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タグ: Review

People In The Box, Kodomo Rengou (2018)

Honestly, I had very little knowledge about People In The Box until their latest Kodomo Rengou, which was released in February 2018. I was relatively new to today’s Japanese rock music ‘cuz I was crazy in dance music since the late ’00s. However, one of my friends strongly recommended the album, saying that it would be the album of the year. Then I tried listening and soon fell in love with it. I’ve listened to it over and over, even ignoring other new releases.

The album reminded me of some math-rock acts but it had a more physical and active groove. Rather than indulging in sweet and violent tones from the amplifiers, just as some bands do (oops, I don’t blame on them. just for comparison), they play riffs and rhythm patterns with strong clarity. From a note to note, I can hear their intention–how they want them to sound, how they want them to be. The interplay between melodies is dizzying yet compelling me to dance to it. I dare say that it’s like something fusing prog-rock, chamber music and afrobeat.

Their lyrics are also important. With quite simple vocabulary, they often depict the ordinary life around us, especially in Japan’s suburbs. Let me take “町A (Town A)” as an example. In its chorus, Hirofumi Hatano (Vo. & Guitar, who also writes all of their lyrics) sings like this: “huge mall, restaurant, public library, udon noodle stand, book store, bakery, housing, flower shop, ramen stand, shrine, temple, secondhand car shop, room with sunlight.” Most Japanese people may easily imagine such a tasteless landscape. It belongs nowhere, as the title suggests. It has no name. If anything, it can be everywhere. It might be my hometown, or else, someone’s hometown instead.

“This is not heaven, let alone a paradise. / However, this is not hell even. / One night after another / Say, a buffer zone or resting place between nights / This is not heaven; just my hometown” Hatano sings. Ok, this is certainly the mise-en-scene of our everyday life. But how strange, weird, and uncanny is this? It’s like the Brechtian theatre’s distancing effect. It’s pretty ambivalent that the album closes with a song named “僕は正気 (I AM sane)”. Are we still sober or losing our minds in this world?

Hatano deliberately manipulates words and depicts people’s inherent anxiety without any sentimental rhetorics. But it moves my mind so hard that I almost cry when I listen to “かみさま (God)” and “僕は正気”.

The tight groove of the ensemble, the complicated texture of the sound, and the lyrics’ peculiar poesy. This is obviously the best Japanese rock album of 2018.

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江沼郁弥, #1 (2018)

Enuma Fumiya’s #1 is his first full-length as a solo singer-songwriter. After the break-up of plenty in 2017, the introspective frontman of the band took some synths and a daw into his hands instead of the guitar. While plenty’s music was characterized by the shoegaze-like guitar noise with catchy melodies–say, very “indie” in a sense–the album was completely rid of such catharsis. It was like something between psychedelic folk and alternative r&b which could be compared to James Blake’s or Frank Ocean’s seminal works. I would say that he was finding another way to express his thought with a great delicacy. And he actually did it.

In the endless reverberation and infinite echoes, his voice tells us how he’s sad and desperate. This sadness once used to be quite dramatic and ecstatic especially when he was with his band, but now it’s more nuanced as he elaborates the sound design. Every sound of the album is deliberately modulated to express feelings that couldn’t be said with words. M9 “take my hands” is the best example I think. The guitar loop is granulated and pitch-shifted voices are haunting the entire song. The song sounds like memories suspended in the air, slowly falling into oblivion.

From this March, Enuma has released three singles which would be featured in the new album. These three songs, “うるせえんだよ”, “偽善からはじめよう”, and “積み木くずし” are more friendly in sound but much more pessimistic in words. FYI “うるせえんだよ” and “偽善からはじめよう” can be respectively translated like “Shut the fuck up” and “Let’s begin with hypocrisy”, both are very shocking as song’s name. However, while he sings about his distrust of the people and the impossibility of mutual understanding, he is also breaking the walls of creativity.

Enuma recently plays his show with a young and mysterious band 木 (ki), one of the most anticipated new comer in Japan. Among music lovers, they’re known for an eccentric and minimalistic approach with a definite pop sense. Their avant-garde pop rendered in a smooth R&B flavor, which is 木’s signature style, certainly resonates with Enuma’s solo works (check out the band’s debut EP Vi below). This collaboration is pretty fascinating to me. I’d like to watch their show someday this year.

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tofubeats, RUN, 2018

The 2010s was the decade of tofubeats. Some wouldn’t agree with me but this has been my honest feeling for years. Working with numerous J-POP acts like Chisato Moritaka, KREVA, Bonnie Pink etc., now he is one of the most popular DJ and producer among his generation. “水星”, his earliest breakthrough hit, is like the decade’s standard number as many young pop singers have made their own version of it.

He’s known for his prolific and genre bending activities–DJing, singing, beatmaking and producing other artists. His danceable and euphoric sound attracted not only dance floor but more wider audience. You can feel it when you listen to First Album or POSITIVE, his first and second full-length with Warner Music Japan.

However, his creative turning point was, as far as I’ve seen, FANTASY CLUB which was released in 2017. It was a very introspective, reflective, thoughtful piece of art, contrary to his public image–a producer specialized to pop, funny, joyful and party-oriented dance music. Instead, he sang his everyday struggles and a little prayer, almost alone in his bedroom studio. It sounded much more honest than ever, showing his ability to make a conceptual, serious-themed album (the album’s main motif was “post-truth”, 2016’s buzz word).

2018’s release RUN was obviously the sequel to FANTASY CLUB. In FANTASY CLUB, he seemed to be afraid of saying something plainly. He was trying to figure out how the world should be and just prayed. He didn’t make any assert on it. On the contrary, in “RUN”, the album’s opening song, he declared that he was gonna start to run and keep on running ‘til the end, even the situation would discourage him. Heavy trap-like 808 bass and edgy hi-hats drive his motivation and the song’s straightforward one-verse structure underlines his decision. This was one of the best songs in 2018.

The album included also his recent hits “ふめつのこころ” and “RIVER”, along with instrumental house tracks (“You Make Me Acid”, “Return to Sender”, “Bullet Trn”), a uk garage style tune (“Newtown”) and polyrhythmic intimate conversation with someone (“Sometimes”). The sound was more powerful than the last album and very consistent throughout the twelve tracks despite those varieties of beats.

My favorite is the last track, “ふめつのこころ(SLOWDOWN)”. As the title says, this song is a reprise of “ふめつのこころ”, but with more sincere messages to the listeners. Let me summarize; You can rewind this song (or any kind of song as far as it’s recorded) and play it back again, or slow it down in order to listen more closely. Even you can’t understand what’s going on, you’ll find something in your mind. So please do not give up, try again.

In my opinion, this is both how to listen to music in the age of mechanical reproduction and how to understand others in the age of social dissonance. And, this is one of possible solutions to the question posed by FANTASY CLUB.

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長谷川白紙 (Hakushi Hasegawa), 草木萌動 (So-moku Ho-do), 2018

There has been a so-called “netlabel” scene in Japan since the late 2000s as well as overseas. Maltine Records is one of the most famous netlabels in Japan, which was founded by two then high school students in 2005. Specializing in the contemporary dance and electronic music producers, they’ve released over 170 singles or eps including ones by dj newtown (a.k.a. tofubeats), TORIENA, Pa’s Lam System, パソコン音楽クラブ (Pasocom Ongaku Club) etc..

When Hakushi Hasegawa released his first ep アイフォーンシックスプラス (iPhone Six Plus) from Maltine Records, he was only 18 yrs old. Although every song from the ep had a very delicate and complicated tonal or rhythmic structure in it, his voice was so smooth, sweet, soft and soothing. Unlike the label’s previous releases, the ep was not particularly for a dance floor. But his kaleidoscopic groove inevitably invited listeners to dance, even if you couldn’t figure out its time signature. Since then, Hasegawa has been considered one of the latest talents from Maltine Records.

But he soon underwent the next breakthrough. In November 2018, he announced his second ep, 草木萌動 (So-moku Ho-do), would be released in December. The title was taken from the traditional Chinese calendar which had been also used by Japanese people, meaning “when trees and plants begin to bloom”.

This word properly explains Hasegawa’s music, I think. While his debut had sort of post-internet feeling in its title and artwork, the music was rather erotic, physical, and pseudo-organic. Influenced by contemporary classical music and jazz, he wove up complex harmonies, repeated key changes, and the polyrhythmic groove to make a rhizome-like structure under the ground. Then his voice soaked into it like rain watering plants and their roots. On the surface, plants were coming into buds, almost blooming, shaking themselves.

As he keeps on making songs and playing lots of shows, he’s studying composing at a university now. One can easily recognize his knowledge of the musical grammar particularly 20th century’s avant-garde in his songs. But his uniqueness is that he’s capable of writing pop songs with those idioms at the edge of the academic discipline. Along with his past works including 草木萌動, his recent collaboration with 入江陽 (Yo Irie) and BOMI is a very good example. I wish he would gain more attention and write some chart-topping tunes someday.

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宇多田ヒカル (Hikaru Utada), 初恋(Hatsukoi), 2018

If you’re acquainted with the Japanese pop culture, you may know Hikaru Utada. She’s one of Japan’s most famous singer and songwriter in these decades. Her debut album First Love sold over 10 million copies worldwide. It is the best selling J-POP album in history–and no one will ever break this record.

In 1998, with her debut single “Automatic / time will tell,” she changed the entire landscape of J-POP. Heavily influenced by the contemporary urban music like R&B, she showed Japanese audience how the Japanese language can groove on the R&B-oriented beat.

Of course, there were many precursors in terms of this kind of practice in Japan. From pre-modern Jazz to Rock n Roll to Soul to Hip Hop, Japanese musicians had been trying to adopt Western music into their musical vocabulary. Roughly, their main concern was how Western pop music could be sung in Japanese. Utada’s debut was like its ultimate answer emerged at the very end of the 20th century. 

Since then, along with her comrades such as Ringo Sheena, she’s been recognized as the most prominent artist in contemporary Japanese pop music. However, she took a hiatus from 2011 to 2015, saying that she wanted to live an ordinary life for a while.

In 2016, Utada announced come-back and released Fantôme, which featured several guest singers. Before then, she rarely invited guest singers in her music. Given that, the album seemed like a thankful gift for her fans those who patiently waited for her come back.

Moreover, it displayed her development as an artist in terms of singing rhythm and flow. I bet you can hear it clearly when you play “忘却 (Bo-kyaku)” with KOHH. On the atmospheric heartbeat-like beat, here she’s chanting like a prayer, rather than a pop star. The repetition of the same rhythm figure emphasizes rhymes between the lines, just as KOHH’s unique vocalization and flow do. His approach is more complicated, say, kinds of polyrhythmic one, though.

Two years later, 2018, she released her latest, 初恋 (Hatsukoi). The title means “first love” in English. This obviously refers to her debut album. It seemed as if she was trying to reboot her career for it was her 20th anniversary year as a singer and songwriter.

The album was thematically pretty delicate and self-reflective. For example, she frankly revealed her mixed feeling towards her mother, who deceased in 2013. On the other hand, in some songs, she showed her blissful and dramatic feeling in love with her lover, even singing people would be envious of her entire life with him.

From musical aspects, the album was quite challenging. With help from distinguished musicians such as Chris Dave on the drums, the rhythmical experiment which had been pursued in Fantôme became more sophisticated than ever. She tapped into the recent Trap style singing and rhyming, the polyrhythmic structure of the beat, and the subtle but definitive change of flow.

Listen to “誓い (Chikai),” which is now known as “Don’t Think Twice” outside Japan. This was the theme song for Kingdom Hearts 3 and led to Utada’s recent collaboration with Skrillex. According to Utada’s vocal, the song sounds basically 6/8. But if you focus on the piano, you can feel 4/4 with a bit swing or a loose groove. Still more, Utada sings very straightforward 16 beat at the bridge. These factors give this song a very interesting texture in terms of rhythm. Keeping this texture throughout the song rather than make a dramatic catharsis at the end, listeners are left emotionally confused a little and prompted to play it again and again.

Some argue that this album is the best release of 2018. I half agree with it. Honestly, I don’t like the lyrics, the messages they contain. However, there’s no doubt that this exquisite songwriting and arranging has no equal among contemporary Japanese pop music. It’s great pleasure that such an incredible album gained so much popularity in Japan (it reached #3 in the Billboard Japan year chart 2018). I strongly recommend to check out Utada’s recent works including 初恋 and Skrillex collaboration “Face My Fears.”

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折坂悠太 (Yuta Orisaka), 平成 (Heisei), 2018

Heisei era, beginning in early 1989 as Emperor Hirohito deceased, is going to end in April 2019. It was the era of increasing depression both economically and socially. These three decades are known notoriously as “lost decades,” Japanese people went through the collapse of the economy and severe disasters like several great earthquakes, ane even faced the fear of terrorism by some religious cults.

Yuta Orisaka was born in 1989. His life has been therefore along with Heisei era. At the very end of it, perhaps he’s inevitably conscious about what these three decades meant to him. So he wrote a song and named it “Heisei,” moreover he decided to make it the title of the entire album.

Heisei is his sophomore full-length, which is critically acclaimed for its elegant use of Japanese poetic styles and various singing methods. Before Heisei is released, Hikaru Utada, the most famous and popular singer and songwriter in Japan, said Orisaka’s “あさま (Asama)” from his debut was her favorite. Since then, he gained much attention and finally he did meet people’s expectations by Heisei.

Although some of its motives in the album are apparently taken from recent events like the great earthquakes, these songs sound just like recordings from a hundred years ago, the early days of Japanese pop music history. It is, in some way, because of their rhetric (poetic or literary rather than colloquial) and use of musical scales that are often said “traditional.” Also this is because of the lack of Rock feeling. Orisaka’s music is a fusion of Jazz, Latin, Country, and Japanese Folklore, etc.. But there seems few traces of Rock. Thus, his music reminds me of pre-Rock decades of Japanese pop music.

Orisaka also shows off his voice in different ways. He sings, shouts, read aloud his lyrics and poetry. Often his performance gets very theatrical, especially in “逢引 (meeting).” This surrealistic narrative fuses a love song and a monologue in a battlefield by the power of his voices. As you can hear in it, he’s a quite skillful and unique singer.

Through Heisei, the singer shows us some visions and emotions rather than telling a story. They feel like pale shadows both comfortable and a bit depressing. And this ambivalent feeling is like what I got when I reminisce Heisei era. I’m sure that almost everyone spent these decades in Japan would feels the same.

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