January 28, 2012

The SQ Album Series Multi-Review, Part 2

This article is a continuation of a three-part overview of Square-Enix's series of arrange albums collectively titled SQ. The albums SQ Chips and Chill SQ are covered in Part 1.

Love SQ

It's hard to imagine any old-school Squaresoft fan not getting a kick out of Love SQ. This collection, as the title implies, has the all the sound of a love letter to a bygone era rife with some of gaming's all-time classics. To put it in perspective -- while this disc represents games from a variety of platforms, all but one of them (Final Fantasy VII) depends entirely on 2D sprite graphics -- these new-fangled "polygons" you youngsters are all atwitter for were once just a hazy shadow on the horizon.

One might criticize this album for playing the nostalgia card too often. However, if the implication is that the music doesn't stand on it's own or the melodies haven't survived the transition to new genres, I don't buy it. Love SQ is so fun and full of life that if you can't find at least something you can enjoy here, maybe music just isn't your thing.

The album begins with a jazzy, big-band rendition of the Final Fantasy theme built on lively trumpet and saxophone. It's a far cry from the august majesty the theme is usually treated to, giving the series' most lasting tradition a dose of ironic pep.

What follows is a trio of electronic Chrono Trigger arrangements, infused with stimulating harmonic sequences and animated rhythms. Outskirts of Time is probably even better than the original version, sung by a glorious new synthesized lead which really carries the sustained notes of the melody well. Next, the main theme of Chrono Trigger starts off robotic and industrial before shifting to a more lifelike chorus powered by pumping beats. Frog's Theme ~ Fanfare 1 finishes off the Chrono section with a cute coupling of themes sewn together by faux-chiptune instrumentation and synthy voices into a retro-styled march.

Another highlight is the familiar favorite, Chocobo's Theme. A sauntering, smooth jazz flavor dominates this track, formed by playful piano and organ, and even a little whistling. I think Final Fantasy's golden, avian mascot has likely been responsible for more versions of a single piece of music than anything else in the history of video games -- but, this is still one of the cleverer ones.

Toward the end is the medley Battle on the Big Bridge ~ Dancing Mad ~ One Winged Angel, a wild and frolicking piano spree melding three of gaming's most poplar themes.

The key to Love SQ, and its equally-great follow-up, is variety. Acoustic and electronic, frantic and tranquil -- a mixed-bag of styles and artists have come together to produce some of the most interesting game music reinterpretations I've heard in a while.

More SQ

This is one case where I'm happy to say the sequel to a great album is just more of the same. More SQ takes the approach of Love SQ, gathering a number of artists to arrange classic and modern Square music in new styles.

Some of the characteristics I enjoyed in the previous album are also applied here: the main theme of Final Fantasy that opens More is similar to the joyful, electronic pop sound that other pieces received in Love. There are also brass-focused moments here, such as the lively, big-band piece dedicated to Final Fantasy V's theme, or the more mellow rock structure of Rosenkranz from SaGa Frontier 2. If I seem to be glossing over the details in tracks like these, it's not to be dismissive -- they're just similarly excellent in the way their rough stylistic counterparts were in Love SQ. Truth be told, there's just so much great music in these albums that I can only go into detail on a handful of tracks before this review starts to read like a novel.

If there is a marked difference in the way More SQ handles the subject matter, it's in the larger proportion of tracks that really play with how the melody is communicated. While both albums experiment with radical changes in tone, tempo, instrumentation, and genre, Love SQ seemed more content to keep the structure and flow of the original melodies intact and easily recognizable. More features greater shifts in the pacing of how some melodies are expressed. Yearnings of the Wind -- created by Pia-no-jaC, who performed the previous album's three-part piano cavalcade -- dips in and out of various time signatures, only briefly ever sounding very much like the Chrono Trigger original. The wildest divergence, though, is clearly Final Fantasy VIII's final battle theme, The Extreme. Elements of the melody have been taken apart and rebuilt, set to irregular rhythms and sent off on uncertain tangents. If I had just heard this track out of context, without knowing where it came from, I might have had a pretty hard time guessing why it sounded so vaguely familiar.

Of course, there's a lot of great material here for those who prefer their game music to stay a little closer to home. Fans will absolutely adore the cool, jazzy take on Final Fantasy VI's Searching for Friends -- and the lounge-singer flavor of Melodies of Life adds just the right spice to give an old song some novel charm.

It was brutally difficult to restrict myself to only providing two samples per album. There are so many good tracks that I really wanted to share -- yet, due to the collaborative nature of these albums, a mere one or two tracks can't convey the variety of the collection. Any fans of Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, or even game music in general, would really be doing themselves a favor by investigating Love SQ and More SQ.

Next time, I'll be wrapping up this series by covering Cafe SQ. Am I saving the best for last?

I'll just tell you now: YES.

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