Otaku USA Magazine
The Black Mages III: Darkness and Starlight

Label: Universal Japan
Available: Now (import)

If you ask me, one of the very best things in this wild world is video game music, from the beeps and boops of the NES days to the complex orchestration of a modern title like Heavenly Sword. Not everyone can sit around and listen to chiptunes without their ears bleeding, though, which is probably one of the chief reasons behind everyone’s love for legendary Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. Even when his compositions were restrained by technology, they rose high above what players were used to at the time.

Technology didn’t restrain him for long. The MIDI score of Final Fantasy VII still plays in many a fan’s mind on a daily basis, and as each subsequent title was released (prior to Uematsu joining FF creator Hironobu Sakaguchi in his new studio, Mistwalker), the soundtracks continued to boom in quality and became more and more layered. In 2003, Uematsu did what many game music enthusiasts long to do themselves: he started a rock band to play arranged versions of his very own music.

Maybe this shows how dedicated the man is to his craft, or maybe it just shows how awesome his songs are. Either way, it’s been five years, and now we’re getting hit with the band’s third studio album, Darkness and Starlight. Right off the bat, this album is noticeably different from the two preceding it. The first, a self-titled release, was almost like a pure sonic experiment, and it saw the group’s members-most of which have been working as composers and arrangers at Square Enix themselves-exclusively playing battle music from various entries in the series.

The follow-up, The Skies Above, began to sway more toward where we are now. The Mission Statement of the whole thing still rang true-prog-metal takes on some of the more prominent Final Fantasy tracks-but the group branched out beyond battle music, got rid of the programmed drum loops, and even incorporated vocals in a few tracks. As epic as all of this was, Darkness and Starlight trumps both of their previous efforts.

The CD opens with the first song you hear in 1997’s Final Fantasy VII, setting the stage for nine more tracks that are almost all equally as explosive. One of the first standouts past the intro is “Assault of the Silver Dragon” from Final Fantasy IX. The wailing guitars meld perfectly with some seriously sinister keyboard work to bring what was already a great song to a whole new level.

The tone of the rest of the album stays along these lines, fierce and exciting, all building up to a fifteen-minute rendition of Final Fantasy VI‘s legendary opera scene with “Darkness and Starlight (The Dream Oath: Maria and Draco).” This may not be a track that I could listen to over and over, both due to its length and its inherent eccentricity, but it’s a pretty amazing composition in its own right, and it’s fun to hear real voices belting out the opera scenes that no longer sound like garbled tin-can caterwauling.

Hardcore FF fans are already all over this, I’m sure. It’s hard to say whether or not it will hold the interest of those unfamiliar with the original music, though. On one hand, it’s very dependent on one’s love for the series and, most importantly, Uematsu’s work. However, all of the songs sound fantastic and will likely satisfy anyone else interested in the genre, as well. If you’re into Final Fantasy and you’re still not convinced, check out the track listing below:

1. Opening – Bombing Mission (from FINAL FANTASY VII)
2. Neo EXDEATH (from FINAL FANTASY V The Final Battle)
3. The Extreme (from FINAL FANTASY VIII)
4. Assault of the Silver Dragon (from FINAL FANTASY IX)
5. KURAYAMINOKUMO (from FINAL FANTASY III This is the Last Battle)
6. Distant Worlds (from FINAL FANTASY XI)
7. Premonition (from FINAL FANTASY VIII)
8. Grand Cross (from FINAL FANTASY IX Final Battle)
9. Darkness and Starlight (from FINAL FANTASY VI Opera-Maria and Draco)
10. LIFE ~ in memory of KEITEN ~ (original compostition)