Chip Music, Game Music, Reviews

Ignoring Convention: SQ Chips (Review)

October 12, 2011 | | 2 Comments Share thison Facebook Ignoring Convention: SQ Chips (Review)on Twitter

Okay, so that’s a stab at the naming convention of the SQ series, but also a comment about the album. SQ Chips has easily been the most anticipated SQ series album to date, and after seeing the track listing on the official website some weeks ago, I was super pumped about the album as well.

Now it’s out, and many of you have already listened to it. Does it live up to the hype? Is it the strongest SQ series album to date?

Find out what we think in our review after the jump.

I actually wasn’t really quite sure what to expect with this album, but after loving what I heard on the SQ Chips Preview Mini Album, I had an idea that I’d like the album on the whole. However, as it turns out, the preview album did not really give a fair view of the final product, as, in fact, only two of the five preview tracks made it onto the final album. What’s here, however, are some of Squaresoft’s most memorable themes arranged using 8-bit sounds paired with modern electronic stylings, including lots of bumping basslines and 4/4 percussion sections. If you like dance and electronic music as I do, I suppose that’s a plus, but I know a lot of people were expecting a more traditional 8-bit approach.

With that out of the way, let’s get on to the music. DJ OMKT & MJ are featured at the beginning and end of the album, both times paying tribute to Chrono Trigger. Their opening piece is a short and relatively straightforward take on “Chrono Trigger,” substituting in 8-bit sounds and adding a dance beat to the classic theme. They return with a considerably more impressive character theme medley, however, opening with “To Faraway Times” before delving into various character themes (Frog, Ayla, Magus, Schala, Marle) over the six and a half minute medley. I could go for fully fleshed out arrangements of each one of these themes, as the duo only manages to scratch the surface here, doing a truly wonderful job with each.

Hige Diver comes next, tackling “Battle 2” from Final Fantasy III (featured on the Preview Mini Album) and a medley from SaGa 2. Both of these original scores were 8-bit… so why re-arrange them here? We saw firsthand how 8-bit music can be re-arranged for these kinds of projects with Chiptuned Rockman, and in similar fashion, Hige Diver does an amazing job. “Battle 2” adds a flurry of electronic percussion and sound effects that play the role of percussion along with a steady Final Fantasy-flavored bass line (you know, the repetitive bass notes that Uematsu used in his early battle themes) as the piece crescendos into its chorus section, while his bumpin’ medley from SaGa 2 works this same magic on several battle themes from the game. I have to say that the latter reminded me of Crystallis as I swear the sound effects in the background are from that game.

“Blinded by Light” from Final Fantasy XIII was the track people were probably most looking forward to, and it doesn’t disappoint. Hidekazu Tanaka of MoNACA tackles the theme, turning it into a convincing 8-bit variation, but toying with the rhythm a bit. It opens on a rather melancholy note, progressing slowly without percussion or bass before the two join the mix, complete with the aforementioned Uematsu bass line from early Final Fantasy titles, lending the piece that nostalgic punch. Even more, while it interrupts the music, Tanaka utilizes 8-bit sound effects to create a battle scene complete with menu selections and attack sounds. It’s one of the best tracks on the album for sure.

“Terra’s Theme” by 203soundworks is a fun one, starting on a more contemplative note before an octave-jumping bass and smashing bass and snare drums come in to lend the chorus section a hand. The track combines 8-bit sounds with piano and strings, making it more of an 8-bit hybrid, but it’s still a blast. Yoshino Yoshikawa takes a similar hybrid approach with “Aerith’s Theme,” giving the track a more club-like vibe with the addition of dreamy pads and some nicely-fitting synth sections. The melody is actually voiced by a synthesized choir patch at one point, making it sound as though the song is being sung by 8-bit songstress, which I thought was cool.

On the topic of vocals, Another Infinity gives us “Eyes on Me.” It’s just as majestic and powerful as you remembered, but it of course takes on the familiar octave-jumping bass line and electronic percussion. What I like most about this arrangement is that aside from the percussion, all of the elements are 8-bit, not using strings or other instruments as a crutch. It’s a great take on the first Final Fantasy vocal theme, emphasizing the memorable melody, although if you’re like me you’ll have a hard time not singing along.

Square Enix’s own muZik serves up a funky, bass-driven version of “Ronfaure.” It takes its time as it meanders about slowly, adding in marching 8-bit percussion, and is a nice break from the energetic material found elsewhere on the album. Mitsuto Suzuki also appears on the album, although without his much-promoted “Chip de Chocobo” (more on that later). He does come through with “Near the Water” from Final Fantasy XII, adding a nice swing along with sound effect-driven percussion to give the piece a playful edge. His signature glitchy computer sounds appear in the background while the theme marches along with its whimsical melody. I love the dynamics on this piece, too, as it’s triumphant and strong at one point, then quiet and reflective at others. I just wish it was longer!

There’s also the dancey and dangerous “Einhander & Project Sylpheed Medley” by the3rdmimi, which, while technically impressive, made me sad for its lack of “Conflict” from Einhander. It’s still great to see these rarely-arranged titles getting some love here, and it’s a fantastically moody take on several themes from the games.

Finally, let’s talk about SEXY SYNTHESIZER and (S_S), who are featured prominently on the album. While I was already a fan of SEXY SYNTHESIZER, the performance of (S_S) (one-half of the SEXY SYNTHESIZER duo) at the SQ Party LEVEL1 event last month gave me even more respect for the group. (S_S)’s upbeat arrangements so perfectly match his, as Kai put it, jovial demeanor. It’s also important to note just how skilled they are at meshing layer upon layer of sound, allowing you to hear something new each time you listen

A few tracks are credited solely to (S_S) rather than SEXY SYNTHESIZER, starting with “Meridian Festival” from Seiken Densetsu 2. People may be familiar with this track by now as it was streaming from the official website and was covered in our review of the SQ Chips Preview Mini Album. It’s a great 8-bit adaptation, staying pretty true to the original. He’s also credited for “Nameless Theme” from Nanashi no Game, which was easily one of my most anticipated tracks given how amazing and unknown this theme is. The ‘arrangement,’ if you want to call it that, however, is essentially the original theme intact with what sounds to be more reverb. No dance beats, no additional flourishes. Nothing new, really, which was a huge letdown. It’s still nice to have the track in CD format.

As to the tracks by SEXY SYNTHESIZER proper, “The Wind Calls to Shevat in the Blue Sky” from Xenogears sports the group’s characteristic upbeat bass line and hard-hitting percussion, coming as both powerful and extremely playful all at once. “Final Battle ~ Mana Place” from Seiken Denstsu sports the same energy, and I love how they add these bits of vibrato to the last notes of several measures.

The duo also gets the last word with an ending theme medley from Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI that is close to ten minutes in length. This one packs a huge punch, visiting some of the most popular and triumphant themes from the various games, which, paired with SEXY SYNTHESIZER’s already contagious energy, make for a listening experience that will make it difficult to sit still and listen. You’ll want to move with the music, and it’s a fun and effective way to close out the album.

Now, I’ve already mentioned how bummed out I was by the fact that “Crisis” from Seiken Denstetsu 2 by (S_S) which was featured on the preview album and was easily my favorite track of any of the SQ Chips material didn’t appear on the final album. Likewise, “A Place to Call Home” and even “Chip de Chocobo” seemingly disappeared into the void. Well, that is, unless you were able to purchase SQ Chips at Village/Vanguard CD shops in Japan where you received an additional bonus disc containing 6 tracks (none of them “Crisis,” unfortunately).

The disc opens with a strange and abstract minute-long arrangement of “Prelude” by muZik, which is followed by Mitsuto Suzuki’s “Chip to Chocobo,” which runs at two and a half minutes in length. The “Skullpion (Outtake Ver.) is a more rock-oriented take on the final track that appears on the SQ Chips album. (S_S)’s “A Place to Call Home” is here, along with an all-new arrangement of “A New World” from Final Fantasy V, sporting some cool arpeggiator effects on the decisive and melancholy theme. Finally, there’s a three-minute arrangement of “Matoya’s Cave” by muZik, which along with “A Place to Call Home,” are the primary draws of this disc. While it’s pretty straightforward, it’s dancey, fun, and, well, it’s “Matoya’s Cave!”

Overall, I enjoyed SQ Chips, but with the recent launch of the Café SQ website, I think I’m even more excited about that album. It’s kind of strange that Square Enix went out of its way to promote SQ Chips with the preview album, but in actuality, the creation of that disc which featured arrangements that did not appear on the final album and the additional customer bonus disc with even more music that fans would like to hear actually hurts SQ Chips by confusing customers and making it difficult to get a hold of everything the album was supposed to offer.  Still, it’s a worthy addition to the series, and I’d like to hear more like it.

There isn’t much going on in terms of packaging, but the cover is pretty nifty, illustrated by Atsuki Ookubo of Soul Eater fame. The album is available from Play-Asia and CD Japan for a relatively low price of 1,890 Yen, so I recommend picking it up. But I’m still looking forward to Café SQ as the best SQ album yet!

What do you think of the song selection of SQ Chips? Do you think the collection of discs associated with the album hurt or helped SQ Chips overall?

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