Category Archives: This Week in J-Pop

This Week in J-Pop: Maron Hamada, Chihiro Onitsuka, Yuu Takahashi, MUCC, Arashi

I’m 4 days late on a weekly series, there’s no excuse for that, so let’s just pretend it never happened! Since I’m not at home over the weekend next week’s post will also be at least one day late – sorry! But let’s get to this week’s singles!

Maron Hamada’s マヤカシのブルース(Mayakashi no buruusu/Betrayal Blues), Chihiro Onitsuka’s 祈りが言葉に変わる頃(Inori ga kotoba ni kawaru koro/Prayers are words shaped by time), Yuu Takahashi’s 太陽と花(Taiyou to hana/Sun and flower), MUCC’s ENDER ENDER and Arashi’s 誰も知らない(Daremo shiranai/Nobody knows)!

Maron Hamada – マヤカシのブルース

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A shining light between Japanese newcomers, Maron Hamada just recently released her first full-length effort of gloriously smoky, sensual jazz tracks. With this 4 track single, she is back for more!

The title track opens on a full Big Band sound before retracting into a downstated Jazz club atmosphere emphasized by the interplay of prominent bass, piano and brass. Continuously evolving through multiple speed and tone changes, from somber to sensual, playful scat to confident raspiness, Hamada paints herself as a capable, diverse performer – rightfully so, the song is delightful and almost entirely carried by her strong presence.

Track number two on this glorious little single, パラシュートに願いを込めて (Parashyuuto ni Negai o Gomete / Filled with wishes of parachutes) is less progressive in its instrumentation or structure, but almost equally powerful. An undercurrent, a driving force, keeps the song alive and the production is delightful, to say the least, always delivering on the beat, using sparing emphasis where appropriate.

I took some time to warm up to 始発前のダンスホール (Shihatsu mae no Dansuhaaru/The Dancehall before the first train), it feels almost alienating to hear a song that plays a “groovy” nature(a word that is fully appropriate, she even drops it in the chorus) so straight nowadays, however, it just works! Transforming an artefact style from the past into a timeless piece of unadulterated Pop magic, a talent Maron Hamada has proven to possess.

A reimagining of the title track, the 哀嬢編 (Aijyuuhen/Grieving girl volume) version of the song extends the duration to a full 7 minutes and strips it off all unnecessary decorations, leaving a melancholic skeleton that emphasises the innate duality of the song. It’s heartwrenching, especially when you contrast it with the bombast of the normal version of the song.

Maron Hamada has delivered a single that is excellent all around, about 20 minutes of flawless, timeless music, performed with all the grace, energy and emotion it deserves. The cover and the music video(an obviously DSLR-shot and heavily colourgraded homage to Film Noir) further emphasize the classic nature of the music, yet I feel neither really adds anything except for maybe some ever so slight absurdism in the otherwise forgettable music video.

Chihiro Onitsuka – 祈りが言葉に変わる頃

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Oh, Chihiro. Some people think she lost it, others see the birth of a true, raw artist. I just see some form of artistic and personal mess that results in things both good and bad. Her last single featured an impressive A-side and an embarrassing B-Side. This one only has one song, so which extreme has she fallen into this time?

祈りが言葉に変わる頃, used as the opening theme for the new and seventh Ju-on movie, is, surprisingly, neither extreme! It’s not exciting, it doesn’t develop any great ideas, but it’s a pleasant song, if accompanied by questionable vocal work. It’s a decent composition with a nice, atmospheric arrangement, but it’s just a bit…boring. Yes, that’s the word: boring. Plain and simple.

Yuu Takahashi – 太陽と花

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Common sense urges me to stay far, far away from “boy/girl with a guitar singer-songwriter” types. The resulting music is usually bland to the point of being insufferable. I made an exception for Yuu Takahashi and…I didn’t regret it!

A mix of poprock with elements of folk and blues, 太陽と花 is all it wants to be and more than it needs to be. Formulaic, even employing the ever-loathed Truck Driver’s Gear Change(a shift upwards in the final chorus as a cheap way of upping the tension, unless my ears are playing a trick on me), it still holds on to a thread of implied sincerity and is plain captivating. Little more than competent in its technical execution, but made so in a loving fashion, I don’t mind seeing this man achieve success.

The music video and the cover art aren’t dull, but never exceed expectation. Simple with minor symbolism, the video for the biggest part just shows some flowers and audio equipment burning backwards as Takahashi performs the song.

MUCC – ENDER ENDER

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An established, influential Rock/Metal band from the Visual Kei scene, I went through my life largely unaffected by MUCC until a friend recommended their latest album to me. It blew me away, to put it simply. I haven’t found the time to go through their impressive discography since, however, their new single was something I grabbed the moment it leaked.

The title track, ENDER ENDER, marries heavy electronic elements and metal aesthetics, featuring growled, rapped and sung vocals. It feels almost like a typical “Trancecore” track, but is elevated above the genre standards by the sheer talent of the band, never happy just mashing two genres together unless they also work in perfect symbiosis. The instrumental work is pristine, the vocals are on point, the melody is fun – it’s all the song is out to do.

モノポリー (Monoporii/Monopoly) discards the Electronica and presents straight-up Post-Hardcore instead. I felt the melody was a bit weaker here and presented in a muddy fashion, but the instrumental background – particularly the guitar lines – make up for it. It remains a weaker track, but a weak MUCC track is still a strong track.

I’m not sure what to make of 前へ -In its true light-(Mae e/forward). It’s not all that weird a song, the melody is even rather poppy and infecting,  but I just can’t seem to make up my mind on loving it or just…tolerating it. I seem to jump from going crazy for the song to just not caring either way or the other. It’s weird. Maybe repeat listens over time will clear my mind.

I like the psychedelic, abstract nature of the covers, however, the music video – a basic performance video set against the backdrop of a vaguely industrial scene – is lacking, to say the least. and I’m sick of Rock and Metal bands releasing what is essentially the same music video over and over. Where is the creativity?

Still, ENDER ENDER is a strong single. Not an unique one and not a particularly complex one, but a collection of great Rock tracks performed by a capable band.

Arashi – 誰も知らない

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I don’t typically listen to boygroups or girlgroups of any kind – I’ve made too many bad experiences. This weekly series is changing that, essentially making me listen to new idol songs at least once a week. It isn’t always bad though!

I’ve never liked Arashi – I’ve seen them perform in TV shows a billion times, but nothing ever stuck with me. They felt like caricatures of pop performers. 誰も知らない, however? It’s not a bad song. Essentially providing the middle ground between Anison and Idol Pop, it’s catchy, mindless fun with a full arrangement and decent production, mainly taken aback by weak vocal performances throughout. I could see Nana Mizuki perform this song and make it work – Arashi never quite make it work, but they are far from failing.

The limited version, which I am reviewing here, contains only one B-Side, おかえり(Okaeri/Homecoming). A midtempo RnB-tinted ballad of the type the J-Pop business is overflowing with, it’s entirely forgettable fluff. None of the members can carry the weight of a ballad solo, however short their lines may be, providing their vocals void of emotion and power.

A single cover showing a generic photo of the members against a white backdrop doesn’t add anything to the single, but at least the music video can be considered fun in the widest sense of the word. It’s not particularly well-shot and just shows the members perform a weak dance routine (and sing in uninspired settings) but it’s ok for the song.

Arashi positively surprised me with the A-side, but then crashed and burned once the B-Side rolled around. Now, I have heard worse singles, definitely, but there is absolutely no desire in me to check out more of their material based on this single.

Ranking

All in all, this was a good week!

1. Maron Hamada – マヤカシのブルース

2. MUCC – ENDER ENDER

3. Yuu Takahashi – 太陽と花

4. Chihiro Onitsuka – 祈りが言葉に変わる頃

5. Arashi – 誰も知らない

This Week in J-Pop: The Mirraz, Perfume, Seiko Matsuda, Ayumi Hamasaki, Kana Nishino

Continuing right where I left off yesterday with the 5 singles that are left!

The Mirraz
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Yes…this does seem to be a city.

Another relatively young band, The Mirraz exploded onto the Japanese Rock scene circa 2011 when their consistent quality and direct, rough nature left strong impressions at music festivals around Japan. Their new single continues that trend, featuring 3 rather different songs.

この惑星のすべて itself features a distinct Punk influence as the singer places precise, rapid vocals over an equally swift, complex instrumental. Everything comes together perfectly, with every band member pulling his weight and delivering excellent work. The melody had to grow on me for a bit, but I quite love it now.

The highlight of the single is placed right in the middle. らぶりー (Raburii / Lovely) is frantic, dynamic and playful, gently easing its way into your permanent memory with a chorus that just seems all kinds of genius in the way it plays off the guitars. Simple, but incredibly effective.

The only song that I just can’t seem to get into, ステーキを食べに行こう (Suteeki o tabe ni ikou / Let’s go eat Steak) seems rooted in rather classic Rockabilly – which is probably the reason it’s not doing much for me as I never found my way into the genre. There is a unique twist to it, mainly in the rough vocal work, but that’s not enough to convince me.

The common visual theme of this single seems to be an outside look at city life, as the cover features a high contrast black and white photograph of a bustling metropolis and the music video…well…it quite literally features the band members as aliens walking through a city intercut with images of the sky – and, of course, an alien love story. It isn’t what I expected from listening to the song, but I can see the connection. I do not, however, like the way the music video was shot. Shaky, unfocused camera movement is my mortal enemy and I’m not one for the recent “pale” trend in the indie/hipster movement.

この惑星のすべて is a strong rock single with at least two memorable, top tier tracks and a striking, universal visual identity. Is it the strongest single of the week though? We will see.

Perfume
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Cover art is expensive!

Look. I don’t hate Perfume. I really don’t. They’re backed by one of the most consistent producers in Electropop and their voices are interchangeable enough for me to not mind that they lack any resemblance of personality. But this single? This single is too much for me. Too sugar-coated, too cute, too annoying. I have no more words. But judge for yourself.

Seiko Matsuda
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Not sure if 12 or 60.

Seiko Matsuda is the type of artist that refuses to ever leave – and Japan will obviously still have her, shown by her continuing success. Her new single continues the trend of looking younger than most people look at age 20 while being in your 50s. Oh, it also includes two songs.

I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ is a brass-heavy, classic J-Pop idol song. Bright, happy, living in a fantasy Disney world. Seiko does have a more powerful voice than most other Pop idols, capable of controlling herself quite well, and adds a layer of quality to her music that way. It’s a trivial, but fun song. Enjoyable for what it is and less obtrusive than most other Idol Pop – but just a bit embarrassing coming from someone with a 30 year career.

The B-side Free is the ballad equivalent of a fast food Hamburger. It’s not the real thing, doesn’t carry the momentum of the real experience, but recreates enough of it to be appealing for a small bite in between. Well-performed and competently composed, it’s just caught in the endless white space between good and bad.

The covers just leave me surprised – as do most of her covers. It’s always awkward to see an obviously older woman try hard to act young rather than embrace a change of life. Essentially, the same is true of the music video, in which Seiko seems to be getting married, resulting in a choreographed dance performance with her bridesmaids. Now, I do think it’s well-shot from a photography/cinematography standpoint, it’s all well-lighted, the sets are absolutely stunning and the image composition is what you’d expect it to be. It’s al la bit dull and awkward, but that’s just what this single – and Seiko’s career nowadays – is like.

As much as I expected to dislike it, I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ isn’t a bad single. Every element, from the covers over the songs to the video, is just consistently average – but an average Pop song is a good Idol song, so I’d take Seiko over most others any day.

Ayumi Hamasaki
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How many times has this photoshoot been re-used now?

I really wasn’t ready for another Ayumi single. Not so soon, not without any kind of prior announcement. But there it was: NOW & 4EVA from her upcoming, as of yet untitled, album.

Once you get past the cringe-inducing title, it’s actually a remarkable little song! The structure of the song and the instrumental mix reminds of classic Ayumi, yet at the same time the song features such an uplifting, optimistic melody – it feels completely new in her discography. I believe this is the first time an Ayumi song felt genuinely bright to me, the first time I came out of an Ayumi song with a huge smile on my face. I realize that the lyrics don’t deal with a particularly happy subject, but the song, musically feels extremely powerful in its happiness to me. I adore it – nothing could get me more excited for her upcoming album.

Kana Nishino
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You know she’s fierce when her facial expression screams “are you starting to take photos yet?”.

I’ve been ignoring Kana Nishino for the biggest part, she never seemed to add anything of value to the Pop business. But she seems here to stay (for a while) and has a new 3-track single out, so why not give it a chance?

The lead track, We Don’t Stop, is a summery Electropop anthem with some modern EDM elements. I like the composition, it’s a cute, intuitive melody, however, there’s two issues I have with the song. Firstly, the production is horribly compressed, robbing the song of any impact it could have had by keeping it on a rather mushy level throughout. Secondly, Kana Nishino is a capable pop vocalist, but she doesn’t seem to carry her weight in We Don’t Stop, sounding thin and emotionless, never connected to the mood of the song. The issues this track faces remind me of Namie Amuro’s latest album, where the songs themselves were good, but the vocal performance and production issues kept them from becoming bangers.

Happy Birthday is completely unbearable.

The most organic, acoustic song of the single, 25 is a mellow Pop midtempo of the type that is plastered all over the J-Pop business. It’s not particularly good, but I also don’t have any major complaints about it. I couldn’t care about the song’s existence either way.

Both the covers and the music video express similar sentiments to the lead track, yet I can’t help but feel like Kana is trying to play catch-up with K-Pop groups, particularly in the video. She tries to become part of the fierce Dancepop trend, but never seems quite on top of it – she looks lost, like neither the song nor the video are in her comfort zone. Constant expressionless glances both at the camera and away from it make her look utterly confused – Kana is going through the motions.

Essentially, that is how this single is best summed up: It’s a pop singer just going through the motions, making whatever sells right now with no regard to personality or expression. It doesn’t fail entirely – the lead track is catchy – but if you’re going to blatantly follow trends, you should at least put more effort into it.

Conclusion

This has been one hell of a week! 10 singles just barely were enough to deal with all the notable releases, but somehow, I did it! Most of the new material I heard this week was actually pretty good, with only Perfume and Kana Nishino really disappointing.

Have I forgotten any singles? Do you agree or disagree with my views? Leave a comment and take part in the poll at the end of the post! However, please only vote if you’ve heard at least the majority of the singles – I linked at least one song from each in this post – for fairness’ sake.

Ranking

1. KANA-BOON – Full Drive

2. Aimer – StarRingChild

3. Ayumi Hamasaki – NOW & 4EVA

4. The Mirraz – この惑星のすべて

5. flumpool – Believer’s High

6. FLOWER FLOWER – 神様

7. Seiko Matsuda – I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~

8. AKB48 – Labrador Retriever (Version 4)

9. Kana Nishino – We Don’t Stop

10. Perfume – Hold Your Hand

This Week in J-Pop: Aimer, AKB48, FLOWER FLOWER, flumpool, KANA-BOON

I try to limit myself to 5 singles a week, but damn, there were many singles by big-name artists released this week! So I hope you’re ready for a ride through these 10 singles:

StarRingChild by Aimer, Labrador Retriever by AKB48, 神様 (Kami-sama / God) by FLOWER FLOWER, Believer’s High by flumpool, Full Drive by KANA-BOON, この惑星のすべて (Kono hoshi no subete / Everybody on this planet) by The Mirraz, I Love You !! ~あなたの微笑みに~ (Anata no hohoemi ni / In your smile) by Seiko Matsuda, NOW & 4EVA by Ayumi Hamasaki, We Don’t Stop by Kana Nishino and Hold Your Hand by Perfume.

To stop this post from being ridiculously long, I will cut it into two parts and only deal with the first five singles today. The rest and the ranking will follow tomorrow.

Aimer
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Anyone else think she looks kinda…lonely?

Aimer is one of those illusive songstresses that let plenty of emotion and personality flow into their music without making it about themselves. Her new single, StarRingChild, contains 3 original songs and an alternate version of the title track.

StarRingChild opens on haunting vocals and individual guitar chords before developing into a more filled out Rock narrative. Aimer creates a solitary atmosphere that reflects the single cover well – both the cover and the song are gorgeous, evoking images of being alone under the night sky, content with life. Amazingly, she still manages to fit the song into a typical Rock structure and make it appealing for casual listening with a high-energy chorus.

A scaled down song between Alternative Rock, Shoegaze, Trip-Hop and Dreampop, Even Heaven creates tension throughout its 8 minute run, accentuated by powerful little details and a controlled vocal performance, that is expertly resolved towards the end, resulting in a fragile, yet fearless piece of Pop magic. This is a song that shouldn’t be missed under any circumstances.

Mine didn’t impress me like the other songs did. It’s a competent ballad, using all the tricks in the book, but doesn’t really do anything for me on a personal level. I don’t feel a connection to the song.

Closing the single is a shorter version of the title track used for the Gundam movie(TV show?). Not much has changed, but I feel like cutting the more atmospheric parts made it a weaker, less interesting song. The movie version is essentially a basic poprock track. I would have liked to link the music video here, but unfortunately couldn’t find an online stream for it. It’s very much what you’d expect, for the biggest part visualizing the mood as children are shown exploring an abandoned building.

While the single does have a drop in quality, it remains a gorgeous, intuitive listen that captivates with strong emotional cues. A glowing recommendation.

AKB48
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AKB48 – for foot fetishists anywhere!

I’m not big on idols and especially not on AKB48, but I feel such a cultural phenomenon can’t be ignored. I have an interesting post about their marketing strategies and success coming, but for now let’s look at Version 4 of their new single(the single was released in multiple versions, featuring different B-Sides – I picked one randomly), Labrador Retriever.

A drum-roll and synthy brass are reminiscent of classic idol tracks as the A-Side starts playing. While I find the arrangement rather plastic and the heavily layered vocals – due to the group having so many vocalists – lifeless, I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that this song, while going nowhere melodically, is rather catchy. Have I taken anything away from it? No. But I don’t regret listening to it. I would have liked a shorter version a bit more as there’s no real build-up – the song could have done with one less verse and chorus without losing anything – however, it’s a competent idol single. In a genre characterized by horrible music, that is already enough to make the song appealing.

The B-side that all versions of the single have in common, 今日までのメロディー (Kyou made no merodii / A melody continuing until today) is more soothing, featuring a soft melody performed by fewer vocalists at once. I found it more forgettable, with a rather bland chorus. But once again, it wasn’t annoying or painful to listen to – just boring.

The best song and the one exclusive to Version 4, ハートの脱出ゲーム (Haato no dasshutsu geemu / The Heart’s Escape Game) is the most energetic and fun out of the bunch, with a memorable, catchy melody. It’s the only song on this single I can see myself coming back to – in doses. Essentially, it’s what idol pop should sound like, even if no masterpiece.

In typical AKB48 fashion, there’s multiple covers and every song has an accompanying music video. The covers are just shots of different girls and groups of girls smiling on the beach and as such rather interchangeable. The Labrador Retriever music video features the girls dancing and singing on the beach, intercut with scenes of a dog just…living his life and trying to find one of the girls. It’s fanservice – nothing more, nothing less. With loving shots of underage swimwear boobs thoughout. The video for 今日までのメロディー opens on a long interview with a member of the group – I assume one about to graduate, I really don’t care enough to pay close attention – before turning into a montage with occasional shots of the girl singing. This seems to be a video made specifically with the fans in mind, so I don’t feel comfortable passing judgement without knowing more background. The final video, ハートの脱出ゲーム shows some of the girls caught in a studio lot after a video shoot. Of course, they decide to sing and perform a choreography. All three videos are competently shot, but of solely promotional manner rather than having any form of artistic merit.

Considering the nature of AKB48, I can’t complain about the single. There’s nothing groundbreaking included and some of the material is rather tiresome, but in the end it’s a fun single clearly made for AKB48 fans – and sold based on the concept of the group rather than the quality of the music. There is no ambitious to be artistic here, but there doesn’t have to be.

FLOWER FLOWER
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Beware! A cave painting!

Singer-songwriter YUI’s hiatus was cut short when she announced the formation of her new band FLOWER FLOWER just months after putting her solo career on hold. Who would have thought it would take almost a year for the band to release its second song after that?

神様 is heavier, rougher around the edges than most of YUI’s solo work and as such I quite like the direction she is taking. It feels authentic, unprocessed. The presence of an actual band is working wonders in terms of arrangement, making 神様 a very pleasant experience and even the vocal performance is more authentic and expressive than usual. Kudos for trying something different!

There’s not much to be said about cover art and music video. The covert art is just a bit boring and doesn’t seem to really apply to the song’s mood, but it isn’t intruding. And the music video, well, I couldn’t find it!

While not all that memorable as a song, I’m excited to see this band release an album. Hopefully soon. 神様 is exciting enough to build up some hype – let’s wait for them to live up to it!

flumpool
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Spacey!

My first exposure to flumpool was their 2008 song Over the Rain, a mellow, optimistic Pop ballad that I occasionally come back to even today. Since then, they’ve failed to really capture me with any of their material. Since their new best-of is out this week, let’s see if the buzz single Believer’s High can change that!

Believer’s High walks the line between soft Rock ballad and catchy Poprock – successfully. The arrangement is simple, but effective, the production tight and the vocal performance adequate. It’s a plain good Rock track, making up for its lack of substance by just being a fun, inviting listen. Fans of the typical Japanese Poprock sound should enjoy this song – and their best of.

The single cover reveals ties to the new Captain Earth anime and feels more like a purely promotional effort than a genuine representation of the music.  The music video, on the other hand, just features plenty scenes of the vocalist staring into the camera like a madman.

It’s a strong enough single – with weak promotional material.

KANA-BOON
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BOOOOOOOOOOM!!!

The last single for today comes from KANA-BOON, a popular Rock band that just got signed to a major label last year and managed to place their debut album at #3 upon release.

Full Drive is a clean, classic Rock track. Aggressive, high-energy and full of catchy riffs. The song is full of spirit and raw power, blasting all over the place and just incredibly refreshing in the Japanese Pop business that is usually built around very controlled sounds. By far one of the catchiest, most fun songs I have heard this year so far, if you need some unadulterated, young Rock – this is your song.

The first B-Side, Rapid Siren, is a bit more frantic and feels less realized, but is almost equally entertaining and lively. The mix of fast, complex guitar work and catchy chorus lines is sure to stick around in your head long after the song is done playing.

夜のマーチ (Yoru no maachi / Night’s March) feels almost slow in comparison to the other tracks, even though it would count as upbeat. A heavier emphasis on the drums serves the song well in some sections, but also leads to an overly simplistic and easily irritating chorus melody. A well-crafted song, I can’t find much personal appeal in it.

KANA-BOON understand the value of visuals in selling music and setting mood, using covers that are – quite literally – as “explosive” as the music. And the music video for Full Drive? It’s every bit as over the top, messy and hasty as you’d hope it to be – featuring ridiculous chase and fight scenes in a city and constant movement. It’s hard to imagine a better visual representation of the music.

Even with the third song lacking, Full Drive is a fantastic single and a great package. The cover, the songs, the video – it all ties together incredibly well and works equally well as individual pieces. KANA-BOON are one of the most promising new bands in the market right now – look out for them!

More Tomorrow

Did you like any of the singles I reviewed today? Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for 5 more single reviews and the weekly ranking! I linked to at least one track from every single in this post, so feel free to play along – listen to the songs and leave your ranking in the comments!

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!