Note: Due to the nature of this review, all samples in the tracklist will lead to their video counterpart on our YouTube channel.
“Memories of Puppets” was Square Enix’s second tour of NieR music. There were several concerts that took place across Japan and other parts of East Asia during 2017. This second concert focused almost exclusively on songs from NieR: Automata. But there was another special feature to them: because of the dramatic reading sections, no two concerts were alike. In fact, on this Blu-ray disc, you can watch the concert in seven different varieties. Two of those varieties (May 5th daytime and May 5th nighttime) have video and audio recorded of the actual voice actors reading their parts, on stage, during the concert. The other versions, as they appear on this Blu-ray, only show a black screen and text as the dialogue is read: whether pre-recorded, or performed live, I honestly do not know.
The seven scenarios presented during this set are:
A Repeating Prayer (April 23rd)
Project YoRHa (May 4th, daytime)
Beasts of Slaughter (May 4th, nighttime)
Precious Things (May 5th, daytime)
Farewell (May 5th, nighttime)
Lies (Pascal) (August 28th)
Lies (2B) (August 29th)
The two “Lies” performances are nearly identical, with exactly one scene changed so that the perspective in the August 28th performance offered Pascal’s point of view, and August 29th offered 2B’s point of view, during a crucial moment in the game’s story.
These drama tracks are nigh meaningless to fans who only speak English if you bought the original release (SQEX-20037). However, Square Enix wisely decided to offer an alternate version with English subtitles, which is available exclusively through Square Enix’s store (SQEX-20038). Sadly, Square Enix unwisely included the weird Japanese mark-up cost for Blu-ray discs. Most Americans will not pay more than $30, maybe $35, for a brand-new Blu-ray release. $65, while a common price in Japan, is considered outrageous in our territory. Because of this price point, I do worry about the number of sales.
What else can be said about the uniqueness and strangeness of the Blu-ray release? The Blu-ray defaults to “Farewell” (May 5th, nighttime) as the version of the concert that was used for all of the music. And, strangely, the “Voice Drama” titles for Farewell are more dates! The Voice Drama titles for other versions of the show are more descriptive, and not focused on this sense of a timeline (though in Automata, those dates are approximately 9000 years beyond our present).
Also interesting is that the Blu-ray lists a different number of tracklists at different sections, ranging from 17 to 22 tracks. The tracklist presented here corresponds with the number of chapters presented in the default May 5th nighttime performance. Tracks 02 and 21 are not accounted for in the Blu-ray’s back cover, booklet, or elsewhere. But they are individual chapters on the Blu-ray, and it is noted in the video itself what this section is for and who is speaking (namely, lead composer Keiichi Okabe).
Finally, I should note that for all the many credits listed in the booklet with this Blu-ray release, no credit is given to individual arrangers. As such, we are noting MONACA (Okabe, Hoashi, others) as the presumed arrangers, as many of these live performances are based on transcriptions of the OST versions.
With all of that information out of the way, let us now visit the quality of the music in this concert release!
The first thing I noticed when watching this concert is that, compared to the prior concert release, “The Memories of Puppets” is stripped-down. There are fewer songs with backing tracks, meaning the instrumentation is limited to piano, guitar, string quartet, maybe some auxiliary percussion … and of course, vocals. More vocals than you can handle! In fact, there is only one entirely instrumental performance on this Blu-ray, and that is track 18, “Mourning,” arranged for the string quartet. It is a fantastic arrangement, mind you, and a nice change of pace from the heavy vocals.
And guess who the heavy hitter is, by the way? I did the math, and it’s not the person you’re likely expecting. While Emi Evans’ presence is certainly strong, the person performing the most vocals on this tour is J’Nique Nicole! She is often paired with Emi, but she does a few songs solo as well. For me, the absolute highlight of J’Nique’s performance is at the tail end of “A Beautiful Song.” Check out the video sample for yourself. When J’Nique belts out those intense drag triplets, it awakens something primal within me. It’s like a part of my brain had been shut off for years, and that 15-second section of music serves to reawaken those synapses, and an old part of me comes to life and is new again. Raw, beautiful power. A beautiful song, indeed!
Remember what I said about these songs being scaled back? Tracks like “City Ruins” and “Amusement Park” are exactly that. The former, with vocals by J’Nique Nicole, is almost a transcribed version of the OST, with fewer instruments and no vocal harmonies. Emi’s “Amusement Park” is even further stripped down, because that particular song was so rich with diverse instrumentation, and now Emi has piano, guitar, and the string quartet to help hold up the whole piece. This is a softer “Amusement Park” than you were probably expecting. But rest assured, it is still beautiful for what it is.
If you want to catch Emi Evans in her best solo act, however, look no further than “Peaceful Sleep.” The live instrumentation fulfills the same sound quality as the OST, if not better. And while no one joins Emi to provide vocal harmonies, Emi’s solo melodic voice somehow fills that gap with the power and elegance of her own voice. This, being one of the happier pieces in the game, still manages to leave this listener moved to tears.
Now, you may be looking at the tracklist and thinking, “there is a lot of overlap between the last concert and this one.” That’s true. But it’s only partially true. For example, this version of “Song of the Ancients” is specifically the “Atonement” version arranged for NieR: Automata. Does that mean anything? Yes, it does. Alongside the backing track having a different set of percussion, Keiichi Okabe saw fit to have Emi Evans pair with J’Nique Nicole for this one. By now, J’Nique has probably mastered Emi’s “Chaos” language, and their pairing here is a match made in heaven. Furthermore, projected video behind the string quartet plays out nearly every cinematic bit of the life story of Automata’s Devola/Popola pairing. Cue more tears. Yes, I know, I cry a lot.
Other repeat tracks include the original “Weight of the World,” “Ashes of Dreams,” and “Kainé.” These three performances are no better or worse than the previous concert. So, yes, that’s a bit of a shame for collectors. However, the final track in the encore section, “Weight of the World / the End of YoRHa,” is absolutely worth it. Finally, the three main vocalists all take the stage together: J’Nique Nicole for the English version, Marina Kawano for the Japanese version, and Emi Evans for the Chaos version. As their versions begin to come closer together, like weaving a tapestry, they eventually reach the intended “La la la” vocalizing, wherein the audience joins. And, finally, the audience sings without their muses leading them. It’s a powerful moment.
There is one other “audience participation” point, which you can hear and see for yourself in the sample for “Pascal.” When Saki Ishii is led on stage, all of the instrumentalists begin to clap a particular rhythm, and the audience is asked to join in. That’s exactly what happens, then as Ishii and her older friend begin to sing the simple chant, the audience continues to clap while the on-stage instrumentalists get to work on their part. This is, for obvious reasons, a more humanized version of the theme than what we first hear and see in-game; the visuals of the machines waving white flags is a reminder that though Pascal’s Village is strange indeed, these machines come in peace.
Speaking of chanting … Marina Kawano and Emi Evans bring a duet version of “The Sound of the End” to the stage. They chant those slow quarter-note syllables in perfect unison for four measures straight before entering into the tonal section of their song. There are also lengthy instrumental breaks in this piece, and you can hear every single instrument, crisp and clean. Listen, and hear for yourself the bright piano, the soft plucking of the guitar, the cello laying the ground we walk upon, the other three strings providing a harmonic background to the vocalists’ foreground. If you remember this song from the game and/or OST, you may remember its tension being its key characteristic. Now, a somber beauty takes the place of the tension.
If you’re looking for more action, look no further than the three-part mammoth of sound that is “Alien Manifestation, “The Tower,” and “Bipolar Nightmare.” J’Nique takes vocals on her own for Alien Manifestation, and while all the instruments are running, the stand-out instrument for this arrangement is Keigo Hoashi on piano. He runs a consistent, noticeable, and enjoyable set of arpeggiated chords in the right hand. It is unmissable. J’Nique sways to the music as if the piano is driving her. But J’Nique doesn’t hold the stage solo for long… she and Emi take on “The Tower” and “Bipolar Nightmare” together. And, because these are upbeat, techno-heavy pieces originally, these two get some serious backing track to help boost the overall sound. I’d have preferred some live percussion, but I’ll take it as it comes. These tracks really help to close the “meaty” chapter of the game and its score.
All told … the only way to decide if you’d prefer the first NieR Music concert to this one is if you prefer the first NieR’s source music to NieR: Automata’s source music. There’s simply more content on this disc, more vocals, and in my opinion, more thoughtful arrangements. However, those classic songs from NieR (1) are so good … I refuse to pick a winner between the two. Rather, I happily choose to keep both in my collection. Perhaps you’ll choose to do the same.