In 2010, when the soundtrack to the first NieR (Gestalt & RepliCant) launched, it did not take long for the music to gain traction. But Square Enix likely did not know quite the hit they had in their hands. It took eight months post-OST to release a single-disc set of DLC tracks, unreleased tracks, and a few arrangements. It would take another year — which is to say, 18 months after the game’s release — before a formal arranged album was published. That album, “echo,” was a Premium/Tribute style arrangement: each track featured a different artist giving their own, unique take on one track from the game’s OST. Also, it was and is an amazing album.
(Worthwhile aside, to which I will return: in 2012, two years after NieR’s release, Square Enix released a Piano Collection for NieR.)
This preamble is written for you, dear reader, so that you can recognize Square Enix’s choice to seize an opportunity. Not only have they released two Blu-ray concert albums since the release of the NieR: Automata OST, but in that same eight month timeframe, they’ve combined the equivalents of “15 Nightmares” and “echo” in a two-disc release — NieR: Automata Arranged & Unreleased Tracks. That’s right: Square Enix’s Music department was already putting together this album, and I would have to feign surprise if someone told me musicians were lining up for the opportunity to be a part of the project.
But, first, let’s visit the boring part. A quick note about these Unreleased Tracks: you’ll notice that we are essentially looking at six versions of the same base song (Birth of a Wish), alongside two versions of Possessed by Disease. Why release these separately? Strangely enough, the lack of having both the Japanese and English chants to some of the machine-chant pieces on the OST led to a number of complaints. Furthermore, these songs were expanded in the game’s sole DLC, a battle arena mode. They even added two versions for the arena’s crazy-hard bosses: the CEOs of Square Enix and Platinum Games, respectively. This is a nice addendum to have alongside the OST, but it would have served better as a bonus disc, or even a digital-only freebie. Compared to the “HACKING TRACKS” append disc, this Unreleased Disc is rather monotonous and is perhaps best classified as “for completionists only.”
Now, to the main event. There is a part of me that wants to do a track-by-track analysis, especially considering each track is arranged and performed by a different individual or group. However, I think that it may be easier to classify the arrangements into two main categories: 1) using existing tracks and enhancing them with new recordings and/or editing the original audio; 2) recording new audio from scratch. As best as I can tell, four of the songs fit into the first category, and the other eight are in the second category.
For some great examples of the former, “City Ruins,” “End of the Unknown,” and “Pascal” are really fantastic. ATOLS’s “End of the Unknown” changes the tempo and adds a ton of effect-laden drum loops. The same could be said of Ryu Kawamura’s “Pascal,” though that may have even more distortion and distinction from its original counterpart than ATOLS’s work.
As for the latter? There are so many great things going on, because some arrangements are fully acoustic, whereas others embrace the electronic soundscape of Automata. My favorite fully-acoustic tracks are “Song of the Ancients – Atonement” and “Alien Manifestation.” The former track has no vocals: the makeup of the performing group here is a string quartet and a bandoneon (a cousin to the accordion) played by one Jun Hayakawa. If you had pitched this idea to me before I had heard it, I’d have written it off as a bad idea — and I’d have been wrong. This arrangement is totally unique, and it feels really good. As for “Alien Manifestation,” your instrumental lineup is trumpet, shamisen, guitar, and lots of percussion. The lead trumpet sounds so good. It sounds so good that I’d like to play the game with this track as a substitution for its original counterpart just to hear what it’s like.
There is one painfully weak instrumental track here: Sachiko Miyano’s interpretation of “Mourning.” Conceptually, it was a great idea. The entire track is performed on a single instrument: a traditional pipe organ (performance by Yuka Ishimaru). I don’t know what went wrong. But somewhere between the arrangement, the performance, and the recording, the beauty of the song is lost in a muddled wall of sound that irritates the ears too much to enjoy. I tried listening to this track on four different sets of speakers, just to make sure the problem wasn’t the equipment. But, no matter what I did, even if I played with equalization on my PC, there was no cleaning the muddied sound of pipe-organ-Mourning. Perhaps next time, Sachiko Miyano can do a similar arrangement for solo piano (I told you I’d come back to that topic!).
Now, two very impressive vocal tracks I must speak about! First, ZANIO’s “Weight of the World.” This is a soulful J-pop male ballad version, using the English lyrics. The most impressive part about it, for me, is that the chord progression in the chorus has been entirely re-tooled. It is a completely different creature than the original version. It is happier, emphasizing the major chords over the minor chords, without diminishing the impact of the melody. I was unaware that this could be done, but … there it is. Count me impressed!
I am even more impressed, however, by “Emil.” Like SotA, Emil is a track whose origins go back to NieR in 2010. But what could make Emil work better for Automata? Without spoiling too much … if you’ve played the game, remember the history of what Emil had to do in the war against the alien invaders? Remember the secret fight, the super-hard optional battle in Automata? Now … what could help us make sense of all of those events using audio alone? I have an answer for you, but it comes from an entirely other franchise.
It hit me like a ton of bricks, as I first listened to this arrangement of Emil … someone had hymmnos’d Emil! It was perfect! Emi had already created her fictional “Chaos” language, but Ar tonelico had “hymmnos” long before that. And that unique sound, the wail of thousands of half-human, half-mechanical voices that call out to the world to bring magic and miracles to a broken world… what a perfect blend! So I had to know, who did this? Was it Noriko Mitose? Daisuke Achiwa? Maybe the creator of Ar tonelico, Akira Tsuchiya? Nope. It was “Morrigan and Lily.” Their real names are Tadahiro Tsuchiya and Yuri Nazuka, respectively. Together, they know how to make that beautiful hymmnos sound, because they did it for Ar tonelico’s spiritual successor games, Ciel nosurge and Ar nosurge. Applying this sound to Emil’s theme … I never would have guessed it, or imagined it, not in a thousand years. But these two artists had a vision to bring this unique, vibrant sound to one of the few characters to span the 8000 year gap from NieR: Gestalt & RepliCant to NieR: Automata. And the manner in which they did it fits the game’s plot so well, I can hardly contain myself. This is, without question, the smartest choice for arrangement on the whole album.
As for the other tracks? I’ll leave it to audio samples and your imagination as to whether or not they, too, are worthwhile. But I will end on this note: Square Enix, if you’re feeling formulaic, then I know you’re looking at a piano collection next. And if you are, just a friendly reminder: I liked the arrangement of Copied City here, especially in how LITE chose to eschew the central instrument (piano) and try a prog-rock take. But if the fans don’t get a piano solo arrangement of Copied City, it could trigger a black box effect (explosion). And we don’t want that. So if the arrangements continue into the future with piano work, I’m hoping for Sachiko Miyano to get some redemption, and “Copied City” would be a great place to start! Meanwhile, I think I can get by on these fine tunes.