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Final Symphony

If you took a look at my YouTube VG playlist you'd note the majority of the tracks are pulled from before the turn of the millennium. It could be the heightened awareness of youth soaking in every piece of stimuli, or simply today's orchestral-heavy soundtracks lacking the catchy punch of yesteryear's iconic gaming moments, but it's far easier for the older musical accompaniments to stir the emotions.

I think about this because I took delivery of a vinyl version of Final Symphony, the orchestral and heavily rearranged recording of some iconic pieces from the Final Fantasy series. It led me to think question a couple of things: can game music still resonate with the player if it's restructured? And can orchestral pieces offer emotional impact? Offhand the last piece of game music that proved everlasting in my memory was O'Donnell's Halo suite (though his main Destiny theme also raises hairs on the back of the neck).

But Final Symphony proves a good discussion point over the recording of classic video game scores. Because it forces us to ask the question as to what we should expect from rendering familiar themes into live orchestral performances: do we want the music untouched, or altered?

The Symphonic Game Music Concerts, originating out of Germany, have taken a different, grander approach to popular pieces by rearranging tracks, restructuring and merging themes into suites that pay homage to the essence of a game's music, rather than playing the original score note for note.

I was in the audience for one of their most recent concerts last year in London, as the London Symphony Orchestra tackled The Legend of Zelda series as part of the Symphonic Legends tour. My ear struggled to pick up familiar pieces, as these were interwoven into contemporary-styled arrangements. Very different to the likes of Video Games Live which focused on key tracks near identical to how they're played in-game. I was no less swept along by the music, but emotional connection to franchise story beats were for the most, however, set aside. To put it another way: a few seconds of Final Fantasy VII music played during the E3 reveal was enough to bring tears to my eyes and for my stomach to twist. At the Zelda concert I was enthralled, but detached.

And initially, for the opening track Fantasy Overture, that's how I felt with Final Symphony, a new studio recording of Final Fantasy music rearranged and played on tour, with a few extra encores tossed in. Fantastically produced, but I struggled to pick out recognisable themes that keyed in with our memories of the series. That is, until the second track - the 18 minute-long Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem.

I stuck the album on while working in the office, and maybe it was the structure, perhaps it's because FFVI has some of the best music of the franchise to date, but I simply had to stop what I was doing, and give this amazing piece my full attention as it built to its climax. And then skip back, and savour it all over again. Suddenly the concept behind this album clicked, and since then it's been on nearly non-stop on my player. Maybe it's due to my heavy emotional investment in the Final Fantasy titles chosen for this track-listing, but the work here is stellar. Powerful, yet deeply intimate.

Admittedly that's with well over a decade of memories and listening to the original soundtracks over and over. That stuff's ingrained on the brain and hotwired into my heart, but so Zelda, and the concert hadn't this effect on me. Perhaps it's the setting: sitting alone with a headset on is closer to the how and when I first heard this music. Concert halls offer a grandeur TV speakers or headphones can't, but you're also in a completely different situation from how you experienced that music to begin.

I'll just hope some DJ decides to do a Ridge Racer session at a local club, and test the theory.

(If you want to check out the Final Symphony piece, cock your ears to here.)