Review: Team Syachihoko – Himatsubushi

You guys knew I had to review this, right? Seriously, this review has been a long time coming. I started reviewing this when it came out. It’s been months. What happened?

It’s no secret that Team Syachihoko’s first album, Himatsubushi, is my most highly anticipated release in quite a while. They are by far my favorite idol group out there; all of their members are really fun performers and the group does a lot of fun things that make them a really fun group to follow. However, what really cinches them as my favorite group is their music. Often unorthodox, very often catchy, Team Syachihoko is one of the most consistently great groups in the idol world for musical output. Since Himatsubushi was announced to have nine new songs, a rarity in the idol world where albums are often just a collection of single songs and b-sides, I have been waiting for this album. And, spoiler alert, it was well worth the wait.

1. Space Himatsubushi supported by ZEN-LA-ROCK

One of the things that continues to impress me about Team Syachihoko, musically, is the variety of talent they collaborate with. They work with a wide variety of artists and composers who are often not usual figures in the idol world. Space Himatsubushi is a collaboration of Team Syachihoko with Japanese hip hop MC ZEN-LA-ROCK, who also wrote the lyrics (the music was written by Anne Beats). It’s pretty remarkable how, in these songs, Team Syachihoko often takes a back seat to the featured artist; ZEN-LA-ROCK is very prominently featured.

Possibly the most notable thing about this song is the lyrics. While usually idol lyrics aren’t the focus of a lot of idol tracks, this song is basically a large collection of inside references to the group. The chorus is based off of the words from Syachihoko’s overture, “Ningen Gojuunen, Idol Gonen, Owari Nagoya ni Syachihoko ari” which, in my rough translation skills, means “Human 50 years, Idol 5 years, in conclusion, in Nagoya there are Syachihoko” (please let me know if you have a better translation). As a point of note, this actually refers to a famous Noh verse called The Atsumori, and the “Ningen gojuunen” is famously referring to the span of a life. So this is basically saying that, for what humans is fifty years, for idols it’s five years. (Syachi, please don’t disband in a couple of years).

Anyways, the rest of the lyrics are filled with references to other Team Syachihoko songs like Owari no Hana and OEOEO. It’s a fun song to listen to in that regard, as it rewards listeners who are familiar with Team Syachihoko’s discography.

The actual song itself is fast-paced but predominantly laidback. It seems like a bit of an odd choice to start out with, especially with such strong starter songs like Otome Juken Sensou and Dakishimete Anthem would be, but I actually really like how this starts. It feels like it’s winding up into the album instead of everything starting right away. It’s electronic and a little dreamy; it feels a bit like trance music. It’s actually kind of hard to describe; I’ve listened to the song several times in this review and I just can’t pin it down.

This isn’t a typical Team Syachihoko song, or a typical idol song. That said, it feels like a telling opener for this album. Many  idol albums choose to start out with a high energy song, to immediately hook the listeners. Team Syachihoko chooses a more unusual song to ease listeners in.

While this song isn’t the most exciting on its own, its referential lyrics and it’s dreamy feel make it an excellent start to the album. 8/10

2. Shuto Iten Keikaku

The first major single, and the first single to pop up on this album! This was written by hip hop artist Seamo, and remains one of my favorite Team Syachihoko songs.

I feel like this could be a separate post in itself, but it’s interesting to see what artists do as their first single and as their major debut single. These are singles that set the stage and show what the group is going to be doing. Koibito wa Sniper and Shuto Iten Keikaku are two interesting cases. On the one hand, Koibito wa Sniper is hyperactive and a bit crazy, which is what I think a lot of people expect from Team Syachihoko. But on the other hand there’s Shuto Iten Keikaku. I know I was surprised the second I heard Shuto Iten Keikaku, and it took me a while to get into it.

The thing is, it’s written by a legitimate hip hop artist, Seamo, and it kind of shows. While a lot of idol songs might have a rap verse here or there, Shuto Iten Keikaku is a bit darker, a bit heavier and feels more like an actual song written by a hip hop artist. The beat’s great, and the pacing is just perfect. The song never lets up in all its five minutes. That said, the Syachihoko members actually sell the song; I don’t know if every idol group could do with this song what Team Syachihoko managed.

Further, when talking about Team Syachihoko lyrics, Shuto Iten Keikaku is one of the best. Not satisfied with just having a song about their hometown, Shuto Iten Keikaku is Team Syachihoko singing about how the capitol of Japan should be moved to Nagoya. It’s a bit silly and the lyrics are pretty funny, almost reminding you that while they are performing this song that they are still Team Syachihoko.

This is one of the great Team Syachihoko songs. The lyrics make me laugh, but the song is what keeps me listening. 9/10

3. Dakishimete Anthem

Since this song was the first song released from Himatsubushi, via a dance practice video, I think this will be the song a lot of people take away from Himatsubushi. And really, it’s not a bad song to be the representative song. It was written, after all, by Asano Takashi, who writes a lot of Team Syachihoko songs. He wrote Koibito wa Sniper, The Stardust Bowling, Otome Juken Sensou and Katte ni Hybrid.

Katte ni Hybrid is what this song reminds me of most. Both of these songs combine the hyperactivity of a lot of Team Syachihoko’s work with the sound of something like Shuto Iten Keikaku, to create a hyperactive song with heavy beats that has a killer rap line by Haruna. These two songs might be the best example of Team Syachihoko’s style, actually. Upbeat and happy but with a good beat to them.

This song is quickly becoming a Syachihoko staple, and for good reason. It’s perfectly paced, has the high energy that has become a big part of Team Syachihoko, and is just generally well written and well arranged. Even though Team Syachihoko has never really been known for lyrics, they sell this song and sound great in the “woah woah woah” parts and the softer bridge.

This is generally a perfect Team Syachihoko song; energy with enough edge. 10/10

4. Ndatte!!

This song immediately surprised me the first time I heard the instrumentation at the beginning; it sounds like more of a rock song that Syachi has ever really done before. While the song veers more towards pop in the chorus and verses, there’s a rock sensibility that feels rare from idol songs.

Ndatte is one of the Syachi songs that kind of sneaks up on you. When I first listened to it I didn’t know if I liked it much. However, I found myself humming the chorus to myself later in the day, and then kept seeking out the song. It’s surprisingly catchy and fun.

This song was written by Tsutaya Koichi, who also notably wrote Dempagumi.inc’s great song VANDALISM. While NDatte isn’t quite as unhinged and wacky as VANDALISM got, it still has a bit of that same feel to it. It’s harder rock than Syachi’s used to, and still gets a little bit unhinged. Syachi manages to do the song justice, too.

While Ndatte took a while for me to get into, I ended up really liking this song. It’s not quite as interesting as some of the other songs on this album but it’s still great. 7/10

5. Ai no Chikyuusai

This is another song that took me a while to get into the first time I listened to it! It’s… weird.

Ai no Chikyuusai is relatively laidback (well, for the most part) song with an electronic arrangement that, again, takes a while. As I mentioned in my full review of this song and PV, it was written and arranged by Komorita Minoru who did some of songs from Matsuura Aya’s later albums, which had a similar feel in being laidback and mellow but still upbeat and idol-y.

Ai no Chikyuusai is one of those songs that I don’t think I’d ever put as one of the best Syachi single songs, but I still like it a lot for what it is. It’s a break from what Syachi was used to, for one. I also really like how, for the most part it’s laidback but in the chorus and at the end it just suddenly ramps up to being more unhinged and energetic in the way I expect Team Syachihoko to be.

Ai no Chikyuusai isn’t the song I would pick as a representative Team Syachihoko song, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead it’s a pleasant diversion for the group. 8/10

6. Ii Kurashi

Written by my twitter buddy Yoshida Tetsuto! My review of this actually got some feedback from Japanese Syachi fans and from Yoshida Tetsuto, who composed and arranged this song. This is probably the proudest moment I’ve had while writing Happy Disco.

One of the things that I mentioned in my first review that I have to say again is that this song does NOT feel like six and a half minutes. Instead, it totally justifies those minutes by being six and a half minutes of just about perfectly paced acid house music.

I also stand by the fact that, since Yoshida already writes acid house music, that the arrangement is better for it. While I tend to prefer instrumentation that includes, instruments, there’s no arguing that Ii Kurashi does it just about perfectly. The arrangement is full but not too busy.

This is a song I never expected to love, but I do. Everything about this song is pitch perfect. 10/10

7. I Don’t Care

I Don’t Care is the song on Himatsubushi that I can’t really put my finger on. It has a much darker feel than most Syachi songs (and a lot of idol songs), focusing on electronic sounds and is heavy on the bass. Even the sentiment, proclaimed by title and in the chorus, “I don’t care,” doesn’t feel quite like Team Syachihoko. This isn’t a bad thing; Syachihoko has been trying to branch out. However, it just feels kind of odd.

The song itself is solid. It’s catchy, and the beat is fantastic, especially as the song ramps up into choruses. Also, I know that I’ve been personally singing the “I don’t care” from the end of the chorus to myself a lot. The dubstep, EDM sound isn’t necessarily my favorite, but they do it well.

That said, this is one song that Team Syachihoko doesn’t quite fit. “I don’t care” as a sentiment doesn’t really work when you have six enthusiastic girls doing their best. As such, even though they are all trying to sell this song, they aren’t really completely successful at it. None of the girls really fit the song, except for the parts leading up to the chorus where things lighten up. There, Honoka and Chiyuri really shine.

This is a good song, and I like that Syachi tried it, but it doesn’t really work for me the way that the rest of this album does. 7/10

8. Akamiso Blood

I have been way too hyped over this song for a long time. The song and lyrics were written by Shihori, who wrote Momoiro Clover Z’s GOUNN. However, the main draw of this song is that it’s a collaboration with Daichi, a famous beatboxer. So, along with Daichi, Syachi’s vocals provide the backing track for the song, with Yuzuki and Nao as the main vocalists.

This is the type of song that I honestly don’t know if other idols have really done before. I mean, I know that idols have done acapella before. Berryz Koubou famously has done acapella arrangements of their tracks at concerts. However, this is an original song, and as such is written to suit the human beatbox that Daichi and Syachihoko provide. It has a fairly simple but pleasant melody, and while Syachihoko are hardly experts at this they do a fine job. The simple piano background suits the song well, too; rather than doing a song that’s fully acapella, it’s Daichi, the members of Team Syachihoko, and his keyboard. This creates an interesting, original sound, where all the elements play off one another very well.

I think the thing I love about Akamiso Blood is that it’s an experimental song, and a song I haven’t heard really by anyone else, but Syachi is doing a lot to elevate the song. Akamiso Blood isn’t just a little experiment they did, it’s an experiment that they are putting on an album.

And really, while it might be easy to look at an experiment and not think highly of it, Akamiso Blood shows that a little ingenuity can work. This song is fun, and it sounds superb. Every element is noticeable and so one element being off (such as the melody, or the backing vocals provided by Syachi) could make the whole thing fall flat. That said, every element is completely on point. This isn’t the most complex song of the year (by its very nature it’s not trying to do so), but it is by far one of the best songs of the year. 10/10

9. colors

Since I have taken so long to write this review, Team Syachihoko’s latest single, Shampoo Hat, has come out. A lot of people marveled at how relatively normal Shampoo Hat is, when being normal is an unusual thing in itself for Syachi. However, I’d say that “colors” is their most standard song yet. Written by one of the members of the band Base Ball Bear (who I knew from their single with Hyadain), this is Syachi’s take on a pop-rock song. While this might not be what everyone expected from this album, I know a lot of fans have grown attached to colors, and for good reason.

When a group focuses on having a weird image or doing unusual songs, it’s easy to assume that the group is doing that as a gimmick. I certainly don’t think that is true about Team Syachihoko, but it’s an easy assumption to make. What something like colors does is show off just how strong of a group Team Syachihoko is at its core, without the strangeness. The song has a very strong melody, and I really like the guitar heavy instrumentation. However, what I think works the best about colors is the basic arrangement. Behind everything is a faster, driving guitar and drums, but Syachi’s vocal line is often slow, with elongated notes. The melody could belong in a pretty basic ballad, but the arrangement keeps it moving forward. However, that slower melody that Syachihoko sings allows for members to show off their vocal prowess. Chiyuri, as expected, sounds fantastic, but Yuzuki really impressed me with that last vocal line. It’s these songs that can showcase a member’s talents and skills.

Beyond that, the rest of the song is great. It’s paced just about perfectly, the harmonies and the vocals are spot on almost everywhere. While I don’t hold this up with Dakishimete Anthem or Akamiso Blood as the real stars of this album, colors is a great song. It’s not just a great idol song, but it’s a well-produced, well-written song that any artist should be proud to have. While I know I initially found Syachihoko for their weirder songs, I’m glad that they are putting out songs like this. 8/10

10. Akeboshi

Akeboshi is not a track I expected from Team Syachihoko. At all. It’s a slow ballad sung completely in unison which ends up being very restrained. Restraint is not a word I would normally associate with Team Syachihoko. And really, neither is ballad. Team Syachihoko is a group that I know for its high energy, not for something like this.

Ballads are not my favorite type of song. At all. It takes a lot for me to really love a ballad; a memorable melody line or inspired instrumentation. Luckily for me, Akeboshi has both. The thing that immediately struck me with Akeboshi is that it reminds me of an Electric Light Orchestra ballad. ELO’s songs often combined rock music with orchestral instruments and synthesized electronic sounds. Akeboshi is very heavy on the strings, string instruments and a piano largely backing the piece, but it’s often intercut with electronic sound. This adds a really interesting element to the song, as the strings/piano feel old-fashioned but the electronic sounds add a newer sound to it. It’s odd, but it works.

The vocals are all restrained, but I actually like it that way. All the members sound incredibly pretty singing this. While some idols can belt vocally (I’m looking at you, Chiyuri), I’m actually not a huge fan of belting in songs, especially ballads. It’s more of an expression of raw power than finesse. The vocals in Akeboshi don’t show off much skill in particular, but they sound really soothing and pretty.

The song does a good job of building up towards the end, using more drums, but ultimately this is a beautiful, laid back ballad that does interesting things with its instrumentation. 9/10

11. Yoroshiku Jinrui

Man, I love the opening of this song. Nao and Chiyuri singing “Hello” at the start of Yoroshiku Jinrui might be my favorite individual couple of seconds. While the rest of Yoroshiku Jinrui is a fine song, the opening 20 seconds or so are just golden. And then the song breaks into the Ode of Joy, which is apparently an idol trend to use in idol music this year.

This song builds really nicely; the verses are good, but they really drive into the chorus. I would say the chorus is where the song shines, but that wouldn’t really be truthful. The verses do a great job of leading up into the chorus, but the verses are quite listenable, too. Driving forward is really what I would use to describe this song, oddly enough. It’s over five minutes long, but while not being as frantic or fast as something like Dakishimete Anthem, it still feels like those five minutes go by in an instant. The song doesn’t rush, but it still moves at just about a perfect pace. Even in the slow part near the end, it almost always feels like it’s moving forward.

Beyond that, it’s a lot of business as usual for Team Syachihoko. Upbeat, well produced pop music. However, it’s a pretty layered song, with a lot of different elements going on at once, without ever feeling cluttered or like too much. Yoroshiku Jinrui is, more than anything, a well-made pop song. It’s not quite the hyperactive, weird Syachihoko we know and love, but it’s a great example of idol pop. It has complex instrumentation that just sounds effortless, a catchy melody, and is easy to listen to. This is the type of song I have grown more and more fond of the more I listen. 9/10

12. Country Girl
So, for the penultimate song on Himatsubushi, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but country was NOT it. It feels like this entire album is comprised of surprises, which I am very fine with. Syachi excels at being unexpected, and Country Girl is certainly it.

This immediately gives me Country Musume vibes. However, the one thing that differs in this regard is the tone. It’s not just cheesy, banjo country music (though I do believe that is a banjo in this song), but it’s literally referring to the country. The song is upbeat and happy, but also wistful and nostalgic, as the members are singing about having only one hometown in their heart. Even if their hometown is a large metropolitan center like Nagoya, it feels appropriate, and almost necessary. As Syachihoko has grown, they have spread far beyond Nagoya. However, the group has always had strong roots in Nagoya, and this reinforces it. Really, this song feels appropriate for almost any local idol.

The instrumentation on this is excellent. The main sounds other than Syachi are guitar, banjo and horns, and while I wouldn’t necessarily peg horns as being a common element of country music, they work remarkably well here.

Even though I initially thought this song sounded a tad cheesy, I really like how it ends up sounding wistful. The song is well-made and, like always, catchy and a pleasure to listen to. This is a song I didn’t thought would be memorable and wonderful, but it is. 8/10

13. Otome Juken Sensou

If I had to pick one song that encapsulated Team Syachihoko, Otome Juken Sensou would be it. This is possibly THE Team Syachihoko song; it opened their first oneman live and ended it. It is always a hit at concert, and one of the songs I never tire of, even though it came out nearly two years ago (as a limited venue-only single).

This song is high energy, it’s weird, it’s Syachi at its best. It involves Nao shouting at the crowd, it involves Yuzuki shouting “sir! Yes sir!” Just every element of this song is high energy, and it’s just one of the most fun idol songs around. It’s fast-paced and builds to a fairly epic end. This is either the perfect start or end of an album, and I think it really fits well at the end. I don’t have much more to say, because every element of Otome Juken Sensou is perfect to me. It’s one of my favorite idol songs of all time. 10/10.

Overall: Himatsubushi is a joy from start to finish. Dedicated to surprising its listeners, Himatsubushi brings together various different genres, styles of music and sounds to form a surprisingly cohesive whole. There are so many songs in this album I didn’t imagine to hear from Team Syachihoko, but now that I’ve been listening to the album for several months I can’t imagine them not doing. While I would argue a few of the songs are less successful than others, this album is a triumph overall. It’s unique but polished and listenable. As a culmination of about a year and a half of Team Syachihoko (from Otome Juken Sensou onward), it does a great job combining the old and the new. This is my favorite album of 2014, and possibly my favorite idol album for quite some time.

Review: Team Syachihoko – Ii Kurashi

You didn’t think I wouldn’t review this, did you?

Song: This song is the spiritual successor of Shuto Iten Keikaku, in a good way. Doing a six and a half minute techno track is not what I thought Team Syachihoko would be doing when I first got into them, but this type of thing fits surprisingly well. I’m not a techno expert, so I can’t attest to how good or genuine this is on that vein. However, the songwriter is Yoshida Tetsuto, a Japanese techno artist who has done a few things with idol acts like Negicco, but not quite to the level of writing Ii Kurashi. However, as someone who has more experience with techno than pop, Ii Kurashi is yet another very appealing song by Team Syachihoko.

Ii Kurashi is a song that will grow on you. It’s the ultimate earworm; the first listen or two might not grab you, but the song will eventually grab hold and not let go. The thing I find remarkable about Ii Kurashi is that, for being six and a half minutes, it never outstays its welcome. One of my biggest complaints for a lot of idol music is when it drags out too long; there’s no need to overextend a pop song. Ii Kurashi is long, but it works while being long. Everything feels like a perfect length and, when I first heard the song, I almost couldn’t believe that it went on as long as it does.

The arrangement works very well, even though I’m not usually partial to completely electronic instrumentation. I think the big difference is that an actual techno artist wrote this song, so the rhythmic techno instrumentation works well.

Everything about this song works in a way I never really expected. It’s well-written, well-arranged, and well-performed. Even when the song changes things up (like in the rap section), things just work. While not being a very typical Team Syachihoko song, the group has taken a techno song and made it their own. I love it.

PV This PV again continues what Team Syachihoko started with Shuto Iten Keikaku. In fact, this is driven home by the fact that the PV references Shuto Iten Keikaku at the end of the PV.

iikurashipv

What I mostly mean by that is how the PV flows; whereas Shuto Iten Keikaku flows smoothly from transition to transition, Ii Kurashi does something similar, only on a smaller scale. While Ii Kurashi does have a fair number of obvious cuts in the editing (in contrast to Shuto’s smooth transitions), the scenes transition from one to another mostly by use of sets moved around by people in white. This gives an intentional low budget feel that works. This makes Ii Kurashi have a distinct, good looking visual style.

iikurashi 2

The sets are simple and pleasant looking; they are never showy or ugly. This adds very well to the distinctive visual style that Ii Kurashi is going for.\

ii kurashi 3. There are occasionally some props used and, near the end, a section that allows the girls to wear different costumes. This is used sparingly, and always for emphasis. This adds a lot of visual intrigue to a relatively simple PV.

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Generally, this is a very well shot PV. The lighting is always fantastic, for example, which certainly helps the PV’s visual style.

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The only thing that I dislike about this PV is that there are occasionally some shots where the framing is a bit weird. I understand why; they’re trying to do stuff in one shot, they’re zooming out, and as such Nao gets cut off, but it still looks kind of weird to have shots where one of the members is almost (but not entirely) cut out.

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Other than that, Ii Kurashi’s PV is simple but well-produced, with a distinctive visual style that makes it a wonderful PV.

Review: Aso Natsuko – My Starlit Point

Aso Natsuko is one of those idols I really wish got more press. It could be mostly my personal biases, but she’s had consistently good music and is a strong performer. As a singer that mainly does things for anime openings, so she doesn’t really get considered among most idol performers, which is unfortunate. Also unfortunately, she just announced that her music career is going on hiatus. This is an understandable move; she is a presenter on ZIP, a morning TV show and is, of all things, in school as a law student. While I wish Natsuko the best of luck in her future endeavors, and I know she’s going to be successful at whatever she does, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. This album, as I’ll elaborate further, makes me wish that she was sticking with this, on a purely selfish level.

1. My Starlit Point – Every Natsuko album comes with a titular song that generally does a good job of summing up the album as a whole. My Starlit Point is no exception. I recommend Natsuko’s albums for a reason; they are cohesive products that feel like a natural whole, as opposed to the collection of singles that idol albums too often tend to fall into.

This song is an upbeat, pleasant song that isn’t as dramatic as some of the later songs (MoonRise Romance is one) in the album but is probably the best way to start it off. The instrumentation could have been too busy and overdone; there’s electric guitar, strings, some (fake) brass instruments, percussion, clapping and Natsuko is often doing some background/echoing vocals. However, it’s a testament to the arrangement that so many elements sound so cohesive and never detract from the melody and from Natsuko’s vocals. She sounds especially good here; it’s clear she’s continuing to improve as a vocalist.

This song is light and pleasant. It occasionally veers into the dramatic swelling strings that define some of the later songs, but this is mostly a pleasant, easy to listen to song. 8/10

2. Merry-go-Round– This is actually a B-Side from the Lovely Girls Anthem single. Natsuko sang this when I saw her live, and this was the one song I really wanted to listen to more, so I’m very glad it made it onto the album!

Merry-go-round features one of my favorite hallmarks of Aso Natsuko’s music; her fast singing (and how she does her background vocals). While it’s not quite to the level of Parade (which comes straight after…) some of the fast lines are enough to make some vocalists trip.

This starts off the trend of very staccato, pizzicato performing, particularly in the backing strings. This is a running motif of this album, and I think a very indicative one for whether you will care for this album. If this sounds a bit too precious for you, you might want to stay away. However, I personally love it, so this album fits with my personal tastes.

This is not the best or the most mind-blowing song by Natsuko; in fact, it feels very standard for this album. However, that’s particularly why I enjoy it. 8/10

3. Parade – One of my top songs of 2012! Parade is probably the single that fits least on this album (though Fighting Growing Diary could be debated). While strings (well, string sounds) are still here, the main focus of Parade is a strong, driving drum beat and the electric guitar. It never stops sounding like a Natsuko song, but it focuses more on the upbeat rock type of sound you get from a drum/guitar heavy arrangement/mix. The guitar solo is quite nice, and I’d feel comfortable putting it on a list of best guitar solos found in idol songs (OK where is this list).

I also mentioned that the fast singing that Nacchan is known for is in here. Which it is. She sounds fantastic rattling off these lyrics. Some sound slightly awkward, but Natsuko delivers it with such style that it doesn’t matter.

The song is fun, almost uplifting, and is a pleasant deviation for this album. It fits Natsuko remarkably well, and the balance of the arrangement is spot on, like always. 9/10.

4. Fighting Growing Diary– I generally like all of Natsuko’s music. However, for a long time, this is what I considered to be Natsuko’s weakest single. It’s not bad, but I never loved it as much as Parade, and found it to be an anomaly of her singles catalog. However, with some listening, it doesn’t feel as anomalous. There’s still a lot of pizzicato strings, for example. The instrumental might be mostly (way fake) brass instruments and Natsuko never sings fast, but this is still a worthy, happy song.

That said, even after a new appreciation, it is the weakest single that appears on the album. There’s no drama from swelling strings, it doesn’t have the guitar-driven excellence of Parade, and it’s not nearly as pleasant to listen to as My Starlit Point. This isn’t to say this is a bad song; not at all. However, if I had to pick a weak link from the pre-established songs of this album, this would be it. 7/10

5. CROSS x OVER SENSATION – This is the other A-Side on the Parade single, and, as much as I love Parade, this has to be just as good as Parade. Whereas Parade was more of the rock-inspired side of things, CROSS X OVER SENSATION goes back into the upbeat, happy side with lots of staccato. The arrangement of this does feature some guitar (the bridge near the end is especially good) but it’s mostly electronic instruments. I wish that Nacchan would have been able to perform some of this stuff with a full band and orchestra, because that would only improve the songs.

CROSS X OVER SENSATION is cute and upbeat, but Nacchan manages to fit the song perfectly. Even though this is no test of her vocal skills it still allows her to emote and make her voice fit the song. She also does all the background vocals, and those work together nicely. Some of the best Natsuko songs have her voice playing together in harmony and as an echo, and that works the best here. The choruses are improved immensely by the response of “Sensation” to her vocals.

This is a surprisingly good song that manages to hit the level of Parade. The back and forth is particularly pleasant, as is the arrangement. 9/10

6. Watashi Iro Clothes – This is the B-side to MoonRise romance, and manages to be more guitar driven while including the great string sound. I do like that there’s what sounds like some deeper strings like a bass in there in the chorus; it’s a nice reprieve from the rest of the song.

This is a fairly mellow song that was one I skipped over on my first listen through of the album. However, it’s the type of song that grows on you with more listens. As always the instrumentation is very nice, although this throws in a little electronic sound that is almost dubstep-esque. It is surprising but sounds very nice.

While the instrumentation does make it a tad heavier (especially after the airy and upbeat CROSS X OVER SENSATION), this song is mellow and pleasant, and comes at exactly the right time in the album. 8/10

7. Lovely Girls Anthem – One of the mellower tracks, Lovely Girls Anthem is pretty understated, and as such I think it’s a little underrated for the Aso Natsuko discography. That said, it’s still a rousing fairly fast number that only feels mellower in comparison. That said, it is a cute song that only improves after more listens. When I saw Natsuko live I liked this song, but was waiting for Perfect Area Complete and the other hyperactive songs that Natsuko does so well. However, after listening to this song more and more, it starts to stand out more.

The one thing that sounds especially good is the harmonizations that Natsuko does with herself; she has a very beautiful voice, and hearing it in duplicate or triplicate just works. It’s one of the things I like about a lot of Natsuko’s songs, but it’s especially good here, and is the particular item of note for the song. The other elements (catchy melody, strong arrangement, strong vocals) are all there, as well.

All of this said, this also fits really well into the album. If you haven’t liked Natsuko’s music until now, then I doubt you’ll like Lovely Girls Anthem. However, this is a song that has grown on me a lot, and has become a valuable part of Nacchan’s discography. 8/10

8. MoonRise Romance – OK, why didn’t I put this in my top songs of 2013? I’m serious. I don’t think I gave this song the attention it deserved when it came out, because this is fantastic.

The biggest strength is in the strings; there is a really great instrumentation here, with the swelling of the strings. This adds to how well the song builds over the course of the song; the whole thing builds and builds. The slower, jazzy part that seems to come from out of nowhere only serves to make the following section even more explosive.

This song is a fantastic pop song, and one I wish I got more into sooner. Its arrangement is perfect, and does a great job of serving how well the song builds. This is wonderful, and, in hindsight, one of my favorites of 2013. 10/10

9. Fuantei na Wakusei – After a song like Moonrise Romance any song is going to be a bit of a letdown. However, Fuantei na Wakusei is probably the weakest song of the album. It’s a much more electronic-based song. There’s a lot of dissonant sound in the background, and it manages to be much more minimalist than the rest of the album.

The thing is, this isn’t a bad song. I like it a lot. The worst crime this song does is fit the wrong album. This song would be a perfect fit for Precious Tone, and would fit well next to something like Tokimeki Traveler. This is just the odd duck of the album.

I do like how this song builds, and how everything seems to crescendo throughout the song. The start of the song is very low in energy, but it builds up nicely. Natsuko’s voice sounds great here, too. I like how mellow it is, and I do like the instrumentation. It just doesn’t fit.

If this song was on Precious Tone, it would probably be one of my favorite songs on the album. However, on an album like My Starlit Point, it doesn’t quite fit. 7/10

10. ICE NINE – ICE NINE continues with the more electronic feel of Fuantei na Wakusei, and, again, would fit very well on Precious Tone. However, ICE NINE tends to have much more of a drive to it, and has the upbeat feel that’s consistent throughout the album. Further, while all the instrumentation is clearly electronic, there are many points where it sounds like it’s trying to approximate strings. Everything is a bit more dissonant than the rest of the album, but in a good way.

Still, while I do like that they are trying something new and this does fit a bit better than Fuantei, these two songs (soon three) have created a weird pocket in the album of much more mellow, much more minor/dissonant stuff. It’s all great, don’t get me wrong, but I kind of wonder if it would have been possible to spread these out throughout the album.

ICE NINE is good, and I like it a lot, but again it feels like it doesn’t quite fit as well. 7/10

11. You’re My Brightness – If you were wondering about Natsuko’s vocal skills, look no further. While Natsuko sounds great on all of these tracks (another reason why this album is so great), You’re My Brightness is a ballad that shows off how strong her vocals are. She sounds beautiful.

The ballad itself is pretty standard and doesn’t break any barriers. The way that the song is set up is nothing new. What should make you want to listen to this ballad, however, is just how well polished it is. Natsuko sounds fantastic, the strings are particularly good in this one, and get an extended focus at the end. The end of this track makes You’re My Brightness as much about the instrumentation as it is about Natsuko. The songwriting itself is a bit bland, but the arrangement is lovely.

This song won’t convince you of Natsuko’s music, but it should convince you of Natsuko and the strength of the team behind her. 8/10.

12. Never Ending Voyage – How is this not in my top 5 songs list of 2013? Seriously, Never Ending Voyage is pure pop music perfection, and the best way to end an album (even though ending your last album with the track “Never Ending Voyage” is kind of cruel). After the mellow songs off the album, Never Ending Voyage ends things with a bang. It’s pure orchestral-focused energy. Even in the mellowest sections of the song there is something, a guitar or a drum beat that is driving everything quickly. Even with this, though, it’s never exhausting or gets overplayed; there’s enough variety present in the song to make it keep my interest.

Everything about Never Ending Voyage is done perfectly. The melody is catchy but doesn’t feel old hat. The arrangement is, like always, perfect, with beautiful strings work. I don’t know if they recorded the strings in a different location or added in some echo in the mixing, but they sound superb. Natsuko as always sounds fantastic, but she really sells it on this song. She delivers her lines with such a punch that even though this might not be as strong a test of her vocal ability as You’re My Brightness, it still might be one of her best songs ever vocally.

While I wish Natsuko wasn’t going on hiatus, what a way to go. It is the perfect end to this album and the song that exemplifies why Aso Natsuko is worth following. 10/10

Overall: This album doesn’t have that many new songs, not really. A lot of B-Sides are on the album, and this is something I’ve criticized albums for in the past. I would have liked more songs. However, that can be forgiven because of how successful My Starlit Point is as an album. Every song, even the ones that feel like they’re a bit misplaced, is excellent. There is no weak link, and the best songs are some of my recent favorites. Every element is working at a very high level, making an incredible album. Honestly, I feel like this has to be my album of the year; nothing will be able to compete. I hate saying that so early in the year, but this is the type of album that I will be looking back on as one of my favorite idol albums.

Review: Babymetal – Babymetal

I’ve been a fan of Babymetal’s since they were just a unit for a Sakura Gakuin album. Since then, they have become something of a phenomenon, helping inspire more and more alternative idol units. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that groups like Alice Juban have been helped by Babymetal’s relative success. Babymetal is also second to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu in terms of Western reach of Japanese pop acts. I watch Comedy Central’s show @midnight regularly, and I was surprised to see Babymetal featured on the show. Even if Babymetal (and Kyary) are only really viewed in an “oh Japan” light, it’s still exposure that might increase the public perception of JPop. Babymetal DID reach #3 on the American iTunes charts, after all. I was trying to out-weird a friend in music tastes, and when I showed her Headbanger she replied “Oh I already know Babymetal.” It isn’t always helpful for the public perception to be “what weird stuff” but hey, look at how successful Kyary has been, doing a mini tour in the US.

Babymetal has finally put out their first album, which is, like I said, getting more international attention. It collects all their singles and songs through Megitsune and adds three new ones. While this means that if you’re already a Babymetal aficionado you will probably already like this album, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a successful one. So how is Babymetal’s first album?

1. Babymetal Death – this is the B-Side from Ijime, Dame, Zettai for the limited editions. For picking a pre-existing song, Babymetal Death is probably the best song to start things off. Since, you know, it is an intro song. This is nearly six minutes of metal guitar, metal vocals, and occasionally the girls repeating “Sumetal Death, Yuimetal Death, Moametal Death, Babymetal Death.”

This is the type of thing that is pretty appreciated at concerts; I can imagine getting really pumped up hearing this. As a non-metalhead, though, I don’t think I fully appreciate listening to it on its own.

It’s a good opener that has good metal elements; the choral vocals work especially well. It’s not the type of song you’d listen to on its own, but it does its job very well. It doesn’t quite have the appeal of some other idol group overtures just by virtue that this is metal and lacks the cheese that some of them rightfully have, but it’s still a good representation of Babymetal.

2. Megitsune – I considered Megitsune to be one of my favorite songs of 2013 and I stand by that. While Babymetal started the year out strong with their long-awaited major debut Ijime, Dame, Zettai, Megitsune remains a lot more compelling to me. Megitsune combines Babymetal’s standard blend of metal and pop with some more traditional Japanese sound. This blend shouldn’t work as well as it does, and Megitsune is a cohesive song that manages to be accessible, despite the varied elements that it brings together.

This song is a mixed bag; some people are much less fond of this than I am, and I honestly do not blame them. If you’re looking for the most metal experience, Megitsune is not your song. However, I think it ended up being one of Babymetal’s most successful songs for what they do in blending genres and mixing pop with metal.

3. Gimme Choco. – One of the things that Babymetal sticks with, for better or worse, is the whole pop song formula. Their arrangements, vocals, instrumentation may scream metal (literally), but the songs themselves, at their core, are often pretty standard pop songs. Ijime, Dame, Zettai for example – the instrumentation is metal, but it has a pretty standard verse –chorus structure. It’s a song that you could imagine as a standard idol pop song if it was done by a different group.

Gimme Choco is a different beast; parts of it sound pretty standard idol pop (the sung sections by Suzuka, mainly), but it doesn’t have a very similar structure. It’s mostly alternating Yui and Moa’s shouted parts and Suzuka’s shouted parts. In a weird way, Suzuka’s vocals almost sound like they should be a part of a different song, like they’re an idol pop song that Gimme Choco sampled. This isn’t the case, but it sounds that way at times.

Gimme Choco is the type of song that shouldn’t be catchy the way it is. The first listen I was unsure of what to make of Gimme Choco, with its unusual structure and how disjointed Suzuka’s vocals were with the instrumental parts. However, this is a song that will get in your head and not get out.
I don’t think this is Babymetal’s best song, but it is a good one. It’s the type of song I’m glad is an album song; I like listening to it, but I can’t see it getting marketed as a single.

4. Ii ne – Ii ne is a weird, weird song. I got hooked on it while studying abroad, so it has a level of nostalgia for me, but it’s still just odd. Rather than pop music, Ii ne veers into dance music while throwing a rap section in there, because why not?

Ii ne comes from Babymetal’s weird growth phase where they realized they could reach beyond their Sakura Gakuin fan audience (after Doki Doki Morning kind of blew up), but that they were still unsure of where to go. And it shows. There is a serious disconnect between some of the heavier parts of the song and the dance music, as well as the cuteness of the girls.
Yet, that’s kind of what I like about Babymetal; how absurd it can get. I will never not love the disconnect of Yui and Moa going “Kitsune da yo” and the background voice starting to scream. This is weird, messy, and it doesn’t particularly WORK, but this is why Babymetal is so wonderful.

Is this the best or most representative Babymetal song? Absolutely not! But Ii Ne is its own brand of fun and a song that I will continue to love, even though it is so unlike the rest of Babymetal’s discography.

5. Akatsuki – This is the B-Side of Megitsune, and while Suzuka sounds wonderful in Megitsune, this is the first track off of this album that really showcases how strong of a vocalist she has become. She’s always had a pleasant voice, but in the past year or two Suzuka has worked so that she has one of the most consistently strong and beautiful voices in the idol world. The opening of Akatsuki showcases just how fantastic Suzuka is.

The slow beginning of this song is really what you’re going to be listening to; the rest is just underwhelming after that. The song never gets much faster, but the instrumentation speeds up so that it sounds like Suzuka and the instruments are performing different songs. Suzuka is singing a ballad while the rest of arrangement wants it to be a fast paced metal song.

This is the type of dissonance that can work, but doesn’t really. If they had increased the tempo of Suzuka’s melody or if they had made it a more standard ballad it might have worked. If they were willing to go a little crazy they could alternate between these or change up tempos a la Hyadain. However, this never happens, and this means that Akatsuki falls a bit flat after the fantastic first minute.

I imagine this song will grow on me; I know I will listen to that opening minute more than once because I love it. However, this is the first real disappointment of the album.

6. Doki Doki Morning – Oh, the song that started it all. In a way, Doki Doki Morning sounds kind of outdated, because it is. This is Babymetal’s first attempt at mixing metal and idol pop and it’s a bit hamfisted. The chorus is just a straight idol pop song with no metal anywhere to be seen, and the metal influence is all in the verses and instrumentation.

Still, there is something fun about the opening of the song, which starts out like any other cute idol song before breaking out into heavy guitars.

It’s difficult to imagine this in any other context than how I encountered it. I listened to Doki Doki Morning right when the short PV hit YouTube for the first time, and it was a big surprise just how much I liked the metal and idols combination. Nearly every other Babymetal song after this is much more sophisticated with how it mixes these two genres, which makes me wonder how Doki Doki Morning sounds to someone whose first Babymetal song was stumbling across Gimme Choco. There’s none of that wonder and excitement of finding something new.

Really, this isn’t Babymetal’s best, not by a long shot. However, I still have a lot of nostalgia and fondness for Doki Doki Morning, and it’s still a very enjoyable listen.

7. Onedari Daisakusen – Onedari Daisakusen starts off a long line of what can be considered Yuimetal and Moametal songs. Suzuka dominates the vocals of the main singles (and for good reason, with that voice!) but Yui and Moa often get a B-Side to call their own.

The thing is, Yui and Moa aren’t Babymetal vocalists. They sing well enough in Sakura Gakuin, but they are considered the two “Scream and Dance” members to Suzuka’s vocalist. Which is all fine and good in a main song, but this has always lead to some interesting maneuvering for their B-Sides.

Onedari Daisakusen decides to have Yui and Moa rap with a little bit of singing for select parts. Yes, rapping idols. While Yui and Moa don’t have the rapping chops of groups like Rhymeberry and Lyrical School, they hold their own in the shouted sections. Even if the section where they chant “One for the money, two for the money, three for the money, money money money money” makes me laugh.

The arrangement of this song is a major standout; one of the noticeable Babymetal trends is that the arrangements prefer to make Yui and Moa focused songs a lot darker and a lot more, well, metal than the main single. This arrangement is a mix of metal guitar work, a real orchestral sound, and a faint sung chorus in the background. It sounds fantastic, and while it’s a bit silly with Yui and Moa’s chanted sections it still just works.

This is the type of song I’d play for someone if they were unsure of how ridiculous Babymetal could get while still being amazing.

8. 4 no Uta – This is another Yui and Moa heavy song that focuses on chanting over singing.

Unless you have a decent/basic grasp of the Japanese language, you might not appreciate just how great these lyrics are, so here’s the lyrics basically. There are two words for “four” in Japanese; there’s yon and there’s shi. Shi also means death. So Babymetal decided to both have fun with numbers and drive home the far too dramatic death themes.

So lyrics like “ichi no tsugi wa ni” (the next number after one is two) is basically counting up to shi (death) where they subvert your expectations with using the word “yon.” There are also lyrics like “SHIawase no shi” (the ‘shi’ of happiness) where they take words that use the syllable “shi.”

This is basically Babymetal being kind of silly, and in a weird way living up to their name. Combining kind of goofy counting lyrics a la Mini Moni with driving home the word “death,” in addition to the metal background vocals makes this song memorable, and takes both parts of “Baby” and “Metal” in fun ways. There’s also a reggae-light section where Yui and Moa sing over it. This is definitely what goofy is to Babymetal.

At this point the song is the most fun when you’re first hearing it and realizing what they are going for with the lyrics, but on its own it is a whole lot of fun, showing a playful side to Babymetal.

9. Uki Uki Midnight – and this is the B-Side to Headbanger. This is still very Suzuka focused, while being the B-Side. This song successfully incorporates some dubstep elements to Babymetal’s typical formula, with this affecting the instrumentation and having a full dubstep break. It works pretty well; I wasn’t very fond of dubstep before this song, but Babymetal makes this work.

The parts that stand out are Suzuka’s voice (of course), and the juxtaposition of Suzuka’s whispers to the background vocals shouting. This feels like the natural progression from Ii Ne without the rap break and without Yui and Moa; it’s a lot more electronic and feels like more of a dance song than a pop song.

Uki Uki Midnight isn’t as weird as Ii Ne and isn’t as stand out amazing as other Babymetal songs, but it works well and remains a pleasant addition to the Babymetal library.

10. Catch Me if You Can – Now we’re back to Yui and Moa focused B-Sides, and Catch Me if You Can is a particularly good one. This is one of the most ‘metal’ Babymetal songs on there, with the possible exception of the chorus in here. This is very dark and guitar/bass heavy, with a heavy drum beat. I find it a bit funny that they choose to make the Yui and Moa songs the most heavy ones, but it works well.

The only thing that is debatable is the chorus; it’s a bit of a jarring transition from the heavy metal before it and the fairly upbeat rock afterwards. And by rock I mean very poppy. It’s power pop, really. This isn’t bad, and it’s a good break for the ears from how heavy Catch Me if You Can is, especially if you came to Babymetal from the idol pop side of things (like I did). That said, the heavier parts featuring Moa and Yui are the standout bits, and the chorus feels like it’s a little forced in there.

This is the type of song I would play for someone who likes metal and isn’t sure about where Babymetal can go. This is possibly the strongest juxtaposition of cute vocals to metal instrumentals, and I love it.

11. Akumu no Rinbukyoku – Wow, do Suzuka’s vocals sound great here? Here she goes beyond standard vocal strength and sounds VERY interesting. She emotes, fits the song perfectly, and just sounds fantastic. This is the song that, to me, cements Suzuka as one of the top talents in idol pop today. This isn’t hyperbole; Suzuka is that good.

While I don’t think this is an actual rondo (the title is ‘nightmare’s rondo’), it is taking classical ideas and using piano and strings in addition to a heavy drum beat throughout most of the song. While I do like the heavy drum beat most of the time, there are a few times where it gets a bit tiring, especially with all the beauty in Suzuka’s vocals and the orchestral background.

This song is the stand out new song of the album; while Gimme Choco is fun and catchy and 4 no Uta is silly and goofy, this is a beautiful song that showcases Suzuka’s vocal strength perfectly. This is a song I wouldn’t hesitate sharing with music buffs who have no interest in idol pop.

12. Headbanger – This is one of my top five songs of 2012 and what cemented Babymetal as an act for me. Doki Doki Morning was a novelty (but a good one). Ii Ne was promising, but it was hard to know where Babymetal would go. Headbanger showcased Suzuka’s vocals and focused on the metal and rock elements over the idol pop to show that Babymetal was serious about what they aimed to do and were here to stay.

It sounds almost unimpressive now, especially in comparison to Akumu no Rinbukyoku, in terms of Suzuka’s vocals. However, it is still a very solid and listenable song. It’s not as heavy as Babymetal can get, nor is it as poppy as Babymetal can get, but it’s solid and fun to listen to. It’s not revolutionary now, but I can only remember when it came out and I was completely blown away.

Headbanger might not be as impressive after a really solid album, but it’s a tight, well-written, and ultimately very listenable song.

13 Ijime, Dame, Zettai – This is the song that just makes sense at the end of the album. It should be either at the start or the ending. And since Babymetal Death has to be the opening, the ending it is.

This is another song that was highly awaited; it had been played for a while before anyone online (not going to shows) was able to hear it. And wow, was it worth the wait. It’s Babymetal at its most epic, doing very dramatic, highly metal pop.

At its core IDZ is a pretty basic song; it’s done in a fairly standard pop structure of verses and choruses. It’s not hard to imagine this done as just a standard pop song. However, the way that Ijime, Dame, Zettai stands out is in the execution. All the arrangement is wonderful, Yui and Moa’s shouts fit very well, and Suzuka’s voice is just beautiful.

Ijime, Dame, Zettai isn’t my favorite Babymetal song. I love it, but I don’t seem to love it as much as some others do. However, it’s very well executed and is ultimately a great song.

Overall: Babymetal’s first album is a very good one. There are no bad songs, and the slight missteps it takes are very minor and easily forgettable.

If you are seeing this review and you aren’t already accustomed to idol voices, listening to the Yui and Moa heavy songs will take some getting used to. Likewise, if you listen to primarily idol pop music and you have no experience with metal, this might take some getting used to. However, if you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone, Babymetal’s first album is an excellent jaunt into new territory for idol fans and metal fans alike. 9/10.

Review: Dempagumi.inc – Sakura Appareshon + Fancy Hoppe U Fu Fu

Hey guys! Happy Monday! Sorry I took an unscheduled week off. Partly, I desperately needed to get some sleep (work has been a doozy for a few weeks), and partly because I spent the last week perfecting my book proposal for the 33 1/3 series (333sound.com).

Dempagumi.inc is at this point the most consistently excellent idol group, in terms of both music and PVs. They might not be my overall favorite group, but I’ve gotten to expecting a certain level of quality from Dempagumi.inc. So here’s my review of their latest!

Sakura Appareshon

Song:

I feel like there are two types of Dempagumi.inc songs. The songs I love immediately on first listen (i.e. W.W.D) and the songs I love more after taking some time to listen (i.e. Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo). Sakura Appareshon is part of the second category. The first listen I didn’t know quite what to make of it, but after a few listens (mainly facilitated by how much I adore this PV!) I think I got a hang of this song.

The thing is, it’s not the sweeping orchestral epic of W.W.D II. But it’s not trying to be. It’s also not one of Dempagumi.inc’s quieter, sweet songs like Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo. But again, it’s not trying to be that. It’s one of the more middle of the road songs like Den Den Passion and Demparade Japan. It’s the type of song that is really excellent, and deserves a lot of praise, but ultimately doesn’t quite get up there in terms of top 10 lists. Which is kind of a shame.

Sakura Appareshon adds a level of traditional themes to the normal level of Dempagumi eccentricity. In fact, there is one section that is very reminiscent of matsuri songs; or at least the poppy version that I know from idol music. My favorite thing about Dempagumi.inc trying new things is that there is a very distinct sense of self in Dempagumi.inc’s music.

My first thought with both the song and the PV is that this is what I wish Momoiro Clover was doing now. Remember when Momoiro Clover was originally a group intended to have a traditional influence? They wore modified yukata for their first three PVs? When I first became a MomoClo fan, I was really excited for a group that would blend some of that traditional Japanese image with idol pop. Ultimately they went for something different, but Sakura Appareshon fulfills that desire I had.

Like I said, this doesn’t fit the dramatic highs of W.W.D, but this is still a memorable, fun Dempagumi.inc song that is more than worthy of an idol group of this caliber. 8/10

PV: I love this PV. Let’s get this out there right off the bat.

I have a particular fondness for PVs that have long takes. Limitations encourage creativity, and limiting cuts and visual effects does that. While Sakura Appareshon isn’t as extreme of an example as Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku’s Te wo Tsunagou, it still has a fair amount of practical effects and most of the PV is comprised of long takes.

Even if this isn’t the completely long take PV of Te wo Tsunagou or AKB48’s Dakishimecha Ikenai, this still really exemplifies why I have a fondness for this type of PV: it’s because it shows off idols almost better than any PV.

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The reason being is that, more than almost any other music genre, idols are dependent on personality. Sure, some idols survive on being strong singers or dancers, but personality is key to most idols’ successes. I’d say that having a strong personality to an idol group is one of the most important facets of a group’s success.

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PVs like Sakura Appareshon, that take place in one setting and are generally without many special effects, are dependent on the creativity of the team behind the group as well as the girls themselves. In the hands of another group Sakura Appareshon would be boring and uninteresting. It’s the girls of dempagumi.inc (and the creative team!) who make Sakura Appareshon fun to watch and rewatch. Dempagumi.inc is a personality driven group (in addition to their really high production values and fantastic music/PVs) and this type of thing suits them.

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That isn’t to say this couldn’t be improved; some of the stop motion speeding things up was unnecessarily added to make the PV more fast paced, I assume, but it made a friend of mine’s eyes hurt, which is a shame. It wasn’t a very necessary addition, either. I also think that the close-ups, while handled well, weren’t particularly necessary, and were in there a few too many times.

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Ultimately these aren’t huge complaints, and Sakura Appareshon is one of the most successful PVs of the year so far. 9/10

Fancy Hoppe U Fu Fu

Song: You know the song is a CM tie-in for candy because the word “flavor” is heavily included!

This song is pretty retro sounding, in JPop terms. I want this to be the opening of a late 80s/early 90s shoujo anime. Which is, from the PV, what I think they’re going for.

I have a feeling that this song is going to be hit and miss for a lot of people, but I like this song a lot. The first time I listened to it I was unsure of how I felt, but then the chorus stuck in my head and wouldn’t let go.

It’s not particularly Dempagumi.inc of a song but it’s pleasant and retro. While I want Dempagumi.inc to stick with a lot of what they’ve done in the past, this song represents the type of group I’d like more of. Stuff like Vanilla Beans and early Nogizaka46; groups that have that retro type of appeal.

Still, this is really pleasant, and a song I have been enjoying. 7/10

PV

This is a much more standard PV than Sakura Appareshon. Again, the word I would use is pleasant. Which does seem to be what they’re going for; this isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind, but it is nice to watch.

fancyhoppe1What people are going to notice more than anything is the low-contrast, soft focus filter that’s on everything. I have a feeling that this is going to be contentious; people may dislike this a lot. However, it feels to me like it’s keeping with the late 80s/early 90s shoujo manga aesthetic. They only needed to add bubbles or twinkles and the effect would be complete.

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It feels like a bit much at times, but, really, it feels like this is intentional.

Beyond this, the PV is pretty unremarkable. This is an exercise in adorableness. The cheerleading scenes are cute, and all the group scenes work nicely together. I do like when they write wktk on the screen; it’s a nice touch.

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This PV isn’t remarkable. It’s made well (as expected) and nothing is bad, but it’s just pleasant. Like the song. 7/10

Overall, this is a strong single. It might not be anyone’s favorite Dempagumi.inc single (especially with last year having W.W.D/Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo and W.W.D II/Not Bocchi… Natsu) but this is hardly a misstep for the group. If anything, it’s nice to have a mellower Dempagumi.inc single, to show that they can excel at this too.

 

Review: Dempagumi.inc – World Wide Dempa

This is an album that I have no idea WHY I didn’t review it when it came out. Musically, Dempagumi.inc was my top group of 2013. Sure my favorite overall group is still Team Syachihoko, but in terms of releases Dempa tends to be the best mix of exciting while being consistently good out there.

So here’s there latest album, World Wide Dempa, and my thoughts on it!

1. Hajimari ~ World Wide Dempa

Intro track! I actually really like this intro track, thematically. It takes a lot of separate themes and ideas and throws them together into one track, which is kind of what W.W.D does. So not only does this opening track get fans excited about the upcoming album and serve as an introduction, but it works very well thematically. Ultimately  it’s not something I’ll listen to unless I’m listening to the whole album right away, but it serves its purpose well. 8/10

2. Demparade Japan

I like Demparade Japan. Really, I do. It has a lot of energy and did a good job of introducing the current lineup (minus Atobe Miu and now with added Moga and Pinky). It feels like a typical Demapgumi song, and is generally well-made. However, after the other single songs on this album and the stellar music that Dempagumi has been putting out on a regular basis, Demparade falls a bit flat? I mean, I like the elements of the song, especially the chiptune background. Everything about this song is nice, and I don’t dislike any of it, but it just doesn’t live up to the high standards I hold for Dempa. Unfair? Perhaps. But I imagine a lot of fans might feel the same way. 7/10

3. Future Diver

Hyadain! Nostalgia! This is the song that I first listened to from Dempagumi.inc. At the time I really liked it, bti had no idea if the group would go anywhere. Future Diver is another song that doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the Dempagumi.inc oeuvre, but still skates by a lot on personal feelings. It is a pretty standard upbeat idol song, by many measures, but has a lot of cuteness and sweetness to it, as well. I particularly like the energy and excitement during the “Dive” chants. I also like the use of chiptune in here, as well. It’s kind of a match made in heaven, given Hyadain’s video game remix roots.

As a fan, I had a bit of a hard time getting into Dempa’s vocals (here it’s mostly Nemu and Eimi that I had an issue with), and if you’re a new Demapgumi.inc fan this might be the hardest song for you to listen to (unless you’re a Beastie Boys fan listening to Sabotage for the first time). However it’s fairly easy for me to get past, and once you get past the exterior Future Diver is quite nice.

4. Vandalism

I was sure with how unhinged this song was that it was written by Hyadain, but no; it was written by Tsutaya Koichi, a producer who has worked with acts like YUKI, Ikimonogakari, among others. I don’t see any other big idol acts among his acts, so this is a fairly unprecedented grouping.

In short, I love this song. It has a lot of attitude and manages to be an interesting, unique song while feeling still very much like Dempagumi.inc.

First off, while the vocals were slightly uncomfortable within Future Diver, all the girls here sound great. Risa in particular is a shining star with her vocals in the Danse Macabre-esque section at about 1:45. Risa’s always been the vocal talent of Dempagumi.inc,  but here she sounds lovely. I also enjoy the girls at the beginning; they have a lot of attitude.

The song passes through multiple styles and segments, but manages to maintain a fairly cohesive whole. As I mentioned, that’s what I feel this album and Dempagumi.inc as a whole have been going for, so this song goes even more towards that. Vandalism is another wonderful entry into the Dempagumi.inc library, and the most played of the new songs for me. 9/10

5. Sabotage

You guys know I love this. Before I became a big Dempagumi.inc fan, this is what I ranked in my top 25 songs list of 2012. Hyadain + Beastie Boys; it’s a combination that magically, against all the odds, works incredibly well. It matches the original song with some trademark Dempa oddness, and makes a memorable cover. It does what, in my opinion, a good cover should; it still has a lot of the flavor of the original song, but Dempa made it their own. 8/10

6. W.W.D

I’ve already written about this in my top 25 songs of 2013 so I’m going to keep this brief. But essentially, this song is brilliant. First off, the lyrics are lovely and personal, about where Dempagumi.inc started out. Then the song reinforces the theme of the song, how six unique girls formed a group, by having various unique styles come together into one unified song. It’s fun, moving, energetic, and one of the best songs from 2013. 10/10.

7. Nazo Kara

This was a tie-in with JOYSOUND and a B-Side of one of the versions of W.W.D II. Honestly, this song initially baffled me with its cool, KPop esque sound. This is still Dempagumi.inc, so there’s chiptune sounds in there and the chorus is high energy JPop again, but the rest of the song is trying to be dark, cool KPop. Or Lady Gaga maybe?

This isn’t terrible, but it’s clear that this isn’t Dempa’s forte. I do like how the arrangement has bits and pieces from Dempagumi.inc proper, but the shift in tone between the chorus and the verses doesn’t quite work for me. It’s all a bit sudden. I like some of the individual pieces of the song; the melody is fine, for instance. Just as a song this just doesn’t work. 6/10

8. Itsuka Haruka Kanata

Slowing things down! This is the start of the slower/sweeter section of the album, which might not be something you think of when you think of Dempagumi.inc, but these songs prove they do it quite well.

Unfortunately, Itsuka Haruka Kanata is a solid mid-tempo song, but it’s not the most memorable. Of the three new songs, Itsuka Haruka Kanata is by far the least interesting and the one I have listened to the least.

I enjoy the opening a lot (Pinky sounding her best), and the strong production of a Dempagumi.inc song is there. Unfortunately it falls into a weird spot; it’s not as sweet and pleasant as Kira Kira Tune and Fuyu e to Hashiridasou and it’s not the high energy fun songs. The arrangement is really good and the girls are great, but this doesn’t quite do it for me as much as I wish it would. 6/10

9. Kira Kira Tune

Hey, speak of the devil! This is the single song that might seem like the odd one out for Dempagumi.inc, but in a way that makes it one of the most interesting. It’s a guitar-heavy song that’s pretty mid/fast paced, but still sounds incredibly sweet and heartwarming in a way that I can’t really describe in writing. It’s the chorus, mainly, with the extended long notes by Dempa and the swelling strings. The whole song is very well written, in this way, and sounds great.

The thing that doesn’t get quite enough credit, I think, are the strange lyrics that subvert expectations about idol lyrics; Kira Kira Tune makes you think it’s going to be “kira kira” as in shining/sparkling, but it’s actually “Killer killer.” They sing at one point what sounds like “doki doki” (heart thumping) but it’s actually “dorky dorky.” It’s pretty basic wordplay, but I’ll take what I can get.

Kira Kira Tune is well-written and subverts what I expect about Dempa. 9/10

10. Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo!

This is a song that I didn’t fully appreciate until lately. It’s off W.W.D, so when that single came out I was really focusing on how much I LOVED W.W.D without listening as much as I should to Fuyu.

Fuyu is a perfect contrast and complement to W.W.D; whereas W.W.D is brash, out there, and almost aggressively strange, Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo is much quieter, mellow, and has a heavy emphasis on acoustic guitar. It’s still well-written and interesting, but in a much different way to W.W.D. The girls sound lovely and do well in this understated song. It is lovely. 10/10

11. Nantettatte Idol  Shangri-la

This takes a turn for the strange after a couple of simpler, lovely songs. This takes some of the kind of stereotypical non-Japanese but Eastern aesthetic (think GOUNN and Naniwa no Haniwa) and gives it a Dempagumi.inc twist. And do they ever; the girls’ vocals are at their zaniest and most unhinged. They aren’t unpleasant, but just odd.

That’s an accurate description of this song, in general. It’s almost shocking after Fuyu e to Hashiridasuo. There are a lot of pleasant things in here; I quite like the harmonization that goes on, and the melody is very pleasant. And I personally enjoy my fair share of weird songs, so this hits that spot.

If you don’t like weird or strange (why are you listening to Dempagumi.inc) this may not be your cup of tea, but I personally enjoy it. 7/10

12. W.W.D II

Again, I wrote about this at my end of the year stuff, so this will be a bit shorter. W.W.D II is a well-paced epic of a song, with a lot of energy and a lot of heart. It has the emotion of some of Dempa’s best as well as the energy of their other best songs. It’s an epic of a song, and one of the finest things to come out of 2013’s idol music scene. 10/10

13. Orange Rium

Oh man, I love the opening to Orange Rium too much. The arrangement of Orange Rium is one of my favorite bits of the song; the piano sounds lovely whenever it shows up, and there’s so much excellent stuff going on. And there’s a reason this stands out; as I found out from twitter recently, the guy who arranged this also wrote a lot of my favorite idol songs including Pera Pera Perao, Gingham Check and Kiss no Sono Oto.

But this is another sweeter, softer side to Dempagumi.inc, a side that I’m growing more and more fond of. While it’s easy to be drawn in by Dempagumi.inc’s weirdness, their songs are just well-written and good, and Orange Rium is yet another one of those examples.

This is really quite pretty, and pleasant. While the melody is nice, the arrangement is where Orange Rium shines. 9/10

14. Tsuyoi Kimochi Tsuyoi Ai

Oh man, the disco influence in this. I love it. Even though the song itself isn’t as disco-y as some of the other things that have come out as of late, this is probably one of the best arrangements of a song using that kind of influence. Aaand it was done by Hyadain. Of course.

This is another song that stands out most for the arrangement; I mean, I love how broad the melody is in the chorus, but the arrangement stands out more than anything to me. I’m not familiar with the original song, but while it sets up a good base the arrangement makes it much more worthwhile.

Thiough not quite as revolutionary as Sabotage, Dempagumi.inc’s other cover is certainly good. 7/10

15. Den Den Passion

Den Den Passion not getting on my top 25 songs of the year is a pretty big regret. It’s a great song, and one I love, but it doesn’t quite have the weight of either W.W.D. Den Den Passion being sandwiched between W.W.D and W.W.D II was a bit unfortunate, because it’s just so easy to forget how nice it is. It’s high energy and very fun, but at the same time it’s fairly restrained in structure. It feels like a typical idol song, polished and given a weird coat of paint to make it fitting for Dempagumi.inc.

That’s not to say it’s bad; it’s great. It’s wonderful.  It’s just not quite as unique as the others, which I think adds to the tendency to forget about it. But Den Den Passion is great, and feels like a fitting cap to this album. 9/10

OVERALL: This is a really great album. I love how the songs flow together; there’s a sense that there was actual thought and care that went into putting the songs together, which I always appreciate. I liked every song at least a little, and I straight up love most songs. This album really proves that Dempagumi.inc has some of the best music in the idol business, perhaps just THE best.

The biggest disappointment to me is just how few new songs that Dempagumi.inc had on this album. I understand that they wanted to get everything on there, and I appreciate that they didn’t make the album bloated and unlistenable. However, three new songs (and an intro) for an album of this length is frustrating.

Despite the frustration at the lack of new material, this is a very strong album and one that I highly recommend.

Review Monday: 1 Oku 3 Zen Man Sou Diet Oukoku

I’m not Berryz Koubou’s biggest fan. Sure, I got into them as my first ever idol group, and I was (and still am, to an extent) a pretty big Tokunaga Chinami fan, but they just haven’t impressed me as of late. I rank them generally as my least favorite Hello!Project group, and I don’t pay much attention. I was not planning on reviewing this single at all. However, it completely surprised me, so I thought that I had to review Berryz’s Diet Song.

Song: As a song, I do like this. I feel like Berryz is finally starting to figure out their style lately, which is good. IMO Berryz’s biggest downfall was their Inazuma Eleven years. Not that what they did there was bad; some of my favorite Berryz songs on their own come from that era (I particularly like Otakebi Boy! Wao! and Ryuusei Boy), but they really lost group identity then. Berryz is a weird group. None of the members particularly fit together, they’re all shapes and sizes, and they’ve done really odd things in the past (Dschinghis Khan and Yuke Yuke Monkey Dance?).

This song doesn’t quite bring back the Berryz I became a fan of, but I mention this because I like the weirdness. I like the repetition of phrases and how robotic it sounds. This is still more in their recent Asian Celebration phase than their Monkey Dance phase, but I like how it sounds. I don’t know if I’d consider this a good song as a whole; Some of the phrases go on too long, and it’s a bit sad when repeated phrases hold my attention more than anything else. However, this is a better song than Berryz have been given lately, which is a good thing.

Lyrics: Normally I don’t pay the lyrics much attention, aside from the really obvious things. Lyrics can matter, but most idol lyrics aren’t the best and are pretty irrelevant to how I feel about the song. However, this song is all lyrics, in terms of my interest in reviewing it. By the way, I’m referring to the official video translation. I know these aren’t perfect, and I’m supplementing this with my own Japanese knowledge, but they’re what’s being promoted to the US.

So. These lyrics. The way I see it, the intent of these lyrics are unclear, and there are two main options for how they could be taken; it could be either, or, or a little of both (which is what I think it is, mind):

1. Tsunku is mean, and fatshaming is in. Since he’s said that Berryz has heavy members, this is a dig at them. This is promoting a nation of dieting.

2. This is a critique of fatshaming and the concept of a nation of dieting, saying that other things are more important.

Here are my thoughts on each of those ideas.

1: Both Japan and the US have a complicated relationship with weight. A lot of people do, really. It’s difficult, really. Healthy eating and exercise habits are important, and something to promote. On the other hand, shaming overweight people doesn’t work and makes people gain weight. A healthy diet is a good thing, but promoting unhealthy diets is a bad thing.

When the lyrics mention that Japan is a nation of dieting, while that might be synechdoche, it’s not inaccurate. Japan has a law on the books that fines people with a large waistline after the age of 40. Japan is the least obese industrialized nation, and “To the contrary, there is a problem of leanness in young females.” (Source) Health is admirable, but this isn’t necessarily the cause.

It’s easy to see this song as promoting that type of behavior. The song focuses on “every single person likes beautiful girls,” which could infer that by beautiful they mean slender. All these lyrics about dieting are surrounded by “I want to love” and lyrics about aiming for one’s dreams. If this is saying that this is achievable by dieting, then this is a terrible message. Being healthy is a good thing, but unhealthy dieting and getting too underweight is a bad thing as well.

2: However, the more I’ve thought about these lyrics, the more interesting I find them. Take the “all year around” and “every single person” lines that are repeated; by using repetition, the part that’s repeated is how this affects every single person and that this is a constant thing. This isn’t necessarily promoting diets, but saying that this is a long standing thing that’s firmly embedded. The girls almost sound robotic, as well, which reinforces that this isn’t an individual choice but something that was put in them.

There are a lot of interesting things about the lyrics as well. There are two lines in particular that stand out; the first is the one that ‘even slender girls diet.’ This is true in life as well as in song; haven’t all of us seen an idol blog and been shocked when an already slender idol is talking about dieting? But this means that slender girls are still caught up in this cycle, that even when you get to a healthy (or beyond) weight that it’s not enough to make them happy. The other line that makes me pause is the line about waking up drenched in sweat; the only thing that the subject of the song can think of is all the weight she’s burned, never mind things like being late and grades. This shows the skewed morality and skewed priority system.

Still, even things like the “koi shitai” and lines about the girls wants can be interpreted differently. All those things are expressed as desires, things they want to do. The dieting is all present or at best not far into the future (today I will start my diet). While it could be that these things are seen as achievable post-diet, it could also be that they want to break this cycle of dieting and actually focus on these other things instead.

Honestly, the more I think about it, the more this is a judgment call. I personally think it’s more of the second category than the first, but that this could and probably does promote unhealthy dieting. However, things are ambiguous for you to decide what the song ultimately means.

PV: After the lyrics, what can I even say about this? This is fine. The production values have gone up, but that’s not by much; there’s still issues with lighting, especially in closeups (a girl with hair and features like Risako is not treated kindly with this type of lighting). The set doesn’t look terrible (much better than some of the other Berryz sets), but it’s not particularly great. I was going to do a whole review, but the PV is wholely unremarkable in most ways. It’s serviceable, and not awful, but certainly not good.

Verdict: Berryz Koubou’s latest isn’t very interesting musically or visually, but the lyrics are interesting; depending on your opinion you may hate or love them.

Review Monday: Morning Musume – Egao no Kimi wa Taiyou sa, Kimi no Kawari wa Iya Shinai, What is Love?

That’s right, I’m reviewing Morning Musume’s latest. I’m sure you guys don’t need much more introduction!

Egao no Kimi wa Taiyou sa

Song: When I first listened to Egao no Kimi wa Taiyou sa, I hated it. Not just dislike, I thought it was just terrible. However, something amazing happened. I kept watching the PV (partly out of my interest in the group and partly because of the PV), and the song suddenly grew on me, where I began to like it where I had hated it.

This isn’t to say the song is perfect. By all means, there are still the flaws it had before. The most noticeable flaw is the weird phrasing of lyrics in the song, where words get bunched together and the girls have to very quickly sing lyrics in small places. It’s hard to imagine this particular melody without the weird phrasing, but it does sound unprofessional and a bit odd.

I think the thing that I appreciate most about Egao no Kimi wa Taiyou sa is more of what it represents for Morning Musume than anything else. While I’ve really enjoyed Morning Musume’s latest output, I have wondered, like many others, if the group would get stuck in the EDM genre and eventually play out the genre until people were sick of it. Hello!Project has a terrible habit of adopting a “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality, and since Morning Musume has been suddenly selling better than the group has sold in years and years, I was worried the group would get stuck in a rut. Egao no Kimi wa Taiyou sa still fits the mold in that it does use EDM. However, this song experiments with using the group’s signature sound and making a lighter, happier song. In a way, they’ve proven that they can take the group’s signature sound, and still have very varied songs.

This song, while initially something I really hated, has grown to become a song I love, and one that I think represents good things happening for Morning Musume. 8/10

PV I think green screen has been getting a bad rap lately. It’s a tool, and like any tool it can be used well and used poorly. I understand why Morning Musume fans have lately held it in contempt, for sure; Up-Front tends to use it pretty poorly, like in the case of the Help Me PV where it was a poor substitute for actually being outside. However, with an interesting aesthetic style, a green screen can be a great asset. Morning Musume has somehow managed to use this well.

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By only using the green screen sparingly, as patterns that move with the girls to the song and to the dance, the PV looks a lot more interesting than in something like a Help Me situation. This elevates the standard H!P studio PV from being basic to being something visually interesting and appealing. I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a H!P PV because I found it to be an interesting PV.

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The PV is actually shot well, too. I really enjoy the opening shot that starts up overhead and tracks down to in front of the girls. Since Morning Musume is still (rightfully so) getting known for its formation dance, I’m glad that they capitalized on this with some good bird’s eye shots.

The lighting is also good, especially by Hello!Project standards. While I would change it a few places, this is miles above the awful flat lighting they were trying to use for a while.

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By far my biggest complaint is the blurry, bloom effect that they used on the close-ups. I don’t object to the idea of it, but I do object that it gets used as much as it does. This isn’t as bad as some other effects (see: One Two Three), but it does detract.

This is a solid PV that is a step up from other recent H!P efforts to show off Morning Musume’s strengths while having a unique visual style. 8/10.

Kimi no Kawari wa Iya Shinai

Song: This is the least interesting song on this single. Not to say this is bad; I actually quite like it. But for being a fairly experimental and interesting single, Kimi no Kawari wa Iya Shinai is fairly standard. Which makes sense; this is being used as the cheer song for the Japanese team at the Olympics this year, so they would want something that was energetic, exciting and all that (I do particularly like the “Nippon” chants; they sounded nice here).

This doesn’t sound particularly like Brainstorming or Wagamama Ki no Mama Ai no Joke (It might be a bit closer to Ai no Gundan) but it’s in the same mold of cool song. I don’t think it’s quite as good as Brainstorming or Wagamama, but that’s in part because of how great I thought those two songs were when I first heard them and now some of the novelty has worn off.

Really, I don’t have much more to say about this song than that. I know I like it, but as a song it’s the least interesting and least remarkable one of the lot. 7/10.

PV: As a PV, this is a lot less interesting than Egao no Kimi.

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Production values are still good here; I like the camera angles and the lighting. I feel like H!P hired a new team or got their PV people in gear, which makes me VERY happy. This PV is shot much better than a lot of H!P’s older stuff.

Like everyone else ever, I’m not sure how I feel about these outfits on this background. They kind of clash, but at the same time look fine. H!P’s always had iffy costumes at times, and this is hardly the worst of the lot, but it does stand out.

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One of the biggest strengths of these PVS (not just Kimi no Kawari but all three) is just how strong these girls have gotten. Gone are the awkward days of early PVs, Morning Musume is now full of pros. While I think that a stagnant lineup is a mistake and that they really ought to be working on that 12th gen, I can see why H!P would be hesitant; all the girls in MM are solid, and work well together. Riho and Ayumi do a great job of starting things off here, and Kudou Haruka stands out.

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The green screen used in the closeups is the weakest part, but it’s mostly harmless and unobtrusive.

Despite weird costume choices, H!P puts out a solid effort with this PV, even despite being unremarkable. 7/10

What is Love?

Song: What is love? How I feel about this song.

What is Love brings back Morning Musume to what made me fall in love with the group in the first place; playing with genres within the contexts of pop music. The first Morning Musume song I heard and loved was the good old Mr. Moonlight Ai no Big Band (also probably why my first favorite was Yossy), and I still love how it brings back an older genre of music into pop music. What is Love does what Mr. Moonlight did to big band, only with swing, and adds on some additional interest with combining it with the EDM/dubstep inspired sound of Morning Musume’s current era.

What is Love is catchy, exciting, and I just love the swing music sound that they throw in there. This is one of Morning Musume’s best songs in years, and I don’t say that lightly. Morning Musume has improved a lot in the past year, year and a half, and What is Love is, to me, the culmination of that. 9/10.

PV While I’m not opposed to the idea of a live PV (especially on a single where there’s two other PVs going on). However, live PVs can be done well and they can be done as, well, an easy PV.

Team Syachihoko’s Soko Soko Premium is a good example of a live PV; it takes multiple live performances, and edits things together so that the PV conveys some of the energy of the group’s live performances. What is Love often falls a bit flat at this.

What is Love isn’t bad, per say, it just feels like a bit of a cop out. I like Morning Musume live, and I don’t see much wrong with the PV, but it could be a lot better. 6/10

Overall, I’m impressed by this single, in addition to being impressed by Morning Musume as a whole in the past years. While the first two songs took a while to grow on me, once they did I really enjoyed this single and I’m happy it’s been so successful.

Review Monday: Takoyaki Rainbow – Naniwa no Haniwa

Happy Monday everyone! I was going to review Morning Musume’s triple A-Side that’s coming out this week, but then suddenly a new PV came out that I had to review. The Morning Musume review might be coming in a future week, though.

Takoyaki Rainbow is the next in the line of Stardust Promotions groups, after Momoiro Clover Z, Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku. and (my favorite) Team Syachihoko. When this group was first announced I really wanted to love it; takoyaki is actually one of my favorite foods ever, so I thought this was a cute name! However, I wasn’t super fond of their first single ‘ Over the Takoyaki Rainbow.’ When I heard that my favorite idol composer, Maeyamada Kenichi, was going to be writing their second single, I knew that I had to give this group another shot.

Song: If weird Hyadain or Stardust idols aren’t normally your thing, I really doubt this will be your thing. Personally, I love it; it feels like a very Hyadain song but also feels somehow unique to Takoyaki Rainbow. However, I do think this is the type of song that benefits from multiple listens. The first time I listened to it I was not sure what to think, and unsure if I liked it. This song has a lot of different styles and sections thrown into one song (as Hyadain likes to do). However, after a couple of listens in, you start to get a better sense for the structure of the song and it starts to make more sense. Still, the first listen was an interesting experience of “What is even going on even?”

The closest song I can compare it to is GOUNN, and even that’s a bit of a stretch (it’s mostly based off the arrangement). It’s more like if Hyadain wrote GOUNN for 2010 era MomoClo. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s just the closest thing I can think of, comparison wise. This song has a lot going on, though, and it does sound kind of busy. The song takes a bit too long to get to the first chorus, for example, and really lingers on the shouted “N A N I W A” sections. After it catches in your brain it doesn’t really sound like it’s dragging, but the first few listens it felt like it was.

By far the weakest part of the single are the vocals; if you’re looking for strong vocalists, you aren’t going to look towards Takoyaki Rainbow (or any Stardust group, really). However, the vocals do work for this type of song. The girls deliver on energy and charisma, and that’s what this song needs more than anything.

This song is fun, well-written, and right up my alley as a big Hyadain fan. It is getting me more and more interested in Takoyaki Rainbow. 9/10

PV: I think I mentioned this in my top 15 PV list, but I’ll reiterate: green screen isn’t bad. Visual effects can add a lot to a PV. What is bad is lazy visual effects, or using it to cut corners. If you have a unique and interesting visual style, like in Naniwa no Haniwa, having a fully green screen PV isn’t a bad thing.

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As you can see above, the PV has a really strange style; it’s kind of surreal at times (and very surreal at others) and odd all the time. The thing I find most interesting is that the color palette tends to be slightly muted; this isn’t the bright colors of Ai no Chikyuusai. Yet this muted color scheme works well and seems oddly bright when put together. I can’t really put my finger on it.

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The PV’s biggest asset are the girls involved; all of them have really stepped up their game and have a lot of talent appearing cute and personable in front of the camera. They’re all very cute and veyr fun to watch. This PV did a fantastic job of showing off the girls.

The editing is very well done; it’s generally done rapidly (especially when they’re spelling out “H A N I W A”, cutting on every letter), but it never feels rushed or out of place.

Ultimately, this PV is another example in how good greenscreen PVs CAN look, and is also an example of showing off your idols effectively. 9/10

I really enjoyed this PV, and it’s caused me to want to keep an eye on this group in the future!

Review: Idoling!!! – Gold Experience

This weekend I asked on twitter if anyone wanted me to review anything. Steve from Selective Hearing suggested Idoling!!!’s latest album. Idoling!!! is a group I’ve always liked, but never got into too much. So I’m actually pretty happy that I have a chance to revisit this group. I’ve liked a lot of their music in the past (Me ni wa Aoba Yama Hototogisu Hatsukoi is one of my favorite idol songs) so let’s see what I think about this new album!

1. Shokugyou: Idol

Immediately the opening reminds me of the opening to AKB48’s Futari Nori no Jitensha. Which is a good thing; that’s from AKB’s best stage, and this is the type of song that fits really well as an opener.

This track is a bit unusual in that it’s an older single that was already featured on an Idoling!!! album; this is a single from 2008, and the rest of the singles on Gold Experience are very recent. While this has been revamped with vocals from the current generations of members, the fact that this song was chosen means that they’re thinking about this album as an album and not a collection of singles + non-single songs. At least, I hope that’s what they mean with this, because there are far too few idol albums that actually try to be successful as albums.

This is the type of song that I would play for someone if I wanted to tell them what idol music is like. This feels like an “idol” song, in the best sense. I like music that’s considered ‘idol-y,’ so this hits the spot. There’s a pretty good drum beat and a nice guitar section, adding some rock flavor to the song. The song itself is pretty catchy, though, and like I said I do enjoy idol music on its own.

Despite being an older single, this fits very well as an opening track. Of the recent albums I’ve reviewed, this and LinQ’s “Hajimemashite” fit the best as openers. This is a fun, well written song that fits very well as an opener to the album. 8/10

2. MAMORE!!!

This immediately feels more like the Idoling!!! I’ve become familiar with; this and Dont Think! Feel are the types of songs that I’ve come to associate with Idoling!!!; songs that pack a punch. MAMORE!!! is probably the single I’d think of most when I think of this type of Idoling!!! song.

For some reason I remember disliking MAMORE when it first came out, and for the life of me I can’t remember why. This is a well-paced, energetic song that packs a punch. I just think that these cooler, more powerful songs that tend to be favorites with some take longer for me to get into. I think another part of it is that the chorus is far more immediately appealing than the verses; they aren’t bad, per say, and have a lot of good to them, but the chorus is the real attraction to MAMORE!!!. However, at a closer listen, there are some good layered vocals in places that I don’t know if I appreciated at first.

This is also a song that shows off the deeper, strong vocals of the Idoling!!! members. Everything sounds really good and serious; a group with higher pitched vocals might not sound quite as good doing this type of song. The instrumentation is really great, too; I feel like it’s easy to give this type of song a fairly generic rock sound, but this feels like a complex, well-made track.

MAMORE!!! isn’t the type of song I naturally gravitate towards, but goodness I’ve gained an appreciation for it. 8/10

3. Ichigo Gyuunyuu

And Idoling!!! returns to a cuter style. This is a pleasant, mid-tempo song that feels even slower after following something like MAMORE!!!

Pleasant is honestly the best word I can think for something like Ichigo Gyuunyuu. It’s not a bad song, but there’s not much that really feels extraordinary. The best thing I appreciate is the arrangement; if I’ve learned one thing from these past few tracks I’ve learned that I like the instrumentation in Idoling!!! songs. The strings and piano sound lovely, and I appreciate the clear effort that went into that.

There’s also some really beautiful vocal work in the bridge. The vocals for this track are largely unremarkable (again, especially in following MAMORE) but there’s shining moments of realization that there are beautiful vocalists in Idoling!!!

It’s hard to say anything bad about Ichigo Gyuunyuu, but beyond a good arrangement there’s not much I’d call home about. It’s not bad, but it’s not a song I think I’ll be returning to anytime soon. It has the potential to grow on me, but for now it hasn’t. 6/10.

4. Akogare Adoration

Here’s a faster paced rock song! This is much more of the older school, lighter rock than something like MAMORE. Like always the vocals and instrumentation are very good; in particular there’s a section of harmonization later in the song that sounds really fantastic.

The instrumentation is well-done, like always, but there are a lot of sections that sound too busy. I like having multiple things going on at once in a song as a general rule, but here it felt like there was a bit too much going on at once. I also don’t know if I quite like the mixing of the song; sometimes it sounds like the vocalists are a bit too quiet. It’s nothing extreme, but these touches in comparison to the other Idoling!!! tracks just feel off.

I do like the clapping in the song and the harmonization is gorgeous. This is a fun song, and I like various elements. However, it’s not quite interesting enough and not all the elements come together as well as I wish they would. 6/10

5. Kaniko

When pitching me this album, Steve mentioned that this album felt like a bit of a tribute to idol styles through the year. While I listen to some oldschool idol music sometimes, I was nervous that I wouldn’t really get it. But yeah, this song is definitely getting some of that 70s idol vibe. The first song that comes into my head with this is that this reminds me of an updated Southpaw by Pink Lady; there are probably other songs that fit this better, but I got some Pink Lady mixed with Nakamori Akina (because this does sound darker) in there.

The thing is, even though this does feel oldschool in flavor (especially with the melody) it’s not necessarily obvious; the production and arrangement is modern and it’s produced very well. The members they chose to sing this song perform it well, as well, and it sounds nice all around. This isn’t necessarily my favorite type of oldschool sound, but I do like retro idols fit into modern music a lot so this does make me happy.

This is a fun, upbeat song with a bit of a darker sound to it. I love it. 9/10

6. Sentō Renai Shōjo Robo B Gata no Yūutsu

I had Pink Lady on the brain when listening to this because the siren at the beginning made me think of UFO from Pink Lady. The rest of the song has a lot more energy and doesn’t make me think of a specific song like Kaniko did, but the strings still remind me of retro music, which is great.

This is unfortunately not quite as memorable as Kaniko to me, but it still sounds good. This song does something that not a lot of songs do but that I appreciate whenever I hear it; it combines rock with strings and adds on some electronic effects. Not quite as effectively as the best songs that do this, mind you, but I appreciate songs that have the ambition to have this.

While all the members sound fine here, there are some shouting parts that don’t really appeal to me as much as they could. Ultimately this is a fine song that does a lot of interesting things, but doesn’t appeal to me quite as much as it should. 7/10

7. Bon Voyage!

To be honest I put off reviewing this song because I just don’t know how to approach it. The song feels like it should be a mid-tempo, slower ballad (like the opening), but then it suddenly goes faster and has an upbeat arrangement. The chorus in particular is a slower melody, and, just singing the melody back to me, it sounds like it would fit better as a slower song.

The song isn’t bad; it continues this string of good songs and good arrangement. I’ve just listened to it over and over and just can’t pinpoint what it is about this song. The ending where parts start to overlap is probably the most successful section, and I like the ending chord which sounds like it’s from an organ. That would have been cool, an organ-focused song.

I think I like this, and there are sections that I like more than anything, but for some reason this song is baffling to me. It hasn’t stuck in my head at all, and I doubt I’ll be thinking much about this in the future. 5/10

8. Sakura Thank You

This is a graduation song. From years of conditioning I’ve come to expect that songs about graduation are uninteresting and boring. Unfortunately, Sakura Thank You doesn’t stray too far from this precedent. The guitar solos sound good, and the arrangement is very solid, like always. It also goes without saying that the vocals are strong. However, this doesn’t really stand up to some of the more interesting songs on this album.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the worst graduation single I’ve ever heard. It’s far better than AKB’s awful So Long which also came out this year. The strong production makes up for it. Really, I’d rank this pretty highly among similar graduation themed singles. It’s just a disappointment that when Idoling!!! decided to go for a graduation single that they went for a more generic sound than they had done before this.

That said, I do like the production on this quite a bit, and there are really great moments in the arrangement. It’s just that this is arrangement is on something fairly uninteresting, which is a shame. 6/10

9. Natsu no Ojousan

When I first heard this song I was sure that this was a cover of a Candies song or something; this reminds me way too much of stuff like Haru Ichiban and Shochuu Omimai Moshiagemasu. While this isn’t a Candies song, this is in fact a cover of a song by Sakakibara Ikue, released in 1978.

Taking a quick listen to a performance of the original, it doesn’t sound like Idoling!!! changed too much with their arrangement. And here, I think that’s a good thing. The song is very fun on its own that I’m glad it seems like they left the original framework but just modernized it.

I wasn’t aware of this song before the cover, but now I’m glad that they covered this! It’s a fun song that Idoling!!! does a great job of covering. 9/10

10. Namida no Freesia

And wow this feels like 90s era idols, in a good way. This reminds me in a way of something like White Love by Speed, that kind of sensibility that you don’t really hear in a lot of idol music lately.

I like how piano heavy this sounds, even with the synth in there. It does a good job of adding some darkness to the track, and mixes well together. The one thing that kind of stumps me is the member choice for this single; I know this is a unit song, but it feels like they chose the highest-pitched/cutest voices of the group when it might sound better with a stronger voice. Some of the higher notes sounded like they were a bit of a struggle. I’d love to hear a Yokoyama Rurika cover of this song, for example, just to hear the difference.

This is a nice song that brings me back to a kind of idol music style that doesn’t really exist that much anymore in this post-Speed/SweetS era. It’s nice to hear. 7/10

11. Samui Yoru Dakara

Now here’s a song that’s legitimately from the 90s; this is a cover of a song from 1993 by the band TRF. This gives me serious vibes of songs like Get Wild, which I enjoy but aren’t necessarily my go to songs.

This is a song that I honestly don’t care for as much as I cared for Natsu no Ojousan. It’s fine, but there are sections which feel like they’re stretched out too long. And I feel like it’s hard to criticize this when I praised Idoling!!! for sticking with the original song when I talked about Natsu no Ojousan, but honestly I just don’t like this as much.

It’s a fine song, and it has a lot of the elements of this 90s era JPop that I enjoy, but it doesn’t hold up as a classic-sounding song like something like Get Wild does. Idoling!!! does a great job of modernizing the song and arranging it like I mentioned for Natsu no Ojousan, but unfortunately I just don’t love this as much as other songs from this relative time period and from this album. 7/10

12. Puri♥Kyun Survival

This is about the cutest idol song title I’ve ever heard. This is sung by Idoling!!! Neo, the newest members of the group who released their own single earlier.

This has a surprising amount of rock in it; this is pretty dominated by guitar and is generally a fun power pop song. If you like stuff like the first Babyraids single and some of the other rock-inspired units out there (but not the heavier stuff), this might be up your alley. It’s catchy and fun but has a bit more of an edge to it than your typical idol song, which is nice to hear.

I still haven’t even watched the Idoling!!! Neo members in action (that’s how far behind I am on Idoling, you guys) but the girls all have really solid voices that sound very assured and confident despite this being released in their first year.

This is really a fun track that utilizes the new members of Idoling!!! very well. I really enjoy this. 8/10

13. One Up!!!

This is back to Idoling!!!’s singles and it’s back to being the punchier type of song that i mentioned during my section on MAMORE. This is a funky, fun song, which is something I appreciate. I really like disco/funk back in my idol music, and One Up!!! definitely fits the bill.

One thing that is pretty distracting is just how busy the arrangement is. I think there’s a really fine line between what’s too busy complicated and too simple. Some songs have very empty/hollow sounding instrumentals, but others just have too much going on. Listening to One Up!!, there are a lot of good sections, but there are also sections where it feels like too much is going on in the background. While in general I think Idoling!!! does a good job with the people they get to do their arrangements, some of them err on the side of too busy, and this is the track so far where I feel like this is a big problem.

The thing is, I like this song a lot – in theory. The melody and overall songwriting really appeals to me. It’s just that a lot of this song should have been pared down to a less complicated track. This is so much fun that it’s a shame that there’s an issue like that keeping me from loving One Up!! like I want to. 7/10

14. Promise
Oh hey, a ballad! Every single song on this album so far has been pretty upbeat and fast. While I’m not a ballad person and I like my songs upbeat, listening to songs go at the same pace has been kind of exhausting. A ballad is a breath of fresh air at this point.

That said, I’m not a big ballad person, so while I want a track like this it’s not going to be my favorite track on the album. While the song itself doesn’t interest me all that much, the vocals do. The members sound gorgeous. I swear, I need to follow Yokoyama Rurika more, if only to hear more of her voice. The other members on the track sound nice, though a couple of voices aren’t as strong as the others. There’s some harmonies in there, which sound nice.

I do like the strings in the arrangement; I know that it’s at the point in idol music where we’ve heard a lot of strings lately, but I think I’ll be a sucker for a good string section. The song feels kind of cliched, in a way; it isn’t really an interesting ballad, beyond some strong vocals and some good instrumentation. The arrangement feels a bit busy here, as well.

Ultimately this is a very solid ballad which is made even better by strong vocals. 7/10

15. Don’t Think! Feel!

This is one of the feel Idoling!!! songs I’ve listened to over and over. While it’s not my favorite Idoling song in that it’s not Me ni wa Aoba, it comes pretty close. It is just a well-composed pop song; most of the Idoling!!! songs I’ve listened to on this album are well-paced, but Don’t Think! Feel is very well paced and never feels like it drags or moves too quickly. In general, though, I really like the melody and the overall tone of the song. It’s very pleasant, and at this point what I associate with Idoling!!!

The one thing that I don’t know if I like is the sound mixing;t he vocals sound kind of weird and echo-y. It’s not terrible, but I just wish that the vocals sounded a bit clearer and less strange. It’s distracting from an otherwise really nice song.

This is a solid song that I’ve listened to a lot on my own, despite not particularly paying much attention to Idoling!!!. I just wish the audio mixing was a bit different. 8/10

16. I no Standard 2014

If you hate repetitive songs, I no Standard is not your song. The words I no Standard are going to be burned into my brain after listening to this a few times for this review!

This is a very cute song with clapping and spoken/shouted parts. This is much cuter than a lot of Idoling!!!”s other stuff, but I do like it. It doesn’t quite fit my current image for the group, but the fact they have a song like that somehow works. I’m assuming (though kind of unsure?) that this is a song that allows for every member to sing; an intro song of sorts. If that’s the case the length makes sense. However, if that’s not the case then this song needlessly repetitive. It’s already a song that’s a lot longer than it needs to be.

This song is cute and fun, but drags on a bit too long. I appreciate a song that allows individual members to get spotlight, though. 7/10

17. Shine On

Ah, the ending track. This is a fun, funky track that feels like it’s ending the album on a high note. The melody is very reminiscent (intentionally?) of Don’t Think! Feel, but the whole song is a lot more upbeat and positive sounding than Don’t Think! Feel!

This is a compact, fun track that does a nice job of ending the album on a good note. Like the rest of the album it’s well made. I don’t know if it’s as immediately memorable as some of the other singles, but the chorus is definitely a bit of an earworm.

This does a good job of ending Gold Experience, a very good album, on a high note. 7/10

Overall: All the songs on this album are good. I like the individual tracks a lot. However, I’m still working out how this flows as an album. I have listened to all the tracks multiple times and in order, but I haven’t just sat and listened to it. 17 songs for an album is a bit much, though; I don’t know how they would cut any or which ones they could cut.

However, if you want to listen to well-produced, well-sung and overall just well-made idol music, you could do much worse than checking out Idoling!!!. This album had a lot of good stuff on it, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to give it a listen! I recommend this album!