The Gust Sound Team has a long history, mostly on the Atelier series, of composing a blend of what could be called RPG world music. Like the genre from the 90s, there is a strong Celtic flair, with nods to middle eastern, old European, and feudal east Asian themes and instrumentation. While I have long been a fan of their work, it is the Ar Tonelico series that has really brought out the heights of their creativity and talent. Born from the imagination of one of the Sound Team’s lead composers, Akira Tsuchiya, the Ar Tonelico series weaves music, philosophy, art, and deeply emotional and thoughtful storytelling into a compelling narrative and provocative setting. While I will refer to Ar Tonelico as the name of the series throughout this article, I certainly do not mean to exclude the Nosurge games.
The setting is a sci-fantasy future where humans have long since unlocked the link between physical matter and consciousness and created sentient bio-machines capable of transcending the limits of the two. However, the timeline is at a twilight of humanity, where most of the world has become uninhabitable, and the remnants of humanity now live on small islands, in city states that remain largely isolated from each other. Humanity has been in slow decline, at the mercy of the inhospitable earth below, their bio-mechanical overlords above, and a growing energy and resource crises in between. Their technology is a mix of early industrial era mechanical engineering, computers and networks that we would find normal, and a type of transcendent technology called wave science that relies on combining computer programming with the programming of the will through music and song (partially sung in real languages and partially in a fictional language called Hymnnos.)
Bringing the music of Ar Tonelico to life in-game required stretching into new compositional territory. Lyrics quickly alternate between java like instructions and esoteric multi lingual poetry, layered in-between dense compositional themes inspired from all over the world but tinged with a mix of fantasy and electronic-trance. When composing the Hymnnos songs, the Gust team cuts no corners, and their efforts have inspired thousands of hours of translation and interpretation of the works by a dedicated fan base. This is, in part, because Hymnnos, while fictional, is a complex family of languages, and both the music’s normal words and computational instructions are given in blends of Hymnnos, Japanese, and Latin-ish lines with all the poetry of a well written but foreign work. Additionally, each piece is packed with contextual meaning from the immediate plot, the setting and its history, and the interests of the singing character. Musically, it is all very inspiring and rewarding on multiple levels. Gust has wisely sold these works on separate albums titled Hymnnos Concerts. Each game has two or more Hymnnos albums associated with it, and these contain all of the major Hymnnos themes for that game.
But, this is not that.
Each game also has a soundtrack. The soundtrack contains all of the other music: short sound clips, lesser hymnnos pieces, and all of the various environment and combat tracks one hears throughout the game. Personally, I love them. The slightly apocalyptic sci-fantasy and distinctly troubled feel of the setting comes out. Many of the pieces contain touches of the heights of the Hymnnos Concert albums, but tend to rely more on lower quality synths, simpler (though not often simple) melodies, few vocals, and are designed to loop and be enjoyable to hear for extended periods by being not overly climactic and making rare use of dissonant chords or harmonics. Due to being comprehensive, and the games having throw-away tracks, the soundtracks have lows that could make one question their value. The Ar nosurge soundtrack is no exception, and while it weighs in at a hefty three cds, there is about one cd worth of great music, one of good, and another that could probably be discarded.
I would like to point out that there really are not many tracks that are technically bad or low quality. There are just many that are simple, add nothing to the genre, or could have fit in any other game. It is because of the unique and high standard that the Ar Tonelico series sets that many of these tracks come short and may reduce the value of the album for those who are not prepared. On the other hand, if you know what to expect, you can enjoy an impressive array of science-fantasy themed world music-ish pieces alongside jaunty Gust Sound Team melodies that will sound familiar to fans of any of their games. You can also appreciate some impressive techniques in game music composition, all while accepting that about a 3rd of the soundtrack is there simply because Gust isn’t going to leave anything out.
In my prior reviews, I have tended to touch on individual tracks, but I think conveying the essence of the setting is far more valuable here. It is the depth and beauty behind the music that makes it unique. The setting is profound, both philosophically and artistically, and worth a look. As an intricate part of the setting, the music is similarly deeply crafted and designed to tell its own stories. While a thorough appreciation may require doing some reading, I hope I’ve given you enough of what goes behind it so that you can appreciate this album with a greater depth, even if you have never played the game or experienced the accessory materials. I encourage you to listen to the samples available here and to also lookup our reviews on the Hymnnos albums to experience the difference.
As for if you should buy this or not, if you have experienced any of the Ar Tonelico soundtrack albums, this one is on par, with unique contributions. It is also quite long, and that may appeal to you. If you only have interest in the Hymnnos tracks, the Ar nosurge soundtrack is sparse compared to the Ar Tonelico soundtracks and so you may want to overlook this and stick to the Hymnnos Concert albums. Also, the samples I am providing are my favorite tracks, so bear in mind this is not a representative sample and there are about 30 tracks that are utterly skippable.