Well, it’s what I asked for. Heck, it’s what I predicted (see final paragraph). But did Square Enix and the arrangement team put their all into this NieR offering? Or, finally, did they shrug their shoulders and say “phone it in, this is a money train.”
If the latter, I’m not sure I could blame them. By my recollection, Falcom began to do this in the mid-90s. They paid the price, and it took them some time to get Sound Team JDK back on its feet. So, I should hope Square Enix and the MONACA Sound Team wouldn’t squander so much goodwill earned among fans by tossing a mediocre piano collection to us. Last time around, nearly a decade ago, it took this same team two years from the game’s release to provide a piano collection. Now, S-E saw fit to cut that time in half. One must imagine they were planning this from the start. But what, exactly, did they have planned?
What they had planned was a full “arranger-is-performer” album with a team of nine individual performers. Among them, only one is an original composer, and the name shouldn’t surprise fans: Keigo Hoashi self-arranged and self-performed tracks 3 and 12. The former, he went big and it paid off. The latter, he played it safe, and while I enjoy it, I also find it … tiring at times. In an irritable way, not a “helps me sleep” way.
And what Keigo Hoashi did with his two pieces, I think, is what this whole album is about. Either the arranger makes a big gamble (with mixed results), or they play it safe, giving us a vanilla transcription with some concert piano flourish.
Do these options work, especially across so many arrangers, so many personalities? The defense would like to present…
Exhibit A: “Copied City.” This is the song I wanted on this piano collection. It may as well have been the whole reason I bought it. However, arranger/performer Taku Yabuki is a new name to me. What did he do? Fortunately, he took both paths, elongating the track appropriately. For the first half, a solid 3 minutes through, you’re getting the piano solo equivalent of the in-game OST version of “Copied City.” This song was already so perfect, that’s really all I wanted. When I eventually nab the sheet music, this is where the hobbyist in me will go to try and improve my skills as a pianist. However, the second half of the piece? Yabuki goes high-gear, throwing insane improvisations and impossibly fast arpeggios into an already hectic, complicated clockwork-piece. This was his daring move, and it paid off.
Exhibit B: “The Sound of the End.” Arranged and performed by Yui Morishita, AKA the “Duke of Pianeet,” I think I knew what to expect. He’d done work previously on the FFXV Piano Collection, as well as on Cafe SQ. If anyone was going to “go big or go home,” it was the Duke. He turned “Sound of the End” into a cacophonous nightmare up front and only later brought it back down into the creepy, pulsating musical chant that reminds us that there is nothing left waiting for us … that there is simply nothing. If only a piano could recreate the sound of Emi Evans and Nami Nakagawa chanting and speaking in that horrifying, thrilling monotone in unison. But the Duke did the best he could, and the result was fantastic.
But it doesn’t always work out this well. The prosecution would like to present…
Exhibit C: “Amusement Park.” Arranged and performed by veteran doujin arranger “Marasy” (real name unknown: check out his huge Touhou discography), this arrangement overstays its welcome precisely because it runs the length of “Copied City,” but never breaks form. That’s a lot of time to remain in familiar territory, as far as I’m concerned. Playing it safe is fine for a short piece, I suppose, but compared to the other arranged versions and the live performance, I cannot say I’m impressed.
Exhibit D: “Peaceful Sleep.” Arranged and performed by Yasumasa Kumagai (who also handled track 10, “The Tower”), Kumagai used his jazz chops to throw down a fairly significant departure from the original piece just past the halfway mark of the recording (this can be heard at the beginning of the audio sample provided). I’m not surprised by the decision. Kumagai did similar work on the “Square Enix Jazz -Final Fantasy-” album from late 2017, as well as on the arranged track for Pascal on the Automata Arranged/Unreleased double disc. It’s what he does. It’s what he’s good at. But does this fit the song? Does it fit the in-game scene? Or is it just a decent jazz pianist inserting his skills where they don’t belong? I have to argue the latter. It’s enjoyable, but it tears me from the context. I’ll happily return to the version where I hear Emi’s voice, thank you very much.
And perhaps that’s the major dilemma. I said as much in my review of NieR Gestalt & Replicant Piano Collections. What exactly is a solo instrumental arrangement doing among such vocal-heavy music? It’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s not an easy sell. Thematically, the first NieR did it with its artwork, the mute “Grimoire Rubrum” presented as the cover. There was a depth to that album. There were also only five arrangers, one of whom is the highly-regarded Kumi Tanioka.
I can safely say that this is the weakest of the Automata albums Square Enix has released so far. Should they dare to meddle any further with the source material, I hope things do not get any weaker because, while this is the weakest album in my mind, it’s still good enough that I’m happy to listen to it from time to time. I don’t think that will be changing. But if the sound quality were to dip any further or become any more inconsistent, that would be the “goodwill lost” moment. Let’s avoid such a scenario, alright team? The live concert was amazing and the arranged album was just as good as “echo” was for the first NieR. Perhaps we leave things as they are and not spoil the victory?