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Returning To Perfection: Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo (Review)

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3 years ago, I sat anxiously waiting for the orchestra to appear from the sidelines. With a curious gaze towards the stage and the many surrounding me, the shared excitement was palpable, and whispers echoed in the Philharmonic Hall as the seated audience prepared to experience game music evolved. I was at Symphonic Fantasies in the Cologne Philharmonic Hall on September 12th, 2009, and on that night, with tears in my eyes, I experienced what is the greatest video game music symphony ever produced.

Since that day, many shows have come and gone, many concerts have been set up around the world, but the impact that Symphonic Fantasies had on the industry is undeniable; it changed the playing field entirely. Audiences wanted more, deeper arrangements, pure production designs, greater stories. Simple medleys did no longer suffice; Symphonic Fantasies proved that game music, like any music, can become something much greater by understanding its message, its intentions, its soul. But even with a subsequent CD release, the demand was high from the eager fans to experience the concert for themselves. It was therefore that Thomas Böcker took his production and team to Japan at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, and returned home to the birthplace of the orchestral game music concert and the Square Enix video games, to show that the concept had evolved, and the music which so many hold dear, has grown up to become something much larger. The result was 2 sold out shows in Japan, heralded in the press and by its peers as a true achievement not easily matched. It was due to this success, that the decision was made to once again provide fans around the world the opportunity to hear Symphonic Fantasies in the form of an album release.

But is it worth the purchase a second time around? Find out after the jump!

Each release put forth by the Merregnon Studios follow the same trend of incredibly sleek and stylish design, easy on the eyes and full of rich content without cluttering the frame. Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo is no different. With this release, the booklet has been doubled in size and done on very fine paper, bringing the pictures out with balanced color levels and a paper faded feel that retains the classical feel of an orchestra moreso than the glossy high contrast one might come to expect from newer albums. Inside the booklet, lavish pictures by Shinjiro Yamada from the Tokyo shows are featured, along with notes from each of the composers and biographies for all the notable figures in the production. There is also a beautiful foreword by none other than Masashi Hamauzu, detailing the rise of the concert under the title “Venturing beyond the norm”, an apt choice of words to illustrate the approach to the Symphonic productions.

Unlike the original Symphonic Fantasies CD from 2010, which was a single disc release that omitted the Encore (later released as a digital download single on Itunes and Amazon), Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo is a double CD set, consisting of 3 songs per CD, including the much beloved Encore, with each piece excluding the “Fanfare” and “Encore”, clocking in at near 20 minutes in length each. The mixes were done by a combined force of audio engineers from both Germany and Japan, ensuring the best possible sound and balance from the multitrack recordings done in the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan for the listeners at home to come as close to the live experience as possible.

The arrangements have gotten a fine tuning and now sound even more extravagant than before. With the experience behind them from the Cologne concert in 2009, Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo had the chance to go back and expand on certain parts to truly bring the music to life. A difference that will be prevalent through the album is the increased tempos of each suite, which is only so slight but makes a significant difference that makes the album a more advancing and imminent than the previous release.

For “Kingdom Hearts”, the piano has become a more integrated working element within the orchestra, transitioning more eloquently between melodies and organically leading the orchestra with it. An immediate difference is also heard throughout the opening “Fanfare Overture” and “Kingdom Hearts” with the brass sections for this album, as they sound more potent and much stronger than the recordings heard in Cologne. The piano soloist is the returning Benyamin Nuss, who has to be commended greatly for his ability to truly capture the contrasts of the music with such natural instincts. Piano is a difficult instrument to capture in a recording, as the resonance and acoustic of a live performed piano can often be lost and the results sound flat, but Nuss makes himself so vulnerable and plays with such powerful personal emotions, that the experience at home is nearly as astonishing as it is in a live setting.

“Secret of Mana” is the true showcase of what is the essence of Symphonic Fantasies. A true modern day masterpiece in terms of its ability to evoke, illustrate and breath by using unique yet rooted elements to create sounds and atmosphere. The orchestra is the melodies of earth, the sensational and sympathetic sound that makes Mana the beautiful soundtrack that it is, while the choir acts as the voice of the spirits, the sounds of the rain and wind, an overlooking entity. The production team went to the absolute last detail to ensure that this piece was performed with the intensity that it requires, and spent the extra dime to bring in the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus, a wise decision, as their interpretation of Mana is truly something to behold. It is difficult to truly explain the “Secret of Mana” suite as it is such a living entity on its own, it must be felt, it must be experienced in person to truly illuminate your imagination and your senses. Because when you sit in the audience and witness “Secret of Mana” for yourself, you feel the rain, the wind, and the beauty of this incredible arrangement. Only one word that come close to capture the essence of this suite: “divine”.

“Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross” remains a big worldwide favorite, and the amazement of the audience that was felt when the last moments of the arrangement was performed is a moment not soon forgotten. Roger Wanamo’s technique of crossing the main theme melodies to interact and interplay with one another became another landmark moment of the concert in 2009, and here, with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra’s very audibly stronger brass section as well as more interpretive string players who transition with much elegance, “Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross” brings the adventure of time and space as vividly to life as in the games themselves. Rony Barrak is present with his trademark Darbuka to hold the rhythm going, though in comparison, his participation is more evenly mixed in with the rest of the orchestra on this release, rather than being so much in the forefront.

“Final Fantasy” is a suite that really brings home the improvements that can be found overall on this recording and mastering job, as the increased tempo really captures the original source material and brings the strength out to an undeniably more intense feeling, while the choir with their passion and impressive scope are able to really stand out along with the very powerful melodies on display during this suite. Of course, “One Winged Angel” is teased then interrupted as it was in Cologne, however due to the more controlled nature of the Japanese crowd, there is no laughter interrupting the music this time around. In terms of experimenting, the “Final Fantasy” suite is the more conventional of the arrangements, but it truly puts a nice wrap to the program to send the fans home happy, and the individual interpretations are full of intricacies and surprising subtleties that will continue to please time after time.

Of course, one of the major selling points is the included “Encore” on the double disc set, and this is one that has gone through some major changes and expansions in order to really bring the sense of finale and grand battle taking place. Roger Wanamo has gone back to include all new segments to the “Final Boss Suite”, and the sounds of “Kefka” and “One Winged Angel” strung together in battle is an absolute amazing combination to hear, and brings a new take on the arguably over exposed “One Winged Angel”.

But the question still remains, is it worth a second purchase for those who already own the original CD, and is this the definitive version? Absolutely. Side by side, both albums offers something unique, with Symphonic Fantasies Cologne having a softer, slower pace and a more felt audience atmosphere, while Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo has a more immersive, intense and illustrated sound, with the expanded arrangements and improved sound and mixing benefiting the home listener greatly.

So it is with the tears that fills my eyes yet again, the smiles that comes at every corner and the emotions that fills my mind that I wholeheartedly recommend Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo to all fans of video game music so that they also, can experience, and feel, the greatest video game symphony ever performed again and again.

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