Currently Listening: Distant Worlds I – Music from Final Fantasy

_Back in the late ’90s there was a game that forever changed the definition of what a “video game” meant and what it meant to invest time and effort into exploring a world. That game was Final Fantasy VII.

Previously my experience with games had been titles like Crash Bandicoot, Wipeout, and a lovable game known as Croc. I was about 9 or 10 at the time, so that made sense. But when Final Fantasy came into my life I began to see gaming as more than just a “fun” thing to do. It was no longer about jumping on crates and collecting fruit, it was a doorway to another world–a nexus point that escorted my consciousness to a universe of limitless fantasy and imagination. And while I could write endlessly about the many aspects of Final Fantasy that made this possible, perhaps one of the most powerful of all the components that made up VII and VIII was the music.

Distant Worlds I – Music from Final Fantasy is a wonderful collection of orchestral performances of classic Final Fantasy songs from the Distant Worlds tour. Conducted by Arnie Roth and composed by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu, these 13 tracks cover songs dating back to Final Fantasy I and gong up to IX (Uematsu’s last Final Fantasy game until XIV) this CD is simply breathtaking–especially if your primary experience with these songs was through the old MIDI performances in the game. Hearing real instruments and real people–especially the operatic performances–bring these pieces to life touches on every emotional level as a gamer. But aside from being the soundtrack to this powerful series of games, it’s amazing to just listen to the music as separate from its origin. The compositional prowess of Uematsu ranks him, in my opinion, as one of the greatest composers of our time. Whether its the quirky and playful nature of “Swing de Chocobo,” the passion and melodically epic sprawl of “Vamo’ alla Flamenco,” the emotional and poignant delicacy of “Aeirth’s Theme,” or the menacing and ominous march of “One-Winged Angel,” the musical palette of the Japanese composer is, I’d argue, virtually without rival in video game music and truly distinct amongst composers in general.

Though Distant Worlds is a recent recording, its music has been around for some time and has, arguably, created a standard for gaming music in general. Again I think back to Final Fantasy VII as well as VIII. Few games at that time–perhaps with the exception of Metal Gear Solid–contain such audacity. It’s from these songs that one can see the shift in gaming, as I mentioned earlier, away from stomping on things and collecting random items, to an experience that’s deeply personal and captivating.

As one of my must have albums in my collection, Distant Worlds stands as an aural connection to universes and worlds that have forever become apart of me and as a collection of amazing composition and performance.

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Currently Listening: Ben Frost’s By The Throat

_About a year or two ago, when I began to embrace my greatly repressed passion for experimental music, the material I discovered slowly altered my perception of what could be done with sound and just what this term “music” had even meant. Though I was no stranger to musicians who were “off the radar,” most if not all the music I had thought was “experimental” was largely using the same basic elements of song writing and instrumentation that I had experienced before.  But with the help of Soma FM’s Drone Zone station and WNYC’s fantastic New Sounds program, things began to change. Icelandic-based musician Ben Frost’s album By The Throat was one such turning point. It’s a challenging and audacious album composed of both the familiar and the strange–creating dynamic and somber if not frightening atmosphere.

For me, Texture is one of the most important aspects when it comes to music—Texture in tonality, in orchestration, in technique, and in arrangement. You can think of Texture as another way of saying “Information” and how much of it a piece of music contains. It’s not always a case of “more is better” but in how it’s being used, to what extent, why it is the way it is, and a recognition of the consequences of adding more or less that creates intriguing Textures. By The Throat is an exercise in Texture, an exploration into the ways in which sound can create mood through the use of layers upon layers of tonal variety in a way that systematically stimulates emotion directly and quite literally by the throat.

Creating those textures is a haunting and beautiful combination of musical instruments—real and electronic—field recordings, and digital noise. These different dimensions are weaved together throughout the album and compose a distinct and powerful voice. The digital noise creates a sharp contrast in either a fiery intensity or a delicate ambiance to that of the controlled and intended nature of the musical instruments. In the opposite direction, the instruments contribute a directional and familiar essence to the noise. Recordings of wolves howling then add a sense of place and location and stir an intense yet subtle sentiment of longing and distance—perhaps even isolation.

Simple and elegant melodic and rhythmic directions guide this entire textural palette. Repeated cascades of arpeggios and slow, lumbering, bass lines alongside sharp, punctuated drum machines are the landscape of tonality and cadence here in a way that’s beautiful yet in some ways terrifying. It’s an experience that requires one to sit and listen intently, without distraction.

In all of this, it was hard to come away looking at sound and music the same way again. The ways that Frost twists sound and noise into music and fuses it with minimalistic composition has made me pay closer attention to music in a very different and textural way. It’s also had the same effect when it comes to sound. The very sound of everyday objects or digital noise takes on a different light after hearing what is being done on By The Throat. From the gravitationally powerful opening of “Killshot” to the album’s sustaining and hair-raising conclusion with “Through the Mouth of Your Eye,” Ben Frost has created music that defies all by embracing everything.


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