This Week in J-Pop: BUCK-TICK, THE NOVEMBERS, Superfly, Eri Kitamura, Ayumi Hamasaki

The Japanese music business is vast and almost impossible to keep track of. Not only are there a plethora of popular genres that coexist on the charts – even if idol groups dominate lately – but most singers and bands also release new material at a pace that would be considered ridiculous outside of Asia, often releasing a new album every year rather than every 3-4 years. I try my best to keep up with the constant influx of new music, hence, this series was born.

Every weekend, I will write about 5 singles that have been released in Japan the prior week. With no constrictions on genre or type of release (digital singles and charity singles, for the sake of simplicity, count – album pre-release tracks, however, do not), I will share some impressions on the songs, cover art, music video – everything associated with it. I am trying to experience the full package, not just one song. Ultimately, the singles will be ranked from my favourite to my least favourite and I invite you to do the same in the comments.

I believe we can help each other discover new music and refine our tastes, so you are welcome to request upcoming singles to be included in the next weeks. If I missed a single you enjoyed this week, feel free to mention that in the comments as well.

This weeks singles are: BUCK-TICK’s 形而上 流星 (Keijikyou Ryuusei/Metaphysical Meteor), THE NOVEMBERS’ 今日も生きたね (Kyou mo Ikitane/Still alive today), Superfly’s Live, Eri Kitamura’s 掌 -show- (Shou – show-) and Ayumi Hamasaki’s Hello new me.

BUCK-TICK – 形而上 流星

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BUCK-TICK have been a constant force in the Visual Kei scene and more generally the Rock scene for over 25 years. A diverse 3-track single, 形而上 流星 shows that they still got it after all these years.

I quite like the cover, implying a moody, decadent experience with controlled bursts of emotion. It sums up the single nicely. It evokes images of the 18th and 19th century, of the Industrial Revolution and multiple political revolutions shaking up…well…everything in Europe, really.

The lead track is a melancholic piece that places special emphasis on clean guitar lines and drum work. Once the chorus rolls around I find it a bit lacking, the vocals seem to lose the emotional sincerity that defined the verses and the production gets a bit mushy, adding distortion that seems out of place. It’s not strong enough a contrast to make any form of statement, but feels like an attempt to create a marketable chorus for TV commercials. Still an enjoyable song, I feel like the anticipated pay-off never happened. The music video, showing the band perform the song under expressive, high-contrast lighting, is rather standard Rock fare and has been done to death, but is competent enough.

In the past couple years, mashing together various styles of Rock and Electronica has been a rather popular way of mixing things up, but unlike many other examples of the genre mix, メランコリア -ELECTRIA- (Merankoria -ELECTRIA- / Melancholia – ELECTRIA-) delivers a perfect symbiosis of the styles rather than using Electronica as a loud, obnoxious gimmick. The combination feels natural, a smooth melody caught between Visual Kei and Eurythmics serving as counter to a rough, yet danceable clash of guitars and House and Dubstep beats. Some of the background breakdowns would work equally well in a club banger, it’s amazing like that.

Another complete departure from the sound of the other songs, VICTIMS OF LOVE, a cover of one of their older songs, features Classical Crossover/Chamber Pop twins Kokusyoku Sumire and uses them effectively to create an otherworldly atmosphere. The song exists in the white space between Rock, Gothic Pop, Folk, Blues and…Polka? I’m not even sure. All I know is that I genuinely love VICTIMS OF LOVE. It’s a song that essentially hypnotizes you into submission and keeps a tight hold on you throughout – all while never even once being reductive or melodramatic.

I guess I hit the jackpot, encountering a fantastic single so early! While the lead track has a rather generic sound, the other two songs absolutely make up for it by being delightfully experimental and of highest quality. The single even manages to work as one conceptually, with the cover art and music video being stylistic mirrors of the songs.

THE NOVEMBERS – 今日も生きたね

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I first encountered THE NOVEMBERS last year, after the release of their zeitgeist album. A shoegaze/”Indie” band capable of standing out between all the other “soft” Japanese rock bands of recent years, they deliver consistent quality – this single is no exception.

The first thing you will notice, after the beautiful cover, is the length of over 7 minutes, odd enough for a single, but fear not – the time is used well. 今日も生きたね is out to make you dream and fully embrace you. The song takes its time to develop, giving you time to breath and to marvel at the gorgeous composition. I particularly enjoy the way the song develops towards the end, shifting from melancholy to hope. There’s no big, revolutionary ideas here, but it’s gorgeously realized and feels effortless and light – every element playing off each other perfectly. The music video, in all its minimalism and slow-motion beauty, effectively portrays the same feeling, adding to the song.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper Japanese single without a B-Side. ブルックリン最終出口 is a bit less understated, developing a more fleshed out, Alternative Rock sound. There’s a very nice, subtle use of vocoding and guitar pedal effects that adds both to the perceived, cold emotional distance of the song and gives it nice, tangible texture. It’s not as much of an instant favourite, but easy enough to get lost in. It made me long for more, feeling short in comparison to the A-Side.

今日も生きたね is another great release from a very consistent band. THE NOVEMBERS seem to value excellence over experimentation, which some may find off-putting, but as long as their material remains this good, this fragile, I won’t mind.

Superfly – Live

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Superfly, the prime 60s and 70s throwback Hippie act of Japan, has been absent for a while, making Live something of an unofficial comeback. I adore some of their more dynamic, energetic songs – so let’s see if this single can give me what I hope for.

Live is a bit more laid back than I expected, something I should have probably anticipated from the single cover. While well-performed and unoffensive, I fail to see anything of particular value in the song. It’s pretty, something nice to leave running in the background, but rather tasteless and forgotten the moment it’s over. The music video and single cover both have a similar problem: they are pretty, but just lacking substance, anything that sets them apart. And they are simply not good enough to make their plain nature work for them.

万華鏡と蝶(Mangekyou to chou/Butterfly and Kaleidoscope) is giving me some Hardrock vibes, at times resembling The Scorpions(Rock Me Like A Hurricane, anyone?) or AC/DC, but hinges on to a shred of Pop aesthetics. It delivers much of what I hoped for on this single, but features a slightly underwhelming chorus that, I feel, could have used some more harmonies to create a fuller, less epileptic sound. In the current form, the chorus can be a bit grating, especially on tremble-heavy headphones. That won’t stop the song from getting caught in your head though.

I honestly got nothing on The Long Way Home, the final track on the single. It takes the problems Live already faced and amplifies them for a cookie-cutter, boring example of how not to record an “emotionally charged ballad”. I’ve heard worse, but I sure as hell have heard much, much better.

At her best, Superfly is tons of fun and helps us relive times long past through her music – but there’s a tendency to release melodramatic, bland Rock ballads in her work that Live is especially guilty of. 万華鏡と蝶, while not without flaws, is catchy and engaging – the rest of the single? Fairly forgettable.

Eri Kitamura – 掌 -show-

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I haven’t paid much attention to Eri Kitamura, a rising star in the Anison genre, yet. but the compulsion to grab her new single was there – even with that horrible “just wear random clothes in a random spot and we’ll take a bad picture” single cover that is fetish-fuel for otaku or an outfit idea for a cosplayer at best.

The music itself isn’t all bad, 掌 -show- is a catchy Anison Rock track, presenting to us the same mix of Metal riffs, synths and strings we get from many singers in the genre. It’s messy and trying too hard to be dynamic and to create urgency, but within the realms of a generic song does its job well. A bit gimmicky, but not bad. The music video, on the other hand, is suffering from a plethora of problems, including but not limited to an unskilled director and/or editor with little to no experience shooting the style of the video, a (visibly) low budget and lipsynching that is rather off.

Suffering from aimless production and trying to do too many things at the same time, Greedy;(cry) comes off as ambitious but misguided. The song seems to be stepping around in one, mushy, confused place for the entire 6 minute run, never developing into anything more appealing or interesting. It feels a bit like it was meant to “prove” artistic integrity by being quite weird and mashing many genres together – but ultimately doesn’t prove anything.

掌 -show- is a decent enough single for genre fans, there’s plenty of worse material out there, however, to me it feels entirely replaceable and overly gimmicky. The entire thing, from the messy production and composition over the tacky single covers to the laughable music video, is just surrounded by an aura of amateurs. Ambitious, well-meaning amateurs, but amateurs. Much like Lady Gaga.

Ayumi Hamasaki – Hello new me

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Nothing gets me excited like a new Ayumi single. And nothing pulls me down as hard as a bad Ayumi single. Unfortunately, Hello new me is bad all the way.

Contrary to the gorgeous, fashion shoot cover, the song itself is a basic, by the books Japanese pop midtempo. A gentle ballad about just how great life is. While it does feel honest(because Ayumi just has the power to make anything feel honest. If she sang about the dangers of taking her dogs to a pool party and the ways it made her depressed, it would seem honest), I can’t help but assume the main reason behind the creation of this song is needing a tacky, generic theme song for the TV drama it’s being used for. There’s no substance, absolutely no element in the song that is interesting or even just good. Instead, Ayumi treats us to an annoying, nasal melody that just keeps repeating the most obnoxious phrases since “What’s a beautiful day…what’s a beautiful day…”. I don’t think I’ll ever need to encounter this song again. It’s a lowest common denominator cash cow song of the type that I thought Ayumi had outgrown – and I sincerely hope that it’s the only song of the kind on the album.

The Ranking

This week has delivered two great singles, two acceptable ones and one that, even though it came from my favourite Pop singer, is one of the biggest disappointments of late. Ranking them was rather easy in the end.

1. THE NOVEMBERS – 今日も生きたね

2. BUCK-TICK – 形而上 流星

3. Superfly – Live

4. Eri Kitamura – 掌 -show-

5. Ayumi Hamasaki – Hello new me

What do you think? Did I horribly misjudge some of the songs or was I correct in my ranking? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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