Hoshiyomi (Reading the Stars) is one of two vocal albums for Ar tonelico, the PS2 RPG developed by Gust and Banpresto. Though the other vocal album (and the OST) were printed by Team Entertainment, this album was published by Hats Unlimited, likely due to rights regarding the vocalists. The majority of the vocals on this album are performed by Akiko Shitaka, though Yuko Ishibashi does perform on two tracks (4 and 9).
Let's take a look at this album from beginning to end.
The opening track uses the song "A Requiem's Melody" for its music, then adds the girl who likes to spell the word "Ar tonelico." This girl, who declares her name to be "Mule" at the end of the song, whispers a number of other weird computer-techy things during the song. A male voice also says some strange stuff, all in English. This opening track gives you the feeling that you're about to be immersed in a strange world that is one part organic and two parts artificial.
After this two minute opener, we get the opening song "Expressive Hill" from the OST. As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the two versions. It's the exact same song. If you don't own the OST, however, it's good to have this song. It is, without a doubt, one of the best songs ever to come from the Gust Sound Team.
"EXEC_CHRONICLE_KEY/." is one of my favorite songs on the album. Taking one of the game's simple melodies and building upon it with layers of voices, this majestic anthem is enough to knock you off your feet. The true strength of this song is the dynamic use of vocals. Sometimes we are treated to a large choir, other times a melody/counter-melody section, still other times a solo performance from Shitaka. I can hardly think of a better song in this style.
"York of Love" (which I suspect is a typo, it should be "Yolk of Love") is the first of two songs performed by Yuko Ishibashi. This soft, 3/4 lullaby-ballad is held together with a lovely guitar and mandolin accompaniment, and Ishibashi often uses harmonies of 4ths and 5ths to create a sound that is exotic, strong, and beautiful. In this song I am reminded of many of Risa Ohki's performances, especially on the Final Fantasy vocal albums.
Taking a break from the vocals, "Memories of a Gentle Breeze" is an orgel instrumental piece. It is as soft as it is short (less than 3 minutes). This interlude serves well when listening to the full album, but if you're just looking to listen to great vocal performances, this song is an easy one to skip, as it is not praiseworthy.
"Misya Extracting" is the most upbeat and in-your-face track on the album: needless to say, I love it. The nasal-chant style that is now a trademark of Gust Sound Team introduces the song, but there's a lot more where that came from. Running at four minutes, we get to hear a lot of interesting uses of the human voice. Behind this, angry electric guitars and pulse-pounding beats (reminiscent of Shadow Hearts) carry the song forward. If you're in the mood for a powerhouse of crazy sounds and a strange, mystical vocal performance to glue it all together, this is the song you're looking for.
"EXEC_HARMONIUS/." is the longest song on the album, clocking in at nearly six minutes. I suppose the best way for me to describe this song to you is to take CHRONICLE_KEY, extend its time, and do away with the dynamic vocals (just have lots of large choir work). I was not exactly impressed by this song, though the song is not without its strengths. The dynamics (in terms of pure volume) are decent. The opening minute stays soft, and then the burst of energy comes at roughly 1:40. The organ sound gives the song a bit of a religious overtone, which is always a nice effect.
Shitaka's last performance comes in the form of the album's title track, Hoshiyomi (Reading the Stars). This song is another airy 3/4 piece, but Shitaka's voice makes for an overall performance that can only be described as gorgeous.
Ishibashi finishes her two-part work on this album with "Song of the Gentle Breeze." After being given a sample of this melody with the interlude, the song already feels familiar to the listener. The irregular time signature (an extra measure thrown in here and there) combined with the haunting melody and chord progression make for some lovely sounds. The Italian-style mandolin solo is slightly cliché, but overall brilliant. This is a song to help you calm down after a hard day of working (or gaming).
The final track is an instrumental piece: and it is amazing! Making use of the same melodies in CHRONICLE_KEY and also containing a medley of songs from the OST, this five minute piece is enough to make you start a bonfire and start dancing in circles (complete with tambourine in hand!). As the song fades out, the opening choir of "Expressive Hill" echoes in the distance. Talk about stellar production!
Between the Blue (Ao) and Red (Aka) albums, I'm not sure which I prefer. This album has a more unique set of tracks, whereas Red is just consistently awesome. If you're a fan of Gust's work, you may as well purchase both albums. Otherwise, if you don't like this kind of music (which I can hardly imagine), avoid it. The samples will guide you on the path that is noble and right! Take a listen!
Reviewed by: Patrick Gann