Tsuyoshi Sekito : guitars / bass guitar / programming
Nobuo Uematsu : keyboards / programming
Kenichiro Fukui : keyboards / programming
01. Battle Scene (Final Fantasy I)
02. Clash on the Big Bridge (Final Fantasy V)
03. Force Your Way (Final Fantasy VIII)
04. Battle, Scene II (Final Fantasy II)
05. The Decisive Battle (Final Fantasy VI)
06. Battle Theme (Final Fantasy VI)
07. J-E-N-O-V-A (Final Fantasy VII)
08. Those Who Fight Further (Final Fantasy VII)
09. Dancing Mad (Final Fantasy VI)
10. Fight with Seymour (Final Fantasy X)
The Black Mages' history roots all the way back to the year 2000. Square composers Kenichiro Fukui and Tsuyoshi Sekito were hired to compose a rock soundtrack for All-Star Pro Wrestling, which became a moderate hit in Japan. The two men enjoyed working together so much that they began to work on rock and metal arrangements of Final Fantasy music. Neither one had ever worked on a Final Fantasy game before, as that had always been Nobuo Uematsu's job up to that point. In 2002, Uematsu heard some of their arrangements and liked them so much, that he was asked to join Fukui and Sekito's band. At first, the maestro declined and said that he would like to come and play keyboards with them live, one single time. Fukui and Sekito said that if Uematsu wouldn't join the band, they wouldn't form it either. After that one gig, Uematsu was so taken by the traits of being a live musician, that he changed his mind and joined Fukui and Sekito's partnership. Thus, The Black Mages were born. And, in 2003, the band released their eponymous debut album on DigiCube, a now-defunct label founded in the mid-90's and specialized in the promotion of video game music.
The Black Mages have become known for playing pretty much the songs they want, with no strict theme except a wide variety of songs to serve a wide audience. The first album, however, is a tribute to battle music through time. I find myself asking a few questions while listening to the album. I don't actually have to listen to it at all, just looking at the tracklist is enough for now: within this theme, I find it hard to comprehend why the main battle themes of Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy V, some of the best in the series, have been left out and replaced with quite standard compositions. It's also quite surprising that there are no tracks at all from the soundtrack of Final Fantasy IV, which is one of the most critically acclaimed soundtracks in the franchise. However, we have a lot of good tracks here - and to tell you the truth, if The Black Mages had strictly made just this one album and tried to cover everything people wanted to hear metallized, there would probably be 40 to 50 songs here. With these song lengths, the album's production would've been a nightmare to finance. These are their favourite arrangements at the time - so let's take a look-see and enjoy these 51 minutes as they are.
Nailing "Battle Scene" from the first Final Fantasy game as the lead track was genius. It grooves like a moose and all the bases are covered: this is what The Black Mages sound like at their best. Heavy guitars, a steady bass line, an inspired and innovative arrangement from all standpoints, and great work with the synthesizers by Nobuo Uematsu himself. However, as the album goes on, these synthesizers bite off a chunk that's a little too big in comparison to everything else. For example, "Clash on the Big Bridge", which might be my favourite Final Fantasy tune of all time, is still a killer track, but it lacks precise double bass drum action, which would've fit in perfectly, and it features an impromptu synth solo, which kind of slows down the song's drive. The Black Mages are definitely a progressive metal band, and they own these songs, and therefore, they are allowed to do anything they please with the tracks, but I think that with some songs some hint of arrogance and need to show off arises. No songs are actually destroyed by manic progression, and even the mechanical sound of the sequenced percussion doesn't hurt the record, but some arrangements could've turned out a lot better and more flowing than they are. There's a definite lack of balance at work here.
My favourite songs are pretty much scattered across the CD; the opening track, "The Decisive Battle" and "Battle Theme" from Final Fantasy VI, "Those Who Fight Further" from Final Fantasy VII - in which the band's classic rock influence is at its most obvious. Even as an original song, it sounded like something Deep Purple would whip out, but in this form, it's almost pure Purple. The guys are at their most progressive in "Dancing Mad", of course. The longest and most complex piece Uematsu has ever written for any game clocks in at 12:04, and it rocks - it's simply amazing, however I have to concur with most critics who say it sounds a little too much like the original. Well, on the other hand, that goes to show how epic the song sounded even as a MIDI tune on the SNES. They don't make songs quite like "Dancing Mad" anymore. Too bad "One-Winged Angel" has always stolen its spotlight as the ultimate boss theme. But, surprisingly it isn't here, so let's dance mad! Of course, even with the break-action synth solo, "Clash on the Big Bridge" stands out as my favourite track, and I have a custom of listening to the song at least once every Friday and/or when I'm cleaning my apartment, for some odd reason. I even linked the live version below - it's a bit heavier and more energetic than this studio version, too bad the audio isn't quite up to par.
Overall, The Black Mages' debut offers every Final Fantasy fan out there something to rock out to, especially those who are even a little bit into rock or metal, and preferrably musicians themselves. We're sincerely talking about some of the best musicians in Japan here. Maybe they're a bit too experimental, and don't have the best taste in tunes - some extremely potential songs have been left out of the fray and in their stead we have the weaker battle theme of Final Fantasy II, the lackluster boss theme from Final Fantasy VIII, the moderately cool but utterly unmemorable Seymour boss theme from Final Fantasy X, and the most overtly synthesized song in the bunch in the could've-been-great "J-E-N-O-V-A", plus several intermissions and passages out of the bushes throughout the album - awkward stops along a smooth way, but all in all, the album's good, enjoyable work. Less crazy synth dribble and more of those dandy guitar riffs which truly emerge in the middle of the album, and we would have an undisputed winner.
RATING : 7.0