So today I received the OP single to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai, by Eiko Shimamiya. Considering that the CD was officially released in Japan this very same date, that is freaking fast. The title song, 奈落の花 (Naraku no Hana, or "Flower of the Abyss") is pretty much exactly what I expected out of it - a long (5:01) version of exactly the same thing the opening is. It has an extended intro consisting of some more filtered, reversed sounds (actually the reverse of the ending few seconds of the long version, it seems), which is pretty creepy-atmospheric. Some segments in the longer version that remind me a little of the first Higurashi OP - at least, moreso than the TV size version does. That's a good feeling. There's also what's almost a solo of the extremely synthetic sounding guitar lead (I suspect it's just very filtered, not actually "fake") which leads into a wonderful breakdown with just the chorus over some slight pads. It works beautifully to provide a refreshing pause before the climax of the song. I was also impressed with the strength and quality of the bass during the second verse. Overall, the song is still quite what I expected, in a very good way.
What I didn't expect was how interesting it would be to listen to the "instrumental" (read: karaoke) version, which omits not only the main vocal track, but the reversed versions of the old Higurashi intro. There's a lot of interesting audio texture and composition going on here that's lost behind Eiko Shimamiya's (admittedly wonderful) vocals. There's a lot of good string composition, some generic but nicely played, quiet background guitar, a few more filtered sound effects that I didn't notice, and an overall different feel - the emphasis goes on different beats and it feels much more laid-back when just the kick/bass/sfx groove takes over during the verse or the pads take over during the bridge.
The B-side, "FLOW", is not bad, but it's not up to par with Naraku no Hana, in either incarnation. It's getting closer to traditional J-pop, with an upbeat and totally overdone chord progression - though it doesn't develop into much else, as huge chunks of the song are spent switching between only two chords repeatedly. It has a nice, slow-attack, rhodes-esque synth lead laying down the main melody, while the stereotypical J-pop guitar riffs over drums, which are so obviously sequenced it's painful. There are some interesting effects here and there, but the song doesn't do much by comparison, and the instrumental / karaoke version really doesn't go anywhere, without Eiko Shimamiya's vocals.
As for packaging, aside from the cover which looks like it's trying to be Henry Matisse, the back is a picture of Rika and Hanyuu back to back, apparently naked except for a bed of flowers and flowing hair. The inside of the booklet is plain, just mostyl red, grey, and blue, with some inversed flower pictures and the lyrics; the CD is a nice texture and shade of plain, empty grey, except the title written in small red text. There's also a "Character Card" inserted in the pack - I don't know if they're all the same, but mine has a couple images of Hanyuu on one side, and part of a larger picture on the back: I got most of Rena plus what looks to be Shion's hair and a bit of her cafe uniform. Honestly, the card is not worth really noting, despite the sticker they put on the packaging proudly advertising its inclusion.
Overall, it was quite a tasty album, and the karaoke version of Naraku no Hana is a pleasant surprise, but the main point of the single is the one, title track. And when shipping (¥2000) is almost twice as much as the already-pricey CD (¥1200), that means that this song comes at a very dear price to fans. Is it worth it? Probably not. But is it good? Oh yes.