A quick glance at the track list for The Black Mages II ~The Skies Above~ might give the impression that Uematsu and company were settling for leftovers from their first Black Mages album, which gave us excellent hard rock arrangements of some of the very best Final Fantasy battle themes. That was my own reason for going several years from this second album's release without giving it a chance, and what a mistake that was. The Black Mages II takes less promising Final Fantasy battle tracks and elevates them to a similarly high level, and with a couple of surprising takes on other classics, makes for an excellent rock arranged album.
Beginning with the straight-up battle themes, FFIII's "The Rocking Grounds" (originally "Battle 1") and FFIV's "Battle with the Four Fiends" get a hard edge, a deliberate tempo, and some hefty original guitar and drum breakdowns that though very different from the original synth versions are befitting a rock album. The album also arranges a couple of dead-on-arrival battle themes from recent Final Fantasy soundtracks and shows that Uematsu had the right idea from the start, it was merely the execution that was lacking. "Maybe I'm a Lion" is a more raging manifestation of its previously lifeless self thanks to some improved guitar work and spunky organs. "Otherworld" gets hard but melodic guitars and a new vocal performance that though underpowered is still worlds ahead of the generic, regurgitated mush in the original. (It also makes an unmistakable melodic reference to Metallica's "Enter Sandman".)
The great success of The Black Mages II is how the arrangers take Final Fantasy themes that didn't seem suited to a Black Mages album and make proper rockers out of them. I could have perhaps for example imagined FFIX's "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" as a hard rock arrangement, but never one as superb as the version here. Though the sharp lead guitar for the main melody is spot-on, it's the infectious keyboard hook for the chorus that makes the track a classic and will have you humming it all day. The most surprising arrangement is "The Skies Above", which takes the poignant "At Zanarkand" theme from FFX and makes a wailing power metal epic out of it, with English vocals no less. Normally this would be a recipe for disaster, but the vocals of "Mr. Goo" hit a perfect balance between operatic drama and hard rock gusto. Certainly there is also a bit of camp involved, but not nearly to the extent of similar attempts in other arranged albums, and combined with the sheer energy of the track it just works.
Even the less inspired arrangements still manage to rock out some. "Hunter's Chance" does little inventive, but the original version is well enough suited to hard rock that it doesn't have to. "The Man with the Machine Gun" has a hard act to follow in the catchy, dance-flavored original, but the melodic speed metal version here is entirely enjoyable in its own right.
Only one arrangement falls completely short and sadly it's for FFI's timeless "Matoya's Cave" theme. As a straight rock rendition - even one completely by the book as we hear in the first half of the arrangement - it would have worked just fine, but the awkward additions of an out-of-place blues segment and the original version's 8-bit synth give the track a disjointed, cut-and-paste feel.
Aside from "Matoya's Cave", when the arrangements do falter they do so only briefly. "The Skies Above" leads off with a lengthy piano intro no different from any other version of "At Zanarkand" when a soulful guitar solo would have been much more unique and appropriate. Even the otherwise impeccable "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" hits a short lull at an acoustic guitar segue, which though true in concept to the original version, again would have been better served by an electric guitar solo. Most often though the weak areas are the outros, which on several instances feel like they were tacked on as an afterthought, ending their arrangements with a whimper instead of the bang they deserve. None of this drastically distracts from the experience of the album as a whole, it just keeps it from joining the likes of Dracula Battle 1 among the very elite of game music rock albums.
The Black Mages II ~The Skies Above~ does exactly what any arranged album should, upgrading the original compositions and at times transforming them altogether into a new and often superior experience. More consistent in quality than its predecessor, and worlds ahead of its successor, it's a smartly arranged album that deserves the attention of any fan of melodic hard rock.