Atelier Ayesha Original Soundtrack :: Review by Max
After the US localization of Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland this year, it didn't take long for developer Gust to reveal the next main game in the franchise, Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of the Twilight Land. Atelier Meruru's musical duo of Kazuki Yanagawa and Daisuke Achiwa returned for the soundtrack, alongside guest composer Yu Shimoda and various vocalists, including famed Haruka Shimotsuki. Past entries in the series had high quality soundtracks that stayed true to the series' legacy and pleased fans' heart. Will Atelier Ayesha continue this tradition or is the prolific series finally losing its touch?
The structural content of Atelier Ayesha's soundtrack is pretty similar to its predecessor one year ago. One of the worst aspects of Atelier Meruru was in my opinion the track organization, as for example the first disc was solely dedicated to the five vocal themes, including about two or three tedious edits of each of them. Meanwhile, the awesome battle themes were put on the last disc towards the end of the soundtrack. Fortunately, the album producers learnt from this mistake and continued in a traditional chronological order with this set. And they were clever enough to release an additional album, called Atelier Ayesha Vocal Album -Twilight Hour-, which would feature the two vocal themes presented here, as well as several additional vocal themes featured in the game but not present on the official soundtrack. For more info, read my review about this album here.
Let's talk about those themes first. The opening theme "Flower Sign", written, composed, and arranged by Kazuki Yanagawa, is performed by Mutsumi Nomiyama. It marks their second collaboration after "Little Crown" from Atelier Meruru. It's definitely a laidback and easygoing track, pairing the rich vocals and memorable chorus with acoustic guitar and light percussion backing. While it fits its thematic role well, it does sound a little mismatched with the pacy opening animation. On the other side, the ending theme "Altair", produced by Daisuke Achiwa and performed by series' newcomer Annabel, is a classic through and through. The melody is highly catchy, the aspirating vocals are excellent, and the traditional Achiwa-style backing of pan flute, guitars, and drums are effective. Not the most original track, but still very enjoyable on its own. At the end of the last disc, there are are few superfluous edits of the tracks featured: 'instrumental' versions (featuring no vocals), 'off vocal' versions (retaining the songstress' chorus), and a short edit of the opening theme.
After he successfully led Atelier Meruru's score, Gust offered Kazuki Yanagawa the next major project: composing a large part of the music for Atelier Ayesha with the assistance of Daisuke Achiwa and Yu Shimoda. The young man quickly evolved from a rookie to a professional composer, thanks partly to his collaborations with the Gust Sound Team, especially influenced by the whimsical and folksy style of Ken Nakagawa. However, this score also reflects his personal and creative fingerprints within. "Flower Offering" introduces us gently to the soundtrack with a theme for piano, strings and chimes. It's rather short, but a glimpse of magic and mystery is kept within. A perfect way to start the story. The next track "Sleeping Earth" continues right there, but is much more developed. Boasting lavish orchestration, unique strings, and a beautiful melody, the atmosphere it creates is stunning and it's an early example of Yanagawa's composing power when he has the right inspiration.
One of my favorite themes from the album is "Vestiges of Technology", an emotional banquet of Celtic and Classical styles. Led by an endearing flute melody, the development of this track boasts a bittersweet piano solo and radiant violin leads. It's one of those themes which couldn't be written better by Ken Nakagawa himself, which is a great compliment towards the young composer! Another fantastic track in this genre would be the furious and climatic battle theme "Slag Toccata". Inspired by a repertoire of symphonic music, the theme grants a frantic journey through different emotional vibes. Right from the start, Yanagawa holds nothing back and delivers brutal crisis motifs that flow seamlessly from section-to-section. Always present are brass and strings, sometimes fierce and pulsating, at other times heroic and refined. Without doubt, this is a true winner and a definite highlight. Also one of those examples where the fantastic and crystal clear sound quality of the soundtrack shines. Slower tracks, like the enchanting bagpipe-based "The Sign is Fleeting from the Mist" or the crystalline "Glass Cotton Flower", help to reinforce the fantastic atmospheres.
Apart from the orchestral material, the composer has a lot more to offer as well. The standard battle theme "Yesterday's Opponents are Today's Ingredients" doesn't only feature a nice title the music is pretty awesome, too! With "Yellow Zone" from Atelier Meruru, the composer set the bar quite high for his profile, but in the end I guess this theme is definitely able to hold a candle against its predecessor. The overall atmosphere is much darker and harsher than its predecessor, with use of frantic rock percussion, deep electric guitar riffs, and dramatic string interludes. Still, accordion, flute, and chimes provide a sense of lightheartedness throughout the chaos, and the piano, especially the solo around 1:25, is a very nice addition. The boss theme "Slag Dance" offers something pretty different. Pumping beats, guzheng passages, and distorted female vocal snippets sound truly odd when mixed with electric guitar riffs and electronics. But these tracks stick out as some of the most original and entertaining of the score, especially compared to Daisuke Achiwa's contributions. Fantastic job!
Traditional Celtic and whimsical styles can be discovered all over the score. Highlights include impulsive dungeon themes "Rain in the Dried Up Valley" and "Dance of Dripping Water", as well as a selection of town themes: a Celtic Jig in "If You Walk Down the Main Street", the accordion-based "Frontier Laughter", and the playful "A Holiday at the Plaza". These tracks definitely remind of the work of Ken Nakagawa and fill up his absence quite nicely. "Invitation Flower ~ Spring" is a fun travelling theme boasting a rich arrangement. Exotic melodies roar through by accordion, sitar and even some male tenor vocals in the background. In Gust tradition, the use of acoustic guitar and piano is wonderfully done here. While "Invitation Flower ~ Summer" is a bit more fast-paced and has a distant Eastern vibe, "Invitation Flower ~ Autumn" definitely screams Secret of Mana beginning with fast-paced piano chords and xylophones. The last one, "Invitation Flower ~ Winter" is a very slow and serene orchestral elegy with a fantasy-styled woodwind melody that evokes feelings of determination and sorrow.
Moving to Daisuke Achiwa, the Gust veteran made a return to the forefront with Atelier Meruru and, once again, he is responsible for most of the battle themes and some additional music on this score. But sadly, most of his other compositions tend to show signs of uncreativity and repetitiveness, especially in contrast to Kazuki Yanagawa's fresh contributions. "Guidance" introduces us to his rustical and whimsical style perfectly. The melody is borrowed from "MARIA", an vocal theme originally performed by Haruka Shimotsuki that can found on the Vocal Collection. Nevertheless, the arrangement uses typical instruments like pan flute, acoustic guitar and light percussion to illustrate the scenery. "Recollection Hill" follows in the same veins with additional use of accordion and mandolin. It's normal for industry veterans to revisit their established sound, as Achiwa does here. And while these contributions aren't bad, they certainly make one think "I've heard that melody before" or "This structure is similar to...".
For Atelier Ayesha, Achiwa composed a handful of new battle themes, but how's the quality of these? "Undine" uses a recorder to perform its sweeping melody and the second half boasts some wonderful electric guitar work. But at least from 1:10 onward, listeners will find this work strikingly familiar. Likewise, "Sylpheed" is catchy enough for the first battle theme, but reminds on his other works for Gust, especially the Mana-Khemia series. While "Gnome" is one of the more interesting pieces, with its steady pumping rhythms and cool bouzouki introduction, a superior version with full bouzouki performance is featured on an different album, namely Atelier Ayesha Recollection Archives. Finally, with "Sagittarius" and "Salamander" Achiwa breaks free from the boredom and delivers fun battle themes with fantastic percussion, charming pan flute melodies, and gorgeous guitar riffs. At last, we have "Artemis". Even if it sounds again like one of his earlier compositions, the melody is super catchy and the frantic use of drums and guitars help to increase the power of the theme. At last, we have the victory fanfare "Mikyway", which adds a nice effect to end the battles, especially the interesting use of wooden sound effects within.
Setting themes feature the traditional Atelier style, reminding us the glory days of the first and second generation of Sony's home console. Whether it's the adventurous "Flower Scented Forest", catchy "North Wind Musette", folksy "Sunshine Rondo", or the bagpipe jig "Wind, Earth Sentiments Sonnet", all these tracks sound like the time never passed since Achiwa and Nakagawa collaborated for the last time a few years ago. The emotional theme "Frostflower" is also one of my favorite contributions from Achiwa. His remaining contributions mostly comprise situation music, spanning the jazzy and slapstick sounds of "It's an Older Sister's Incident", "Merchant March", or "Hanage Military History", to the tense orchestrations such as "Getting Closer" or "Manifestion". The nine "FJ: Pana Special" themes at the end of the soundtrack are loosely based on Georges Bizet's "Les Toreadors", with crazy vocals within. They work very well in context, but will divide stand-alone listeners as to whether they're fun or annoying.
Last, but not least, there are the contributions from Yu Shimoda, a Gust newcomer known for his Mega Man Zero and doujin works. While he only contributed five tracks to the official soundtrack, they're nevertheless some strong compositions boasting experimental tendencies and a huge Celtic influence. "Journey to the New World" and "Excavate Polka" are perfect examples for this. While the former features and uplifting and groovy melody on Concertina, the latter features excellent bouzouki and whistle performances. Less impressive is "Pen and the Sword", which shares a similar structure to Yanagawa's light-hearted action tracks, but is sadly a little repetitive. "The Man in the High Mountain" features a fascinating blend of Celtic instruments, such as Bodhrán (an Irish frame drum), bouzouki, mandolin and whistle, all performed by the talented Kou Ogata. However, his finest contribution is "Close to the Edge", a wild and rockin' battle theme that reminds me of Nobuo Uematsu's recent stylings. The drums and percussion, performed by Yoshihiro Tsuchiya, are marvelous and really get your blood pumping, while the melody on the rock organ and crazy synth arpeggios fits extremely well and never gets dull.
In the end, Atelier Ayesha is another album in the Atelier series that boasts high quality and original compositions. Kazuki Yanagawa stays true to the series' sound, while continuing to offer some very refreshing and impressive contributions. Daisuke Achiwa takes care of the more typical Atelier tracks, including a solid series of battle tracks. The series has gained a new creative dream team, which hopefully will continue their work in this form! After listening to the spin-off title Atelier Elkrone, I was afraid of the series' musical future, but luckily the Gust Sound Team didn't disapoint me here. A big "kudos".
Overall Score: 9/10