By Nikita Alekseyevich Khrenov
Video games have a history of fantastic music: from the catchiness of the Tetris songs to the Legend of Zelda’s inspirational theme and Doom’s use of heavy metal samples, it all has a way of wriggling its way into your subconscious. When Final Fantasy VII, one of the most influential video games ever, gets remade completely, what’s the best way to honor the occasion? Some might replay the original for nostalgic purposes, well Knight of the Round went one step further and crafted a new record of heavy interpretations of choice tracks.
With their new album Seven, the band really pushed everything to the next level: the arrangements and the production are both top notch. The track list perfectly outlines the main story told within Final Fantasy VII but thankfully doesn’t spoil any key points of the plot for any newcomers to the game. The album starts just like the game, with the mysterious opening theme that leads right into the heart-pumping Bombing Mission. Tremolo picking and blast beats take the place of synth bringing the heaviness way down on an already inherently heavy song.
The rest of the record takes you through the main story of Final Fantasy VII, “Mako Reactor” keeps its trademark eeriness through the pounding double bass. “Anxiety” does exactly what it sets out to do, haunts the listener with dread of an unknown entity. Adding the motorcycle revving to the beginning of their revamped version of “The Chase” adds that extra bit of narrative connection to the game. The narrative connection is continued into “On Our Way” with the sounds of a roaring inferno and desperate screams worms its way through the serenity of the song.
Of course, what would a Final Fantasy soundtrack be without its battle themes? Knight of the Round’s version of “Let the Battles Begin!” starts with a bang and transports us right back into that familiar battle scene, coordinating our characters abilities to grind more experience. “JENOVA” is molded into a bonafide prog metal ripper with layers of synths and strings supporting the main band. The album closes with the perfect final boss theme, the iconic “One Winged Angel.” Complete with strings and choir, this song may just be some of Knight of the Round’s finest work. A perfect mix of the original composition with chunky riffs and bombastic drumming gives this classic song a fresh breath of life.
Knight of the Round took their passion for the Final Fantasy series and channeled it into this magnificent ode to the series. With their masterful application of metal elements and storytelling they honour the remake of Final Fantasy VII in the best way.
We recently spoke to Justin Taylor to speak to him about the process of crafting a Knight of the Round song, video game soundtracks, and the VGM music scene as a whole.
Nikita Khrenov: I gotta say you guys did a great job with Seven, and I was just wondering about what the process is for molding a Nobuo Uematsu track into a metal song. You know, some of them lend themselves to it but some don’t, and I wanted to get some insight into how you go about doing that.
Justin Taylor: It’s funny that you say that some lend themselves more than others because we typically try to start with the non-battle themes, because most people’s first go-to would be the boss music or the battle music but I find it more fun to do the non-battle music. I like to stick to more of the overworld themes over the battle themes, those are more fun to arrange. In terms of the process, once I get an idea of what I want to do I’ll learn a key melody or learn a part of the song that I want to do, most of that’s done by ear. Occasionally I’ll use a software like Jcom or something where it takes the sound files and isolates them so you can export the sound files learn them that way. What I do more often than not, just because I’m lazy, is I’ll take a song and put it in my audio workstation and just slow it down and loop it until I figure it out on guitar and kind of go from there.
NK: Right, so basically starting at the base and working your way up?
JT: Sometimes, most of the time I start working with the lead melody, whatever stands out the most. What I’ve learned through the process is that much of Uematsu’s music is so much more layered than what you think it is upon first listen. He’s really good at putting the underlying countermelodies and the dual layered kind of lead that you don’t necessarily hear or realize is going on, that’s been the biggest eye-opener in terms of his arrangement.
NK: Oh definitely, the man’s a genius. So then how do you go about balancing the metal influence in a song while keeping true to the original feel of the composition?
JT: That’s probably the hardest thing about what we do. I think this is something that we’ve gotten better at through the years, there’s some older songs where the original feel gets lost a little bit but that’s definitely something that I’ve focused on as the years have gone by. I remember that ultimately what I want to do is keep the original feel of the song. I probably have ten songs or so that I’ve shelved because the feel gets “too lost.” With the Seven album I feel like it’s our best work in that regard. The more memorable the song is: the harder it is to stray away from that source, so the feel of the original song is harder to lose. There are some songs in which it’s very hard to re-work the song without losing the feel, and those songs almost turn into straight cover songs.
NK: I get what you’re saying, I wouldn’t say it’s in full cover song territory though. You guys did a great job keeping it as close to the source material as possible, whereas some bands could have really changed a lot, like by adding a really techy solo.
JT: Yeah, well actually after I started creating the first KOTR demo songs, I was a part of the OverClocked Remix community for a few years, not sure if you’re familiar with them but it’s an VGM remix community and they heavily focus on original interpretations. You can’t just upload cover songs to OCR, there’s a fairly strict judge’s panel that gives honest feedback and I’ve learned A LOT from those guys and gals. They were very instrumental in getting me to focus on the feel of the song as opposed to doing note for note covers, but they also will deny songs that go too far off the rails.
NK: Right, it all has to be in a healthy balance. One song that comes to mind for me is the “Radiant Purgatory” track off Fate’s Delusion where you took the Golden Saucer theme from FFVII and threw it into a minor key, and it works incredibly well.
JT: Yeah, but I still feel like that song works but it doesn’t work in some respects.
NK: Why’s that?
JT: Well the whole point of the Golden Saucer is that it’s supposed to be joyous and uplifting and we just totally flipped it on its head in a cool way.
NK: Yeah but if you think about it, the Golden Saucer is pretty cruel, like Las Vegas.
JT: Yeah, with the idea that you could just get thrown down into the desert or purgatory, so I guess that’s a very good point.
NK: So, you and I both know that Final Fantasy VII is one of the most beloved of all the games in the franchise, probably tied with VI at this point.
JT: Definitely. I feel like there will forever be an ideological battle over which game is better. Anybody who participates in that debate will ever change their mind, so I try to stay away from that one.
NK: What I’d like to know, out of all the characters in the world of Final Fantasy VII, who would you have join you for a musical project, and why?
JT: I don’t know man, probably none of the main characters…maybe Barrett? I don’t know, it depends on what kind of music you’re trying to make. You can find some angsty teens in the slums and probably start a Nu-Metal band if you wanted to go that route.
NK: Yeah, well it was 1997.
JT: Or you could get a bunch of AVALANCHE members and start a politically motivated band.
NK: Alright, well what about a project that you would want to do outside of Knight of the Round?
JT: Ohhhh man, that’s a good question, I don’t know. I was actually brought back to that scene in Final Fantasy VIII where you had to choose what kind of music to play and all that shit. Actually, I just got Vincent Vibes for something like the Queen of the Damned soundtrack.
JT: Yeah, we could some like gothy industrial metal band with Vincent.
NK: Alright man let’s go with that.
JT: Yeah, he’ll just sing about how much he wants to kill Hojo and how he stole the love of his life and shit.
NK: Anyone else you’d have join to fill out a 4-person lineup?
JT: I don’t know man, I don’t think anyone else from the cast would fit in from that, I think we’d have to go NPCs. Actually, you know what? Johnny, Johnny from the slums, the dude that’s obsessed with Tifa?
NK: Oh yeah!
JT: Yeah, the dude you can miss throughout the entire game, but he’s brought up like ten times. I’m just gonna assume that he would make a good, angsty kind of teen and I think aside from that it would have to be other pissed off, “mad at the government and their parents” kids.
NK: So, it’s gonna be the Vincent kind of show, because no one else understands him.
JT: Right right, like he got dealt a shitty hand you know?
NK: Awesome, Vincent Valentine has his own gothic industrial metal band. I don’t see Cloud playing music.
JT: No, he has too much shit going on, he doesn’t even know who he is. That could make for some cool lyrics though, like if he was poetic it could be really cool.
NK: So maybe Cloud is ghost-writing for Vincent. Tifa may be playing the piano.
JT: Yeah yeah, that could work.
NK: Vincent has his own “Sadboi” band, I can dig that. Obviously, the video game music is just one part of the sound of the band so my question is what metal band would you want to hear cover a video game soundtrack?
JT: You know I almost don’t care what the band is as long as the band is doing it for the right reasons, you know? The last thing I want to see is a band doing it to just try to grab a niche crowd just because their label told them to or something. One band that comes to mind is The Black Dahlia Murder, because Brian and Trevor are huge nerds and if they would do even a VGM song, it would be killer because I know they’d have a blast doing it.
NK: So, what series would you wanna see them take on?
JT: It’d have to be something where they could still be themselves, something melodic and evil. Even if it was just a Castlevania album or something it would be pretty sick.
NK: One thing I’ve noticed nowadays is that a lot of current-day game soundtracks really aren’t as memorable as the classic songs and I don’t know if it was the technological limitations back then or the addition of more cinematic elements nowadays but it seems like the older songs we know are better written and more memorable. So, I was wondering if there were any modern video game soundtracks that catch your ear?
JT: Yeah, but I still find myself frequently paying attention to the soundtrack. Whether I’m playing older games or newer games, the soundtrack is definitely at the forefront for me. I’m not sure how far back you want to go, but probably my favorite soundtrack of the last ten years is from The Last of Us.” Gustavo Santaolalla absolutely killed it on that. It perfectly encompasses the story and the characters and the mood, everything. I also really like Austin Wintory’s work, from Journey and Abzu, just incredible soundtracks. Anything that [Mick] Gordon touches is always awesome, even Final Fantasy XV had a pretty awesome soundtrack.
NK: Yeah those are some pretty sweet soundtracks.
JT: I don’t think that current soundtracks are going to have the impact that the classic ones did. Like you said earlier, now that there’s voice acting and more cinematics and more storytelling going on… I mean I don’t know. It’s just a totally different ballgame now, and it’s nearly impossible to compare the two.
NK: Well we both agree that game music from before was more memorable. Maybe it was because there were shorter clips that looped or because of when we heard them, but good songs are timeless. I just feel there was more care put into crafting a better song back then.
JT: Maybe. Have you checked out the current-gen retro soundtracks where they do chiptune style songs in games like Fez or Crypt of the Necrodancer where it’s mostly chiptune music? Maybe since they’re using the shorter loops and what not. Then again, the gameplay on those is also very retro.
NK: I don’t know man; we could fill a whole convention panel with this question alone.
JT: Yeah, let’s do it! I’d be down.
NK: Alright, so the VGM cover band thing isn’t necessarily new but a lot of these bands are getting more and more attention these days. Where do you see this niche going in the next 5 years or so?
JT: It’s so hard to pin down what VGM-themed even is, so it’s really hard to say man, but I do see it continuing to grow. I predicted 10 years ago that the scene would blow up by now, and while it definitely got bigger, it hasn’t really “blown up” yet. I think that as more people shake off whatever stigma there is around it, because if you go up to random people and say “Hey I’m in a video game cover band” you’ll probably get a smirk off of a person, but the person that doesn’t laugh is gonna think it’s the coolest thing in the world. So, I think as music progresses and people get more open minded that the scene is just going to continue to grow. However, I’ll admit that it’s very possible that video game music might have a ceiling because I think you can only go so far with other people’s compositions but at the same time if you look at a band like Galactic Empire who’s doing the same thing but with Star Wars music, they’re able to tour the world with support of a record label and stuff. So, I don’t think it’s too far removed from that, obviously Star Wars is a bigger entity than most video game franchises.
I think the stigma is going to go away as video game culture gets more mainstream because there’s still people that think the image of a gamer is this guy wasting his life away playing video games in his parents’ basement. So, as that generalization goes away, the idea and appeal of video game music will broaden.
NK: I think the stigma is starting to go away with a lot of video-game associated people reaching celebrity status, and the culture gaining ground.
JT: Oh yeah, and I think that a lot of the older millennial spectrum like myself, we grew up with the latest days of the Atari, into the Nintendo, and the Super Nintendo, and Genesis, this was our childhood. They may have thought they had forgotten about the music, because I did, and it wasn’t until I heard the Minibosses do it that I remembered the music and it was like “How the hell did I remember these songs?” So, my first MAGFest was really special because I got to see that there’s tens of thousands of people that are into this and grew up with the same thing. It’s also a great way to connect with people, and I got to meet some of my best friends through these conventions that share the same passion.
So, I think once that realization hits the rest of my generation it’ll grow even more.
Find Knight of the Round’s music on bandcamp and all the rest!