01 - Legend of Ar tonelico III
02 - Singing Hill ~Harmonics TILIA~
03 - EXEC_EP=NOVA/.
04 - EXEC_FLIP_ARPHAGE/.
05 - Sands of Time
06 - EXEC_METEMPSYCHOSIS/.
07 - EXEC_REBIRTHIA=PROTOCOL/.
08 - EXEC_COSMOFLIPS/.
09 - Within the Light
10 - Ec Tisia
11 - Planet Gene
Ar tonelico III's hymmnos albums continue to move in a direction that no one would have guessed they'd go based on the first two hymmnos CDs (and, perhaps, not even the second two would have clued us in).
Side Blue features Akiko Shikata as the primary vocalist, though she also gets help from KOKIA and Yoko Ueno. These are great choices for support vocals. Yoko Ueno worked with Yasunori Mitsuda many times in the past, and also does some fantastic vocals on the Genso Suikoden II arrange album. KOKIA recently did the vocal theme for a new Tales game, and she too is quite good at the whole nasal-chant thing. So these vocalists are great additions to the Ar tonelico soundscape.
After setting the tone with an opening instrumental track, Gust gives us a full size version of the game's opening track. This is one strange opening track. It manages in to work in the themes of the other "Expressive Hill" (also translated "Singing Hill") opening themes from the previous games, but not until it's first given us some very strange sounds. More on comparisons of the three games' opening themes later in this review.
Next, EXEC_EP=NOVA. In this track, Shikata's voice is manipulated into this sort of hyper-bubbly harmonic pitch. I am reminded of the bonus track on Shikata's KARA*COLA hymmnos orgel collection. This is without question the strangest track on the album. When compared to Side Red's strangest track (also track 3), I am satisfied with this particular piece. Even so, it's not a piece I'd care to listen to on repeat. It's technically impressive, particularly because you can still make out each and every syllable, even with all those effects placed on the vocals. But super-sugar-sweet techno-pop isn't my favorite genre. It has its place in the Ar tonelico series, but I don't have to like it!
The next track is excellent. EXEC_FLIP=ARPHAGE opens with a 30 second solo melodic vocal that sounds like something I might expect to hear in a church 1000 years in the future. This church-like sound continues when the Reyvateil choir joins the solo voice. After the first minute, a looped percussion track brings life and power to this beautiful piece. In the background, you can begin to hear a violin. Later in the track, that violin gets center stage as a sort of techno-fiddle solo. This song has a lot of range to it in terms of dynamics and rhythmic bounce. The song stays in 4/4 common time the entire time, but there are moments where you might believe otherwise. Three cheers for syncopation.
"Toki no Suna" (Sands of Time) holds up that same level of quality we heard in track 4. The instrumental opening holds a slow, ocean-like 6/8 rhythm, but as soon as the ladies begin to sing, the rhythm changes to 5/8 and stays like that for much of the song. There are a lot of great instruments matching and imitating the vocalists' melody. Orgel, violin, bandneon (accordion), and other instruments get their chance to try and keep up with the vocalists. And, of course, the manipulated hymmnos choir harmony is awesome. The quick transitions from major to minor key and back is also impressive. Usually, such a technique would leave a song feeling disjointed, but there's something abundantly smooth within this piece despite the modal shifts.
The first time I listened to this album, having tracks 4 and 5 in a row was like a double whammy of pure hymmnos goodness. After many listens, both of these tracks rank high not just for this album, but for all six hymmnos albums to date.
EXEC_METEMPSYCHOSIS is another strong track, if only for the hymmnos chanting. This is a piece you can get lost in. I suspect the instrumental backing on this piece took a lot of specialty work on the part of the arrangers. In the span of 30 seconds in one part of the song, you can hear bandneon, didgeridoo, "tribal" ethnic percussion, and digital signals that sound like a morse code transmission. And, of course, Japanese and "hymmnos" being sung atop all of it. While this isn't my favorite piece melodically, it's a very technically impressive piece, and very much in the vein of previous Ar tonelico vocal tracks.
EXEC_REBIRTHIA=PROTOCOL marks the first true ballad on the album. This is KOKIA's time to shine, and shine she does. I'll let the audio sample speak for itself. It's a clear departure from the rest of the album's style, but there have been other ballads in the other Ar tonelico titles, so it was wholly expected here.
EXEC_COSMOFLIPS sounds like something from Enya, or a "Pure Moods" album, for the first two minutes. The latter half of the piece features some non-lyrical vocals that remind me of the Velvet Room music from the Persona series. Very operatic, very good. It's also sung (and written by) KOKIA.
"Within the Light" is another ballad, and though it's a beautifully melodic piece, it's probably my least favorite (other than NOVA and the instrumental tracks). Why? I find that the melody in the chorus is just a little too close to Nocturne (aka "The Boat Song") from Lunar: Silver Star Story. If I wanted to hear that melody, I'd go to the Lunar track instead of this one. But it's not the exact same melody... perhaps I'm just being too picky.
"Ec Tisia" (meaning: "Forgive Everything") is the final vocal track on the album, and it's also the end credits music for Ar tonelico III. I wasn't sure of this when I first listened, though the track time (nearly 9 minutes) clued me in to the possibility. How did I know? At the five minute mark, the song as I properly knew it ended, and in its place, the opening track from Ar tonelico I started. A shortened (90 second) version of this opening plays, with some minor adjustments made to the percussion. This then transitions to the opening for Ar tonelico II, and then finally a reprise of the Ar tonelico III opening. In the last 30 seconds, two voices ring out among radio static, singing the last few words before the piece dies.
I need to talk about what happens in this end credits track, because I really like it. The original section (the first four or five minutes) are great; but it's all building up to that triple-reprise. And let me tell you, when I first heard those drums hit, the birds call, and those four incredible opening vocal chants, it was like, "WOW!" Seriously, the opening piece for the first Ar tonelico just puts everything else in a whole new light. And by "a whole new light," what I mean is that this series has had its musical highs and lows, but that opening theme for the first game is one of its highest points without question. Hands-down, this 90 second reprise of the first opening stands, towering above the other pieces, as the pinnacle of vocal quality. When the second opening takes its place, it's a tad bit disappointing. The piece is essentially a variation of the first one's melody, but with some weird vocal effects put into place. And then, the third opening? It's in the same 6/8 rhythm and still uses a lot of drums, and it's ridiculously loud, but it just can't stand up to the first game's opening track. I like what it's doing, I like the depth and richness of the vocals, but you just cannot top that first opening track. It's insane how good it is. I'm glad they worked it into this end credits track, just to remind us all of what a great tradition Gust started with this whole "hymmnos" fictional language, the Reyvateils, the chanting, all of it... it makes me grin from ear to ear.
The ending instrumental track, "Planet Gene," gently lowers us out of the fantastic world of Ar tonelico, and back to reality. The heartbeat at the opening slowly fades and gives way to a melody held first by piano, and then by various pipes and whistles (the standby instruments for Celtic fusion). As far as instrumental arrangements go, this is a pretty good ending track, though I suspect I would've been just as happy if the end credits track had brought the CD to closure.
All in all, this is an excellent contribution to the hymmnos albums of the Ar tonelico series. I cannot say the same of side Red (SUZUNO=MIYA), unfortunately. If you want something new, strange, wonderful, and enjoyable in your VGM collection, please consider this album. I'm already counting it among the best albums of the year, though the year has hardly begun, because I can't imagine many other albums topping this one.
Reviewed by: Patrick Gann