Sunday, June 3, 2012

JAM DESHO: Top 10 Final Fantasy VIII Tracks

By Steve Jones.

I wasn't quite sure where to put this article at first, but Nobuo Uematsu is one of my favorite Japanese artists, so I think this feature is appropriate.

Amongst Final Fantasy fans, VIII consistently has been relegated as that really bad one with the weird leveling system, awkward magic mechanics, and ludicrous plot with a vapid love story. Fanboys and fangirls can continue to argue about that until the Chocobos come home, but one thing which is indisputable is that Final Fantasy VIII had fantastic music. If you don't believe so, let me prove you wrong.

My go-to Final Fantasy soundtrack is actually probably VII's, but I think Uematsu hit his stride with both VII and VIII and produced the two most diverse, evocative, and memorable soundtracks of his career. To this day, the strong melodies and MIDI arrangements are a feast for my ears, so I'd like to list for you my personal favorite pieces to come from the Final Fantasy VIII original soundtrack.


I'm choosing to include this over "Liberi Fatali," which might seem like a ridiculous decision, but I think this track is the perfect personification of Edea and the witches as whole. It just exudes that sense of Otherness, and more specifically that perception of the Other as something to be feared. This is a scary-sounding piece, and it works wonderfully in the context of Edea's parade through Galbadia as she asserts her dominance over the people.

9. "Premonition"

I love that the introduction of this piece in no way conveys that it's supposed to be a boss theme. All we're given are these stringent strings and an impending sense of doom (attentive ears will also hear a slightly capitulation of Final Fantasy VII's main theme). Once the battle music proper kicks in with an appropriation of the "Succession of Witches" theme, it still functions as a depressing and not very motivating soundtrack for a boss battle. But this betrayal of expectations is what makes it stick out to me, and it fits with the tone of the Edea battles quite well.

8. "Fisherman's Horizon"

It still strikes me how Uematsu penned one of his strongest melodies for a place called something as mundane as "Fisherman's Horizon." What pulls this piece together is the constant presence of the counterpoint Rhodes. Even as the melody changes instruments and moods, the Rhodes sound is always there to keep the song's narrative flowing. Such a wonderfully calming and slightly sad piece.

7. "Force Your Way"

Uematsu usually lets his love of prog rock guide his battle themes, but this piece of boss music is so quintessentially prog rock I have to admire it. The synth especially shines, and I like the sound in the middle of the track that sounds like an alarm.

6. "The Oath"

The piece that plays during Squall's big speech, "The Oath" is a regal track with that underlying feeling of desperation that inevitably pierces the hearts of every RPG protagonist. This piece I think ultimately works better in its full orchestral arrangement on the Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec album, but its power here also demonstrates how much feeling you can get out of computer-constructed sounds. There's strength in the melody and harmony, sure, but the synthetic strings still reach those emotional highs in their own way.

5. "The Man with the Machine Gun"

Who would have expected that a battle theme could work both as a soundtrack for killing soldiers and as a song for the dance floor? In context, it fits with the lighthearted fare of the Laguna side of the story, but it's also damn infectious and completely out of left-field from Uematsu. It highlights how diverse in sound and style this and other video game soundtracks could be back in the day. There seems to have been a movement towards homogeneity in modern blockbusters, which has its own advantages, but I tend to prefer variety over the lack thereof.

4. "The Castle"

Speaking of variety, here we have a Bach emulation--there's no way the beginning of this piece wasn't influenced by Bach's inventions. But I also like the variety found within the track itself. You have the invention, the evil organ part, the proggy breakdown, the whimsical harpsichord, and the recapitulation of the evil organ. It's all very indebted to the Baroque period, but the potentially disparate pieces come together to evoke the image that is Ultimecia's demented castle.

3. "The Extreme"

Yes, I'll be the first to admit that ranking the final boss theme so high is pretty unimaginative of me, but Uematsu knows how to compose them. And "The Extreme" excels in particular because, similar to the aforementioned "Premonition," it betrays what you've come to expect. It doesn't even start with music; you're first treated to some swirling ambient noise and the distorted chanting of the omnipresent "Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec," which is fucking creepy. Then, rather than kick things into high gear, Uematsu includes a soft and melancholic guitar-driven part that builds slowly. It isn't until about 100 seconds in that we get anything resembling the kind of blood-pumping battle them you've been expecting. And its introduction is so brilliant, because it uses the classic Final Fantasy battle bass riff that had not been heard in a game since VI. After that, it's exactly the kind of high-octane "this is it" theme the player has been waiting for. This clever combination of subverted expectations and nods to the series' history is what elevates "The Extreme" to one of the best Final Fantasy final boss themes.

2. "Silence and Motion"

This theme is the weirdest piece of background music in the game, but it is the perfect match for the strangeness of Esthar. I imagine the decidedly non-sonorous whoops and bloops get on the nerves of most listeners, but I like them and the way they're used to further emphasize Esthar as a place that has been thoroughly removed from anything the player had experienced until that point. It's the music, though, that makes this track unforgettable. The first set of chords have an indescribable beauty to me, and the main melody sounds wide-open and alien in an intoxicating fashion.

1. "Compression of Time"

What exactly is time kompression? I don't know, but if its soundtrack is any indication, it is simultaneously the most otherworldly and most soul-crushing thing. The horn sound pierces my heart, and the way its source dances around the sound stage is absolutely haunting. And it's just the way the track builds, adding layer upon layer until it evokes that feeling of gorgeous hopelessness. Come to think of it, it is the perfect soundtrack for the gradual destruction of the universe into one unfeeling point. It sounds just as unreal.

What are your favorite Final Fantasy tracks?

(Steve Jones actually liked the Draw system. Fight him on his Twitter @vestenet.)

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