Distant Worlds II: More Music from Final Fantasy

"Excellent orchestral performances of both classic Final Fantasy arrangements and valuable new ones." Recommended

Rankings

Artist Credits

Tracks

62 minutes total
  1. Prelude [3:22]
  2. The Man with the Machine Gun (FFVIII) [3:33]
  3. Ronfaure (FFXI) [4:40]
  4. A Place to Call Home - Melodies of Life (FFIX) [6:55]
  5. Zanarkand (FFX) [4:31]
  6. Dancing Mad (FFVI) [10:42]
  7. Victory Theme [0:08]
  8. Suteki da ne (FFX) [6:24]
  9. Terra's Theme (FFVI) [4:18]
  10. Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII [6:41]
  11. Prima Vista Orchestra (FFIX) [1:30]
  12. Dear Friends (FFV) [5:10]
  13. J-E-N-O-V-A (FFVII) [4:17]
  • Released Jun 1, 2010 by AWR Records (catalog no. AWR-10102, retail $16.98).
  • Japan edition released Nov 3, 2010 (catalog no. SQEX-10205).
  • Track 4 "Melodies of Life" and track 8 "Suteki da ne" vocals by Susan Calloway.
  • Track 6 "Dancing Mad" performed in part by The Earthbound Papas.

Reviews

Excellent orchestral performances of both classic Final Fantasy arrangements and valuable new ones.

Recommended

Editor's review by Adam Corn (2011-09-30)

"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.

An average follow-up to the superlative first collection.

Reader review by Ugly Bob (2011-09-30)

In "Distant Worlds II - More Music from Final Fantasy", Arnie Roth and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra return to conduct and perform the compositions of Nobuo Uematsu. The album opens with "Prelude", the most recognizable series tune of the album by far. This rendition sounds fine, but it doesn't carry the weight that I've come to expect from Final Fantasy orchestral performances. It's not a bad track but it doesn't stand out. The choir that enters around 1:30 adds a sense of power to the piece, but it still feels more standard than extraordinary.

"Terra's Theme" has all the tools to make a great orchestration and succeeds rather well. The crescendo at 48 seconds is great stuff indeed, instantly recognizable but elevating the piece far above standard VGM. Not enough pieces from Final Fantasy VI have been orchestrated, so this is a step in the right direction.

"Ronfaure" is from Final Fantasy XI; the game itself I've never played but this masterful track makes me want to check it out. This piece is reminiscent of classic pieces by Rachmaninoff or Bizet. The natural grace of the piece does a lot to please, and the rising action at 1:38 is a masterful composition stroke. This is my favorite piece of Distant Worlds II, and I recommend listening to it to anyone who doubts the worth of the collection.

"A Place to Call Home ~ Melodies of Life" is a fine interpretation of the main theme of the overlooked Final Fantasy IX, complete with new English vocals by concert series diva Susan Calloway. She demonstrates a higher range than Emiko Shiratori in helping the song to reach a greater audience. The rear orchestrations also benefit the performance, working alongside the performer rather than being simply in the background.

"To Zanarkand" is a great performance but it doesn't do enough to sound like an orchestration. Fans will enjoy the piece, but it isn't what you would envision when you think of the Zanarkand theme with a large orchestra. Honestly, it sounds boring and unexciting, not full of the energy that good orchestrations bring. The best pieces are able to sound like something epic, while still recalling the spirit of the original. Distant Worlds' version doesn't quite get there.

"The Man with the Machine Gun" is the most unusual performance on this collection, and not in a good way. It sounds so similar to the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec Final Fantasy VIII orchestral album that I thought it was a clerical error initially. Further examination shows the differences, but they aren't significant and do little to make this version stand out. If you like the previous versions, you'll like this, but don't expect anything amazing.

"Dancing Mad" was the most anticipated track of the album, much as it was on the Black Mages metal album of 2003. The consensus on that version was that despite its inconsistency, it was quite powerful and a fitting tribute to the madness of the song. What we have on Distant Worlds II isn't nearly as engaging, to the point that it feels quite by the numbers. The early choral chanting is epic enough, but its lack of energy throughout the piece begins to become apparent by the 2:30 mark. Given the large amount of chanting involved in this piece, I would think that the choir could have experimented a bit with highs and lows. In this case, their performance is just boring. The classical overtures at the four-minute mark are the highlight of the performance - they properly reflect the lulling nature of that phase of the confrontation with the final boss and fit the original's somber nature to a tee. Unfortunately, the good quickly leads to bad with the time of 6:40, which is the blandest performance of the final boss flair that I've ever heard. This part of Dancing Mad is meant to accelerate with power and energy; here it just sounds like the performer is off-key and slow on the uptake. The power of the piece just isn't there, severely hurting it overall. If you can't get the epic nature of the finale even close, what is the purpose?

Distant Worlds II is an average follow-up to the superlative first collection, and feels more like an unnecessary successor than the next great collection of orchestrated video game music. Most of the album sounds just fine and naturally I recommend it for VGM diehards. Just don't expect it to blow you away.

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