This past Friday, I had the pleasure of joining a number of Dtoid SF
members for the Distant Worlds
concert in San Francisco. Distant Worlds
is a symphonic concert series that features music from throughout the Final Fantasy
series. As such, almost all of the music that was played was composed by Nobuo Uematsu, who has composed music for twelve of the fourteen games in the series’ main cannon. I’m a huge fan of Uematsu’s work, so attending for me was a no-brainer. I’ve attended several “video game concerts” in the past, including Dear Friends
, and Video Games Live
, and they’ve always been a real treat. The addition of the Destructoid community made it all the more awesome, and overall is was an incredible night. That said, while there were many things I loved about this showing of Distant Worlds
, there were some things that I felt could use a little improvements. For what is basically a review with some musings on Distant Worlds
, read on.
The Awesome: New & Different Songs
I can easily see choosing a song selection for Distant Worlds
to be an incredibly daunting task. The Final Fantasy
series has an impressive catalogue of music and contains an exceptional number of gems. Even if one doesn’t like a given game in the series, there is bound to be at least a couple songs from that game which will strike one's fancy. On top of that, one has to make sure that the selected songs are representative of the series and that the playbill remains balanced and diverse. Finally, there are the expectations and hopes of the audience members that their favorite songs will make the cut.
Overall, I think that the organizer and conductor of the concert series, Arnie Roth, did a good job. I’m glad that Distant Worlds
is finally starting to break away from the predictable selections. First, I was thrilled that a vocalist was put to good use to showcase ballads like “Memories of Life” (FFIX), “Suteki Da Ne” (FFX), and “Kiss Me Good-Bye” (FFXII). This alone makes Distant Worlds
stand out from other video game concert series, even Dear Friends
, which shied away from using a singer. The singer for the SF production, Susan Calloway, did an exceptional job, equally and at times even surpassing each song’s original vocalist. I also appreciated that songs which haven’t seen as much life in orchestral form, such as “Dancing Mad” (FFVI) and “J-E-N-O-V-A” (FFVII), were featured. Finally, the concert also took advantage of the recent release of Final Fantasy XIII
and the upcoming release of Final Fantasy XIV
to add some of their songs into the program as well.
The Not-So-Awesome: The Old Standbys
Despite the number of new and new-ish songs on the playbill, there were some songs on there that I feel have long since worn out their welcome. The fact that they’ve become “old standards” in the short time that video game music has enjoyed symphonic performance in the US is a testament to how much they’ve been overplayed. The two big offenders are “Aeris’ Theme” and “One-Winged Angel” (FFVII). Don’t get me wrong, they’re great songs, but by this point everyone
has heard them in this form, and it’s time they moved over for other, lesser known pieces. I was also going to include one of my personal favorites,“Theme of Love” (FFIV), in this over-played, but it actually got bumped from the performance on the night I was there.
What would I like to see in their place? More retro pieces from the SNES and NES eras. These are songs that, even if you know them, would still remain new to the audience since they were likely never played with even a synthesized symphony. On the off-chance that Arnie or Eric Roth is reading this,I'd suggest songs like “Rydia’s Theme” (FFIV), “Ahead on Our Way” (FFV), and a medley of music from Final Fantasy III
(the battle themes from this game would be amazing
played by a symphony!).
The Not-So-Awesome: The Organ in “Dancing Mad”
The two most notable songs of the evening were easily “Dancing Mad” and “J-E-N-O-V-A”, the former because it was a world premiere that took advantage of the hall’s massive organ, and the latter because it was a very interesting and fresh interpretation of the song.
Alright, so at least one person I know from the DtoidSF group is going to kill me for saying this (I'm sorry Stella!), but... I thought “Dancing Mad” could have been better. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part it was a great interpretation. I also understand why the entire song wasn’t played (the original is ten minutes long and they would have had to hire an electric guitarist just for it). That’s fine and I think those were great choices to make for this arrangement. My big, and really only, problem with “Dancing Mad” was with the organist.
I’ve heard this song countless times, both in its original version and the incredible Black Mages version. Given that, I’m pretty damn sure that the organist was constantly off-beat. I don’t know if it was a limitation of the hall’s organ, if it was a latency issue (the organist was in a room next to the symphony), or if the organist was just not that great, but he was always off just enough that it was constantly noticeable. I remember during his part, my smile started turning into a very concerned frown. It was just a big blemish on a song that was otherwise an incredible experience, made all the more so by the fact that the organ is the freaking star
of that song in a live setting.
The Awesome: The Symphonic Version of “J-E-N-O-V-A”
“J-E-N-O-V-A”, on the other hand, was mind-blowing. This arrangement utilized a number of elements to convert it from its original, electronica-sounding version to a new symphonic one, including a mean drum line. Talking to other members of the group after the show, I got the impression that reviews on it were mixed. I personally loved it and I think it is the exact type of song that shows like Distant Worlds
need to be incorporating more of in the future: songs that are fresh, new interpretations that give the audience something that they can’t get anywhere else, either in the original game or in one of the other video game music concerts that have been sprouting up in the last few years. This song was proof positive that just because a symphony is playing the song doesn’t mean you won’t get super psyched up by it.
The Not-So-Awesome: Selling Final Fantasy XIV
The only really cringe-worthy moment of the show came when it was time for a medley from Final Fantasy XIV
, Square-Enix’s upcoming successor to Final Fantasy XI
. The music itself was fantastic and, as the newest work from Nobuo Uematsu, was a testament to the fact the man has not lost his touch. The video shown along with the music was largely the trailer that has been shown since E3 ‘09, which was fine. It’s the footage people have seen and the game hasn’t come out yet.
What wasn’t fine was the very awkward reminders that kept coming from Arnie Roth about the fact that the game's approaching release date. Both before and after the medley, Mr. Roth made sure to remind us that the game was now in a beta form we could all sign up for and that the game’s final release date was fast approaching.
Now, while I understand that there is advertising value in this event for Square-Enix, there are two problems with this. First, I paid money to see this event, so I don’t think I’m obligated to listen to advertising. It would be one thing if this concert was free, but my wallet can assure you it most certainly wasn’t. Second, it just made that whole part of the concert feel cheap. For that (albeit brief) moment in the show, it had gone from a classy concert and gathering of people to appreciate the aural achievements of Final Fantasy
to an E3 media event hall.
Thankfully, this was the one bit of tacky advertising that was to be endured. It didn’t even approach the egregious transgressions committed by Video Games Live
, where nearly every song from a current game franchise had some sort of incredibly tacky advertising announcement accompanying it.
The Awesome: Everything Else
Despite the specific critiques I’ve mentioned, I really enjoyed Distant Worlds
. What I’ve talked about here are the few items that the show could use some improvement on. Everything else was fucking awesome. Save for "Dancing Mad", every song was played perfectly and with real emotion. I know that the symphony’s performance of “Dear Friends” (FFV) really pulled at a few heartstrings. The acoustic guitarist was incredible. On the other side of the spectrum, both battle songs from Final Fantasy VIII
, “Man with a Machine Gun” and “Don’t Be Afraid” really got the audience moving and helped keep the energy up in the concert hall.
If you have even a passing interest in Final Fantasy
music, video game music as a whole, or the work of Nobuo Uematsu, you should see Distant Worlds
. The show isn’t perfect, but it is by far the best video game concert in town. If you can make it to a Distant Worlds
show (their venues seem to be limited to large international cities and the coasts of the United States), then you should definitely pick up a copy of the new Distant Worlds
CD. I believe Destructoid’s Dale North gave a very high recommendation of it a few months ago
Oh, and Nobuo Uematsu really needs to sit in another part of the concert hall when he visits. Like in my box. Next to me. So I can totally scream like a little school girl the entire time. read