With the recent ups and downs in the series as of late, fans such as myself have been wondering if the Final Fantasy series would be able to get back on the right track. Not just fundamentally, but musically as well. It may be hard to believe but Final Fantasy IX may have just proven to be the true need for the series: to get back to its roots. FFIX is, if nothing else, a simple and fun-to-play game, and the music that accompanies it is not necessarily geared towards enhancing emotions or even trying to overpower the listener, it simply functions as a fun and enjoyable backdrop to the amusing antics and exploits happening on screen. Bottom line: this is just a great bunch of music to listen to. It doesn't demand much intelligence to enjoy, but that's okay because it really doesn't have to.
While most people judge separate Final Fantasy soundtracks by others in the series, I judge them by all musical soundtrack work. I place Final Fantasy VI in my top ten best musical works of the 20th century, while the others probably don't even make the top 100. This doesn't mean that I don't like most FF music, but I simply don't feel that most are too insanely great. I own them all and I still haven seen their excessive charm apart from their nostalgia factor. For those who prefer to stay within the series though, measuring up to other sound compositions in the rest, part 9, while still not nearly approaching the incredible mastery of mature themes we've witnessed in Final Fantasy VI, Mr. Uematsu has created a new thematic score. One that I place it slightly ahead of my previous second favorite Final Fantasy VII, and light years ahead of the previous round in the series, Final Fantasy VIII.
The latest FF offers us a new look at the old light-hearted greats of the series' earlier years on the SNES combined with the new found mature sensibilities of the composer. Though to be honest, this soundtrack has one major compositional pitfall: the main theme is severely overused. I thought that FFVIII's "Ami" theme was overused but sheesh! This problem is even more apparent in the game itself than on the CD, and because of the great length of the score (160 songs in all, 110 are which represented on the soundtrack), many tracks degrade into pointless, meandering background garble, though there are also quite a few standouts. Some of my favorite tracks include "You're not alone" (because it's my favorite scene in the game), "Airship ~ Hilde Guard" (it's the best airship theme in the series, and is sadly only heard for a short while), and of course "Melodies of Life."
The weakest point in the chain of FFIX overall is again, sadly, the poor quality of the sound system. No one doubts that Final Fantasy VIII's sound system was a vast improvement over part VII. Final Fantasy IX, however, is a different story, it may have samples that surpass its predecessors but in most cases it sounds like the same system that we heard in part VIII. Sound programmer Minoru Akao, who has programmed all previous entries, was also involved with the incredible synth of Chrono Cross, so what gives? I wish I had an answer. Fortunately the excellent music masks these flaws very well.
One of the extra added enjoyments is that some tracks from earlier scores have been re-mixed and placed back in the fold, such as the "Gulug Volcano" track from the original Final Fantasy. And, wonder of wonders, the good old FF prelude is back, this time in genuine orchestral glory, which really counts for something this time around. Unfortunately the same thing can't be said for the series main theme, that has been given nearly identical arrangement compared to FFVIII's version with just slightly beefed up orchestration.
Making a return to the series is the use of leitmotif to represent the various characters. None are quite as memorable as those featured in Final Fantasy VI, but most function quite well within the context of the game and are a slight step ahead of most of the character themes that are found in FFVII (Zidane's theme sucks though). The main "Melodies of Life" theme, which doubles as a character theme for Dagger and the love theme, makes a special pop ballad appearance at the end of the score. Two appearances actually. One is good, the other could've been left off and no one would have cared. I prefer the version used in the end credits sung in Japanese. The English version seems to have weak lyrics and suffers from a lackadaisical arrangement. Though the end credits song doesn't function as well in the game as FFVIII's "Eyes on Me," it has a substantially more powerful performance, courtesy of Emiko Shiatori (who sounds a bit like Diana Ross). Her voice is more inspiring than that of Chinese pop sensation Faye Wong, who sang the corresponding vocal piece for the previous installment in the series.
I'm glad to see the use of genuine orchestral music. I read in an interview with Mr. Uematsu that he feels that he is more of a pop songwriter than an orchestral composer, but I beg to differ, the use of orchestra is wonderful, though it does have its problems. With his use of orchestra for a more fantastic setting, Nobuo seems to have trouble regulating his use of strings and brass. There seem to be violent shifts between the two. In Final Fantasy VIII this was not a problem since it was more of a sci-fi than a fantasy, but here a little more reliance on either one of the two would have sounded a little better. I personally prefer strings.
As I've stated, this is now my second-favorite Final Fantasy score. I doubt that any fans of the series will find anything too horribly wrong with it, and newcomers to the series will find plenty to like as well. There are many orchestral pieces in the score, and unfortunately only a couple are featured on this album. To complete the full set of music you must purchase FFIX OST Plus separately, which I don't own yet, but plan to purchase in the near future. The long-running series has almost always been blessed with outstanding music and I'm glad to see that it's not coming to an end just yet.