Monday, 4 April 2011

Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream - An Album by OverClocked Remix Review

Voices of the Lifestream is a pretty epic undertaking. Rolling in just short of three and a half hours of music it covers all the major areas of its source. Unfortunately this strength is also its weaknest; Final Fantasy VII had a fairly varied soundtrack and whilst in the context of a game most of it works, as a cohesive body of music the album struggles to remain focused, particularly around the third disc.

Disc One: Crisis
Standout Track: Deliverance of the Heart

There’s one thing that struck me in ‘Deliverance of the Heart’, something that told me straight away that they’d got this right. It isn’t Pixietricks sumptuous vocals, which are excellent, or the rich, ambient chords that accompany them throughout. It’s the bells; a strong, metallic clunk that just suits FFVII perfectly. ‘Deliverence of the Heart’ sets the tone for the following two remixes, taking the source music in slightly different, much more ambient and cinematic direction than the technology was capable of in 1997. It’s certainly a very strong start to the album, dancing between techno beats and orchestral heights.

By track four we start to reach the all important battle music from the games, allowing some traditional electric guitars to step forward and claim their place. ‘Materia Junkie’ and ‘Full Frontal Assault’ step up to the mark, and although they don’t try anything as radical as the preceding tracks they continue the incredibly strong production values set before them.

After the duel guitar tracks the album shifts gears again, giving two more ethereal pieces produced by OCR stalwarts Another Soundscape (now Mattias Häggström Gerdt) and Daniel Baranowsky. Both tracks ooze a quality, well constructed soundboard that provide a feeling just as strong as the base melody. Then once again the album shifts gears to two more faster paced battle songs, utilising a more techno-electronic sound this time to rocket up the tension alongside the beat. ‘Son of Chaos’ provides one final lower tempo song, becoming one of the darkest and most intimidating tunes of the album. Then the final two tracks race headfirst to the ending, one metal the other techno.

The first disc represents a strong direction for the album, laying out its intentions and ambitions, cleverly pacing the musical styles to tell its story whilst never getting too repetitive. Artistic license may be high at certain points, some songs diverging from the source tunes more than others, but without exception these are all masterly crafted pieces all worthy of your attention.

Disc Two: Dirge
Standout Track: JENOVA: Celestial

Djpretzel’s introduction track struggles to set as strong a first impression as the previous CDs, but there’s no denying that ‘Short Skirts’ is a truly beautiful jazz song. Vibrant and colourful it demonstrates excellent choice of instruments and arrangement to give an underappreciated source song true depth. Like the preceeding disc it sets the tone for what immediately follows; ‘Valse Aeris’ is something of a dreamy ballroom dance, orchestrally treading back and forth around your speakers for a full seven and a half minutes without ever outstaying its welcome. Both technical masterpieces certainly but perhaps not the most exciting tracks on the album.

It’s a shame that ‘Embraced Empathy’ sits in this part of the album. Whilst technically fine it struggles to distinguish itself, and the fact that it is surrounded by some of the most musically accomplished pieces of the album makes it looks significantly worse for wear. ‘Serenity’ gives a smooth, confident production that mixes interesting chord changes with a trippy/jazz style beat and backing vocals evocative of Pixietricks opening on the first track. ‘A Life Without Parole’ follows this with a piano solo that is technically excellent, but perhaps outstays its welcome lasting almost a full five minutes.

‘Scenes From a Memory’ picks up the beat, although not as technically proficient as its predecessors, it does amiably prevent the album from wallowing by providing a much needed driving force for the song. It, ‘Golden Fields’ and ‘Crystal Sermon’ risk treading water in the middle of the disc, but fans of the source tunes will all find something to appreciate in each song. Things veer off slightly halfway through the song ‘Chasing the Storm’, which starts as just a straight tribute to the original, before transforming seamlessly into something very different that I won't spoil here, all i'll say is it was a welcome surprise. Fast, frenetic and most importantly exciting it leads into the equally strange and eerie song ‘Sephiroth’s Wake’.

This disc really takes off however in the penultimate track, where bLiND introduces us to the Jenova motif that really embodies Final Fantasy VII. It’s something of a techno anthem, providing fast well selected key changes just when the sound is about to get monotonous. Some of this energy follows through into the final track; ‘Mark of the Beatsmith’, which shows potential with excellent styling and soundscape, but suffers from a few poor arrangement issues.

The second disc shows a much more musically competent side to the album, showcasing some of the varied styles and sounds from both FF7 and OCR. It has just as strong production values as its predecessor and a wider remit of styles. The pace is a little slower and a little more relaxed, giving the musicians time to enjoy the songs and flesh them out for all their worth.

Disc Three: Advent
Standout Track: Fading Entity

‘Suco de Malenica’ is a solid arrangement in its own right but its not the most inspired remix to grace this album. This isn’t a complex piece, a light hearted reprieve from the more serious songs on the previous disc, but I doubt it’ll leave anyone with many lasting impressions.

‘Stone Eyes’ follows with another piano only affair, reworking one of the more emotional source tunes on the album. It contains just the right amount of complexity to do justice to the original without deviating too much. ‘Daydreaming Again’ offers a similar musical indulgence, with live recorded instruments working through the chord progressions from the original, yet the music never takes off with a strong melody of its own.

Things liven up quickly with the quirky ‘Alien Exploration’ which seems a welcome splice of fun at first, from the more mellow tracks that preceded it. ‘Golden Feathers’ follows this with an admirable musical flair elaborating on a source tune that offered very little musical scope, yet once again the upbeat jaunty instruments start to grate after a while. ‘Midnight at the Club Corel’ is more of an improvisation piece, blending some traditionall ballroom jazz with some very subtle synths. It functions well in breaking up the high pitched instruments which make a return in the happy hardcore ‘Ahead on Our Rave’ appropriately titled but containing very little musical intricacy. This run of oddball remixes comes to an end with ‘Kweh!’, the required Chocobo song, that sounds like the theme song of a children’s television show. Whilst it contains some interesting improvised sections the bulk of the song sounds almost exactly like the original.

Fortunately things settle down with the final run of songs on the disc, starting with ‘The Crossroads’; beggining with a fairly traditional homage of the original song before breaking into something entirely different; a metal-dance hybrid with some very strong vocal effects. Jovette River’s vocals aren’t as strong as Picietricks at the start of the album but he makes up for this with some excellent sound editing, giving us a particularly interesting chorus to digest. Whilst not to everyone’s taste this has to be commended for attempting to do something different with the song, remaining perfectly true to the spirit of the album.

After this bLiND returns with collaborator Leifo to give one of the standout pieces of not just the disc, but possibly my favourite song of the album. ‘Fading Entity’ uses stereo panning and some impressive effects to lay out one of the most polished tracks here. I can’t explain how special this piece is; you need to listen to it for yourself.

Frozen Landscapes then finishes the disc, bringing some life to what was originally a very monotonous piece. It’s a very minimalist tune with no discernable melody but it holds true to the sense of ambient energy that the best tracks in the album have demonstrated.

The third disc is arguably the weakest of the set. Things pick up towards the end but it starts relatively bland and unmemorable, before transforming into something loud and obnoxious. By and large these are the ‘extra’ songs that weren’t essentially a part of Final Fantasy’s 7’s central storyline and stylistically they’re somewhat out of kilter compared to the other discs. I am however only being harsh on this disc because of the stellar quality of its comrades, this is still an excellent collection of tunes well worth your time.

Disc Four: Order
Standout Piece: The Beginning of the End

‘Sleep, My Sephy’ is a bit of a slow burner to kick off the final disc. Like Pot Hocket’s previous piece it follows the chord progression of the original piece with some nylon guitars. Although artistically sound it’s something of a lullabye and a little unusually placed as it kicks off the final disc. It does however feed in nicely to the gloom ridden haunting melody that is ‘Collision’, a powerful piece with an excellent sound but very little melody and a lot of repetition.

‘Airships Make Me Happy’ could be the most inspiring piece on the album, a chiptunes-esque (with some subtle orchestration in the background) that only strays slightly from the original but tunes it into a much peppier, upbeat piece of music. ‘Hydrophone Breakdown’ follows breathing some life into a fairly simple piece of backing music… To be honest there’s a slight sense in both songs feel as though the album is wrapping up the remaining erroneous songs that they couldn’t fit onto the third disc. On the other hand production values are high and they do carry a required tension in them, as though the end if slowly drawing nearer.

'Omnislash’ brings back the quasi-metal style that infected the first disc, drawing together the ominous pace with heavy guitar riffs and some great synths. It’s much more dramatically driven than the first disc, with a sense of impending danger throughout, most clearly embodied in the string section towards the end. This is followed by the somewhat repetitive ‘Rare Square’ that feels more like a film soundtrack than a tune in its own right.

Fortunately ‘JENOVA: Returns’ more than lives up to the high standards set up by ‘JENOVA: Celestial’ on the second disc. It’s a very theatrical piece, blending the J-E-N-O-V-A theme with a few other pieces in a grand musical masterpiece that’s larger in scope than almost any other song on the album... This is followed by ‘Beginning of the End’, another of bLiND’s stellar performances, moving from trance to a drum’n’bass fast paced masterpiece that just takes everything excellent about the original song and emphasises every element.

‘Black Wing Metamorphosis’ is perhaps the most important song in the album, its source being the most controversial yet recognisable tune in Final Fantasy history. To combat the task before them six arranger’s collaborate to make something just as disjointed and perhaps divisive as the original, melding together a range of styles to produce something truly unique. It starts with a series of chiptunes blips and beeps with the orchestral strings coming in slowly, before the choir takes over to become the meat of the song. Things end with an orchestral rendition of the chorus, before a fuzzy guitar solo closes things out neatly. It’s hardly the epic masterpiece that some might have expected but it certainly treads new ground. Then, to bring listeners down from that ‘The Golden Memories of Gaia’ blends together several tunes from the album, giving a fairly sombre and reserved finish to the album.

Disc four is certainly something special, combining together the strong dramatic tension from the first disc, the musical skills from the second and something of the variety from the third.

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