Picks of the Week #25

  • WONK – ‘Midnight Cruise’

A comment by another user on YouTube pointed out that random clicks can lead to great discoveries. The moment I clicked and heard ‘Midnight Cruise’ by experimental jazz quartet WONK could not be a more opportune time to agree with the above statement. The track oozes a seductive warmth with its gorgeous fusion of modern hip-hop and soul vibes, sparkling jazz piano colours and rich, immersive harmonies, while picturing a deserted beach with the sun setting in the horizon.

  • Czecho no Republic – ‘MUSIC’

Surfing the indie-pop waves under a dazzling shoegaze sunshine, ‘MUSIC’ by pop-rock quintet Czecho no Republic is a youthful indie number that perfect to blast out on the radio for a bubbly start to a weekend. Personally, this particular track reminds me of Mark Ronson’s brief spell as The Business Intl with its perpetual guitar riffs, turbo-driven harmonies and drums that drive through the never-ending motorway.

My ears do like to be in tune with the odd unapologetic pop number. This time, it is the dynamic energy and sensual personality of Nissy (from pop group AAA) and his song ‘SUGAR’ that reignited my inner party soul. The track has all the ingredients to pierce the hearts of his adoring female fans – it’s punctuating bass line, orchestral hits and jazzy ensemble sounds coax a sultry, burlesque-like vibe that adds the extra dose of allure to Nissy’s seductive and tad flirtatious vocals.

© Isaku Takahashi

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Picks of the Week #21

  • DATS – ‘Mobile’

Laden with vintage 90s colours, electro-pop and euro dance beats, ‘Mobile’ by DATS is a refreshing track that can rejuvenate any drained senses in my body. The song surfs the same sonic wavelengths of recent British bands like The 1975 and Disclosure with the quartet’s youthful vocals and the radiant spectrum of synths and beats that penetrate the listener’s eardrums.

  • AAA – ‘Jewel’

While finding hidden gems in the Japanese music scene is important to me, I also enjoy the odd sugar-coated J-pop number, including ‘Jewel’ by the female duo 宇野美彩子 Uno Misako and 伊藤千晃 Ito Chiaki from AAA. This infectious electro-pop tune filled with chic synth colours, seductive vocoder-shaded vocals and bouncing beats features in their latest album WAY OF GLORY, and marks the final chapter of Ito’s journey with AAA as she leaves at the end of March after announcing her pregnancy. Listen to more AAA in my blog posts here.

New York City’ by Tempalay is an absorbing and hypnotic number that may well put listeners in a blissful trance. From the opening perpetual chords to the spellbinding sonic colours that meander throughout the stereo field in serpentine fashion, the band’s signature psychedelic-rock personality comes to full bloom in this beguiling track. ‘New York City’ features in their latest EP 5曲 Gokyoku (‘Five Tracks’). Listen and find out more about Tempalay in my blog posts here.

© Isaku Takahashi

New Japanese Vibes (12) – SKY-HI ‘Enter The Dungeon’

From one member of avex band AAA to another. SKY-HI, lead rapper in the 7-soul unit continues his solo engagement with ‘Enter The Dungeon’. Its sinister façade parallels the musical interest the track glorifies in, and brings back impressions of previous tunes including ‘Serial’.

The ominous atmosphere is conveyed both in image and sound. What looks like an abandoned building sketched in graffiti, the only aid of sight in the music video is the torch SKY-HI waves about. Punctuating drumbeats and the dexterous rapping of Hidaka Mitsuhiro drives the propulsion of the track, while luminous and squelchy synths in the pre-chorus stir up tension towards the dynamic chorus, and the sporadic deep, warped vocal sample provokes an otherworldly sonic ambience.

Other Info/Context

  • Enter The Dungeon’ is the coupling track to SKY-HI’s new single アイリスライト Iris Light, due to be released 13th Jan 2016.
  • Check out my post on SKY-HI here.

© Isaku Takahashi

アニソン – Anime Songs

My recent feature on Mizuki Nana has reinvigorated my interest towards anime culture, and the collaborative potentials between music and one of the most distinctive entertainment forms. Bearing in mind the never-ending list of awesome anime songs, here is just an introduction to some great anime songs (past and present) that have come to enlighten the popular consciousness.

  • Linked Horizon – 紅蓮の弓矢 ‘Guren no Yumiya’

The recent craze and popularity of Attack on Titan has propelled ‘fantasy band’ Sound Horizon/Linked Horizon to new heights. ‘Guren no Yumiya’ was written as the opening theme for the first thirteen episodes of the anime series. The epic nature of the song, where symphonic language meets progressive and metal rock encapsulates the energy and feelings of conflict and determination conveyed through the action-packed narrative.

  • 大野雄二 Ohno Yuji Lupin the Third

We have the mastermind of Ohno Yuji to thank for one of Japan’s most recognisable anime theme tunes. The turbo-geared vibe of the theme song for Lupin the Third is full of colourful harmonies, textures and melodies. The 1978 and ‘79 versions lob similar propulsion; echoing the classic funk idioms of Curtis Mayfield or Earth, Wind and Fire, with Mancini-style string melodies weaving through the ensemble. The addition of radiant synths distinguishes the ‘79 version to the former. On the other hand, the ’80 version propels a zestful big band sensation full of swing inflections and a spotlight on the vibraphone, expressing a rather brazen Pink Panther-esque personality. (The clip here is a comparison of the three different arrangements)

  • T.M. Revolution x Mizuki Nana – 革命デゥアリズム ‘Kakumei Dualism’

This tune is arguably the quintessence of modern anime song. Its high-speed breathtaking sonic atmosphere captures the futuristic atmosphere and action-packed story of the anime Valvrave the Liberator. A symphonic rock idiom forms the backdrop of the song: voltage-charged guitars meet grandiose string melodies, and the aggressive vocal behaviour of T.M. Revolution meets the operatic yet fierce vocal magnitude of Mizuki Nana.

  • 平野綾 Hirano Aya – ‘God Knows’

Featuring in the anime The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, this tune reverberates a high-octane exuberance emitted by the grumbling bass line, ferocious guitar virtuoso, bustling drum rhythms and a gust of fire from the penetrating vocals of Hirano Aya. While the song serves a particular purpose as part of the narrative, it has a catchy sensation that perhaps would attract attention as an autonomous piece of ‘J-Pop’ without the aid of the anime. (I for one haven’t followed the manga or anime, but feel comfortable or get along with the song without any knowledge of the story. Perhaps this is a clear example of how anime songs can play a role on the effect, but also act as a result of a particular anime).

  • 高橋洋子Takahashi Yuko – 残酷な天使のテーゼ ‘Zankoku na Tenshi no Tēze’

One of the most influential anime tunes to come out of the country, ‘Zankoku na Tenshi no Tēze’ has transcended generations and cultures, and is now recognised by audiences of many ages and cultures. The music is bursting with unapologetically kitsch dance/disco features, vintage sonic shades and timbres, pronounced heavily by the neon-tinged synths and drum machines. While director 庵野秀明 Anno Hideaki’s original idea to use Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances as the opening theme got dismissed, one cannot help but see subtle resemblances between the vocal melody of Takahashi and Borodin’s ‘orientalist’ idiom.

  • きただにひろし Kitadani Hiroshi – ウィーアー! ‘We Are!’

Alongside Evangelion and Lupin the Third, this is perhaps one of the most iconic tunes of today’s anime culture. Originally sung by Kitadani Hiroshi, this jolly tune has been covered by various J-Pop artists including pop group AAA (SKY-HI is also a member of the 7-piece unit), a testament to the song’s universal charm. Both versions listed here are brimming with an energy driven by fanfare trumpet stabs and electrifying guitar solos, and while the Kitadani version comprises of a classic band line-up, AAA embraces a wide scope of synths to enrich the heroic vibe and high spirit conveyed through the music and lyrics.

(AAA Version)

Realising that fact that this post has omitted many more unforgettable, iconic anime songs, this only gives us some perspective of the diversity in musical flavours to come out of the anime sphere. Throwing yourself in the eclectic mix of fantasies is the best way to grasp the weird and wonderful world of anime.

© Isaku Takahashi

SKY-HI

SKY-HI is ‘cool’ personified. Mitsuhiro Hidaka is perhaps better known for his engagements with the idol pop band AAA. Now, since his solo debut in 2013, Hidaka has unleashed a fresh expression of his personal ‘rap’ identity.

You could compare SKY-HI to a fusion of Eminem and Justin Timberlake. ‘RULE’ is perhaps a great example (plus, it is my favourite SKY-HI track). This track lives up to a fiery character with a repetitive punchy piano riff, heart-pounding drumbeat, and the unsung hero in this song: the backing vocals. The ‘swagger’ and attitude the backing vocals release lifts the chorus into a new sonic stratosphere.

On one hand he can portray a trendy hip persona. He showcases this in his debut single 愛ブルーム ‘Ai Bloom’ (meaning ‘love bloom’). What makes this different to other kinds of hip-hop and rap is his skill to balance melodious singing with the verbally intricate nature of rapping. Complemented by a 70s/80s disco beat, funky electric guitar licks and a vibrant music video, this groovy number was a fine pick to launch SKY-HI’s solo career.

TOKYO SPOTLIGHT’ is the track that resonated with my inner ‘rave’ soul. Drawing similarities to that hit song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, it is a pure urban city night-life amplifier: laser-like synths with a slight ‘brassy’ quality, a hammering four-on-the-floor beat and a full spectrum of sonically manipulated vocal phrases.

On the other hand, he can stifle the listener with a much more confrontational, almost disturbing demeanour. ‘Serial’ is the killer record that has the power to cause a sonic and visual shock. The sinister bass and guitar line in the chorus, brass chords in the chorus that resemble a James Bond film and a gradually intensifying vocal rap line are all accompanied by a music video that strikes a threatening character.

SKY-HI is one to watch. He possesses a flawless rapping mastery and an artistic versatility like no one else in the Japanese music scene, acting as a young ambassador of the ‘Cool Japan’ landscape.

Other Listening:

  • ONE BY ONE (featuring other Japanese rap artists)
  • LIMO
  • Blanket
  • スマイルドロップ ‘Smile Drop’
  • SEASIDE BOUND

© Isaku Takahashi