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The Black Mages III ~Darkness and Starlight~ :: Review by Don and Bryan

The Black Mages III ~Darkness and Starlight~ Album Title: The Black Mages III ~Darkness and Starlight~
Record Label: Dog Ear Records
Catalog No.: DERP-10002
Release Date: March 19, 2008
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


It's been a long time since the last release of a Black Mages album. Many consider The Skies Above to be a mixed bag, with both awesome arrangements and some lackluster ones. Given four years have past, how have the Black Mages improved if at all? With arrangements from every member of the band, a first for the Black Mages, there is a ton of diversity on this album. Does it live up to the expectations of fans around the world? Well, I won't give any answers here. You'll have to read on!

Track-by-Track Reviews

1) Opening ~ Bombing Mission [from Final Fantasy VII]

While this may be one of the more overused Final Fantasy VII arrangements — being featured in various games, such as Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, and various orchestra events, such as Distant Worlds - Music from Final Fantasy — I think that band chose a nice piece to open up the album. Arranged by Kenichiro Fukui, also known for his arrangements of Final Fantasy XII's "Kiss Me Goodbye" and Final Fantasy IV's "Tsuki no Akari," in addition to previous Black Mages albums, it really sets the tone for the rest of the album.

As with every arrangement of this track, the soft mellow sounds of the synth with the intermittent percussion help to bring back the memories of Cloud's adventure. However, once the electric guitar comes in, you know it means business. As the "Opening" section of the track completes, the track intensifies greatly. Familiar piano is accompanied by some awesome guitar riffs and some nice keyboard work, reminiscent of the electric piano synth heard in Blue Dragon. The most impressive part of this entire piece is definitely the guitar work. Sekito and Okamiya do a fantastic job. In fact, what is most impressive about this piece is that the familiarity of the piece is mainly heard in the accompanying guitar riffs and piano work. The solo electric guitar just seems to breeze through the track elaborating upon distinct melody underneath, creating a harmony that is just breathtaking.

There are just so many exciting parts to this piece. It really starts off the album with a bang, and while some might think this choice of arrangement is a bit trite, I assure you, Kenichiro Fukui definitely does it justice. (10/10)

2) Neo Exdeath [from Final Fantasy V - "The Final Battle"]

Here we have what is most likely Uematsu's most underrated final battle theme ever. I, on the other hand, see it as one of his best. When I first saw this was going to be on the album, I was very excited. The track stays pretty true to the original for the most part. The Black Mages special touch is added throughout, with the electric guitar taking the lead in most cases. Around the two minute mark, the typical guitar solo starts. The great thing about this one though, is it lasts forever!

The arrangement then repeats, giving reprises to the beginning of the piece and the guitar solo throughout. It begins to repeat for a third time, taking the solo out of the piece this time. The repeat doesn't last long, and is only there to extend the ending guitar riffs. I just don't understand how anyone can't like this track! Anyone a fan of Uematsu (i.e. everyone on this site) SHOULD love this track. Anyone who doesn't is wrong! (10/10)

3) The Extreme [from Final Fantasy VIII]

Perhaps the fan favorite when it comes to Uematsu final battle themes, aside from "One Winged Angel," "The Extreme" will forever be known as one of the best final battle themes crafted by the man who knows battle themes more than any other composer in the industry. Arranged by guitarist Michio Okayima, who's also arranged in the Sekaiju no MeiQ Super Arrange Version, he brings to the table a fairly synth heavy arrangement. However, while this may disappoint some, I think it actually strengthens this track; it had a heavy electronica focus originally and harkens back to the days of the original The Black Mages album.

There are a few cosmetic changes, sprinkled throughout the duration of the piece. Most notable is in the beginning. A beautiful acoustic guitar replaces the harp found in the original. At the same time, the addition of the original piano line just brings back so many memories at the same time. As opposed to the original vocal synthesizers, the arrangement opts for a more distorted vocal sound. It's just as haunting as the original.

However, as we all know, the meat of the track is the battle portion itself. Initially, all I could say is "wow". From the familiar classic battle theme motif in the form of electric guitar riffs present in both the original and the arrangement to the variety of distorted synth and all the electric guitar lines in the middle, this arrangement really offers a fantastic take on such a classic battle theme. The original piano line is also kept in for good measure. Okamiya sure gave Fukui a workout with all this keyboard work! Those hoping for a guitar solo will have to wait until the very end of the track. The guitar solo just breams with excitement and really closes the piece on a high note. Another marvelous accomplishment if you ask me. (10/10)

4) Assault of the Silver Dragons [from Final Fantasy IX]

"Assault of the Silver Dragons" is one track you'd expect more of an orchestral arrangement for, rather than a rock one. However, I assure you, this one is another crazy arrangement. Arranged by Arata Hunyada, the drummer for the Black Mages and first time arranger, it really offers a breathtaking experience on such a fantastic theme. Unlike other arrangements, where I can pinpoint the strength of the electric guitar or the keyboard work as the driving force of the arrangement, "Assault of the Silver Dragons" is a bit trickier. It's really a blend of all parts that makes it so excellent.

From the starting gate, this arrangement just screams amazement. The combination of drums and exhilarating guitar riffs just really help set the tone of the arrangement. However, equally impressive is the synth keyboard work for the arrangement. Keyboard work, at times, imitates trumpets, while at others it has a very ethereal feeling towards them. Another impressive aspect of this piece is the electric guitar solos and keyboard solos. They really help to bring about a nice contrast to the melody found within the track. The electric guitars display the skills of both guitarists, and the multiple synth solos, with various synth sounds, just compound the immense amount of energy within this piece.

However, it doesn't end there! What do I mean? Well, the portion of "Assault of the Silver Dragons" that features the melody in "Mistaken Love" is accentuated with the use of electric guitars at the end. It really helps bring this track to a electrifying close. It's easily my favorite battle arrangement of all Black Mages arrangements. (10/10)

5) Kurayaminokumo [from Final Fantasy III - "This is the Last Battle"]

If there is one track that will most likely disappoint people on the album, it is "Kurayaminokumo." It's not due to the fact that the arrangement is bad, but due to the fact that it's already been featured before on the Final Fantasy III Original Soundtrack as a bonus track. However, this doesn't bother me because, before this album, it was easily their best arrangement to date and it still stands strong on this album. Arranged by Kenichiro Fukui, this arrangement is a fun take on Final Fantasy III's "This is the Last Battle."

Eerie synth starts off the piece with the occasional scream, most recently used in Final Fantasy IX's "Final Battle," also featured on this album. It definitely retains the classic sound of the original through its use of keyboard. In addition, the electric guitar work is outstanding. It complements the percussion and keyboard nicely as well as provides some of the most exhilarating guitar sections on the entire album. The contrast between the riff heavy accompaniment and the electric guitar solos just makes this track brim full of energy. The keyboard solo that follows is equally impressive. On the whole, this is one of my favorite Black Mages arrangements and, just like with his other arrangements on this album, show that Kenichiro Fukui is probably the best Black Mages arranger, in addition to being a fantastic arranger in general. (10/10)

6) Distant Worlds [from Final Fantasy XI]

Get ready to cry. This was easily the most shocking arrangement on this album for me. The underlying harmony is played on a harp and accoustic guitar, while the melody is played on the piano. Yes, I know, Not what you expected right? It gets better! After the piano has had its glory, some sort of synth comes in to transition the piece into... more piano! Uematsu then comes in with his organ, and the accoustic guitar takes the melody for a bit. A celtic flute then takes over (que crying now). The piano takes BACK over again for a bit, while the intensity of the piece picks up. A steady percussion loop is then added, and everything from earlier in the piece is slowly added back in.

Subsequently, everything drops out and the piano comes back... what? OH WOW. They tricked us! The piano plays four notes, then the key changes and EVERYTHING comes back, including Sekito and his AMAZING guitar solo. The track then ends just as it started. This is easily my favorite arrangement on the album. Between the addition of the Celtic flute, and being tricked before the solo at the end, this piece unfolds as a real tear jerker. A very unexpected track, and also one of the best! (10/10)

7) Premonition [from Final Fantasy VIII]

This is the only solo arrangement by Tsuyoshi Sekito, who arranged the Playstation version of Final Fantasy II and the Nintendo DS version of Final Fantasy III, in addition to serving as a veteran Black Mages arranger. It is also probably the most "true to its roots" arrangement on the album. Synth dominates the melody here, and while still sounding updated, it feels eerily similar to the original. The guitar takes the lead for a time, but it isn't the prominent instrument for much of the piece. After the repeat, we get into some of the solo work, which in my opinion, is sub-par compared to the rest of the album. I don't want to mislead you though. While I am a little underwhelmed by the arrangement here, I still feel like this is one amazing piece! Yeah, I have less to say about this one than the rest, but it's still another must have for your collection! (9/10)

8) Grand Cross [from Final Fantasy IX - "Final Battle"]

Oh, this is scary. At first, I thought this was going to repeat the issues I had with the last track. Boy was I wrong. The intro is almost identical to the original, with the creepy moaning and distorted strings. Then, something straight out of Crisis Core Final Fantasy VII comes at us before a transition into the main theme of this battle theme. It's OK, though, as this part only lasts a few seconds! This arrangement really doesn't deviate much from the original, other than the obvious change in instrumentation and a few extra guitar riffs.

What is interesting here, though, is the fact that we really don't get a guitar solo at all! Instead, we get a synth solo that is assisted by the guitar. Don't let that fool you, as the synth solo is just as rockin' as any guitar solo from the rest of this album, if not more. The only issue I had with this track (and it's not really an issue, as it is still a favorite of mine) is the fact that is stays TOO similar to the original. For those who wanted to hear "Grand Cross" as it was in game with spruced up instrumentation and a synth treat, you will absolutely fall in love with this track. Those looking for something like past Black Mages battle arrangements, you might be a tad disappointed. Still, this track receives the highest praise from me, and is definitely worth a listen or five! (10/10)

9) Darkness and Starlight [from Final Fantasy VI - "Maria and Draco"]

This behemoth of an arrangement is tackled by three individuals: Kenichiro Fukui, Michio Okamiya, and Tsuyoshi Sekito. This is another one of those arrangements you wouldn't expect to hear a rock arrangement for, as it fits more of an orchestral style. Unlike the orchestral arrangements, the rock arrangement seems to bring more energy out of the individual sections.

The first section, an arrangement of "Overture," is arranged by Sekito. Starting off with a bang, it shows that the Black Mages mean business with their title arrangement. Within this first section, you'll hear electric guitar, some keyboard work that sounds like xylophone, the classic narration heard in the original, and a nice vocal motif that just helps to offer a nice harmonic balance between all the instruments. The electric guitar is easily the most impressive here, varying with guitar riffs and melody lines. The instrumentation just helps bring this entire piece to life. While I'm not sure who the narrator is, Draco is played by Mr. Goo (aka Tomoaki Watanabe) of "The Skies Above" fame, who played Draco in the Tour de Japon concert event. He does a fantastic job at exuding a powerful voice, while at the same time, harmonizing with all the instruments.

I assume that the second part, arranged by Kenichiro Fukui, starts with Uematsu's organ solo playing remnants of the "Overture" melody. It's really quite beautiful. Of course, Kenichiro Fukui gets to arrange what many consider to be one of Final Fantasy VI's best pieces, "Aria de Mezzo Carattere," otherwise known as "Celes' Theme." Given his take on other vocal themes in the series, he was definitely the correct choice. Opting to give it a rock ballad arrangement, the amalgamation of all elements creates an exhilarating experience. The piano line is absolutely stunning and the electric guitar sections, while brief, just seem to heighten the overall atmosphere of this section. The vocalist, the same as in the Tour de Japon, reprises her role and her voice is absolutely haunting. It brings the emotion of the melody to the forefront and ties the arrangement together.

Easily the best part of the entire arrangement is Michio Okamiya's take on "Wedding Waltz." Simply put, it is amazing. While it starts off rather poppy, the bubbly atmosphere really helps to lighten the mood, giving the feeling of a wedding before the crazy sections of the arrangement start. However, once Draco appears, also a reprise of the Tour de Japon performance, the sinisterness is brought out by the use of the organ. The culmination of the feud between lovers is about to begin, as well as the original portion of this arrangement. This is the highlight of the entire album. Heavy on the guitar riffs and percussion, the opera performers belt it out like there is no tomorrow. However, they don't do it alone! No, that's right. The Black Mages themselves provide a back up chorus! At first I was afraid, but man, they really are awesome and add so much to the track. The keyboard work and guitar work is superb as ever and the solos just add so much more to the track. It's a lovely performance.

The last section, once again arranged by Kenichiro Fukui, revisits the rock ballad heard in the Aria section of the opera. All the performers pour their hearts out with this one. As before, the piano really takes the forefront of the arrangement. The piece ends with a reprise of the aria sung by the female vocalist. As before, it's haunting and beautiful and makes a fitting end to the track. It's a shame that "Grand Finale?" wasn't included in this epic arrangement, but I'm not faulting it for that at all. What's here is simply amazing and it is the centerpiece for the album. (10/10)

10) Life ~ in memory of Keiten (Original Composition by Nobuo Uematsu)

There is a very sad story that accompanies this piece, and I feel it is my duty to fill you in before you make any judgments on this track. Here is the full story, quoted from Uematsu's blog:

In this album, there is a track which wasn't used in the video game of Final Fantasy. It is "LIFE", which is included as track number 10.

"About 8 years ago, I met a boy named Yoshitaka Tagawa who was 15 years old then. Yoshitaka (who is the biggest fan of Final Fantasy) was diagnosd with acute myeloid leukemia during his childhood and it was difficult for his doctor to expect how long he could live. I wished him to get better and presented him with the song "LIFE". After I presented him with that song, he started to participate in a lot of events of mine from far Kyushu with his mother. When I first met him, he seemed to lack energy, but while meeting him for several other times, he got energetic and smiled a lot. In fact, I met him at the Press Start concert last year, and he was full of vigor. Everybody around him was thinking confidently that he is getting better. However, on January 25, 2008, he suddenly passed away. I was really sad and was full of regret. I thought that the delightful things must have waited for him in his future. But no one can predict what's going to happen and he passed away.

Is life unequal? No, I don't want to think like that. I expect life to be fair and each of us has a equal role in their life. We also want you to know the meaning of his 22 years life and decided to include "LIFE" in this album. How hard life is if someone whom you love or someone who is important to you passed away suddenly. If I had known this would happen, I would have given him more opportunity to have fun, and I would have invited him to the recordings and the concerts more. But after the sad thing happened, it's too late even if I thought so. If you have a family, friends, a girlfriend or boyfriend whom you love, please send them your love and express your hearty thanks to them as much as you can at this moment. Yoshitaka let me know about the importance of it through his own experience.

Thank you, Yoshitaka. Rest in peace.
I'll always remember you with your wonderful smile." - Nobuo Uematsu

Now, this track is a piano solo written by Uematsu. This has to be one of the most emotional pieces Uematsu has ever written even outside of the story behind it. It's fairly short, but it tells such a long story in its 1:37 playtime. You just have to listen, that's all I can say. (10/10)


In a recent interview, Nobuo Uematsu stated that if this was his homemade beer, he'd finally be confident to mass market it. Well, I think that the statement is quite fitting. While some may be put off by the more experimental and softer arrangements, I think they offer a nice contrast to the compositions that tend to focus on the sound many fans have come to love. Overall, I find this to be their best effort and it was great to see every band member arrange for the album. Let's hope that, for the next Black Mages album, they arrange two pieces which have been ignored for too long: "The Legendary Beast" from Final Fantasy VIII and "The Fierce Battle" from Final Fantasy VI!

Overall Score: 10/10