I, like many others, didn't think much of this album when the track listing was announced. Many of these same pieces and arrangements are repeated here that have been performed countless times before, and fans of Final Fantasy would already have one or more of the many recordings of each of these pieces. With only one new piece featured, this album does not boast a particularly strong lineup for longtime fans of the series.
However, once one gets past the specs and actually listens to the product, the intent of the producers becomes instantly clear. Most of the recordings that have been available thus far have been live concert recordings, and as such have suffered from several technical flaws, ranging from muddy sound and musical errors, to crowd noise covering up whole sections of music. In addition, every Final Fantasy album ever released has been Japan-only, leaving us American fans having to import them at often very high costs. Availability has also been problematic, given Japan's limited release schedules.
This is the first Final Fantasy album intended for and released to the American Final Fantasy fans, and this alone gives the CD a great deal of credit. But this album goes far beyond that; it is the first time since the Japanese album "Fifthos Lusec Vicos Vinosec" that an orchestra has been assembled in a controlled studio environment to record Final Fantasy tunes without a crowd in attendance, simply for the purpose to record note-perfect renditions of these fine pieces. A truly world-class orchestra, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic has been employed to infuse these works with a raw orchestral power unmatched in previous recordings, all captured with state-of-the-art recording equipment.
The final product? Nothing less than the final, definitive performances of the pieces represented on this album. No glaring mistakes, no crowd noise, no hiccups. Indeed, the recording quality rivals that of high-budget movie soundtracks, and succeeds in making some of the more overplayed pieces on this album sound fresh and new.
Some of the highlights:
Aerith's Theme: Even as tired as I am now of hearing this piece played on every Final Fantasy album that has come out to date, this is by the best recording, offering a level of warmth and emotion that blows away every other performance to date.
Fisherman's Horizon: Not recorded since "Fifthos Lusec Vicos Vinosec", this version takes the piece up a notch, adding more choral parts and offering a new take on the dynamics. The climax is truly something to behold.
Memoro De La Stono-Distant Worlds: I have only two words to describe the first three minutes of this piece: "Absolutely Breathtaking". Flowing strings and perfectly executed Gregorian Chant-style chorus, this track lifts one into another place and time. It almost makes me regret having never played Final Fantasy XI. The arrangement flows nicely into the following section, "Distant Worlds", one of Uematsu's better vocal pieces, and is performed well here.
Vamo'alla Flamenco: Aahh,, now here's a piece that really deserved a new recording. Released on 20020220 in 2002, this marks the first time it has been given a proper treatment, and the performance and sound quality here easily bests the original concert recording. Kudos to the producers for including it!
Opera "Mario and Draco": Yes, many fans are tired of hearing this one, being performed at every concert and included on every orchestral concert recording of Final Fantasy music. But Like Aerith's Theme and One-Winged Angel, it has been given the Hollywood sound treatment, and the pure sound quality and level of performance alone make up for the mere fact of its presence here. Taking it a step higher, the lyrics are performed in English for the first time since the release of "More Friends", and the orchestral performance is by far the best, sounding truly epic throughout.
One-Winged Angel: The original orchestral arrangement has been all but forgotten in the wake of Advent Children, which added a hard rock band element to the music, and it has been primarily in this form that it has appeared in the FF concert series. This recording brings back the original arrangement, featuring the original lyrics, and for my money that is the way it should be. No guitars, no altered lyrics, just epic orchestral power and choir. Easily the best recording yet of this piece.
In summary, this album easily transcends its ho-hum track lineup, offering fresh new recordings in the highest quality to date of any Final Fantasy album. In addition, it is easily available to American Final Fantasy fans, and one that has been LONG overdue. Having now sung its praises, I wish to add one final thought: Given the sheer quality of both performance and sound, I feel this to be the definitive recording for these tracks, and as such should be the last. If this album does well enough to warrant further releases of its kind, I encourage the producers to let this album be the final curtain call for these tracks, and look into creating fresh, new arrangements. Given the wealth of FF tracks in the series' long history, there should be no shortage of pieces to choose from, many just begging for this kind of orchestral treatment. Perhaps a medley of battle tunes?