Kinoko Teikoku – “Ai no Yukue”

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.

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.  

Kinoko Teikoku – “Natsuno Kage”

So after what I thought was a really successful single release in “Crybaby” this past June, Kinoko Teikoku have put out another track as they approach the release of their new album Ai no Yukue this November.  “Natsuno Kage” (or “Summer’s Shadow”) hit iTunes at midnight Japan time – I’m assuming it’s just going to be another limited digital-only release like “Crybaby” – and my fingers were crossed, as I prepared to hit the play button, that this would be yet another sign of a return to pre-major form.  

So after what I thought was a really successful single release in “Crybaby” this past June, Kinoko Teikoku have put out another track as they approach the release of their new album Ai no Yukue this November.  “Natsuno Kage” (or “Summer’s Shadow”) hit iTunes at midnight Japan time – I’m assuming it’s just going to be another limited digital-only release like “Crybaby” – and my fingers were crossed, as I prepared to hit the play button, that this would be yet another sign of a return to pre-major form.  

The first thing I noticed when I pulled the song up is that it’s seven and a half minutes long, making it the longest song they’ve released since “Flower Girl” on their 2013 Long Goodbye EP.  You don’t find a whole lot of pop songs drawing on this long, so my curiosity was further piqued.  I cleared my mind, got their entire back catalog out of my head, and finally hit play.

“Natsuno Kage” kicks off like a Fishmans-esque dreamy dub track, which is a lot more appealing than the light pop chorus that it transitions into.  Similar to “Chronostasis” following “Tokyo” as the second lead single going into Fake World Wonderland, “Natsuno Kage” really slows things down when compared to “Crybaby” (and for what it’s worth, I like it a lot more than “Chronostasis”).  

My opinion through the first half of the track is that it has a bunch of redeeming qualities.  The chorus didn’t wow me, but the chill-out reggae twist was really pleasant, and Sato’s voice has just been so consistently good that there’s no real need to say anything about that.  Once again Kinoko Teikoku show a remarkable ability to fill every ounce of space with sound, and the vocals are a major contributor there.  Just as on the previous single, A-chan really gets back to what she does best: creating depth with her guitar work.  Even if the track doesn’t quite get back to the early Kinoko Teikoku material that really showcased her ability and perhaps best reflected her own artistic influence, it sure sounds, as we draw nearer to the album release, that A-chan has more freedom than she did on the major debut.  

There’s a bit on the track about three minutes in that teases with a bout of rumbling guitars, before transitioning right into that catchy chorus that I didn’t really care about, but by this point in the song has embedded itself somewhere deep in my brain against my will.  Again at the four minute mark, things get a little heavier and the song has gone in a different direction…and we’re back to the chorus.  As far as I’m concerned, the track could have ended at this point.  When that last chorus kicks in, there’s the sense that it is going to crescendo into a big finale.  It does build up, but it never quite gets to the point that it feels like it should.  It does this for two minutes, actually.  I wouldn’t call this a deal-breaker, but the five-minute version of the song is preferred.

I don’t feel as strongly about “Natsuno Kage” as I did “Crybaby”, but after a handful of listens I remain optimistic heading into Ai no Yukue, based largely on the perception that Sato is sharing the reigns with A-chan a bit more.  The dream dub vibe worked pretty well, but when we finally get this new album, the hope is that there’ll be a bit more of an edge to it.  We’ll see.

There aren’t any links to the new song at the moment, but the title track from the upcoming album is the theme song for the upcoming film 湯を沸かすほどの熱い愛, and is featured in this trailer (starting at the one-minute mark):

Aoi Eir – “Shoegazer”

Shoegaze is a genre tag whose sound is often debated, but one that universally relies on a very simple formula:  a balance of beauty and ear-smashing loudness.  Beyond that, the limits of what is shoegaze and what ventures into other similar genres can get a bit clouded, but it also allows for some pretty liberal interpretation making shoegaze a generally flexible genre.  As opposed to the hey-day of the genre in the early 90s, the modern incarnation of shoegaze, coupled with the insane amount of music available at the moment, has broadened the shoegaze definition even more.  While you have your fair share of MBV and Slowdive clones – in the case of the former it’s really hard to blame them – you see a lot of Western bands veering from the pop side of things toward a more punk and metal influenced sound.

Shoegaze is a genre tag whose sound is often debated, but one that universally relies on a very simple formula:  a balance of beauty and ear-smashing loudness.  Beyond that, the limits of what is shoegaze and what ventures into other similar genres can get a bit clouded, but it also allows for some pretty liberal interpretation making shoegaze a generally flexible genre.  As opposed to the hey-day of the genre in the early 90s, the modern incarnation of shoegaze, coupled with the insane amount of music available at the moment, has broadened the shoegaze definition even more.  While you have your fair share of MBV and Slowdive clones – in the case of the former it’s really hard to blame them – you see a lot of Western bands veering from the pop side of things toward a more punk and metal influenced sound.  Meanwhile, as Jairo Manzur of Latinoamerica Shoegaze has pointed out numerous times in his contributions to Muso Planet, bands in South America, and in particular Chile, use more traditional, cultural music to define their shoegaze sound.  

That cultural influence is also a big part of what makes a lot of Japanese shoegaze unique.  In the early 90s Shibuya-kei artists like Salon Music, Spiral Life, and Flipper’s Guitar got in on the act and would influence future generations of shoegaze artists in the country.  The late 90s and early 2000s – probably the most globally recognizable period of Japanese shoegaze –  saw a lot more crossover into the sound with visual-kei/alt-rockers Plastic Tree and Japan’s very own shoegaze Swiss-army knife Coaltar of the Deepers surging to the forefront of the scene.  The current landscape of Japanese shoegaze is now more diverse than ever as a result, and new and unique versions of the genre are constantly popping up – there was even a good Mikgazer release this year.  

That brings me J-Pop artist Aoi Eiru (藍井エイル), whose music I admittedly had no prior knowledge of until about a month ago when I saw that she was getting ready to release a new single.  That single would be titled “Shoegazer”, which naturally piqued my interest.  My first thought was that a second-rate idol whose body of work seems to be largely in the realm of anime soundtracks doing a song called shoegazer would be absolute crap.  But I decided to wait and see what it would actually sound like.  

Curious as to how the track came to be titled as such, I dug up an Oricon writeup about the song and its writer Hisashi, guitarist of seminal Japanese butt-rock outfit Glay.  Not really revealing much of anything it simply mentioned something about the shoegaze genre as having distorted guitars and sweet vocal melodies.  The description in the article sort of connects to the aforementioned shoegaze formula.  The track itself completely misses the mark…badly.  It has not one single redeeming quality from the nasally vocals to the generic, watered down guitar tone to the way-too-prevalent drums that sound like something I might have made in Fruity Loops in high school.  And I haven’t even gotten to the lazily shoegaze-ified cover that is pretty much the same as every other CD she’s released with a wavy, spacey pink and purple backdrop, though in fairness that’s about as close as the whole thing gets to living up to its title. 

It’s a bad pop song, but I can live with bad pop music.  Japan has a lot of it to offer and you hear it every time you walk into a convenience store or turn on the TV.  It’s just sort of wallpaper here.  I generally wouldn’t take the time to write about a bad pop song, and I’ve probably devoted way too many words to writing about this one, but what really bothers me is that it’s clearly nothing more at a cheap attempt to latch onto an indie genre that has been growing more and more over the last few years in Japan without even making an attempt at the sound.  I don’t regard the word “shoegaze” as some embodiment of substance and musical integrity, but if you’re going to make reference to a genre, show it some respect and at least fucking try.  The song managed to take the lack of originality commonly found in idol music a step lower.  Lots of shoegazey bands have renounced the shoegaze tag, despite their music carrying a heavy influence, in the name of escaping the restrictive nature of genre identifiers.  In those cases they may be completely full of shit, but I can at least accept that as a valid thought.  With Aoi Eir’s disaster of a single, it’s the exact opposite and a shameless attempt by an out of touch songwriter to momentarily weasel a talentless young lady into a fad.  If you want a brief introduction to what’s bad about major label idol music look no further than “Shoegazer”.