It has become exceedingly rare for new game music to get full orchestral arrange albums. Typically, the orchestral goodies are all recorded for the game itself, and any arrange albums tend to be specific to a genre or to a stripped-down set of instruments (even solo instruments). In the days of chiptunes and software-supported sequenced music, Square and Enix separately reigned as kings of orchestral albums — Enix obviously with Dragon Quest, Square with the Final Fantasy and SaGa and Mana franchises. It was around the time that Square and Enix merged that orchestral arranged albums nearly went extinct. The only exception would be for recordings of live concerts, an intelligent way for the producers and promoters to pull on separate revenue streams. To that end, see the seemingly endless string of Final Fantasy concert recordings, especially the “Distant Worlds” series.
Before Square Enix announced plans for the joint release of a Gestalt/Replicant and Automata orchestral pairing, the last studio-recorded fully orchestral VGM album that comes to my memory is another Square classic that Square Enix chose to celebrate much later in its lifespan: Xenogears.
Given changing times and changing trends, I must admit to having been nervous at the announcement of the two NieR orchestra albums. I feared inferior quality to the source OSTs and other arranged albums. I feared that a commercial failure on this front could lead to undue wariness on Square Enix’s part to fund another Cavia project (especially if Yoko Taro is dreaming up a third NieR title). Most of all, I feared that I’d be wasting my money on this music.
Did my fears come to pass? I cannot fully answer that, because in this review we are only examining the Gestalt & Replicant half. What I can tell you, in my own assessment, is that the Gestalt & Replicant Orchestral Arrangement Album put many, if not all, of my fears to rest.
What makes for a quality VGM orchestral arrangement? There are a handful of approaches that work, in my opinion. The approaches that do not work, of course, are to push too far in one direction or another between composition and arrangement. If the arranger forces the orchestra to fit to the source material, all you’ve done is create a variant of the OST that doesn’t require recording multiple layers — an impressive one-take to watch, sure, but nothing worth listening to if you already have the OST. And on the other extreme? Imagine an arranger who cares nothing for the source material and would rather attempt to fully fit that material to easily work for orchestra. Such lazy arrangements, of course, leave listeners wondering what they’re listening to, with key components of the source material having gone missing, often replaced by random trills and flourishes.
Should an arranger want to avoid these “extreme” pit traps, a host of options are available. One that I personally love is the work by Jonne Valtonen and others in the “Symphonic” / “Final” series, most notably with Symphonic Fantasies. These arrangements take the concept of “medley” to a new level by layering one motif over another, finding the harmonic connections, and bridging those connections with new harmonies when needed. In this way, the arrangers take “source material” and “orchestra” as two flat surfaces that push against one another, like a fault line, raising the material like a mountain into new heights.
Now, there are no medleys on this album. So, how do our arrangers build their orchestral mountains? Each arrangement has its own technique, each arranger their own style. The two opening tracks, arranged by Daisuke Shinoda, make excellent use of the full choir. That’s right: these albums are Emi Evans-free, for better or worse. This poses no problem for “Snow in Summer,” which always was a choral piece. This arrangement may feel vanilla, but Shinoda keeps the choir in a cappella mode for so long that one must wonder … is the orchestra ever going to arrive? When it does, the listener is tricked into a raised plateau, even though the orchestra itself deviates very little from the source material. The size of the choir, however, allows for extended harmonies and greater force. Well played!
Things get more … interesting … with Song of the Ancients. Shinoda uses a tempo much faster than the source material; to make sure this did not cause problems with such a large group of musicians, many of the syncopated parts of the melody that made this song so great are simply cut, replaced with straight eighth notes. Though this initially irked me, I quickly came to enjoy this new experience for exactly what it is. This is a celebration of one of the absolute best compositions across the Drakengard-NieR continuum. The melody is passed between various sections of the orchestra, as well as the choir. There are so many variations in voicing melody and harmony, it becomes dizzying. And, for those considering the extended plot of the NieR franchise, it actually makes a great deal of sense to have a large choir sing what is traditionally solo or duet vocals for the lovely sisters Devola and Popola. Appropriate use of orchestral decoration comes in and out, like waves, to enhance the overall experience. Emotionally, I found this to be a tour de force. The mountain rises again.
The next three tracks are arranged by Mariam Abounnasr, a young orchestral prodigy who got her start with Mitsuda’s Procyon Studio, and whose published works only started in 2017 (for more, be sure to read Don Kotowski’s interview with Abounnasr on VGMO). Abounnasr brings a breath of fresh air to the series. Hers may be my favorite arrangements on both the Gestalt/Replicant disc and the Automata disc. She seems to be aware of the dangerous dichotomy I mentioned earlier in this review, and avoids the pitfalls with grace, though she toys around the “vanilla edge” with her arrangement of “Emil.”
“Hills of Radiant Winds” is an easy win for almost any arranger; you’d have to try hard to fail. But Abounnasr took this piece to places where the live concerts and other arrangements simply did not, and could not, go. Abounnasr showed that she wasn’t afraid to utilize the orchestra’s percussion section in fun, new ways. She also struck a great balance between high brass and woodwinds, something you simply will not hear on the OST. A clever arrangement, this.
Now then … “Gods Bound by Rules.” This is the last of Abounnasr’s arrangements, and I can assure you, it is simply amazing. Intentional or not, I even managed to spot a beautiful descant harmony that came straight out of the Joe Hisaishi playbook. It is not present in the OST version (as far as my ears can tell). And yet, around the three-minute mark, the strings start to play out this fun and interesting counter-melodic bit, joined by the woodwinds for a repeat. For a total of eight measures, we hear this lovely melody. However, said melody is note-for-note in step with Joe Hisaishi’s “The Battle Between Mehve and Corvette” from the classic animated film Nausicaä. The likeness was so strong that it was actually my nine year old daughter who noticed the resemblance (this, because the particular track plays during the main menu of the 2005 DVD release of Nausicaä, which my daughter would leave on repeat due to carelessness from time to time). I could hardly believe my own daughter until I researched it myself. Not only are they the same notes, but they’re in the same key, and for three of the four measures, the accompanying chord progression is there. So, I’m not sure to what extent MONACA set this in motion, or if Abounnasr is at fault. It could be coincidence, or a subconscious recalling of the melody — I recall one of my encounters with Nobuo Uematsu, where he told me that he never watches Ghibli films for fear that he will inadvertently imitate Hisaishi’s work.
Whatever the reason, this disturbing similarity makes up a mere 15 seconds in a five-minute mammoth of an orchestral arrangement. Much as I pride myself (and my daughter) on the detective work, the fact remains that the orchestral arrangement for “Gods Bound by Rules” took the OST version to new heights.
Moving forward, the next arrangement may be my favorite on the album. I had no idea how this could possibly be done with an orchestra, given the original piece relied so heavily on the artifice of industrial noises and synthesized, electronic loops. Veteran arranger Sachiko Miyano took a pared-down approach, utilizing a 20-person chamber music ensemble, with the focal point being Mika Uesono on the harpsichord (listed in the liner notes as “cembalo,” which is the same name for the instrument, just in Italian). Here is the genius behind Miyano’s choice: once upon a time, the harpsichord was considered controversial. It showcased the height of man’s ability to mechanize at the time (1600s). Such mechanistic precision was also a fascination in Europe and Arabia for centuries, all throughout the medieval renaissance eras. Thus, if we wish to bring a strange, rigid, mechanical sound to the orchestra, what better instrument than the harpsichord? Every note is even, in that the dynamics cannot be changed (hence the invention of the “soft/loud” or “pianoforte,” which changes its volume based on how hard the player strikes the keys). Mika Uesono also manages to give an absolutely stellar performance, worthy of the Baroque era. The 16th notes are so crisp, clear, and even, I cannot help but imagine an automaton at the helm of said instrument.
And, not only is this all very meaningful in the extended metaphor I’ve painted … the more important piece is that it all sounds perfect! I did not think they could do it. But they did. Miyano and 20 performers made something brilliant happen.
I could go on and on through the rest of the album. The rest of the arrangements come from Miyano and Yamashita, both Square Enix go-to arrangers, and they do a great job. Some tracks border on the trap of “orchestra fitting the source material” (aka “the vanilla edge”). But there is always something, somewhere, that brings a lift, a gentle breeze, to the music.
My only regret, the one thing I am happy to fault Square Enix for, is that “Temple of Drifting Sands” did not make it onto this album. I would have happily traded Dark Colossus or Shadowlord for Temple. It would have been perfect! There are layered harmonic vocals, as well as a soaring operatic solo voice carrying the melody. Mariam Abounnasr could have done something brilliant with it, I am sure. It would have even worked as a medley with “Gods Bound by Rules,” since the two songs share the same general setting/area in the game itself. But I will not look this gift horse in the mouth. Square Enix attempted something daring, even controversial, and they pulled it off. Or rather, they pulled it off for Gestalt and Replicant…
NieR: Automata is a different story. One I will cover another time, in another review.