Some time ago I was digging around an old external drive when I discovered two albums that I’d gotten (yeah, let’s leave it at that) years ago titled Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue. These two albums, released in 2007 along with the PS2 JRPG Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica, were originally sold together in a boxset which probably costs well over $100 today if you can even find one. ATII is a good game with one of the worst official localizations in history – read more about it here, along with a link to a completely redone fan translation of the game. The game’s soundtracks, though, are exceptional.
Notice I said “soundtracks”. Each AT game has a primary soundtrack and several extra soundtracks. The primary soundtrack to ATII is very good, but if that’s all you have, you’re missing out on some of the best tracks in the game. Each of these Hymmnos Concert albums are linked to a particular character in the game – in this case, Flame to Luca and Waterway to Cloche, both featured on their respective covers. To explain what the hell all this is about and why some of these songs have bizarre titles like “EXEC_with.METHOD_METAFALICA/.”, we have to take a look into the universe of Ar tonelico. Luca and Cloche are Reyvateils, female humanoid beings who can control the elements by singing. These songs are sort of like programs, with lyrics specifically created to cause certain effects, hence some of the songs’ weird titles. Most of the residents of the world of AT are humans living on three massive towers alongside these Reyvateils, who often experience discrimination and worse because of their abilities. Not without reason, because while their song magic can be used to heal, it can also be used to destroy, and a few of the most powerful Reyvateils can sing songs that are massively destructive under the right circumstances.
The backstory and lore of this series is insanely deep, so deep that some of these songs are sung in Hymmnos, a constructed language* made specifically for the AT series. Most of the songs on these albums are sung in-game by Cloche, Luca, or another Reyvateil, and some of them, far from being mere background music for battles, are important to the plot. (See above: the costumes they wear also affect their song’s powers, which is where a lot of the AT series’ fanservicey reputation comes from. Also, you get to pair up with one of these ladies on their own routes through Croix, the game’s protagonist, so you can see at least part of the appeal of Ar tonelico II aside from its music.)
The games are worth diving into, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to play a series of JRPGs with weird rhythm-based battle mechanics, you can still appreciate the music. Almost every song on Flame and Waterway are centered around the vocals of one of four singers: Akiko Shikata, Haruka Shimotsuki, Yuuko Ishibashi, and Noriko Mitose. Each one of these singers apparently had a serious career before the AT games were a thing, and according to the AT wiki, a lot of the songs in these games were created specifically with these four in mind. Each one has her own distinct style, but they’re all amazingly talented singers, to the extent that I can’t say I prefer one over the others.
A lot of these songs are standouts as well. Almost every one is a spot-on hit. METHOD_IMPLANTA/. is beautiful and a great introduction to Akiko Shikata’s style. I’m a great fan of Yuuko Ishibashi’s songs Reisha’s Lullaby and Eternally Connected as well. Eternally Connected features some of the most stunning singing on these albums – it sounds like it belongs in an opera rather than a PS2 game.
My favorite, though, is Noriko Mitose’s EXEC_SPHILIA/. Once, I wrote about how much I hate the lazy key change as a method of trying to artificially create emotion in a bad or mediocre song. EXEC_SPHILIA/., despite being mostly sung in a constructed language that pretty much no one is going to understand, packs more emotion without using this cheap trick than a thousand sappy modern R&B and singer-songwriter ballads that do. It’s fantastic. I like all of Mitose’s other work on Flame as well; her stuff has a harder edge that appeals to me.
While I can’t say the same for the AT games themselves, their music is diverse enough in tone that there’s enough here to appeal to pretty much everyone, ranging from cute (Hartes ciel, melenas walasye) to operatic (Eternally Connected, The Heart Speaks) to apocalyptic (EXEC_DESPEDIA/.). If you’re a fan of vocal/choral music at all, you need to check these two albums out. And it goes without saying that these are must-haves for Ar tonelico fans. Since I have no complaints about either Flame or Waterway, they both get perfect ratings of 7.
* I don’t really know if Hymmnos is complete enough to count as a constructed language, but I’ve read threads with people arguing about the grammar of the language, so I figure it must be close enough. It even has its own script! That’s dedication.