Hard to believe it’s been a year already. On September 12th, 2009, I was one of the lucky people who had the chance to attend Symphonic Fantasies, a symphonic tribute to Square Enix. With a set list featuring Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross, and of course Final Fantasy combined with the presence of the original composers, it was sure to be a memorable night for game music fans, and indeed it was as I detailed in my report. Like Symphonic Shades before it, Symphonic Fantasies was finally scheduled to have a CD release, and the pressure was on for producer Thomas Böcker and his staff to achieve the same amazing production qualities as the Symphonic Shades CD offered.
Today, the day has come for fans to finally hear the results of the hard labor of the WDR team. Does the album offer equally amazing sounds and emotions through your stereo system? Click the jump to find out.
Just on paper, all aspects of this CD are quite impressive. Recorded live during the concert, it was then mixed and edited at the WDR Studios before the material was sent on to Abbey Road Studios for further production and mastering. Abbey Road Studios is of course the world famous studio located in London where amongst many other legendary acts John Williams produced his Star Wars soundtracks. So it’s quite the bragging right for a game music CD to have an association with such a prestigious studio. The CD case is presented with a lavish wooden carved game controller designed by German art team Schech and is quite effective with its eye catching motif on a white backdrop. It’s a perfect illustrated symbol as it does exactly as the music does, combining traditional elements with material made with new technology. In the West, the album is published by DECCA while in Japan it will be released by Square Enix’s own publishing label.
The album contains 5 tracks total, with 4 of them being medleys from arguably the most famous games from Square Enix. All the arrangements are done by Jonne Valtonen (who some may know as Purple Motion from his demoscene days), so all the material you hear was exclusively created for this concert. In addition to arranging the music, he also composed the original fanfare for the event titled “Fanfare Overture.” Despite being completely original, one would not be able to tell from merely listening to it–a testament to the strength of Valtonen’s composition skills. With a bold and adventurous melody utilizing the entire orchestra, it sets up what is in store for you during the course of this album and introduces the various talents of the WDR orchestra. At every play through I find myself as equally impressed by the composition of this piece as I am with the works of the well known videogame composers. Thankfully the decision was made to leave the applause from the audience, which is always a small pet peeve of mine when left out as I feel the appreciation from the crowd is very much part of the concert experience.
Our first medley is the youngest franchise to be included, but certainly no less worthy of its inclusion by any means. Kingdom Hearts has grown to be a dear favorite in many gamers opinion thanks to the incredible versatility and skills of Yoko Shimomura. The WDR is here joined by young Benyamin Nuss, a German piano virtuoso who has kept on amazing listeners since his rise to public knowledge on Symphonic Shades. Like always, his performance here is nothing short of incredible. The piece has quite the emotional range with moments of sadness, romance, grand epic and darkness featured side by side. From the gentle piano touches of “Dearly Beloved” to the epic orchestration of “Hand in Hand,” Nuss never misses a beat, and the piece never loses the emotional connection with the source material. Exceptional examples of this can be heard during “The Other Promise” and “Happy Holidays” which are each on the opposite side of the spectrum, but within this piece it’s never unnatural for your emotions to follow along as the melody flows on through clever arrangements. At 15 and a half minute, it is actually the shortest of the medleys.
The next fantasy on the album is the most exciting inclusion, Hiroki Kikuta’s legendary Secret of Mana. Despite its status as a fan favorite it has never really gotten the symphonic treatment many others have, and so with Symphonic Fantasies expectations were soaring in my heart to hear this one in particular. As amazing as the experience was live, it is exceeded on this album. The game is quite a spiritual journey and Kikuta’s compositions reflected that in the game, and so does the WDR with their incredible performance. The song makes use of the choir in unexpected ways as they rub their hands, tap their feet and even make small ticking sounds to create sounds of rain, wind and living nature. Maybe in a bit of foreshadowing of this CD, these naturally created effects makes up an extremely impressive atmosphere which is furthered by great production of the CD. The source material is very spiritual and touching with a playful edge to it, which Valtonen manages to reflect in his arrangement through heavy use of the choir to portray the spiritual side and the orchestra to deliver the striking and powerful melodies. While this piece has fewer included songs than the other medleys, it manages to be the most interesting in my opinion with all the interesting details and effects.
The third fantasy is a cross medley between Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Often performed as a combined piece at various concerts, this arrangement is as earlier noted all new and exclusive by Valtonen with some added help from Roger Wanamo. This medley doesn’t just string the songs from the two games together, they truly do cross each other. The opening does foreshadow the ending by layering the melodies on top of each other, but before that you get the best renditions of “Chrono Trigger,” “Peaceful Days” and “Frog’s Theme” ever recorded. The ending is probably the best moment on the entire album as the main themes from the games are layered together seamlessly while short interplays from other memorable melodies come in. It was a moment where people were standing in tears during the live event and hearing it again here, it’s easy to understand why it got to them. It’s truly a moment that can never be duplicated, and I doubt anyone would perform it as well as the WDR as they are in a class of their own here. Accompanying them on this track is world famous darbouka percussionist Rony Barrak. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Barrak live a total of 10 times just over the course of the last few years, and his performances are always an incredible sight to see. While his finger coordination cannot be showcased without seeing it, he adds some great rhythm to the track and his parts are well mixed never to be drowned out by the orchestra.
The final piece is fittingly Final Fantasy. The challenge here was for them to pick out a balance between all time favorites and relatively underplayed material from the vast library of Final Fantasy music, which itself is not an easy thing to do. The expectations to all things Final Fantasy are almost unachievable, and there are some brave omissions done to this medley, but luckily this becomes part of its strength in my opinion. The song in mind is obviously “One Winged Angel” which, while teased, is never fully featured. Despite this the medley is so incredibly strong that it proves the point that you don’t always need to go to that particular song to satisfy the fans. This medley more so than the others is more traditional as it goes through the melodies one by one rather than interchanging them or layering them, which works in its favor because Uematsu’s compositions are so strong that they work well on their own. You do get the dearly loved classics like “Chocobo Theme” and “Prelude,” and you also get the welcomed addition of “Battle at the Big Bridge” and “Phantom Forest” which sounds absolutely amazing with a chilling, thought-provoking and haunting melody. Overall though, this medley has a more uplifting nature with the teases generating laughter from the audience, and the “Final Fantasy” theme ends the album effectively with the melody most fans find synonymous with the name Square Enix.
It’s hard to criticize a product that is as astonishingly detailed and cared for as Symphonic Fantasies. Some would probably say it is a bit of a let down to be teased “One Winged Angel” but never getting it, but in that case there was an encore that did not fit on the disc which contained a plethora of boss themes across the different games featured, and this encore will be released digitally if you still lust for that particular song. There are a few instances of crowd noise during the songs, but it’s hardly noticeable and when it is, it’s an uncontrollable aspect to live recording, and as such hard to blame on the mixing of the CD.
As proud as I was attending this wonderful concert, I am just as proud owning this CD because it truly is the best symphonic game arrangement CD you can get your hands on. For every game music fan out there, especially the ones with a taste for Square Enix, this is the definitive pick for you.CD, Chrono Cross, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, Hiroki Kikuta, Kingdom Hearts, Nobuo Uematsu, Orchestra, Reviews, Secret of Mana, Square Enix, Symphonic Fantasies, WDR Orchestra, Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Shimomura