The Black Mages: Nobuo Uematsu’s Electrifying Interpretation of Final Fantasy
With the power of music and friendship, The Black Mages arranged the very best high-octane music from the Final Fantasy soundtracks to the language of melodic rock and metal. Let’s listen for a while the enchanting work of their self-titled debut album, spearheaded by influential video game composer Nobuo Uematsu.
The Beginning of the Nobuo Uematsu’s Fantastic Story
The Final Fantasy series left a blueprint in the gaming world since its early inception, back in the late 80s with the release of the first chapter for the lauded Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).
Heavily influenced by the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop juggernaut and the already famous Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest), Final Fantasy I (FFI) was an adventure that became a hit in the global market, with a simple yet charming storyline about the perennial struggle of light and darkness that paved the road to players to traverse mountains and plains, in order to restore the glory of an unbalanced kingdom.
Final Fantasy I was popular in an audience who was still exploring the limits and potential of the videogames storytelling. Graphics and plot worked within the boundaries of its platform and were accepted as such, however, many fans of the electronic medium agrees on how music greatly improved the experiment and made this title a living legend.
(This is the Final Fantasy Origins soundtrack version).
Composer Nobuo Uematsu became an integral part of the Squaresoft dev team (now Square-Enix) behind the first tale of the JRPG saga. His magnificent score was finally responsible for giving the world inside the cartridge a unique style, distancing the game from its direct influences and playing along with the technical limitations of the Nintendo hardware.
Even though it was written for a dated chip, the timeless music displays the refined understanding he has for baroque and romantic eras, as well as operas, where leitmotifs and harmonies play a big role to set the mood of each piece. In the FFI soundtrack, players got soothed by cozy tunes inside towns and stores or modify the player’s expectations with pumping heavy rock-inspired compositions to match the turn-based big battles.
From the very beginning, Uematsu was probably the chosen one, much like the heroes of the games he had to work with. The rest is just history. Spawning an insane number of titles, spinoffs, and cross-media content, Final Fantasy became a franchise, one of the flagships of its company and a huge worldwide cultural phenomenon, being at the current top 20 highest grossing video game series of all time!
And Nobuo Uematsu composed a plethora of other classic soundtracks for the subsequent main titles as well for the next years.
A Group Known as The Black Mages
Let’s fast forward into 2001. The role-playing series arrived in new territories with the critically acclaimed Final Fantasy X, for the PlayStation 2 console. It was the first time in a while when Uematsu received help from other composers to write the tracks for the main FF release, but it seems he was somewhat happy for this experience.
A year later, guitarist Tsuyoshi Sekito, a fan of classic heavy metal bands, paired with Kenichiro Fukui to start arranging the Uematsu iconic tracks together in a more electrifying format for a single live concert. Both being Square-Enix members at the time, they invited the composer over and over again, until one day he said yes.
The trio knew Uematsu had a soft spot for melodic heavy metal and progressive rock and they worked together to transmute several compositions for the synth and guitar-driven live format. Even so, they were nervous as hell, the concert was an inimitable success.
After this short-lived project ended, Uematsu felt reenergized and under the banner of The Black Mages, the three musicians began a journey to spread their puny bardic arts!
The core lineup got help from other Japanese musicians for several new concerts and meanwhile released 3 full-length albums and a DVD of a live concert. Our duty today is to check their self-titled amazing debut of that trifecta. Grab your Potions and Phoenix Downs because we are going to be roasted to the bone.
The Decisive Battles
The Black Mages debut is probably the purest of the trio of albums. Comprised of 10 straight-forward tunes, the tracklisting practically consists of arranges and reinterpretations of the Final Fantasy battle songs, ranging from the NES era to the PS2 release.
Given the rock inspiration on the Uematsu compositions for the old-school videogames, the band probably had an easy time at adapting the accelerated rhythms and the clashing synths phrasing with real instruments.
However, the formula was not exclusive to a simply an adaptation of the original compositions. The album functions as a whole because the band injected new elements to each arrangement, like blazing solos and instrument duels along the already effective battle-inspiring tracks.
Starting with the FFI fight scene track and ending with “Fight With Seymour”, from FFX, The Black Mages debut is a guided journey and evidence of Uematsu genius in creating so many timeless melodies and hooks. Forefront we have the walls of keyboards and synths, but the bass and guitars are not shy either, during the whole tracklisting every instrument have a moment to shine.
After the rock-solid mid-tempo start, these mages bring the Ultima Weapon to strike down our HP with “Clash on the Big Bridge”, a boss theme from the unjustly forgotten FFV.
Sekito guitars scream and wails altogether with furious riffing and soloing in pure Japanese fashion, without forgetting how the hooks and evolution of the main melody line work in the original version for the Super Nintendo chipset. After a middle prog section for the synth trades with a groovy bass line wonderfully played by Keiji Kawamori, the main guitar suddenly cuts the keyboard exchange with one of the most soulful and elegant solos I have ever listened in my whole Elfic existence.
Goddamn, I love it. You know how much our Japan brothers and sisters understand the power behind that screeching heavy metal sound! We cannot live in a world without that kicking ass 80s heavy metal tone, my friends.
Two songs in a row and we have gained enough experience to level up. The third track revisits the FFVIII times with “Force Your Way”, another mid-tempo with some progressive flourishes on the rhythmic section with another face-melting boss battle between keys and guitars that do not cast aside the evident strong melodic line. Near the end, the song culminates with a reenacting exciting final hook, with Sekito doing it once again by commanding the march with a heartfelt vibrato. FFVIII got revisited once again with the regular battle theme, in case you were wondering, and it kicks ass as well!
Battle Scene II, from FFII, gives some space to Kawamori to playfully decorate the backbone of the debut’s tracklist with tasty basslines and to the main instruments to clash once again, but now with a more progressive feeling.
The rest of the album follows this structure, alternating between prog moments with more direct punches that some listeners may fell as a lack of consistency. However, the record flows wonderfully to provide a more distinct feeling to each particular instance, in my opinion, giving enough time for each theme to grow individually.
The beloved Final Fantasy VII get representation with the incredible Deep Purple infused melodies of the boss battle theme “Those Who Fight Further”, one of the most celebrated arrangements of this collection. Meanwhile, in the “J-E-N-O-V-A” track the synths take full control of the situation.
In unison, the cult-followed FFVI inadvertently inspired three tracks, which became another highlight of the already astounding debut. Besides the incredible stomping renditions of the “Battle Theme” and “The Decisive Battle”, The Black Mages are kind enough to play once more the monstrous “Dancing Mad”, the song that plays during the final clash against the infamous Kefka Palazzo. Even though there are no major differences between the SNES version and the new one, the Bach-inspired twisting complex tune rocks on with the layers upon layers of synths.
The debut closes with “Fight With Seymour”, perhaps the weakest track of the record. Another keyboard driven moment that sometimes fells flat after the staggering choice of rightful selection of themes and hooks during the whole project.
The Aftermath of The Black Mages Adventure
Uematsu, Sekito, and Fukui toured a couple of times as The Black Mages and even had the time to rearrange more music to be played together, but somehow the follow-ups did not harvest enough attention from the fans as the first one.
The average reception of The Black Mages II: The Skies Above and The Black Mages III: Darkness and Starlight do not discredit them, of course.
Their sophomore album had incredible moments like the prog-driven “The Rocking Grounds”, from FFIII, or the Deep Purple and Scorpions swaggering in the aptly titled “Maybe I’m a Lion”, from FFVIII, in which Uematsu even transforms into a Japanese reincarnation of Jon Lord. The third record had an arrangement of the insane opera scene in FFVI and the only original track composed by the band, a piece in memory of a boy Uematsu met who died of cancer. They are still worth revisiting for those who really enjoy this type of music.
The band officially announced its end in 2010, due to the lack of time of its members to rehearse and the lack of creative freedom imposed by the Final Fantasy close relation of the project. Uematsu later formed The Earthbound Papas to continue the righteous path of rock and covering more songs of the franchise with the Distant Worlds orchestral project.
I felt The Black Mages not only served as a project to show how kicking ass is the battle themes in the series. This is an immense job of love for the Uematsu legacy and a way for them to have fun outside of the constraints of their regular work.
The album is available at every digital platform so go get a chance to listen to them if you enjoy the Final Fantasy saga, you will have a great time with this because the debut if pure FIRAGA!