Saturday Night: Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds At Jones Hall

The Houston Symphony feat. Susan Calloway Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy Jones Hall July 16, 2011

Rocks Off scrambled like a mad bastard last year in order to catch Final Fantasy Distant Worlds at the Houston Symphony. This year, we were only marginally better prepared, but no less excited.

To be sure, much of the music promised to be the same, but there were enough significant differences planned that demanded our return to view them. In the negative category, unlike the first tour, legendary video-game composer and the mind responsible for most of Final Fantasy's stellar soundtrack, Nobuo Uematsu, was to be absent due to complications from the earthquakes. In his place, Final Fantasy XIII composer Masashi Hamauzu joined conductor Arnie Roth.

On the very positive side was the presence of soprano Susan Calloway, who has become a recurring musical voice in the game series through performances on the Distant Worlds albums. From her work on the tours and with Roth and Uematsu, she has graduated to an appearance in the main series. Calloway is scheduled to appear singing the song "Answer Me" in the upcoming Final Fantasy XIV, a game that is currently in the process of a massive overall for its PS3 release.

As the lights dropped and the music began, Aftermath thought that Roth made a mistake in his choice of opening number. Rather than utilizing what may the most famous musical overture in video-game history, the traditional harp-based main theme, Roth jumped right in to more action-filled numbers from Final Fantasy VIII.

Look, VIII had some of the best music in the series, we're not questioning that, but the game itself remains a black sheep in Final Fantasy fandom because of its chunky interface and feeling more like an interactive movie than a video game. What the music has in beauty, we think it lacks in emotional investment because more than a few gamers, us included, put down the controller long before the end.

It wasn't long into the first set though that we got what we had most been looking for, an orchestral rendition of "Melodies of Life" complete with chorus and vocal solo by Calloway. For our money, Final Fantasy IX is the most underappreciated of the games, released in an awkward time when people were preparing for the sixth-generation systems and disappointing fans who hungered for a PS2 release rather than a PS1.

The storyline of IX was Final Fantasy's last great epic tale, in our opinion, and no modern release has yet changed our mind on that subject. All of the action in the game culminated with the post-credits song "Melodies of Life" and to this day, we cannot watch the ending without tearing up a little.

Calloway delivered the song with power and grace, though we were a little thrown at first by the more classical arrangement of the tune having been so used to the cheesy J-pop and guitars of the original. Still, her voice brought to full life a moment we had until then held only alone in our hearts, and shared it with a packed house that soaked up her vocals like a desert soaks up rain.

We thought it would be impossible to top. We were wrong.

Though we tinkled just a bit whenever Calloway was announced to the stage, it was the performance of Final Fantasy VI's "Dancing Mad" that was the bar-none apex of the evening.

The battle theme of Kefka, the mad, nihilistic god who almost destroys the world, is as varied and fractured as the character himself. Look, Sephiroth gets all the fine bitches when it comes to bad-ass FF villains, and deservedly so because he is one of the brightest and the best. Our allegiance, though, is reserved for the cackling madman of VI.

It wasn't really until we heard this performance that we fully appreciated just how amazing a piece of music "Dancing Mad" is. For those who may not have played the game in a while, the party climbs a Hieronymus Bosch-esque pillar of demonic enemies before taking on Kefka's fallen angel form at the very top. As such, it may be the longest continuous boss battle in the game series. The song matches that, being a 12-minute epic of organ solos, weird progressions and key changes, and in the end sounds like a collaboration between Geddy Lee and Anton LaVey.

The saddest part about the piece, and about Distant Worlds as a whole, is that there is little to no epic CGI footage from the earlier games. As such, we are continuously robbed of the wonderful character themes of VI, or any of the orchestral majesty of IV. All we get is the "Clash on the Big Bridge" from V, and that's really just an excuse to showcase Gilgamesh. The retro just doesn't play as well on the big screen behind the symphony.

The second half of the concert was mostly a huge chunk of Final Fantasy XIII, a game we have not yet played as writers don't make PS3 kind of bucks. Our impression from just the concert is that composer Masashi Hamauzu has studied his predecessor's work, but has not necessarily yet had the flash of individual artistic brilliance to strike out on his own yet. The music is rife with motifs borrowed from Uematsu, but realistically, what else was he supposed to do?

It was quite enjoyable, though like the music from VIII we as yet have no real emotional investment in it. Maybe a playthrough once we finally beat XII will net us a better appreciation of Hamauzu's work. For now, we'll leave our opinion at this. Eventually Hamauzu will replace Uematsu as the top FF composer, but he is not a Jedi yet.

The evening ended with Calloway singing "Answer Me" from Final Fantasy XIV, a game that we are not particularly likely to play even when we retrieve the PS3 from hock. MMORPGs are the antithesis of the finite, self-contained worlds of the main series, a difference as profound as that between Star Wars people and Star Trek people. Still, as a song it may be one of the most experimental ones we've herd from the game's studios.

It almost reminds us of the most operatic moments of Jim Steinman in its rock-epic approach, an approach helped by the elephant gun of Calloway's voice. Of all the pieces we heard Saturday that were new to us, we'll give "Answer Me" the prize of being our favorite.

Oh, and yes, they played "One-Winged Angel" as an encore, but honestly, we're kind of over it. "Dancing Mad" whips its as any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Personal Bias: Heavily in favor. We threw a tantrum in Toys "R" Us for the very first game.

The Crowd: Mix of cosplayers, fans, children, and at least three clueless hipster douchebags who sat right behind us.

Overheard in the Crowd: We don't know what they shouted out, but it's the freakin' symphony, not a Whitesnake concert, Mr. I Can't Contain Myself and Must Shout Out Random Comments. Sit down, shut up, and have some dignity.

Random Notebook Dump: Why don't phoenix downs work in cut scenes?

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