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GAME - Piano Squall

[back cover]
Catalog Number: N/A
Released On: June 30, 2007
Composed By: Various
Arranged By: Michael "Piano Squall" Gluck, Shiro Hamaguchi, Shiro Satou, Michael Huang
Published By: N/A
Recorded At: Unknown
Format: 1 CD
Tracklist:

01 - Scars of Time (Chrono Cross)
02 - TANK! (Cowboy Bebop)
03 - The Athlete's Rag (Super Mario World)
04 - Cruel Angel's Thesis (Evangelion)
05 - Frog's Theme (Chrono Trigger)
06 - Decisive Battle with Magus (Chrono Trigger)
07 - Sadness and Sorrow (Naruto)
08 - Vamo' alla Flamenco (Final Fantasy IX)
09 - Korobeiniki (Tetris)
10 - Bratja (Fullmetal Alchemist)
11 - Dr. Wily's Castle Stage 1 (Mega Man II)
12 - Every Heart (InuYasha)
13 - 1000 Words (Final Fantasy X-2)
14 - Kiss Me Goodbye (Final Fantasy XII)
15 - The Prelude (Final Fantasy)
16 - Ending Theme (Final Fantasy)
17 - Final Fantasy Battle Medley
     - Battle with Gilgamesh (Final Fantasy V)
     - Dancing Mad (Final Fantasy VI)
     - The Last Battle (Final Fantasy IX)
     - Fight 2 (Final Fantasy IV)
     - Normal Battle (Final Fantasy X)
     - The Decisive Battle (Final Fantasy VI)
     - Those Who Fight Further (Final Fantasy VII)
     - Liberi Fatali (Final Fantasy VIII)
     - One Winged Angel (Final Fantasy VII)
     - Victory Fanfare (Final Fantasy)
18 - Boss Battle (Original Composition)
Total Time:
49'28"

Videogame music fans have a lot of reasons to buy the new piano arranged album called GAME by Michael Gluck. First of all, it's an American-made arranged videogame album which isn't all too common in the first place. Furthermore, it's relatively cheap at only $9.99, and 20% of the profits are donated to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Michael Gluck, aka "Piano Squall", has been playing and arranging videogame and anime music on the piano since he was a child. 4 years ago, he started giving concerts at various Anime and videogame conventions around the country. During this time, he was able to raise money for many different causes–but none more important to him than multiple sclerosis, as he watched his grandmother suffer from the disease in the last 10 years of her life.

For his debut album called GAME (short for Game & Anime Music Emotions), Michael Gluck is going to donate 20% of the profits to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and has partnered with EA who will also match his donation for the cause.

The album contains 18 tracks performed on the piano and includes many famous pieces of music such as a medley of many Final Fantasy battle themes, as well as songs from RPGs like Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Even non-RPG games like Super Mario World and Mega Man II are represented, as are popular anime, including Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop.

So, how good is the CD? Read on to find out.

Overall, I would have to say that the album is quite good but of course it isn't perfect and the album could be great as much as it could be disappointing; it all depends on your taste in style of music. In this review I will concentrate mostly on the RPG themes of the soundtrack since this is what we cover on the website. I also won't go into technical merits of the performance since I'm not a piano player and I don't have the expertise to do so. All I can say is that I personally thought the performances were great. For a more technical review, check out Patrick Gann's review.

The CD starts off with a rendition of Scars of Time from Chrono Cross and, although I really enjoyed the first minute of the song, I wasn't a fan of the faster tempo that followed. Then again, this is hardly a problem with Gluck's arrangement since that was my opinion of the original song in the first place and Michael simply stayed true to the original. Overall, a really nice start for the CD.

We then get 2 songs from Chrono Trigger in Frog's Theme and Decisive Battle with Magus. The 2 tracks are very well done but lacked length. You get the feeling that Michael wanted to pack so many different songs into one CD that he had to cut a lot of songs short by playing them only for a minute or so. Of course that can be either good or bad depending on your point of view.

Next comes a rendition of Vamo' alla Flamenco from Final Fantasy IX. Personally I found it a bit disappointing because of the fact that this song was already arranged for the piano in Final Fantasy IX Piano Collection so I was hoping for songs that had never been arranged for the piano in this CD. Nevertheless, the arrangement was pretty good and did not try to emulate the version from Piano Collection so they both have their own style.

The later portion of the CD consists mostly of Final Fantasy music since you get a series of 5 consecutive Final Fantasy songs in a row totaling over 20 minutes of music. 1000 Words from Final Fantasy X-2 and Kiss me Goodbye from Final Fantasy XII sounded really good to me...but since I didn't play those games, they didn't really stand out as much since I was unfamiliar with the original work. This is then followed by The Prelude from Final Fantasy and the Final Fantasy Ending Theme. Prelude is exactly what you would expect from a piano rendition and Ending Theme was a little too busy and bombastic for my taste. I personally would have preferred a more soothing sound for this song.

This brings us to the last RPG song on the CD, and it's a big one. A medley of Final Fantasy battle themes from Final Fantasy IV all the way to Final Fantasy X. At almost 12 minutes long, there's really not much I can say about it except for "Wow." It's not perfect, but a lot of work has been put into this medley and as such the performance is very enthusiastic and you can tell Michael had a blast putting this one together and playing it. As a fan of softer piano, it made me wish for a medley of Final Fantasy love songs. Oh well...maybe next time.

As for the rest of the CD, there are a couple of nostalgic songs from non-RPGs like Super Mario World, Tetris and Mega Man II which were enjoyable to listen to since they bring back a lot of memories. As for the Anime songs on the CD, since I don't watch Anime, I can't really comment on those. All I can say is that I wasn't a fan of most of the songs, except maybe for Sadness and Sorrow which happens to be my kind of piano song (soft and slow).

Overall, I would have to say that GAME is a pretty good CD, especially for people who love piano and especially those who love the frantic and bombastic style of playing. As mentioned before, the CD is not perfect and even if I have a few minor gripes with it, at $9.99 with a portion of the money going to charity, you really can't go wrong with this CD and it's definitely a must buy for anybody who loves videogame or Anime music.

Reviewed by: Eric Farand

I'm going to start this review with a confession: I don't like Piano Squall. Or rather, I didn't like him. When I first heard of the guy, I thought, "wow, okay, some nerdy guy cosplays as Squall Leonhart and plays piano and is really sociable ... that's nothing like Squall." I was also, secretly, jealous that the man was doing something he loved to do, and something that I think I would love to do: and that is, perform game and anime music for crowds at conventions and festivals. That's hip.

Michael Gluck, the man behind the "Piano Squall" cosplay, has been doing this for quite some time. He gained notoriety among VGM circles and elite Otaku groups. After some time, ol' Gluck decided to release his debut album, GAME. By now, I had gotten past my "angry anti-Western-doujin" snobbery (note, as an aside, that RPGFan still does not cover actual Japanese doujin albums, but we do cover Western fanmade CDs so long as they're properly licensed). Even so, I still didn't think I'd like his album all that much.

It turns out, I did like it! I liked it quite a bit, and I also appreciate the fact that Gluck is putting some money to charity. You gotta respect a guy like that.

But, there are problems. Piano Squall may be a great pianist, and is certainly an excellent performer live, but these 18 recorded tracks have their fair share of problems. If anything, though, it's taught me just how lucky we are to have professional arrangements and performances, particularly the "Final Fantasy Piano Collections," in our midst. Those albums are truly top-notch.

Where to begin...alright, let's talk about rhythm and tempo. Gluck has a few issues here. Some of these can, and should, be written off as "artistic license/liberty" since some songs just aren't made to go from ten instruments down into one. But other places, the problems lie in Gluck's ability as a performer to maintain a decent rhythm. I'll name a few specifics now.

In the opening arrangement, "Scars of Time" (the opening piece from Chrono Cross), we see two time-based problems. No, time travel and dimension travel are not what I'm talking about. One is the impulse to go from extremely slow to extremely fast, and back again. Gluck does this many times on the album, including his otherwise-outstanding arrangements of the Mega Man II and Tetris songs. When accelerating into a new piece, one has to do it steadily, not in a way that jerks the song around. Even in a song like "Scars of Time" that has a sudden tempo change, there is a graceful way to make it happen. It doesn't happen here.

The other problem comes from the nature of the melody, and Gluck's choice to use his right hand to play octaves and large chords along an extremely brisk melody. Lines that were meant to be triplets get turned into drawn-out 8th notes, sometimes going beyond the beat (or measure) they originally belonged within. This is a minor problem, however, compared to the next piece...

I'm sorry, but "TANK!" got butchered. In Gluck's defense, this is one of the *hardest* pieces to do as a solo work. There's a reason the song is played by a jazz band. You simply need different people handling different parts of the song. The bass line is running some drag triplets, but the melody (played by the brass and sax) is a jerky little line of 16th notes displaced with irregular rests. Yoko Kanno did an excellent job writing this piece, because altogether, the piece still holds out a standard 4/4 time signature, even with all the rhythmic complexity going on around it. Not so in Gluck's arrangement. In fact, the rhythm is actually broken so that the time signature is broken. You can hear the left hand's drag triplets speed up to fit alongside the right hand melody near the end of every other measure (which shouldn't happen). The result is, technically, something along the lines of a 15/8 time signature, or some other complex nonsense that, unfortunately, just doesn't work. Again, I will defend Gluck; I tried using my hand and just tapping out the *rhythm* to each separate line on my own, and guess what? I can't do it. Not even close. So if I can't do it by tapping, I'm sure it's even harder to do when you have to hit specific keys. Maybe this song just wasn't made to be played on one instrument.

Gluck directly borrows arrangements from FFV, FFVII, and FFIX Piano Collections (as he mentions in the liner notes), but his performances are not up to par with what is recorded on those original CDs. Also, the CD's tracklist has an error, listing the FFVII "Those Who Fight Further" in the battle medley. In fact, "...Further" is the boss battle, but what we hear is Shiro Hamaguchi's piano arrangement of the standard boss fight, simply entitled "Those Who Fight." Fans may remember this piano arrangement played during the Tifa/Loz battle in Advent Children.

Gluck's own arrangements (which make up the vast majority of the album) rely way too heavily on easily left-hand work, particularly octave-pounding. Shiro Hamaguchi's arrangements focused on arpeggiation in the left hand, and Hamauzu used interesting chord work, typical of impressionism (7ths everywhere!). In comparison, Gluck's arrangements are weak, particularly in the realm of FF and other RPGs.

Indeed, some of the "arrangements" aren't much more than a transposition to piano. This shows by the brevity of certain pieces. Both "Korobeiniki" from Tetris and "Dr. Wily's Castle" from Mega Man II were much shorter than they could have, or should have, been. I loved Gluck's arrangement of these pieces: The Dr. Wily Stage 1 piece is ridiculously good. But under 2 minutes? Come on! With some creativity and a lot of painstaking work with Gluck's co-arranger, Michael Huang, that piece could have easily been a five minute masterpiece. And, despite what Eric said, there was no need to keep tracks short so they would "fit" on this album. The CD only runs to 50 minutes; there was room for more. Note that I'm not complaining about the disc's length! Putting 50 minutes into an arranged album is much better than many Japanese-released arranged albums. But ultimately, certain songs got "the shaft" and as a result turned out weaker than some fans may have wanted.

That's enough complaining. Let's talk about the good stuff.

Short as they may be, the Chrono Trigger pieces are great. And, using Frog and Magus back-to-back was a great idea. I really enjoyed this part of the album.

Despite what Eric Farand thinks, I thought Vamo' alla Flamenco was a very worthy addition to the list. I dare say I prefered sections of this arrangement to what we heard from Louis Leerink on the actual Final Fantasy IX Piano CD. Kudos, Mr. Piano Squall!

In general, the anime themes were weak, but I did (like Eric) enjoy the Naruto piece. It turned out very well for this solo piano recording.

Oh, and then there's the battle medley. I'm sure Gluck has spent years perfecting and reworking this thing. And it shows! This 11-minute recording is easily the best thing about this album. Why? Let me tell you why.

The man opens with the Gilgamesh theme (also known as "Battle on the Big Bridge"). This isn't an easy piece. Now, Gluck is using Shiro Satou's arrangement, which is technically less complex than later FF Piano albums, so it's a good warm-up number. But it still sounds great. Then, we jump into that four-part piece of chaos that is the FFVI final battle theme, "Dancing Mad." Now, Gluck did not perform the entire song, or even small sections of all four parts. It looks like he avoided the actual "final" battle music, vs. Kefka. It's a good thing too, because that piece is absurdly difficult, and is definitely meant for a fusion-jam band and a good rock organist. The part he does bring out is the Baroque section, and this turns out to sound wonderful!

Okay, and the next part is a true highlight for me. The final battle from Final Fantasy IX, arranged by Shiro Hamaguchi, performed by Michael Gluck. This is no joke, my friends. This song is the real deal, and it is hard to play! Gluck stumbles at one point, and uses fermata and other "stall tactics" like it's his job, but can you blame him? This song is CRAZY difficult. And it sounds great, all in all. It transitions into the boss battle from Final Fantasy IV. This was a great choice since both pieces use a one-measure left hand pattern in C minor. They were meant to go together, and I was happy to see Gluck do just that.

Next up, the regular battle theme from FFX. This is a great choice, particularly because it never received any official arrangements from Square to date. It's a direct synth-to-piano transposition, but the result is lovely. Trust me. Such is the case, as well, with the FFVI boss battle music "Decisive Battle." This particularly arrangement, however, only goes for a short time, so we're off to the next thing.

As I said earlier, the next part of the medley is mis-credited. What you're actually hearing is "Those Who Fight," arranged for the FFVII Piano Collection by Shiro Hamaguchi. This is another tough one to play, and I thought that Gluck rushed his performance a bit. Then again, you have to keep the momentum going in a medley like this. I enjoyed this section. Next up was Liberi Fatali, which, technically, isn't a battle theme at all. Yes, the opening to FFVIII is fast-paced and features a scene of Squall and Seifer fighting, but it's not exactly battle material. Whatever it is, Gluck did a great job with this one.

And then it all ends with a very obvious choice: One Winged Angel. Yeah, I bet you saw that coming. Instead of using Hamaguchi's arrangement from the Piano Collection (certainly a very difficult piece), Gluck used an arrangement by his friend and co-arranger Michael Huang. While slightly easier on the technical side, this arrangement includes a lot of the frills and trills of the original that aren't found in the Hamaguchi arrangement. My only gripe with this arrangement was the part near the end with the left-hand bass line playing the stand-alone "march" bit. You know ... assuming it's in D minor (which it is in the original piece), the pattern would go D E D E D E C#, D F D D D E C# ... musicians, follow along with me here. See that italicized F? The minor third? It makes all the difference in the world. But Gluck doesn't use it! He puts another E in its place! Noooo!

Alright, so maybe I'm being a little too picky.

Wrap up that track with a cute little victory dance, and you're done. Then we reach the final piece, which isn't a piano recording at all. It's a piece of original music, in full synthesized glory. I really enjoyed this song, and it proves that Western musicians can write decent VGM without making it sound like a film score. It gives me hope for the future.

All in all, I enjoyed the album. I certainly enjoyed critiquing it, as you can see. But even with its flaws, even if it downright reeks of fan-based work, it is still great stuff. You really won't find anything like it anywhere else. And, I don't care if we've hammered this message down your throat: you're getting it anyway. IT'S FOR A GOOD CAUSE!!! Head to PianoSquall.com to pick up your own copy for a mere $10.

Reviewed by: Patrick Gann



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