Materia Collective made the bold move of releasing a full arranged album for NieR: Automata months before Square Enix would follow suit. Specifically, the Collective published the work of an ambitious duo: ROZEN+REVEN. ROZEN, real name Daniel Jiménez, handled most of the instrumental arrangement. REVEN, real name Mary Kate Jiménez-Wall (you can do the math on the surname association), handled the vocals. ROZEN and REVEN have been long-term members of a VGM Choir called PXL8, and both have been actively involved with Materia Collective. They worked on the Final Fantasy Tactics tribute ZODIAC, the Final Fantasy X tribute SPIRA, and others. Shortly after their full debut album as a duo (Glory to Mankind), ROZEN+REVEN went on to release a Zelda series tribute album, “Sins of Hyrule,” released in December 2017. These two are certainly capable of swift productivity. But what of the quality?
I cannot speak to their other works, as I’ve yet to take the time to digest them fully, but “Glory to Mankind” is a strong release. If I have any complaint at all, it is this: a handful of the tracks are essentially transcriptions. Every song is built from the ground-up, “made from scratch” as they say in the world of cuisine. That’s always impressive! But, when your arrangement adds or changes little from the OST version, all you have done is demonstrate to the listener that you are good at imitating the original. The good news is that ROZEN+REVEN are generally not guilty of such crimes. The closest they get, to my reckoning, is in their version of “City Ruins.” Technically, different instruments are used, and there are some instrumental flourishes. But the vocals are almost certainly transcribed.
That being said, this should be noted before I go further: it is something of a small miracle that REVEN (and, on some tracks track, ROZEN as well) are able to sing in Emi Evans’ invented “Chaos” language. This is because phonetic transcriptions of the language have never been published by Square Enix. This means that one or both of this duo patiently listened to the Automata tracks over and over and over to write down and/or memorize the specific bits of Emi’s fictional language for this album. That effort alone deserves a standing ovation. I know that if I attempted it, my result would have been so riddled with errors that even a novice listener would be able to hear flaws in my Chaos language delivery.
I mentioned ROZEN’s work as a vocalist. The choral arrangement for “Grandma (Destruction)” requires plenty of layered vocals to imitate a choir. Good thing, then, that ROZEN has had all those years of experience with the PXL8 choir. His voice sounds professional, even classical. And if you like his voice, you’ll find something extra special on the album’s closer.
If you’ve listened to the Automata OST, you’ve heard “Weight of the World” in English, Japanese, and Chaos. But have you heard it in Spanish?! Well, thanks to ROZEN+REVEN, now you can. In the first verse and chorus, REVEN handles the English portion, providing a distinct performance compared to J’Nique Nicole’s soulful original. This alone would make for a decent track, especially with ROZEN’s backing track of synth strings and decorative piano. But, after REVEN has done her part, ROZEN jumps in with the Spanish version, translating J’Nique’s English lyrics. When ROZEN reaches the chorus of the Spanish version, REVEN joins him, and the harmony is intense. This Spanish influence on the unforgettable theme is now, also, unforgettable in my mind. As the song ends, ROZEN+REVEN provide a sparse outro that includes both English and Spanish lyrics before coming to a soft and simple close. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you bring something new and special to game music: don’t stray too far, but be sure to do something new and surprising. Great choice, ROZEN+REVEN!
Some other areas I’d like to note: the synth orchestra sound ROZEN uses throughout the album shines best in songs like “Amusement Park.” It fits the music’s contextual in-game area perfectly. REVEN’s vocals are spot-on, but the instrumentation is what leaves the strongest impression on me. Yes, the orchestral bells are a vanilla transcription, but that is as it should be, considering how important they are to the song. New to this version is some truly impressive synth string ensemble work throughout the second and third minute of the arrangement.
Then there’s “Copied City,” a paradise for ROZEN to play in! ROZEN’s piano work is solid all throughout this album, as well as in his other works. What he does with “Copied City” is proof that this lovely little earworm can still be expanded to something even more impressive. The piano solo around the two-minute mark blows my mind every time I hear it.
Devola & Popola? At first, it feels like a generic transcription. In fact, ROZEN+REVEN are simply establishing the original song’s form in the first half so that the second half stands in stark contrast. The change may sound simple, but it’s actually something that transforms the entire piece. Originally, the song played out in a 4/4 time signature with triplets (alternately, we could call this 12/8). In this new arrangement, ROZEN+REVEN cut an entire beat out of every measure, creating Song of the Ancients in 3/4 (or 9/8). Even more impressive, this is the Devola/Popola duet version (tavern / fate / atonement), with REVEN handling the vocal lines for both characters. The rhythm of each and every note in both individuals’ melodies had to be changed to make this work. It feels strange and rushed on first listen. However, with the piano and appropriate percussion backing it, the song takes on a life of its own. The 9/8 time signature creates a whirling, dizzying effect. If you thought the original “Song of the Ancients” could put you in a trance, let me assure you that this version doubles the effect!
If you want to support some amazing musicians who took on the heavy challenge of creating something new and interesting out of already “NieR-perfect” music (don’t shoot me, I know that pun is heavily used on the Internet!), the above link to Bandcamp is how you can support them. As of the time of this review’s publication, the digital album sells for $10, and a limited-edition CD version — complete with extensive packaging, a cryptic message written in the Seraphic script, stickers, and more — can be purchased for $25. A reminder, Materia Collective properly licenses everything, and royalties are paid appropriately; when you support Materia Collective, you support ROZEN+REVEN, their publishing label, and Square Enix. Square Enix then sees the popularity of the NieR franchise’s music expanding beyond their own publishing house, among the ranks of such great hits as the Final Fantasy and Zelda franchises, Undertale, and more. It makes a statement. Think about that when considering a purchase.