Monday, December 31, 2012

Music Spotlight: Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY VII

Final Fantasy VII was one of the first video games I ever really dove into; it quickly became the standard by which I view games in general. The presentation* of the plot, the use of the Playstation’s hardware and visual style, and of course the game-play, all were done so exceedingly well that I’ve yet to find a game that matches it (I could name a few that get very close—but this one stands on its own.)

One thing that truly makes Final Fantasy VII so unique (even within the Final Fantasy series as a whole) is the music. It not only works amazingly with the plot and themes of various characters, but also stands excellently on its own.

The entire soundtrack from the game is available in both physical and digital media—but there is one slight problem with this.  The “Official” soundtrack is directly from the game—meaning midi-programmed synths. Now while these tracks are wonderfully nostalgic and impressive on their own, they do fall short of the increasing demand for high quality audio. Though there exist orchestral arrangements of various songs (from either Advent Children or various other games, as well as concert performances from the Distant Worlds series) composer, Nobuo Uematsu has put together a simply unbelievably collection of 13 classic tracks from the iconic game, all performed on solo piano in, Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY VII.

The fact that these pieces are done solely on the piano seems to do an amazing thing that I think a complete orchestra can’t—and it’s is something that works very well for those who know the game and the soundtrack very well. The solitary nature of the piano creates an added sense of poignancy and nostalgia that is powerfully moving and in some cases, haunting. “Aerith’s Theme” is one such piece, as is the “Main Theme.” “Aerith’s Theme” in particular is that much more heart wrenching with one instrument playing on its own. It instantly springs the memories of the “infamous” scene in VII, her date with Cloud at the Golden Saucer, the loss of Zack, and the ethereal connection between her and Cloud in Advent Children. In fact, this is how I prefer to hear the piece played. Orchestra arrangements of it are nice, but there is simply no other testament to the strength of the song and the character of Aerith, than hearing it played in this way.

Some of the pieces here could nearly be classified as “reinterpretations” of the originals. “Cosmo Canyon” and “Let The Battles Begin!” are two good examples here.  In the context of this album, these songs come off in such a new and authentic way that it’s almost like hearing them for the first time again. “Cosmo Canyon” itself contains within it the emergence of memories and references to Red XIII’s character and “Let The Battles Begin!” showcases an entire new level of emotion and appreciation for the piece as something more than just “Battle Music.”

Other songs aren’t as serious in tone. “Rufus’s Welcome Ceremony”, “Cinco de Chocobo” and a few others demonstrate the wonderful versatility of Uematsu’s compositions in a fun and jovial way.
Further praise should be given to Uematsu’s fantastic command of the piano. Though many have come to love him as the beloved composer of countless Final Fantasy classics, his technique as a pianist is tasteful and wonderfully expressive. Though the same cannot be said for some composers, Uematsu is simply the best choice to be seated at the piano for these tracks.
This should be a must-buy for any fan of the game. Those who know these songs note for note will enjoy every moment of them as they bring back cherished memories of a simply fantastic work of electronic art.

*Though I enjoy the story of VII, I can’t compare it with the quality of the other things mentioned here. There are legitimate criticisms of the plot and some of the directions it takes (as there could be with any story, really), however the execution of it is what counts for me; it is one of the finest not only in gaming, but in story-telling overall.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

And so it ends...again

The world will come to a violent and calamitous end tomorrow, the 21st of December, 2012. Billions of people will echo out their final cry of utter anguish and terror shortly before the spherical rock we call home is subjected to a fiery wrath of some kind.

Now it would be quite proper of you to express some skepticism towards my claim--that is, I certainly hope that such a response would emanate from most people. So you should, properly, ask me how it is that I know all of this?

Quite simply, I've learned it from the wonderful mess of shoddy journalism and history reporting that our culture has become so voraciously dependent upon. I certainly haven’t learned of it through a study of Mayan culture--because I’ve never studied Mayan culture (but I’m familiar enough with it to know that this infamous calendar which has gotten everyone so excited, in fact continues after this date--which has become more annoyingly engrained in our culture than the word “Occupy”) Though I haven't met anyone yet who sincerely believes the world will end on the 21st, I'm quite sure that this is not the majority position on this ludicrous prophesy. But the market principle decrees that the only way this nonsense has been able to infiltrate our culture (creating lousy fiction, documentaries, and books) is if there is a demand for it, an incentive for profit; the demand is too strong for anyone’s taste, and the profit made off of it, enough to feed many starving people.

I became quite irritated by the nonsense surrounding 2012 a few years ago when I noticed the amount of trash piling up on book shelves in stores. Granted, most of this garbage was appearing in the New Age section (which I frequent occasionally for ideas on magical systems for Fantasy stories, contrived conspiracy theories for similar purposes, and overall for a good laugh), but there was still enough of it to be annoyed that someone was spending money on this--and that resources such as paper and fuel to ship these products was being wasted for simply no reasonable explanation--it certainly wasn’t working towards the enrichment of society with literature or cultural studies.

Now although I give religious texts the same look of scorn on occasion, there's a profound difference. The Qur'an, Bible, and works of the like are staples of culture. Despite the fact that they are demonstrably prone to criticism of their claimed validity, they are uniquely tied to the history of the people from which they came. They are a form of art and expression; they are the collection of works showing humanity’s long search for its origin and spiritual solace. There are some beautiful examples of poetry and literature (as well as music) that stem from these works, and their significance in building our various cultures is not to be pushed aside (merely the theories that these are inherently correct are to be).

The same cannot be said for the recent 2012 scare. Nor the mass amount of pseudo-scientific garbage that has become rampant on previously respected sources of history and journalism. As I've said before, if there's one thing that Occupy Wall Street should have spent more time on (if they did at all), it should have been protesting against the degradation of our culture through insipid and shallow entertainment. And I am in error of stating some of these crackpot hypotheses as entertainment--because for most, it seems like the intention in spreading this trash is the complete opposite. But our love of reality television and vacuous videos on the internet has dulled our senses. It seems quite clear that the only media capable of triggering our collective response are sources doused in pornographic techniques.

And it is not simply the ideas themselves which are necessarily so frivolous, but rather it is their presentation and their refusal to go away once they've been dismissed--the latter being a complete carbon copy of how religious faith has survived so well. There is nothing wrong with someone putting forth a working hypothesis that extraterrestrials have built the pyramids or contacted us in the distant past--that is provided that some evidence has given way to such an assumption. But it is doubly egregious to go forth with the hypothesis--labeling it, mistakenly, a “theory”--without substantial evidence or respectable investigations. And, time and time again, the proponents of these ideas choose the belief prior to the investigation. They make up their minds that something is "true" before doing any research. And as a result, they're able to distribute these "theories" with ease by creating small and contagious non sequiturs and contrived explanations for events and mysteries.

This is why it is pornographic in nature. It is instant and floods the mind with excitement (or, perhaps more suiting, excrement.) But there are possibly quite a few practical reasons the 2012 phenomenon has become such a huge hit. A lot of it possibly subconscious in decision.

I wonder how connected the prediction of the end of the world is with the current economic repression/depression. Seeing as we went from a controversial presidency in the US, to one that didn't live up to the promises, and a falling economy along the way (chock full of upsetting wars) it's possible that a lot of people are subconsciously harboring on this date to bring some sort of vast change--not necessarily the end of the world, but some great sweeping change possibly on a spiritual level. 

But, of course, I’m trying to read too much into it. It’s far more likely, as I’ve demonstrated before, that the 2012 nonsense has arisen from the conditions of our unhealthy culture. In that, however, it seems I’m being too much of a pessimist. It’s hard not to be, unfortunately, when you’ve witnessed such a silly meme sweep over us. And just as it came--out of nowhere--it will sweep away into nothingness in the next 24 hours as it has with countless other End Times predictions:
How Many Times They've Been Wrong


Friday, December 14, 2012


I've always wanted to get into anime, but for some reason it has always eluded me. The artistic medium has an unbelievable draw on me that I've never really been able to follow enough to start watching a regular series ( I came close with Ghost Hound, though it mysteriously vanished from Netflix)--but at last, I've found one and it comes in the form of a quiet anime known as Mushi-Shi.

An adaptation of a successful manga series (which I know nothing about), Mushi-Shi explores a unique world where invisible creatures known as "Mushi" live within our eco-system. They play a integral part of some of the phenomena we witness but can't seem to find immediate explanations for. Sometimes, however, these little bugs get a bit out of hand--causing a wide array of unwanted results, from minor nuisances to people simply vanishing into other realms. This is where the main character, Ginko, comes in.

A "Mushi Master", Ginko travels long distances, smoking his small cigars and carrying around his wooden backpack--stocked with a whole number of different remedies and tools for dealing with the Mushi. Unable to stay in one place for too long (you'll have to watch the show to find out why), Ginko meets an assortment of different people and situations. As a result, there are very few overarching stories and returning characters between episodes--save the few that deal with Ginko's back-story and one or two other notable characters. Ginko is very likable and has just the right amount of mystery to him. Even after you learn some of his secrets, you still feel like there's a great deal more to the man. And even though he comes across as a wise sage, he has a strong sense of youth. You end up developing a great deal of trust that he can always find the answer to the problem. And when he does find the solution, it rarely feels predictable and almost never feels as if the writers just pulled a Dues Ex Machina on you. There are even a few things that Ginko is unable to resolve, granting a very heavy sense of realism that is sometimes needed in a fantasy world.

Though the story is very enjoyable and immersive, the presentation of the show is one of its most appealing aspects. Everything from the artistic style, to the exotic sounding music, truly creates another world. In fact, the music is one of the most intriguing things about this show. Musical themes become a standard accompaniment to various situations and always come across as authentic--and there's a pleasant diversity to the music that is used, ranging from the acoustic singer-songwriter opening, to the hair-raising metal bells played when the mystery begins to unravel itself.

Unfortunately there's only one season to this show. There is however an entire manga series and even a live-action film adaptation in Japan--which I haven't seen. But the episodes in this season each feel unique. They're short, so you could watch 2 or even 3 in one sitting and get a nice variety of plots. And though a few of the episodes center around children being in jeopardy from the troublesome Mushi, you can expect some very intriguing and refreshing storylines. You'll meet a boy whose drawings come to life and is compelled to stay at his home alone by a strange force haunting the cabin. There's the girl whose voice seems to cause a strange plague of rust to wash over an entire town. And even a man who's compelled to chase after every rainbow he sees in the hopes that he can catch it.

It's a calm and quiet anime which is very suiting for watching late at night--highly recommended. And if you want more to the universe, there's the manga series, which is something I'll probably be writing about in the near future.

The Sword Swallower

(This blog post originally appeared on my ENG 274 Creative Non-Fiction blog.)

This image is a sobering reminder of the frail threads of mortality.
I enjoy the absence of emotion here: the skull, the spine, the teeth, the ear canal, and the eye sockets as well as the juxtaposition of translucent bone and the solid black metal of the sword. The curve of the vertebrae in the neck next to the straight edge of the sword speaks boldly.

All of the corruptible things about a human are deleted in this image. I can't see his face. I don't notice his clothes or his surroundings. I suppose it is possible to determine, but I have no clue as to his age. I don't even have a hint as to the gender; only the title, "Ajax the Sword Swallower" hints at a male identity.

But despite the lack of such details, I find the picture to be a powerful statement of individuality, an expression of defiance towards pain--or a peculiar embracing of it.

I wonder about who he is now, in raw human form. What was it that lead him to do this? What the x-ray cannot capture are the memories stored in his brain that would reveal such things. We can only witness the physicality of the act. Was he a sword swallower before joining the circus, or did he learn this skill once he stepped away from society? Or was he born into this life? What is this expression to him? Does he put on the show for the eyes of others, or for the thrill of it himself? I imagine that perhaps this is his moment to walk the tight-rope of death, to stand on that threshold and proclaim a strict willingness to defy its permanent touch. To be so close to a force of unrelenting power must be a thrill that no life in common society could hope to provide.

Here we don't see the capture of light imposed on a negative, but a spectrum unknown to our eyes. We don't see the surface but what is underneath and we are left to only ask endless questions.