I am currently in the process of migrating over to a new hosting platform, where I have started a new blog. For now, I will release my posts both here and on the new domain, but soon I will only post over there. So make sure to add the new blog to your bookmarks. 😉 Thank you! — The Rising Gods of the East – or Tohoshinki(東方神起), which is what more people are likely to be familiar with – a name that exudes confidence and really raises the stakes! The boygroup-turned-boyduo recently put out their eight Japanese album, titled WITH to stick with the convention of using 4 letter titles they adopted after losing 3 members to legal disputes. It’s a confident release, full of exciting highs and infuriatingly unremarkable lows, but does it hold up when you put all its parts together? Fear not, for this December release is not at all filled with christmas ballads! The duo presents a rather even mix of three distinct styles of song, each with a different flavouring: Sensual, aggressive dance tracks, midtempos heavily rooted in Japanese pop traditions and classic Pop ballads, complete with piano, strings and chimes. The midtempos, all of which fall more or less into generic J-Pop archetypes, you can safely ignore. Believe in U, being cookie cutter boygroup material, suffers from a plastic arrangement and a ridiculous chorus, I just can’t quit myself feels like it might go somewhere early on, but quickly falls apart when the realization that it only gets worse dawns on you and Baby, don’t cry teases with warm verses only to never follow up with a suitable progression. However, there is one song in this category that I am quite fond of. Calling is as J-Pop as it gets, but never quite goes where you expect it to go. It keeps you excited with constant arrangement changes ranging from minor additions to entire changes in tone and a gorgeous, if safe, melody. A real hidden gem where you would never expect to find one. The ballads also tend to have some things in common: they are all rather competent, but also all held back by that very competence. Chandelier, the album’s lead track, may just be the perfect example: it’s all very nice and pretty, the boys are doing a good job vocally, the melody is appealing, the lyrics are relatable – but there’s not even a hint of heart in it. No loveable imperfections, no degree of personality, it’s just calculated and mass-produced. They might as well be serenading a lamp post in the song, it wouldn’t make a difference to the amount of emotional sincerity presented here. They(and their producers) are so preoccupied with seeming perfect that there is simply no space left for anything that feels…human. It’s a lucky coincidence then that the rest of the songs are sensual, clean, slick dance productions. Spinning features tight brass and beats, SURISURI(which had already been released as part of their last Korean album almost a year back) convinces by going all-out on the swing trend and DIRT surprises with an engaging mix of guitar, turntable scratches and rapping in a highly condensed, violent 2:45. The real highlight of the album, however, comes in the form of two songs that had already been released on one of 2014’s strongest Pop singles: Sweat and Answer. Answer is one of the most immediately infectious dance tracks in recent history, relentlessly throwing you from a lustful, slow chorus back into a hard, rough verse. The song is, quite frankly, good sex. There’s a constant undercurrent of “let’s do naughty things to each other” that is felt, rather than said. Sweat, on the other hand, was made with dancing in mind – it’s not any less steamy though. The song is a ride, it never stays in one place, it just keeps pushing on and on. The bass is powerful, the dynamics are just right – everything is just right. This is what Pop music is supposed to sound like in 2014. So how does an album with some of the strongest and some of the weakest Pop songs of the year fare? Mediocre, as it turns out. The tracklist is so jumbled, the album so without direction, that you end up just listening to a collection of random songs. It makes ignoring and skipping the bad ones easy, but also fails to lift up the less intriguing ones to anything more than they are on their own. A good album can make weaker songs worthwhile by adding important context – WITH doesn’t do that. WITH doesn’t even try. And that’s ok, really. There’s clearly no higher ambition there to live up to. — I am currently in the process of migrating over to a new hosting platform, where I have started a new blog. For now, I will release my posts both here and on the new domain, but soon I will only post over there. So make sure to add the new blog to your bookmarks. 😉 Thank you!