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Another Japanese band performing rock interpretations of video game soundtracks, the Black Mages have the advantage of official endorsement from the original composer Nobuo Uematsu, whose work across the popular 'Final Fantasy' series of role-playing games forms the basis of their material. Nobuo himself is involved only at a production level in this debut release, arranged and performed by Kenichiro Fukui and Tsuyoshi Sekito against a drum machine, but as the project gained a cult fan base, the Black Mages expanded into a full live band and have even seen Nobuo incorporated into their ensemble.
To ease the task of picking and choosing a select number of the songs from the extensive series, which at the time ran to ten games over the course of more than a decade, the musicians opted to focus exclusively on battle music, which is naturally more agreeable with the progressive metal direction of their instrumental performance, at times comparable to Dream Theater. Effort has clearly been made to give a wider perspective, featuring material from games old and new rather than simply the most popular or most recent, but by choosing so selectively the band risks peaking at this early stage with very little to fall back on later on. Fortunately, at least in those terms, much of the music on here is far from exceptional, and some of the best-loved themes are nowhere in sight, ready for interpretation at a later date.
As combat music, the tracks here are mostly energetic and balance the guitar and keyboards perfectly in tackling the original themes, but there are some significant disappointments towards the end of the album in particular, when the rock instruments begin to disappear altogether and it becomes much like listening to the original soundtracks. Not that there's anything wrong with that -the Final Fantasy VII score has been a treasured part of my collection for a few years now - but 'Dancing Mad' is primarily an overlong bit of tedious keyboard and organ showing-off, and the finale 'Fight With Seymour' is so drenched in keyboards that it really sounds like an eighties TV theme, despite being the only song here taken from the most recent Final Fantasy X.
Hardly anyone is going to approach this unless they were a fan of the games first (the same way I didn't get anything out of Animetal), and preferred choice of game will likely influence the favourite songs here, regardless of quality. Unfortunately in my case, as a Final Fantasy VII fan whose memories of the couple of other games I've played in the series are less fond, the FFVII material in the second half is among the least rewarding. 'Fight On!' goes similarly overboard on the keyboards at the expense of guitars and ends up weaker on the whole, despite a fun cowbell for percussion, while my anticipation at the prog metal version of 'J-E-N-O-V-A' led to extreme disappointment that this was chosen as the arbitrary techno track.
Final Fantasy VI comes off best of all, excluding the aforementioned 'Dancing Mad,' with takes on the creatively titled 'The Decisive Battle' and 'Battle' providing a strong, hard rocking centre for the album, the former flooded with enjoyable guitar and keyboard solos as most tracks tend to be, and the later being a steadier affair. It's obvious in many cases that these were originally fairly primitive synthesiser melodies that have been expanded into rock versions, particularly on the themes from the earliest games in the series, but the professionalism and authenticity of all of these songs makes for a far more satisfying experience than listening to some geeky teenager's electric guitar interpretation of 'Golden Axe' themes on YouTube.
If you're not a Final Fantasy fan, there's nothing here for you. Even if you are, you'll probably still complain that they left the best stuff out.
1. Battle Scene (Final Fantasy I)
2. Battle at the Big Bridge (Final Fantasy V)
3. Force Your Way (Final Fantasy VIII)
4. Battle Scene II (Final Fantasy II)
5. The Decisive Battle (Final Fantasy VI)
6. Battle (Final Fantasy VI)
7. J-E-N-O-V-A (Final Fantasy VII)
8. Fight On! (Final Fantasy VII)
9. Dancing Mad (Final Fantasy VI)
10. Fight With Seymour (Final Fantasy X)