Distant Worlds: Returning Home was a special two-night Final Fantasy orchestral concert event in producer-conductor Arnie Roth's Distant Worlds series, which after numerous shows around the world came to Tokyo with a special program of music. This double-CD plus DVD set compiles the programs from both nights into a single live album. While several of its selections have been recorded many times before, some fantastic new arrangements make the collection a valuable addition for Final Fantasy and orchestral music fans, as well as a great introduction for those just starting with series' music.
I'll begin with the material already available on previous Final Fantasy arranged albums, so seasoned collectors interested only in the new arrangements might want to skip a couple paragraphs ahead. To begin with the mediocre, the five selections originally arranged for FFVII Reunion Tracks and FFVIII Fithos Lusec Wecos Venosec offer nothing new or improved over their numerous previous releases. The chorus in "One-Winged Angel" pales in comparison to the Reunion Tracks version, the orchestral performances for "Don't Be Afraid" and "Man with the Machine Gun" have more kick in Fithos Lusec Wecos Venosec, and the recordings in general sound better on the two studio Distant Worlds albums (especially "Aerith's Theme").
An additional eight arrangements originate from previous Final Fantasy orchestral concert albums and compilations, and again, all eight can be found on the previous two Distant Worlds albums. While FFX "Zanarkand" is gorgeous and FFVI "Terra's Theme" is nice as well, the studio recordings on Distant Worlds 2 are even better. On the other hand FFV "Dear Friends", FFVII "JENOVA" and FFXI "Ronfaure" compare very favorably to their Distant Worlds 2 versions. The recordings aren't as clear but some small differences in these Returning Home performances make me happy to listen to these versions as well. And in FFIX "Vamo' Alla Flamenco" and especially FFVII "Opening ~ Bombing Mission", the Returning Home live recordings actually trump previous releases.
Now for the new stuff. Three classic pieces from early in the series debut new orchestral versions in Returning Home. "Chocobo Medley 2010" begins with a new arrangement of upbeat percussion, energetic brass and soaring strings that sound almost like a theme from an '80s TV drama like Dallas. That may sound like an awkward comparison, but it actually makes for a delightful new take on the venerable theme. FFV "Battle on the Big Bridge" is mostly identical to the arrangement in the Final Fantasy suite on Symphonic Fantasies, but it's nice to have as a standalone performance here. And then there's the mammoth FFVI final battle piece "Dancing Mad". This arrangement actually appeared on Distant Worlds 2, but whereas the finale of that version shifted to an underpowered and out-of-place synth-rock performance by the Black Mages, this one stays orchestral the whole way through. The difference is immense, with the finale having much more of the chaotic energy the piece demands. Conversely the pipe organ and chorus in the first half of the piece have less impact than in the Distant Worlds 2 recording, but still if I had to choose only one version, the Returning Home one would be the keeper.
Shortly into disc 2, the program shifts into a selection of pieces from FFXIII and FFXIV. Three of the five FFXIII arrangements are essentially identical to the original OST versions, while "March of the Dreadnoughts" is a piano solo lifted directly from FFXIII Piano Collections. (Final Fantasy VII fans clamoring for an orchestral version of "Those Who Fight" should note that that piece also is piano-only). The one FFXIII arrangement to offer something new is "Fabula Nova Crystallis", which gives the OST's "The Sunleth Waterscape" more elegant instrumentation and a far more elegant vocal performance by Frances Maya. That short piece aside, the FFXIII arrangements offer nothing new or improved over previous versions.
The four FFXIV arrangements are thankfully - and completely unexpectedly - an entirely different story. Hugely improved over the OST versions, not only are they the most significant new arrangements of the album, two are among the best soundtrack works of the year. "Navigator's Glory ~The Theme of Limsa Lominsa~" boasts a theme bursting with adventure, and through a patient, perfectly executed arrangement gains an immensely satisfying sense of grandeur. I can't think of a better piece to serve as an orchestral fanfare to the series. Yet even it pales in comparison to "Answers", which is the most progressive and dramatic piece of music to originate from Nobuo Uematsu since his early Playstation days. For the first time in years we have something that doesn't sound like an imitation of what the composer has done before, with a unique merging of orchestra and chorus with spoken-word and sung vocals creating a seven-minute progressive-rock-inspired dramatic spectacle. For those who weren't a fan of vocalist Susan Calloway's pieces in Distant Worlds 2 (I wasn't), note that the supplied lyrics are far more dignified this time around, and the performance impeccable. And for those who weren't overwhelmed by the original game version of "Answers" (again, I wasn't), rest assured that this new orchestral arrangement is an entirely different beast. Until a better recording becomes available (the later one in Distant Worlds: The Celebration is great but not quite better), it is the must-hear reason to get the album.
This being a live production, the producers have opted to include the audience applause at the end of every track. The almost cautious applause by the Japanese audience adds very little to the experience, but in all but one case it can be edited out easily enough. (The unfortunate exception is "Answers", where the audience jumps the gun before the finale.) And it would be remiss not to mention that the album does include a video DVD of the concert. As this is something I have little interest in I've only watched the DVD once, but the production values seem decent enough. The head-on composer close-ups are a bit frequent and the long shots underwhelming, but the camerawork and editing is tasteful and avoids any over-eager rock-concert aesthetic.
Even without considering the DVD, the two CDs of music in Distant Worlds: Returning Home offer a great value and are arguably the most complete single collection of Final Fantasy orchestral music there is (this including the recent Blu-ray releases Final Fantasy Orchestral Album and Distant Worlds: The Celebration). Though many of the staple series arrangements have better recordings available, you'd have to go through a good handful of albums to get them, so for newcomers who aren't especially picky about recording quality it makes a great place to begin. As for long-time collectors, though the rehashing of existing arrangements detracts from the overall appeal, the exclusives make the album very hard to pass up. A studio-recorded Distant Worlds 3 would be ideal, but in the meantime Distant Worlds: Returning Home does nicely.