I was ecstatic when I heard there was going to be a Distant Worlds II. Whenever classic video game music is arranged for and played by a full orchestra, I'm there, especially in the case of Final Fantasy. I own all of the other Final Fantasy orchestral concert CDs and had high hopes for this one. I'm happy to say this album delivered and then some.
1. Prelude (FF Series): The perfect way to begin the show. Right when the first few notes started playing, I was instantly swept into a wave of nostalgia, remembering the first time I played each Final Fantasy game. The choir is introduced in this track, and I fell in love with them. I can't really explain why, I just really enjoyed their sound.
2. The Man with the Machine Gun (FF VIII): I always enjoy the orchestral arrangement of this piece. Not as much as I enjoy "Don't Be Afraid" from the original Distant Worlds, but it still puts a smile on my face. It's always a great achievement when an orchestra can pull off an upbeat piece like this one so well.
3. Ronafure (FFXI): I've never played FFXI, and I likely never will unless SE realizes what a terrible idea monthly fees are. That being said, this piece is generally unremarkable for me, but that's likely only because I've never played the game and haven't really connected with the song as so many others have. It's a pleasant enough piece though. It didn't stand out, but I certainly enjoy listening to it nonetheless.
4. A Place to Call Home - Melodies of Life (FFIX): I absolutely loved this. I'd heard this one a few times before, though those times the lyrics were in Japanese. It was very well translated (I think. If it wasn't well translated, it still at least has good English lyrics). I don't mind songs in Japanese, but I just never liked the woman who sang this before, so this was a welcome change for me. I think Susan Calloway's voice fits very well with both this and Suteki da ne. I'd love to hear more from her if there's a Distant Worlds III (which Uematsu-san has admitted he'd like to do).
5. Zanarkand (FFX): Such a beautiful piece. I'm nearly driven to tears just listening to the original piano version of this, but with a full orchestra the song gains such beauty and depth that it's almost overwhelming. It holds special significance for me also because FFX was my first Final Fantasy. This version was also on "More Friends" I believe, which was, in my opinion, the weakest of all the FF concert albums, though it was still enjoyable. But the performance on this CD is much better in my opinion, possibly because of the studio recording instead of the live concert hall recording.
6. Dancing Mad - Featuring Nobuo Uematsu's band Earthbound Papas(FFVI): If nothing else, this track is the reason you should get this CD. Until now, the only other arrangement of this I knew besides the original was The Black Mages' version (Nobuo Uematsu's other band, not sure if he's still doing that though). This completely trumps both that and the original in nearly every way. The choir comes back for this piece and they're at the top of their game the whole way through, perfectly meshing with the orchestra and band. My personal favorite part is the last section where the choir, band, and orchestra all come in full swing for the big finale. In my opinion, One-Winged Angel made this combination (choir/orchestra/rock band) amazing, but this performance absolutely perfected it. The only thing I wasn't so sure about was when the band came in on their own. It was a great part, don't get me wrong, but I think parts of that were better when the Black Mages did it. It just sounded kind of empty at first, but once the band went into a double time feel I was back in there with them. All in all, this is the best track, hands down.
7. Victory Theme (FF Series): Only a few seconds long. It's good for novelty I guess, but not much else. That being said, now we have an orchestral version of the victory theme, which could be useful.
8. Suteki da ne (FFX): As I said before, I much prefer these English versions as well as the singer to the other performances I've heard of this and Melodies of Life. Again, I just never liked the original singer for this. That weird scooping thing she does on almost every other note gives the illusion that she's almost tone deaf at times (especially evident in the original version on the "da" syllable in the refrain). Susan Calloway was a breath of fresh air for me. She pulled this off beautifully and made it her own. That being said, the lyrics of this one seem very "Engrish-y" to me. It was translated by someone different than Melodies of Life, and that's very (sometimes painfully) evident. Still, I personally highly recommend this version over the original or any other arrangement.
9. Terra's Theme (FFVI): I've heard this many times before, and it's just as beautiful and flowing, while at the same time stately and strong as it always was. Nothing much to say about this one. It's a wonderful piece. If this is your first time hearing it, you'll love it, unless you have no soul.
10. Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII (FFVII): Beautiful, yet haunting. I think this piece, in a way, represents the entirety of Final Fantasy VII very well. Just listen. It starts off slow, the intro swaying between flowing/calm and haunting. Then the main theme kicks in and it's so serene that it could lull you to sleep (in a good way). Then almost without you realizing it, it goes into minor and the haunting melodies come back. I really can't explain it any further, you'll just have to listen for yourself. Trust me, it's well worth it.
11. Prima Vista Orchestra (FFIX): This was a surprise to me. In the game, you barely noticed this track in the game. It was when Zidane (NOT Zi-dahn. If it was meant to be pronounced that way, it would have been spelled accordingly, but I digress) was chasing Garnet through the Prima Vista near the beginning of the game. The song was seamlessly placed in the scene, played off as if the orchestra in the game was playing it, which led to an amusing part where Garnet ran past the orchestra, bumping into each of them and as a result the music changed tone and key. Anyway, it was nice to see an underdog like this one take the stage at last. It's certainly a very enjoyable piece. It's carefree and has a laid back feel to it, which is nice.
12. Dear Friends (FFV): I always enjoy when a guitar and orchestra come together like this. Whether it's upbeat like Classical Gas or tranquil like this, you can almost never go wrong with this combination. This was also on "More Friends" and as before, I like this version better.
13. JENOVA (FFVII): This caught me by surprise. I wasn't expecting it and I didn't expect it to be so good. When I heard it for the first time, I didn't think much of it. Sure, it was fun and a cool orchestral arrangement of the Black Mages version of the song, but it didn't really jump out. However, after a few more listens, I found the song to be very, for lack of a better term, catchy. It just works so well, I can't explain it. The drum beat is in my head constantly, and, even though it's kind of a generic beat, I don't mind because it works perfectly with the song. This quickly became my second favorite on the CD, right after Dancing Mad. If you get this, take more than one listen to this one so you can really (not sure how else to say this) "get it."
Well, that's my review. If you're thinking of getting this, then do it. Odds are, if you were thinking of getting it in the first place, you'll enjoy it. This isn't just for Final Fantasy fans. The music speaks for itself.