I had ended my review of NieR: Automata Piano Collections with a word of warning to the Square Enix Music team: don’t milk the same material forever. I know of no greater fan of the NieR franchise, and especially its music, than myself. But even I was nervous that if Square Enix kept pushing the NieR content, especially before adding another entry to the franchise — meaning new source compositions from MONACA) — the specter of mediocrity might manifest itself to the surprise of fans and content creators alike.
The above paragraph, mind you, is how I opened my review for the NieR Gestalt & Replicant Orchestral Arrangement Album. That review comes to its own conclusion. For fans of Drakengard and NieR, call it the Route A conclusion. Now, for Automata, I present the Route B conclusion: a darker truth that you probably aren’t ready for.
This orchestral album is disappointing.
Yes, I do mean this. My fears were made manifest…like an “Alien Manifestation,” perhaps? This conclusion does not fit with any of my past reviews. And if you listen to the audio samples, you may be confused by my Route B conclusion. The music does sound good, does it not? Sure it does. It’s not bad, per se. But it is, based on the criteria for worthwhile orchestral arrangement discussed in the Gestalt/Replicant review, an utter waste of time and energy. And, perhaps most importantly for Square Enix, a waste of money.
If you want to hear what is good and right on this album, the simple answer is to count to three. The three opening tracks are the only ones that elevate the source material to something interesting, something powerful, something worthwhile. The opening track, arranged by Mariam Abounnasr, may be considered a freebie for arrangers. But I think there’s more to it than that. “Weight of the World” is also a freebie; you’d have to try hard to mess up an orchestral arrangement. Kosuke Yamashita’s arrangement of “Weight of the World,” however, comes off as the sort of vanilla arrangement where the orchestra fits the source material, and nothing special or new comes to the plate. The OST version(s) are more than enough … this orchestra version is extraneous. But “City Ruins” arranged by Abounnasr? There is such an overwhelming amount of interesting decoration and change in voicing (all without actual human voices, at that!), I cannot help but feel that I’m listening to one of the greats in orchestral VGM: Koichi Sugiyama of Dragon Quest, Joe Hisaishi of Ghibli / Ni no Kuni fame, Shiro Hamaguchi as the orchestral arranger who worked alongside Nobuo Uematsu for so many great orchestral arrangements, including the FMV sequences in Final Fantasy IX. Abounnasr doesn’t just attempt to re-do the OST version of “City Ruins” in a one-take orchestral recording; she’s bringing the music to life and challenging the orchestra at the same time. It may also challenge the listener’s ears the first two or three listens, because there is so much to absorb. There were subtle counter-melodies and harmonic strains weaving their way throughout the piece. It is hard to locate all of them, especially across an arrangement that runs over five minutes in length. This is the kind of music that could have made Automata Orchestra a great album. Unfortunately, the high quality simply cannot sustain itself. To quote those poor machines in one area of Automata: “This cannot continue.”
Of course, as I stated earlier, it does continue, for two more tracks. Daisuke Shinoda’s arrangement of “Amusement Park” is exactly what I wanted it to be, and then some. Just think about those orchestra bells, the chord progression, and the in-game setting, and we all know the whole thing is just screaming Tim Burton (which, for music, means Danny Elfman). Yes, Shinoda’s arrangement pays its dues to Elfman in many ways, but Shinoda also makes strong use of a sophisticated brass ensemble, not allowing muted trumpets to take center stage. This piece also replaces the solo vocal line with a full choir, though Shinoda holds out until the halfway mark to do so. The choral work on this piece deserves praise as “choir done right.” The sweeping range from the lowest bass to the highest soprano, used in ways to enhance and emphasize certain points of this unforgettable melody, is exactly what the rest of this arranged album needed but, sadly, did not get.
Square Enix veteran arranger Kosuke Yamashita steps up for what I consider to be the most obvious choice for orchestral arrangement: “A Beautiful Song” (also known in the community as Simone’s Battle Theme). There was no way I could have predicted what Yamashita chose to do here. The vocal duet from Emi Evans and J’Nique Nicole are gone, of course. And in their place we have a choir that is just as heavy in the bass (male vocalists) as in the soprano. But then comes the big surprise: in that epic moment where J’Nique Nicole belts out her high-note solo…
“Dei / O midi saqwale e / Span matle qireto e / Onn matle seqwale e / Ize”
…the choir takes a backseat! They sing in half-note strains providing full harmonic structure while a handful of string instruments (and later, the winds) hit those singular, drag-triplet notes. The first time I heard this, my face fell flat. “What. Was. That.” After a few more listens, I realized what I failed to notice the first few times around: that the choir did not have the standing in the way this piece was recorded to give the same “punch” that string and wind ensembles could. Choosing to set the choir as a background and let the instruments replace J’Nique’s epic solo was a daring move, and to my surprise, it actually works.
And that’s it, folks. Walk away. The rest of the album, you can just forget about it.
Wait … maybe I should actually work to justify my stance…? Okay, let’s do that.
Though Daisuke Shinoda did an excellent job with “Amusement Park,” the work on “Alien Manifestation” immediately feels like a droning derivative of the original. At its best, it just barely manages to imitate the original version. I appreciate the stronger percussion on this track, but it doesn’t offer anything significantly different from the OST. I can credit Shinoda, somewhat, for bringing some of that Hisaishi-esque flair to “The Tower.” This particular arrangement is the longest across all of the new NieR orchestral material, clocking in at just over the six-minute mark. One can get lost in this music in the positive sense (wonder), as well as the negative sense (boredom). The listener’s mood and familiarity with the source material are the determining factors.
After that, here comes “Dependent Weakling.” This is arguably one of my least-enjoyed tracks from the generally superb Automata OST. It also happens to be arranger Sachiko Miyano’s only contribution to this album. Miyano brings nothing new to the table, and the source material is already weak. In my opinion, this song is simply a variation on other themes from the game mashed into a battle track. And, honestly, a somewhat forgettable battle track. Granted, if this song were in most any other RPG, I would probably be praising it for its strengths. But when you compare “Dependent Weakling” to the rest of the NieR musical library, it comes up short. Like a weakling.
Abounnasr returns with an arrangement of Bipolar Nightmare. And yes, it’s a decent arrangement. It doesn’t hold a candle to what Abounnasr did on “City Ruins” or her work on the Gestalt & Replicant orchestra album, but it’s listenable. We’ll call it “slightly above mediocre.” For whatever that’s worth.
And then, Kosuke Yamashita rounds out the album with three arrangements. “Mourning” is a solid choral arranged piece, going slightly above and beyond the source material. But going somewhere different does not always mean going somewhere better. There are times where “Mourning” becomes muddled, and the harmonies are lost in an attempt to sound sophisticated. Compare the drones of “Mourning” with the predictable, powerful voices used in “The Sound of the End.” Here, I would ask the listener to compare the full orchestral recording to the Live Concert Blu-Ray, where the entire song was performed by two vocalists, a string quartet, and a handful of other instruments. In my opinion, the dark, oppressive sound of that arrangement strikes me as more powerful than this orchestral giant. Perhaps “less is more” needed to be the rule?
Well, more on that when I discuss the limited-edition Orchestra Box, which includes the entirety of the two NieR orchestral albums, plus a third disc with chamber music arrangements. How to improve on this album, Square Enix? The hint is right under your nose. It’s on that third disc.
That, and, better track selection. Seriously. “Birth of a Wish” on the third disc was a great choice. But why anyone would choose to arrange Dependent Weakling and Bipolar Nightmare over any of the following is beyond me: “Peaceful Sleep,” “Faltering Prayer,” “Vague Hope,” “Wretched Weaponry” (any/all versions), and most important of all, “Copied City.” Honestly, whose brilliant idea was it to look at the options for orchestral arrangement and go “nah, no one really wants to hear Copied City”? This could have been chamber music gold. Piano, string quartet, light auxiliary percussion, maybe harp or some winds to mix something new into the piece… it could have been brilliant.
It could have been Route E.