Title: Winter Acoustic — “Kalafina with Strings”
Release Date: 16/11/2016
I’d been hoping for years that Kalafina would release more recordings or footage of their “Kalafina with Strings” performances. I certainly did not expect them to re-record them for a studio album instead. These aren’t the live tracks most fans were clamouring for, but what Winter Acoustic —”Kalafina with Strings” offers is pretty much the next best thing.
While they’re singing mostly covers of Christmas classics and their own music, Kalafina explore a new style of recording with their first acoustic album. I’m extremely happy with the how this venture turned out.
1. from heaven above
A pretty prelude. The classic Kalafina three-part harmonies combined with the atmospheric arrangement do a lovely job of easing us into the album.
2. In dulci jubilo
The track’s acapella opening, apart from being a delight, allows us to appreciate how on point their English pronunciation is. (However, I don’t know enough to comment on their Latin pronunciation.) Wakana on lead vocals is very much in her element. And Hikaru’s jumps to falsetto on upper harmony are a pleasant surprise. A gorgeous violin solo in the instrumental is the icing on this delectable offering.
3. fairytale～with strings ver.～
We’ve already had a live recording of this rearranged fairytale as a bonus on Kalafina’s Alleluia single. I was a little bit disappointed that they didn’t include a song we haven’t heard rearranged instead in its place. But I changed my mind upon listening to this track.
fairytale is particularly well-suited to a strings arrangement, and this track makes me especially grateful for the decision to record an acoustic album. The sound quality is better than concert recordings, but the flaws you might observe at a live show are still captured.
You can clearly hear how Kalafina’s vocals are just sufficiently unpolished to remind us that they are human, but still amazing enough to assure us of their monumental talents. Wakana could do better on the highest notes. But for the most part, she gives a remarkably nuanced performance. In contrast, Keiko’s passionate delivery lacks the fine control she displayed in the original studio version. But this minor imperfection adds to the charm of this re-recording. Hikaru does an admirable job on upper harmony, in place of the usual backing vocalists. Hanae Tomaru did wonderful work on the original, of course, but having a version with Hikaru as a stand-in is a novelty.
4. sprinter～with strings ver.～
While I much prefer the fast pace and organised chaos of the original to this slower version, I enjoyed it nonetheless. The strings are delightful. Hikaru is commanding and in control on lead vocals; this arrangement lets her vocals shine and allows us to hear just how far she’s come since this song was first recorded. And Keiko is not to be outdone, providing an equally powerful performance.
5. Jingle Bell
I absolutely adored Kalafina’s cover of Jingle Bells during their Osaka live, and I’m very pleased they recorded it for Winter Acoustic. The harmonies are excellent; Wakana is lovely on upper harmony, Keiko hits some wonderfully low notes for her part, and that jazzy style Hikaru takes on is a fun touch. She does sound more forced than playful (I thought she did better live) but it’s not a big issue for me. A thoroughly enjoyable and upbeat take on a classic.
6. We wish you a merry Christmas
I raved about this in my live report, and I’ll rave about it again. Wakana’s powerful performance is still utterly breathtaking. Hikaru’s singing was passionate yet steady, and there’s such a pleasing depth and warmth to Keiko’s voice. And those harmonies! This, right here, is the essence of why I love Kalafina. Three lovely, distinct voices combining to create an even more beautiful sound. Gorgeous song. One of my favourites on this album.
7. Kimi no Gin no Niwa～with strings ver.～
I have to say, this isn’t really that much of a departure from the original. But I do love Kimi no Gin no Niwa, so I enjoyed this version. Wakana and Keiko give solid performances. Hikaru sounds a little flat at parts, but nothing major. And she does falsetto in the backing vocals again! It’s becoming like an Easter egg for me to spot.
8. ring your bell～with strings ver.～
The original ring your bell is a rousing, uplifting song. While this version largely retains that feel, the song opens with an arrangement that is slower, more gentle; you can hear the corresponding restraint in Kalafina’s voices. Nicely done.
9. Morobito Kozorite (Joy to the World)
My main complaint with this song is that it’s not longer. It’s such an entertaining cover. The acapella prelude is pretty, defintely. But the exciting part begins when the musicians enter and the tempo picks up, kicking the song into high gear. And just when you’re happily swept up in it, the song suddenly comes to an end. I love the dynamic vocal arrangement, particularly the use overlapping vocals. Great work by all three ladies (particularly Wakana, who nails it on lead vocals) as well as the musicians.
10. Have yourself a merry little Christmas
The instrumental arrangement is so lovely in this song. And technically, Kalafina’s vocals are just fine. But I wish there was more nuance in their singing; it sounds like they’re simply powerhousing their way through this one without grasping the song’s meaning (which may very well be the case); I would prefer a more restrained execution to better convey the bittersweet tone of this song.
11. dolce～with strings ver.～
This is one of my favourite Kalafina songs, ever. I’m so pleased it was included in this album. The differences between this version of dolce and the original are subtle but important to me. This arrangement doesn’t exude as much drama or carry the atmosphere of the original. Instead, it’s rawer, more uplifting, with an even greater focus on the magnificent three-part harmony that is the core of this song. It’s quite not the same, but is definitely just as moving. I’m thankful both versions exist.
12. Alleluia ～piano ver.～
I have a confession to make: I’m not that big a fan of the original Alleluia. It’s a good song, sure; wonderful vocals, great melody. But I find that it has such a predictable, quintessentially Kajiura-style arrangement that bores me somewhat. But this version? I love it wholeheartedly. The piano-only accompaniment puts the emphasis squarely on the incredible vocal work by Kalafina in this song. All three of them are singing their hearts out. Wakana is a little shrill at parts, but mostly excellent. Hikaru is singing with such fervor, I can almost see her tragic expression and hand clutching at her chest. And Keiko, the star of this song, is nothing short of brilliant. Her voice is overflowing with emotion, yet her vocal control never slips. What a powerful performance.
13. Yasashii Uta
The only original song in Winter Acoustic. This soothing ballad is a fitting conclusion to this album. Wakana excels in ballad like these, and Yasashii Uta is no exception. Keiko shines once again; the tenderness in her voice tugs at my heart. Hikaru has a surprising number of solo lines — she’s usually just in her background for these gentler songs. She doesn’t do “soothing” as well as the other two, but I thought her voice was a nice counterpoint. Otherwise, there’s nothing really groundbreaking here stylistically. But it’s an enjoyable song nonetheless.
Some may be tempted to give Winter Acoustic —“Kalafina with Strings” a pass. Maybe you don’t celebrate Christmas (like me) and have no interest in Christmas song covers, or you’d rather wait for an album with more new content. But I beseech you, don’t. This album has some of the best singing Kalafina has ever done, complemented beautifully by the excellent strings and piano arrangements. Given the acoustic nature of the album, it’s a little less polished, a little more raw than their normal studio albums, but that’s a significant part of the album’s appeal. This different listening experience that Winter Acoustic — “Kalafina with Strings” presents to Kalafina fans makes it an essential part of any Kalafina collection. I fervently hope Kalafina will record more of such albums in the future — there are still so many songs I’d love to hear rearranged.