Tsuyoshi Sekito : guitars
Michio Okamiya : guitars
Keiji Kawamori : bass guitar
Arata Hanyuda : drums
Nobuo Uematsu : keyboards
Kenichiro Fukui : keyboards
KAZCO : lead vocals in "Otherworld"
Alexander O. Smith : spoken part in "Maybe I'm a Lion"
Mr. Goo : lead vocals in "The Skies Above"
01. The Rocking Grounds (Final Fantasy III)
02. Zeromus (Final Fantasy IV)
03. Vamo' Alla Flamenco (Final Fantasy IX)
04. Hunter's Chance (Final Fantasy IX)
05. Otherworld (Final Fantasy X)
06. Matoya's Cave (Final Fantasy I)
07. The Man with the Machine Gun (Final Fantasy VIII)
08. Maybe I'm a Lion (Final Fantasy VIII)
09. Battle with the Four Fiends (Final Fantasy IV)
10. The Skies Above (Final Fantasy X)
11. Blue Blast - Winning the Rainbow
"We're no longer a trio of middle-aged video game composers with a synthesizer and one rock guitar, we're a heavy metal band, we're having fun and so are our fans!" They could say that, or just blast out "The Rocking Grounds" - no explanation needed. The Black Mages' personnel has grown from three people to a group of two guitarists, two keyboardists, a bass guitarist and a proper drummer. As expected, the synthesized, mechanical sound of the first album is blown to hell by bottom-heavy prog metal mayhem. How great it sounds, that's another thing. Overall, we're dealing with a better album. But.
I'll get the downsides to the album out of the way right now. First of all, the tracklist is still lacking some really good tunes. They went and exploited Final Fantasy VIII, so where's "The Landing"? I can pretty much imagine they left "Liberi Fatali" completely out of consideration due to the original's massive sound, which made a new arrangement pointless in itself, but "The Landing" would've made for some heavy, locomotive shite. Also, Final Fantasy IV would've had a lot more potential songs for the band to sink their teeth into. Well, this time the band took to the better part of Final Fantasy X's soundtrack with two songs, but infamously arranged both songs with lead vocals. "Otherworld"'s very deep-end death metal rant is replaced with crystal clear, female lead vocals by J-Pop artist Kazco Hamano a.k.a. KAZCO, whose English pronounciation isn't quite on mark, and she has these weird mannerisms to further drag the extremely strong performance by the musicians down. Tomoaki Watanabe, credited as Mr. Goo, totally destroys the album's title track, a vocalized version of the classic "To Zanarkand" theme. Not only are his skills with the English language non-existent, but his singing, which kind of reminds me of the late Leslie Nielsen singing opera in the first Naked Gun movie, is simply horrid. The power metal arrangement rocks, though. Square's American localization specialist Alexander O. Smith says that corny "maybe I'm a lion" bit in the beginning of... well, "Maybe I'm a Lion".
So as you might have already noted, The Skies Above isn't all about battle themes, unlike the band's first album. The classic "Matoya's Cave" from the first Final Fantasy game brings in a good five minutes of solace in the middle of the album with acoustic guitars and a great, ethereal atmosphere... that is, until another one of Uematsu's hectic organ solos comes in out of nowhere. I thought the guys were through with these! Oh, well, it's still a good version of my favourite tune from the classic (albeit quite bad) NES game. "Blue Blast - Winning the Rainbow" differs from all other songs since it's not a Final Fantasy song at all - not even a video game tune, but instead a song composed by Japanese kickboxer Takehiro Murahama. It fits the album surprisingly well, since as a song it's got Uematsu's signatures all over it.
After another 51 minutes of heavy Final Fantasy-fueled madness are over, I find myself craving for more and listening to the CD again. There are many flaws, worst of them being two vocalists who both botch fabulous songs. I can't believe talented musicians and music producers let these two performances pass with flying colours, moreover released them on their own album. I wish the Japanese had as much talent in judging singing as they have in composing music. As I was saying, there are many flaws, but this heavy sound does the whole experience wonders, as do a few truly outstanding arrangements. On my account it would've been a great idea for the band to consider re-recording the first album with this new six-piece line-up of theirs. I reckon that would've sounded simply awesome.
RATING : 7.7