January 19, 2012

The SQ Album Series Multi-Review, Part 1

While the community of fan-remixed video game music has been going strong for some time now, it seems that game developers themselves very rarely commit to producing new takes on their own soundtracks. Being some of the most varied, memorable, and beloved music there is, game soundtracks represent a wealth of opportunities to bend style and genre, develop complex variations on familiar themes, and play with experimental composition and medley.

Historically, both sides of the recently-conglomerated Square-Enix have been exceptional as official patrons of the remix and arrangement scene. Every installment of Enix's Dragon Quest series has seen at least one additional album exploring piano, brass, or full symphonic arrangements. Squaresoft has been even more prominent, not only issuing nearly every mainstream Final Fantasy title the traditional Piano Collections album, but also releasing uniquely-themed discs like Final Fantasy Vocal Collections and Final Fantasy IV: Celtic Moon.

In an industry where the big names are becoming increasingly dependent on cutting corners and putting out the bare minimum of content, it's encouraging to see classic, well-written music still receiving the attention it deserves. Square-Enix has recently produced a series of impressively refreshing remix albums highlighting pieces from Squaresoft's side of things, under the common moniker of SQ. While their flagship Final Fantasy series is unsurprisingly the most dominant, the SQ arrangements also draw from other games like Xenogears, Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross, the SaGa series, Einhander, and even the obscure Live A Live. All the bases are covered, from the Gameboy to the Playstation 3.

Today, we'll be taking a glance at a couple of those albums: SQ Chips and Chill SQ.

SQ Chips
As the name suggests, SQ Chips reexamines its source material under a lens of electronica and NES-inspired chiptunes. If you're not willing to subject your delicate eardrums to the droning bleeps and bloops of a purely NES-styled disc, fear not -- the electronic instrumentation isn't taken so literally or so strictly as one might think. Modern synthesizer techniques are applied liberally, imbuing the collection with a healthy range and lively pacing. In most cases, the original tracks are energized with pulse-pounding beats and electronic harmonies. A charming, chiptune aesthetic is woven into each piece, coloring it with the retro theme of the album without clubbing us over the head with overstated fakery. It's not gimmicky -- and while very electronic-sounding, neither is it a slapdash techno affair that you'd be embarrassed to be caught with.

An early highlight of the album is the most NES-ified remix -- Blinded by the Light, the battle music from Final Fantasy XIII. It's one of my all-time favorite battle themes, despite Final Fantasy XIII being the most recent of the series and (in my opinion) a rather sub-par game. Masashi Hamauzu's original tastefully capitalizes on everything from classical strings and brass to rollicking drums and electric guitar, unified into a soaring and euphoric production. The SQ Chips rendition takes this composition and amusingly simplifies it into something resembling a skirmish in the first Final Fantasy on the good ol' Nintendo, complete with a segment featuring primitive sword-slash sound effects and the telltale tweets of menu selection.

Taking a different approach, Aerith's Theme from Final Fantasy VII turns a work of longing sentimentality and melancholy on its head, resulting in an upbeat, danceable tune that will have fans humming along cheerfully. A similar effect is applied to Xenogears' ethereal The Wind Calls to Shevat in the Blue SkyFinal Fantasy VI's somber Terra's Theme, and Final Fantasy VIII's romantic pop ballad Eyes on Me -- they stay true to the melody and charm of their history, but are electrified by brisk pacing and a new point of view. They're pleasantly invigorating, but not hyperactive.

While wholly electronic in nature, SQ Chips' whopping 18-track marathon still feels varied and balanced. As the tracks have been arranged by a collaboration of numerous artists, there's a wide spectrum of tones and tempos expressed here. If you're one of those weirdos like me who actually enjoys a bit of chiptune music once in a while, and are looking for a spunky reinterpretation of Square's classics, keep an eye out for this album.

Chill SQ
This is essentially the antithesis of the aforementioned Chips, trading out the youthful, electronic, experimental sound for a traditional, downtempo, chill-out vibe. There wouldn't be anything wrong with that per se, but Chill SQ tends to be overly cheesy -- not unlike switching your radio between the dance mix, easy-listening and adult-contemporary stations. At best, it's relaxing and pleasant -- but at worst, awkward and boring. It's also a mere 7 tracks, clocking at just under 35 minutes.

The album opens with a medley from Seiken Densetsu (Final Fantasy Adventure on Gameboy), built on piano, acoustic guitar, and mid-tempo electronic drums. The final track, Final Fantasy V's Dear Friends, is similar and a little slower. They bookend the album with safe, straightforward arrangements that stick closely to the source material. Both are nice to have on in the background, but rather dull to listen to actively.

I suppose Theme of Love from Final Fantasy IV has always been a schmaltzy ballad, but this arrangement takes it to a whole new level where it becomes embarrassing. Not that the arrangement is bad -- it's not -- the bass line rounds out the piece well, but the predictable drum beat seems hesitant to let the music stand on its own merits. Also, expect to hear the beat accompanied by background finger-snapping -- no, I'm not kidding.

A mellow take on trance or lounge is applied to the main theme from the first SaGa game (a.k.a. Final Fantasy Legend). Similar things can be said for the Live A Live and Front Mission tracks, though they're taken in funkier directions. Together they represent the electronic segment at the middle of the album, and are probably some of the more interesting pieces.

The low point is a grating, English-language dance remix of the Aria from Final Fantasy VI's opera scene. The vocals are sub-par, and the music itself is tired and naive in a "Britney Spears" '90s pop kind of way. Basically, if you've heard any other version of this piece, it was better than this.

Sadly, there's not a lot of praise I can give this album, especially by comparison to its largely-excellent company in the rest of the SQ series. It has its good moments, but never does it excel at anything in particular. Only seek this one out if you're really curious, or a completionist.

Don't let Chill SQ dissuade you from looking forward to the arrangements to come, though -- there are three more albums in the series, each much more fascinating than this. I'll be covering Love SQ, More SQ, and Cafe SQ very soon.

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