Well, it's finally arrived. The new Kinoko Teikoku album - the second since signing their major label deal with EMI - is here, and fans finally get to find out if the band is continuing on their major label J-pop trajectory or veering back toward the noisy alt rock we fell in love with years ago. While "Neko to Allergy" had listeners resigned to the former, there were a couple of encouraging signs leading up to "Ai no Yukue" that there might be a little more balance this time around. There was the impressive lead single, "Crybaby", a new version of a track from one of their earlier demo EPs, and a brief but impressive glimpse at the album's title track in the trailer for a new Japanese film. Small sample it may have been, but it was enough to get doubters interested again.
I'll be honest. I expected to have a lot to say about this album, but I really don't. It's really good. It's not mind-blowing, and it's certainly not a shoegaze album (some people will have stopped reading at this point). Let's be real, though. Kinoko Teikoku is a handful of releases removed from that sound. Their final release from UK Project's Daizawa label, Fake World Wonderland, was the first step toward creative control of the band shifting toward those who favor clean pop tracks to harsh roaring guitars. Well that was two years ago, so it should come as no surprise that Ai no Yukue as a whole is a pop record. But what's different this time is that they seem to have been willing to meet fans of the old stuff halfway.
The title track is a really good start to the album. It has it all: a gloomy intro, an explosive lead-driven hook, and reverb soaked vocals. It never quite takes off as massively as it feels like it will at times, but that's sort of a theme for this release. The album's closer and lead single, "Crybaby" is similar, though a bit more toward the pop end of the spectrum. These are the two best songs on the album, and each showcases an enjoyable balance between the old and the new.
Not far behind them in terms of quality is "Moon Walk". Kinoko Teikoku haven't completely strayed from the melancholy sound that works so perfectly with Chiaki Sato's gorgeous vocals, but when they've gone that route recently it's been far too clean for my taste. "Moon Walk" muddies it up a little bit, specifically in the chorus, and about halfway in fades into a nice tripped out portion through to the finale.
One big surprise when the album's tracklist was first published was the inclusion of "Azemichi de", which first appeared on the band's second demo EP "Yoru ga Aketara". As expected we basically get a cleaner version of the original. Some of the edge in the chorus has been toned down a bit, but otherwise it's very similar.
The rest of the album is fine. "Natsu no Kage", as I mentioned in my previous review, is a Fishmans-esque dubgaze track, while "Last Dance" and "Ame-agari" are both really catchy pop tunes. "Shi ga futari wo wakatsu made" is the only track I couldn't really get into on the album. These songs are the ones that fans hoping for the old Kinoko Teikoku may scoff at, though percentage-wise it's a lot less than in recent memory.
I think Ai no Yukue has a lot of really good stuff going on. I like feeling like A-chan is being given more creative freedom, whether or not that's actually true. We know that Kinoko Teikoku are far removed from their days as one of Japan's finest alt rock bands, and dwelling on the fact that we're not going to get another Uzu ni Naru is sort of pointless. But the band taking a step back and mixing in a bit of the old stuff with the new is welcome, and the result is a positive one. We get a very solid pop record with a little bit of the grit and emotion that made us fall in love with the band in the first place. For whatever my opinion is worth, Ai no Yukue was a success.