Mini Review: Hikaru Utada – Face My Fears EP

At this point, Hikaru Utada is almost synonymous with the Kingdom Hearts video game franchise. She provided the theme song to the first two main games in the series, which have both been remixed over the years for each new game in the long running series. After nearly 13 years, Kingdom Hearts III is finally here, and with it comes two new theme songs that do the series justice.

Where “Face My Fears” sets the tone for the new game as the opening song, “Don’t Think Twice” is the theme song for the game itself. It’s a song that directly addresses players with earthy piano and angelic vocals. With Kingdom Hearts III set to close out the “Darkseeker” storyline with a final battle against the villain who has plagued the franchise since 2002, “Don’t Think Twice” is as encouraging as it is a resolute ‘thank you’ for anyone who finishes the game.

The Face My Fears EP offers a glimpse of this era of Utada, after she returned from a multi-year hiatus in 2016. With the help of Skrillex, “Face My Fears” is one of her most energetic songs of late. Beginning as a somber piano ballad, the song quickly explodes into an electropop fantasy that balances the melancholy state the heroes of the Kingdom Hearts series find themselves in at the start of KHIII, and the flamboyant hope that everything Disney brings. “Face My Fears” conveys both the breathless burden of marching into war (“Breath, should I take a deep? / Faith, should I take a leap?”) and the courage of accepting the fight (“Let me face, let me face, let me face my fears / Won’t be long, won’t be long, I’m almost here”).

“Don’t Think Twice” is a much more peaceful affair that celebrates the end of a journey. This version of “Chikai”, a single off of last year’s album Hatsukoi, appears to be a love song on the surface (such as “Simple & Clean” from the original KH). However, the song addresses the Kingdom Hearts game in direct and indirect ways soothingly. Along with vague commentary on the development cycle (“I’m only crying ’cause I never dreamed / It’d take this long, it’d take this long”), Utada changes the lyrics in the English version to reflect the third game in the series “Kiss me once, kiss me twice, kiss me three times / Cross the line”).

Included on the EP are the original Japanese versions of both songs. The natural poetry of the language they were written in is beautiful, and contain almost entirely different lyrics depending on the translations. They make a fine counterbalance to the English versions and a different experience for anyone who hasn’t already delved into the world of J-pop.

The Face My Fears EP is a tiny sliver of Utada, one of Japan’s most famous artists. The songs are softer than what would be expected as anthems of a big budget action videogame with backing from Disney, but they set the mood perfectly. Together, they feel like an ending cap to the ridiculously upbeat “Simple & Clean” (“Hikari”, Kingdom Hearts), and the war-drums of “Sanctuary” (“Passion”, Kingdom Hearts II). However Kingdom Hearts III turns out after years of extraordinarily high expectation, it’s reassuring to know that its soundtrack will at least do the series justice.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has literally thought about Kingdom Hearts III almost every day for the last year. He has gaming fever. Please send medicine. Or bagels.

 

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Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds – A Celebration of Nobuo Uematsu, Whether He Likes It or Not

Interview_Nobuo_Uematsu

Distant Worlds is a musical event unlike most anything else. The music itself is adapted from either 8-bit or synth pieces, written to strengthen the emotional investment of the Final Fantasy videogame series in a massive endeavor for a sweeping, full-bodied symphony orchestra. It’s a project that not only translates the music from one medium to another, but finds new life and deeper emotion through physical instrumentation with a near-constant update to the arrangements and set list.

It makes one fall deeper in love with a game series that, at this point in its lifespan, lives off of the nostalgia and love of characters and worlds spanning three decades. With a fanbase as rich and deep as those who follow Final Fantasy, only an event like Distant Worlds has the emotional pull necessary to embed an audience directly into the world of Spira or the depths of the Shinra Corporation.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra pulled off another majestic performance, capturing the attention of a massive array of different audience members. It’s the most varied assortment of people entering the same venue I’ve ever seen: fancy dresses and suits, dress pants sitting side by side with torn jeans and t-shirts, sitting behind a couple cosplaying as Sephiroth (VII) and Yuna (X). It’s a true festivity for all involved, whether they be hardcore gamers or just simply fans of the symphony.

At the pulpit once again was Conductor Arnie Roth, leading the orchestra as he has around the world. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer of nearly all 14 games in the Final Fantasy series missed what is allegedly his first appearance in years. Without his music, the game series wouldn’t have anything near the impact that they have had over the years, regardless of story and character development, as he drove the emotion before voice over was ever dreamt of as a staple to gaming.

However, this year Nobuo became ill shortly before the show and was unable to leave Japan. A representative from Square Enix was in attendance to see the legions of fans of Uematsu came out and fill the Chicago Symphony Center in near worship.

Starting the evening was “Prelude” the official theme for Final Fantasy that has been a part of almost all of the 14 games to come capacity. The strings of a massive harp plucked the opening notes, reminiscent of the 8-bit era of sound before a full choir sang in heavenly tones. It’s a simple song, but one that is powerful enough to make an attempt to pull tears from the eye of any fan.

This year’s concert was a celebration of Final Fantasy VII, with the Remake of Final Fantasy VII having been announced just months ago and the first videos of gameplay released weeks ago. Several of the themes from VII are staples of the Distant Worlds concert series, such as the whimsical and action heavy opening song, “Bombing Mission” or “One Winged Angel”, the fan-favorite theme song to the de facto villain of the FF series, Sephiroth.

However, the focus here played heavily on the rarer songs to be played live, such as “Aerith’s Theme” or the sinister “Jenova Complete”, blasting through the concert hall to a massive screen showing scenes from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy as Zach Fair learned the truth of Sephiroth and the Jenova cells before Cloud Strife took up the mantle to fight.

“Cosmo Canyon” was premiered live for the first time as a song hand selected by Nobuo Uematsu. The brooding, atmospheric piece set the tone as the theme song for the valley that Red XIII, the red lion from VII and his father called home.

Vocalist Susan Calloway appeared on stage to sing “Dragonsong” from Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensword, the song she recorded for the game itself. She appeared briefly again for a performance of “Kiss Me Goodbye”, the only song representing Final Fantasy XII.

One stand out performance was “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX, a majestic piece that reflects the fanciful energy of IX the same way that Zidane Tribal and his Shakespearean-esque troupe storm into the game to steal the princess. The orchestra swayed in sound like fire, frenzied with dance paired with an incredibly difficult and impressive bit of guitarwork. Not only is it a unique piece for IX as a game, it’s a masterpiece amongst over fifteen games and three decades worth of music.

Capping off the night were highlights from one of the Final Fantasy staples: combat. The official last song was a lengthy Battle Melody for Final Fantasy I-XIV, weaving the main fighting themes from each game into one suite of coherent music. Knowing each games’ battle music, it was fascinating to see how each game was interpreted into one piece just as much as it was to see the way they blended together to make one single song. All things considered, the battle melodies are more simple and straightforward than character themes, but when written into one piece, it perfectly captured the struggle, pain and bravery that has defined the heroes of the Final Fantasy games for so long.

As an encore, the orchestra pulled “Battle on the Big Bridge”, the most famous pieces from Final Fantasy V as the heroes fought Gilgamesh. Aside from different interpretations of “Prelude” being played (usually during the credits) of most games, “Battle on the Big Bridge” is perhaps the only song that has cropped up in remastered versions across several games from time to time. Being a surprise whenever it appears during a battle, it was a fitting end to an amazing show.

Distant Worlds is one of the few things that I look forward to on a yearly basis, as much as or more so than most other festivals or expected shows. Though it rehashes several of the favorite songs, Final Fantasy boasts a massive library with some of the best written music in all of gaming. Any glimpse of a new song translated to the orchestra breathes completely new life and energy into music that has been listened to over and over again for years.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago religiously plays Final Fantasy.

Review: Nobuo Uematsu – Final Symphony

Interview_Nobuo_Uematsu

Nobuo Uematsu is a god. I think that should be said at every possible opportunity when applicable. The Final Fantasy series has always been a highlight in terms of music within the narrative of the videogame medium, and there are literally dozens upon dozens of albums to back that claim up. However, the newest, Final Symphony is unlike anything else before it. Yep, strap in; this an album review on orchestral music, haters.

The trend of Final Fantasy albums over the last few years is to provide the fan favorite tracks performed by a complete orchestra with slightly altered arrangements, such as the magnificent Distant Worlds compilations or the scaled back A New World album. The pieces are intricate, nuanced and sublimely true to the original chiptune and synth versions created somewhere between one and two decades ago. Final Symphony is the natural progression beyond that; to arrange these fan favorites into immense symphony movements that put the music from the world of gaming on a scale as legitimate as the all-time greats.

Recorded from Abbey Road studios and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Final Symphony is an incredible undertaking of weaving melodies and character themes. These songs are poetic sound attempting to retell the stories of the few games they are taken from (FF VI, FF X, FF VII) and are meant to be more than just the background noise to something else, as they were originally made.

Final Fantasy VI (Symphonic Poem: Born With the Gift of Magic)” is the second track on the album and clocks in at a very necessary eighteen minutes. While most of the games in the Final Fantasy series have their own distinct pieces of great music, VI is renowned for being one of the best by a majority of fans. With dozens of characters, an enigmatic villain and the legendary set pieces of the world map theme and the legendary Opera, eighteen minutes is almost too short to cram everything in as needed.

From the opening tones of the “Opera”, the music quickly and efficiently shifts to the world theme (“Terra’s Theme”) that sets the violent tone of the game’s storyline. Nearly twelve minutes in, the Battle themes begin with a lovingly crafted depth that brings to life the ferocity and futility of their struggles as villain Kefka’s theme is hammered in just to emphasize the fact that he’s one of the few villains to ever actually win. However, the last few minutes revert back to the hauntingly overpowering melody of “Terra’s Theme” to end the piece on as high a note as it began on.

Final Fantasy X is represented by a three part piano symphony that is much less as flamboyant at swirling together theme songs reminisces on the theme songs presented to the game already. This is where Uematsu seems to play with the few integral anthems of the game and find new ways of playing them rather than mixing them amongst each other. This section harkens to fans of the Final Fantasy Piano Collections series, though with the added effect of an orchestra for extra layer. Although this is definitely a step above the Piano Collections, it is the weakest part of the album.

The entire second half is dedicated to Final Fantasy VII; three massive movements that return to the full orchestra toy with the main anthems in great ways. “Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): 1. Nibelheim Incident” sets the precedent, as it captures the rage and pure terror of the crisis behind the storyline to FFVII. The cryptic and chaotic version of fan favorite villain Sephiroth’s theme song “One Winged Angel” (now officially the thirteenth version of this song I own) in this movement twists the terror and futility that stood before protagonists Zack Faire and Cloud Strife as they faced off against the world’s great threat in the Nibelheim reactor.

The second movement, “Words Drowned by Fireworks” is much more soothing as it swims between “Aerith’s Theme” and the “Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII” (draw your own conclusions on symbolism). In the end, Final Fantasy VII covers over forty minutes by itself as a massive piece that presents the threat and beauty of the game’s story, whether it be the absolute horror of Sephiroth’s goal to destroy the planet, the desire of the world itself in protecting the life living on it or the tragic character arcs as they try to save everything from extinction.

Obviously, Final Symphony is for fans already accustomed to Nobuo Uematsu, but it goes so far beyond any of his albums thus far: it legitimizes gaming music on a level that has never been seen before. These pieces are intricate, incredibly massive and are the first opportunity for Uematsu to play with theme songs that have been untouchable for almost 20 years. Anyone who has loved Final Fantasy owes it to themselves to listen to Final Symphony. The music can be drawn out at times, but it only leads to something bigger than fans have heard before.

4/5

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has seen the Distant Worlds concert series every time it has come near the city for the last five years. So many hundreds of dollars to see it live…