"Distant Worlds II: More Music from Final Fantasy" offers studio recordings of orchestral arrangements from the series, much like its predecessor. However, while that first Distant Worlds album receives almost unanimous praise from VGM fans, this followup is often labeled as a mediocre offering of seconds. As a long-time Final Fantasy listener coming to experience both at around the same time, my own opinion is firmly the opposite. While sharing the same high performance and recording quality, Distant Worlds II offers the superior selection of Final Fantasy music for both long-time fans and newcomers, and is one of the best orchestral collections to come out of the history of the series.
To go ahead and get the basics out of the way, both studio Distant Worlds albums share the same original composer (Nobuo Uematsu), the same producer-conductor (Arnie Roth), the same orchestra (the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, though with different choruses), and for the most part the same arranger (Shiro Hamaguchi, with a few exceptions). As such both the performances and recordings are of similar caliber, which is to say quite good. They're of high enough quality to limit comparisons with previous best recordings of the same arrangements mostly to a matter of taste, and in that regard I find all of the purely orchestral Distant Worlds II recordings either equal or superior to the ones that have come before.
A common complaint of the Distant Worlds series has been its rehashing of previous existing arrangements, but of this Distant Worlds II is much less guilty than its predecessor. "Ronfaure", "Prima Vista Orchestra", and "JENOVA" make their first album appearance in orchestral form here. The orchestral version of "Zanarkand" was previously only available on the niche More Friends live album, while "Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII" was on the excellent but often overlooked Final Fantasy VII Reunion Tracks (both arrangements are so fantastic as to warrant multiple recordings). "Terra's Theme" and "Dear Friends" were both featured on the 20020220 live album, but the Distant Worlds II recordings are so completely superior as to render those versions obsolete. The only inclusion I consider redundant is "The Man with the Machine Gun", which can be found in mostly similar form on the excellent Final Fantasy VIII Fithos Lusec Wecos Venosec orchestral album.
Exclusivity aside, the more important factor at play is that the themes and arrangements featured range from good to excellent to absolutely essential. One of two arrangements to fall under the latter category is the orchestral version of "Zanarkand". Though I've always appreciated the tragic quality of this piece, its original piano arrangements betrayed a certain simplicity. The orchestral arrangement featured in Distant Worlds II not only remedies that problem by gracefully utilizing the various elements of the orchestra, it increases that tragic quality to proper tear-jerking proportions. As lovely as the lead instrumentation in this piece is, it's the small added touches that really make it - a sorrowful string segue, a lonely horn echoing out momentarily in the chorus, the somber closing notes from the harp for the finale.
Joining "Zanarkand" as the other essential arrangement of the collection is "Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII". Shiro Hamaguchi's arrangement for this piece takes what in its original version seemed a sloppy, synthy train wreck of a main theme and turns it into an orchestral masterpiece. Whereas "Zanarkand" is rife with sorrow, "Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII" embodies not only sorrow but triumph, mystery and natural beauty in an all-encompassing overture that feels as much a musical reflection on life as the theme of a game. The Reunion Tracks recording of this arrangement was always spectacular and this one is similarly so; the piece is entirely worth having twice over to enjoy the subtle differences in each performance.
Of the new arrangements "Ronfaure", which was completely unfamiliar to me before hearing its Distant Worlds renditions, is my personal favorite. The arrangement is quite deliberate here, emphasizing the persistent quality and medieval sound of the piece, moving in formulaic yet flawless fashion from resolute main theme to majestic refrain to delicate interlude and on to the rousing finale. Final Fantasy IX's "Prima Vista Orchestra" is in comparison to the album's other selections a relatively minor theme, but as an energetic fanfare with a soaring arrangement it makes a nice complement to the more somber proceedings of the album. The same can be said of the album-ending arrangement of the classic Final Fantasy VII boss theme "JENOVA", which forgoes the sinister sci-fi sound of the original for a feisty, brass-heavy treatment akin to a '70s action theme. It's an unexpected direction to take (some of the added choral elements particularly), but even if the arrangement doesn't match the original version in its own element, it at the very least adds something new and interesting.
Rounding out the highlights are the selections originally arranged in the 20020220 concert and album, which whether due to the improved recording or simply context I find more enjoyable in Distant Worlds II. I'd always considered the arrangement of "Terra's Theme" a poor man's version of the more ambitious arrangement in Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale, but the rolling snares and rising action of the arrangement feel more significant this time around. And though the tender orchestra plus solo guitar arrangement of Final Fantasy V's "Dear Friends" in 20020220 was already a huge improvement over the tryingly simple original version, hearing the gorgeous, more refined Distant Worlds II recording I find myself moved by the theme for the first time.
Despite my love for many of the arrangements included, a couple of baffling production decisions result in a few frightfully flawed tracks that completely belie the quality of the rest of the album. The first such decision was to adapt the album's two vocal pieces, Final Fantasy IX's "Melodies of Life" and Final Fantasy X's "Suteki da ne", into English. It's hard to say which is worse about these tracks, the writing or the vocal performances. I'll let a sample of the former from "Melodies of Life" speak for itself: "So far and away, see the bird as it flies by - gliding through the shadows of the clouds up in the sky." What an injustice to the beautiful themes in these tracks (especially the gorgeous "A Place to Call Home" orchestral intro to "Melodies of Life"). As for the vocal performances, though I have full faith in Susan Calloway's singing ability (her work in Distant Worlds: Returning Home is outstanding), her performance here suffers from an overly enunciated style and an almost Country twang, which combined with the poorly-written lyrics gives the feeling of having returned to song time in primary school.
Aside from the two vocal pieces the other bad decision of the album lies in its rendition of the Final Fantasy VI final battle theme "Dancing Mad". Hugely ambitious for an originally 16-bit composition - featuring orchestra, pipe organ and chorus - it could potentially make for a fantastic orchestral-choral arrangement. And up to around the five minute mark it promises to live up to that potential, with a strong orchestral performance and a respectable live adaptation of the original synth chorus. However at an extended organ solo from that point the arrangement begins to lag, then inexplicably the orchestral performance comes to a complete halt in favor for a performance by "Uematsu's new band", the Earthbound Papas. This two-minute interlude of electric guitar, bass, drum kit and synth is a complete mess, marred most heavily by awful synth programming that clashes completely with the orchestral sound of the rest of the album and brings down the piece at its most climactic point. (Fortunately for those for whom the disappointment of a botched "Dancing Mad" is too great, a far better, purely orchestral and choral version can be found on the follow-up album Distant Worlds: Returning Home.)
Despite a few unsightly flaws, it's both a surprise and a delight to listen to Distant Worlds II. No it's not perfect - the two English-language vocal adaptations and the Earthbound Papas-tainted "Dancing Mad" are an embarrassing blight on the album. One or two-star them, delete them from your playlists, if you're old school just skip the damn things. The album that remains is one of the best Final Fantasy orchestral collections you're likely to hear, capturing many of the defining qualities of the series in an array of quality new performances, valuable additions and immensely moving, essential arrangements. If you're a Final Fantasy fan hungry for orchestral arrangements, or an orchestral music fan looking to test the series waters, it's one of the few select albums that you can't go wrong with.