Sound: So you're probably expecting this review to come from some die-hard Final Fantasy fan who's played every game 50-odd times, worshipped the very ground Nobuo Uematsu, organist and composer extraordinaire, walks upon, and probably draws really, REALLY bad fanart of Cloud and Tifa getting it on. But the fact of the matter is, I've never played a Final Fantasy game in my life, and my appreciation of gaming mostly extends to a smattering of Super Mario Bros. games and Rock Band.
So what, you may ask, possessed me to check out The Black Mages? Well, I'd heard my fair share of Nobuo's dramatic arrangements due to a friend who was your typical Cloud-drawing, Japan nerd Final Fantasy fan, and often remarked at how awesome some of these songs would sound in a metal format. Little did I know that Nobuo was, in fact, making good on my wish!
And the tracks on this, their third (and final) album, are pretty amazing, even if you take this out of the context of it basically being a "metal Final Fantasy soundtrack". Musically, the band is tight and intense, playing something that could be considered, if it were not for the hordes of people wishing to associate this with video gaming at ALL costs, progressive instrumental metal. Synths and heavy guitar riffs abound, and there's plenty of Steve Vai-esque guitar wankage, most of which makes plenty of melodic sense and would probably not sound out of place on a G3 stage. There's actually surprisingly little shredding on this record, with most of the guitar leads being solely for melodic purposes. Make no mistake, this music is as tightly composed as it gets, there's little room for improvisation here. Tracks like "The Extreme" and "Opening - Bombing Mission" exemplify this outlook the most, while "Assault Of The Silver Dragons" definitely takes on a bit more of a prog-like tone with some time signature changes and much more synth playing. The best moments on the record, in my opinion, come from Nobuo, whenever he engages in one of his cheesy organ solos. God, they are cheesy, but that's what makes them so much fun to listen to. You can honestly picture the old Japanese man's face light up every time you hear one of his explosive Hammond organ solos coming (for a perfect visual representation of this, there are videos of the band performing "One Winged Angel" floating around on Youtube where you can see Nobuo's obvious ecstasy from the awesomeness of Hammond organ solos).
The unfortunate part of this setup is that most of the songs here sound relatively same-y. If you're looking for stylistic variety, you'd be better off checking out an actual Final Fantasy soundtrack than this. But while this does detract a bit from the listening of the album as a whole, it's not as major of an issue as one would like to believe. "Distant Worlds" breaks the monotony a bit in the middle with a lovely piano/acoustic guitar duet, and is one of the album's two centerpiece tracks. There are honestly some beautiful synth and piano passages to be heard here. When the song finally breaks loose, the acoustic guitar still goes on, sounding a bit like Steve Howe on speed. "Distant Worlds" is most certainly the best-formed instrumental track on here. After that tune, we're treated to two more awesome-but-still-kinda-samey instrumental prog-metal tunes. "Grand Cross", however, does feature some deliciously heavy guitar tones.
The true masterpiece of this album is the title track, a rock-opera take on the operatic cinematic part in Final Fantasy VI, and the only piece on the album featuring lyrics. Here, the "prog" dial is turned up to 11, with Japanese narrating from the band members themselves, detailing a story of "love on the battlefield" between Maria and Draco, broken by a battle with Ralse, who is swiftly defeated by Draco in a duel, reuniting the two lovers. Pretty simple story, but it's told so well. The music here reminds me of Queen in their heyday, with maybe a little Dream Theater thrown in. The song goes through many movements, and though the vocals are a little shaky (hey, having a male sing Maria's part would probably result in some interesting sounds...), it's hard to deny the conviction they're sung with. The track covers quite a bit of ground, from dramatic symphonic metal (the first section), poignant balladry (the second section), full-blown metal badassery (the "duel" section, featuring probably my favourite of Nobuo's organ solos on this record), and some tasty guitar solos. This track is most certainly the one that this entire album is worth listening to for. It's likely one of my favourite pieces of music ever, which is saying something for someone that doesn't even really care for Final Fantasy.
The record closes on a very pretty short piano solo, "Life ~In Memory of Keiten~", which Nobuo composed for a young fan who passed away from leukemia. It's quite pretty, but it's short. Either way, a touching way to end the album.
So to sum up the sound of this disc, it's not winning any awards for originality or variety, as much of the disc's tracks sound pretty much the same as one another. This isn't a bad thing per se, as there are brilliant moments in every song, but it does make the record harder to listen to as a whole. Thankfully, "Distant Worlds" and the absolutely stunning title track save this album from the doldrums. Definitely worthy of a 7/10, but deserving of an 8 or 9 simply from the title track alone. So I'll rate it 8/10. // 8
Lyrics and Singing: The lyrics on this album are confined entirely to one song, the title track. I've already mentioned the basic gist of the story, and unless you're one of those people who have lived under a rock and know nothing of Final Fantasy games (guilty as charged...), you probably know how it goes: Draco and Maria are in love. Ralse battles against Draco's territory, steals Maria to marry her, gets into a battle against Draco directly, who slaughters him and reunites with his love.
But as simple as the story is, the way it's told is brilliant in compliance with the music. The band themselves, for the first time, provide the chorus. All of them are male, yet one of the characters is female. Just as opera used to be! The vocals are definitely quite operatic, almost a little too faithfully operatic for a metal interpretation. Strangely, they still work quite well. There is a lot of spoken word narration throughout the track, which works much better than this prog-rock cliche usually does, as the narration has the same kind of emotional inflections as the sung vocals do, adding yet another vocal emotional dimension. There's a lot of vocal interplay between the characters in the chorus, and some really interesting vocal patterns are done. This was obviously extremely well-composed.
Of course, all of this is in Japanese, so unless you took a course, lived in Japan, or just watched every single Dragon Ball Z episode 500 times, you probably won't understand any of it and will require a translation. Thankfully there are plenty online.
I've got no real standing issue with the lyrics or vocals here, but I wouldn't feel right giving it a 10/10. You see, the vocals and lyrics are GREAT, and for the most part, the compliance with the music is just fine. It's just those few moments that don't really make much sense that kind of ruin that 10/10 for me. A 9/10 seems fine. // 9
Impression: Overall, this album represents the best of the three albums The Black Mages put out in their career. With less filler and more diversity, this album could have been the closest thing to perfection that one could get in this rather narrow genre. It feels strange, but I would pin all of this album's strengths on but two songs, and forgive the rest of the transgressions on this album. This album contains one absolute masterpiece, one really great song, and a lot of pretty good standard tunes, and I don't think I'd really ask for more from an album that's really just pandering to that oh-so-broad demographic of people who specifically want Final Fantasy music made for metalheads. That would be giving those people too much to complain about. But I'll take that masterpiece and that really great song over an album made strictly of boring metal takes on video game tunes any day.
For being full of good ideas, having two absolutely awesome tracks, and having a bit of filler, my overall score of this album is a rather generous 8/10. In reality, I'm saying 7.5/10, but I'm going to round up simply because the masterpieces here are TRUE masterpieces that transcend the extremely limiting "video game metal" trappings, while the the other tracks are definitely warranting of a listen. Hell, they might even make great driving songs.
Would I recommend it to others? Well, I don't even like Final Fantasy, and I found something to enjoy here. I doubt others would have much trouble finding something enjoyable about it. For the Final Fantasy fans who want nothing more than their generic prog-metal versions of classic anthems, there are plenty of those. For those who actually want something daring and challenging, there's some of that too. It's unfortunate that one can't have their cake and eat it too, but overall, it's not an entirely disappointing album. But it's not perfect. // 8