Why did it have to come to this?
Because we were drunk on our success with NieR: Automata, that’s why. We just couldn’t stop ourselves from releasing that damn big budget orchestral album.
Hey, it wasn’t my idea in the first place! It was that SQUARE ENIX Music Publishing Business Division rep that assured me it’d be a hit. “We’ll be rolling in it,” he says. Hah.
In the end, the album cost the company big time, forcing it to de-merge into two entities, SQUARE and ENIX. I lost my job, and before we knew it the entire Japanese economy flatlined. If I’d known it would come to this… If only I’d made my escape when I had the chance…
This all would… Wait a second! Why don’t I just use this space-time transfer device that I stole during the de-merger to do things over?
That’s it. I’ll travel back to 2008, when I first started working on NieR… Yes, it’s all clear to me now. I’ll stop both NieR, and myself!
– Yoko Taro’s liner notes in the NieR: Automata Orchestral Arrangement Album (Review)
Hey, can you hear me? I said HEY! …Good, you’re awake. Listen up. I’m from the future … the year 2018 … ten years from your time.
You won’t believe it, but a game called NieR: Automata, the sequel to the NieR that you’re working on right now, will be released in 2017 and become a huge hit. Easy there. Calm down. Don’t get too excited just yet.
You’re gonna want to hear this. After the sequel’s success, for some odd reason, the NieR Original Soundtrack sells like hotcakes. A SQUARE ENIX Music Publishing Business Division rep, seeing this, goes mad and starts saying they’re going to make an orchestral album.
You don’t know this yet, but that orchestration comes with a hefty price tag. So much, that NieR and SQUARE ENIX itself may very well meet their demise… Oh, shoot! It’s them! They’ve found me!
You escape through the back door! I’ll hold them back here!
– Yoko Taro’s liner notes in the NieR Gestalt & Replicant Orchestral Arrangement Album (Review)
I spent the extra $20 USD so I could have both of the NieR orchestra albums in one set. Maybe I’m a sucker. Or, maybe, I’m in the minority, and the evil genius behind the Draken/NieR universe is on to something. He weaves a tall tale in the above liner notes (easily the most entertaining thing in the liner notes, which appear Japanese/English bilingual). But in being silly, perhaps it is only the jester who can speak truth to power…
I have no idea what kind of budget Square Enix Music needed to produce these albums. But what I can say is that, on balance, I suspect it was not worth the trouble. Yoko Taro may think similarly … or he may be screwing with the fan base. It’s hard to say for sure, but the words sound prophetic to me. Not disastrously so, but enough that maybe Taro feels his beloved franchise is now outside his control, and Square Enix is milking his IP for all its worth.
However, the actual box set appears to be worth the extra cost. The retail price of 8000 yen (equivalent to $72 USD at the time of this writing) is justified not only by a fancy, oversized outer box, but by the inclusion of a third disc with four extraordinary tracks. And that is what I want to focus on: the missed opportunity of chamber music.
You see, among the two orchestra albums above (and you can read about this in my review), “Wretched Automatons” from Gestalt & Replicant utilized a harpsichord soloist, a small team of expert woodwinds, and a string ensemble. It eschewed the need for a full symphony orchestra, unlike the rest of the two main albums. And it turned out to be one of the most interesting pieces.
I find this is often the case with chamber music. For those unfamiliar with the term, chamber music tends to involve some of the instruments found in an orchestra, but not all of them. Sometimes they come in the form of family ensembles: wind ensemble, brass ensemble, string ensemble. Other times, they come in odd little groups that have a fantastic impact, like Claude Debussy’s unforgettable Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp, composed in 1915.
In the case of the “Special Disc,” you will find no full orchestral tracks. The first two songs, both from Gestalt & Replicant and both arranged by Daisuke Shinoda, are worthwhile appendices for the stellar full orchestral work, especially Shinoda’s own arrangement of “Song of the Ancients” on the first disc. For “The Prestigious Mask,” Shinoda utilizes a typical string quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello). The pizzicato (string plucking) work is what really sells the piece, bringing to life aspects of it that were originally found in guitar and electronic backgrounds. The syncopation is brought to life via the art of elimination: discovering that less can be more.
Shinoda takes an even greater risk with “The Ultimate Weapon.” Originally a beautiful piece featuring Emi Evans in both solo and harmonized/layered form, accompanied by piano and string ensemble and eventually concert snare drums, this highly polished and highly produced piece is now transmogrified into an 11-piece all brass ensemble (Fr. Horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba). This could have easily backfired. And, in fact, there are times when I feel like this piece is too slow, too droning, without the percussion. Ultimately, the patient listener will find much to love in this five-minute arrangement. It is a celebration of brass instrumentation as much as it is a celebration of MONACA’s clever melodic and harmonic compositions.
If those tracks are “great,” I don’t even have a word for the Automata chamber music. These next two tracks are, hands-down, in every way, more interesting than the entirety of the Automata orchestral album. First, we have an 11-piece string ensemble arrangement of “Birth of a Wish.” The arrangement, from lead violinist Daisuke Kadowaki, did so many things with this piece of music that I could never have imagined. Every moment of this arrangement is just so, so smart. Thanks to this piece, I feel like this rare third disc is worth its weight in gold. Utilizing high strings to do controlled descent-slides to mimic electronic music is amazing. The furious speed and impact of the two cello players allows for this piece to have all the energy of the original without any percussion. And then, most important, there is what we might call the “chorus.” At this point, the original piece is truly surpassed via the art of elimination. Two lead violins carry the melody and occasional descant harmony. Everyone else in the ensemble is providing a continual run of perfectly-timed 16th notes, building this beautiful tapestry of harmonies being weaved just under the melody. This middle layer is as lovely as the rich layers of an expertly-baked cake or other pastry (tiramisu, anyone?). There are other fantastic choices Kadowaki and team put together, including the choice to, exactly once in all its repetitions, play wildly dissonant notes during a familiar build to the refrain. The ultimate effect for this music? For anyone who has played Shadow of the Colossus, remembering those 15 second moments of struggle and triumph, and the amazing music cues for those moments … it’s like that. But without the game. Same effect, through music alone. That, my friends, is what the art and joy of music sounds like.
Finally, I must speak at length regarding an incredible man named Tomoyuki Asakawa. Asakawa arranges and performs harp solo pieces, has written some film scores, and often participates in orchestral work for Square Enix and other publishers. Here, the veteran harpist — now nearing age 60 — provides his own interpretation on the lovely Automata piece “Voice of no Return.” The first time I heard this, my mind was blown away. If less can be more, then perhaps this is the “most” we can get from the art of elimination? Just … listen to the sample. You’ll understand then.
One wonders, where are Yoko Taro’s playful liner notes for this third disc? Perhaps there was nothing for him to say. The music speaks for itself. However, were I madman-king for a day wearing an Emil mask, I would make a goofy YouTube video claiming that if my time travel shenanigans pay off, Square Enix will fully replace the orchestral albums with chamber music equivalents. That, and of course, the inclusion of “Temple of Drifting Sands” and “Copied City.” This third disc, my favorite of the three, answers the question I was investigating: could Square Enix actually produce more solid music for the NieR franchise? The answer is yes … they just didn’t realize that the most interesting music might come from a smaller, lower-budget affair.
As a postscript: while preparing this review, Square Enix announced a third Blu-ray concert release entitled “12018,” which will feature live performances of the orchestral arrangements on the above discs, with the inclusion of Emi Evans and J’nique Nicole to keep things more interesting. Yoko Taro, I need to tell you, I don’t think your time travel experiment worked. That, or I’m just stuck in the wrong ending route (probably Route C … bad things tend to happen there).