Selections from anime and video games are sorted into two CDs, and I must say this was a very wise move. I found the play order at the concert to be occasionally overwhelming and distracting. Of all the pieces chosen and the many great ones omitted (no doubt due to licensing), I can’t fault this line-up. Even Jablonsky’s Gears of War 2 suite, which I considered bland on the night, fits in quite snugly. I cannot remember the last time 100 minutes went by so quickly. I defy anyone to be bored listening to Eminence doing what they do best.

The next thing I want to say is that the praise I expressed for individual suites in my report (written over a month after the concert) was anything but hyperbole. The arrangements often transcend their sources. For example, Mitsuda’s “Radical Dreamers” is traditionally an acoustic piece, but here becomes something else entirely – as though the arranger, Hayato Matsuo, used the original as a skeleton to build a graceful beast of heart, flesh and voice. The Shadow of the Colossus suite, arranged by its original composer, Kow Otani,  is so complex and rich that I cannot begin to pick the individual tracks used, which is something I usually do quite fastidiously; AIKA’s powerful voice is done every justice by the arrangement and recording. Kajiura’s “Song of Storm and Fire” explodes into full orchestral might in ways I would never have thought possible having heard and loved the more poppy original from Tsubasa Chronicles.

In short, Eminence and the supremely talented arrangers employed have created arrangements that don’t even need to be considered arrangements at all: they are out-and-out evolutions, works of art unto themselves.

Those pieces that aren’t quite so thoroughly reimagined still shine with Eminence’s flawless (and yet passionate) delivery. Wataru Hokoyama‘s arrangement of “The Unsung War” is somehow even more martial and driven than Kobayashi’s original 7-minute war ensemble from Ace Combat V . Similarly, his treatment of Joe Hisaishi’s work  showcases iconic moments from three Ghibli hits with innovative verve — I particularly love the Princess Mononoke suite, with everything from ominous taiko to the whimsy of “Kodama”. The Soul Calibur piece “Decisive Souls,” which I’ve now listened to many times on the mini-album Resonance of Soul and Swords, sounds even better live: crisper, stronger and simply more resonant. You need look no further than that to understand what I mean when I say the performances and the recording/remastering are of a level I’ve simply never heard before on a live orchestral album.

I must make special mention of the Death Note piece. I said in my report that it came straight after “The Unsung War,” and that this made judging it by its own merits very difficult.  It is as I recall, for the most part: a little O Fortuna, a little Dies Irae, with some very nice crescendos in between a little more O Fortuna and a little more Dies Irae. Not dreadful, but not incredibly memorable either.

I am not sure if the bonus DVD will be included in subsequent releases, but since it was in the pre-order, I want to promote it because it’s not just behind-the-scenes featurettes, photo galleries or interviews. As promised, the scene-stealer of the night is on there in its entirety. Chiaki Takahashi’s “Tonari ni…,” composed and arranged by the prodigious Go Shiina, makes this ‘bonus’ DVD essential – I can only say that while it’s a shame it’s not on the album itself, one would do well to find ways to pop it into one’s listening repertoire…

Alright, I suppose one quibble can be made, but it has nothing to do with the performance or the quality of the recording. I confess a slight bias towards Japanese game and anime composers over Western. This is not a blanket statement, however: during the concert itself, I was moved by the works of Inon Zur and Cris Velasco. But here, with the ability (and compulsion) to listen over and again, I feel the Prince of Persia and Gears of War 2 suites come across as merely well-played ‘soundtrack’ music far more often than the dynamic explorations of sound around them. I didn’t feel any urge to skip them, but at very few points did I really sit up and say to myself “that one I will enjoy again before moving on.” Which, I will admit, is exactly what I did even on my first time through. It took me over two hours to get past the first disc. Must listen to “Radical Dreamers”…just one more time…

To bring this shamelessly enthusiastic endorsement full circle, I must emphasize that we currently have no idea as to the status of future orders, and I cannot in all good conscience recommend you rush to Eminence’s online store and order a copy immediately. If you did pre-order, then you’re either listening to it right now (and, I’d like to believe, agreeing with some of my sentiments) or you will be very soon. But if this is your first solid encouragement to get this album, and it is a very solid one, please keep an eye on their website for details and….if you’ve been very good, a little lucky and a little patient, you too will be unwrapping this oh-so-shiny package on a day that feels not unlike Christmas.

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