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):

Kinoko Teikoku – “Crybaby”

When I started this blog in early 2012 I was completely in love with Kinoko Teikoku.  Just about everything I tweeted was gushing praise of their music, and when I finally moved to Japan that spring it felt like fate that they were playing in Nagoya a mere weeks after I would arrive.  Seeing them at Club Rock n Roll is still one of my favorite live experiences ever.  Their music was powerful and emotional, and really struck a chord with me.  

When I started this blog in early 2012 I was completely in love with Kinoko Teikoku.  Just about everything I tweeted was gushing praise of their music, and when I finally moved to Japan that spring it felt like fate that they were playing in Nagoya a mere weeks after I would arrive.  Seeing them at Club Rock n Roll is still one of my favorite live experiences ever.  Their music was powerful and emotional, and really struck a chord with me.  

Fast forward to the spring of 2015, when it was announced that Kinoko Teikoku, whose previous album was extremely hit or miss, I might add, would release their major label debut in the form of a single called “Sakura ga Saku mae ni”.  The track wasn’t very good, nor was the subsequent full-length debut “Neko to arerugi”.  Kinoko Teikoku had changed, and I was balancing the feeling of being happy that they found success with the disappointment that they seemed to have left behind a majority of the qualities that I, and a growing global fanbase, had come to love.  Sure Chiaki Sato’s voice was still gorgeous and the songwriting was fine.  What I missed the most was the power and edge that they had done so well that made way for unexciting pop tracks.  It didn’t feel right and I was just about done.

It might be the reason I completely missed the news that last week Kinoko Teikoku had released a limited digital single (I’m assuming it’ll only be up for a short period of time) called “Crybaby”.  As I do with everything they release, I bought it on iTunes, a sense of apprehension and a little bit of hope that something might be different.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s a pop track, there’s no doubting that.  The verses are cute and gentle, and the chorus plays like a melancholy J-pop ballad, but there’s a lot more substance surrounding it.  There’s a harshness to the guitar tone that’s returned from Kinoko Teikoku tracks past, and from right around the 3:10 point the song really starts to feel like a throwback to their earlier stuff.  There’s even a bit in the buildup to the track’s climax that sounds an awful lot like the intro to fan favorite “Yoru ga Aketara”.  In past interviews, A-Chan had been pretty outspoken about her love of 90s alt rock and shoegaze, and their first few releases had really reflected that.  In “Crybaby” it feels like there is a perfect balance between Sato’s desire to make pop songs and A-Chan’s affinity for big, edgy guitars.  

For the first time in a while I’m really pleased with a Kinoko Teikoku track.  If “Sakura ga Saku Mae ni” was the prelude to a bad album, I really hope that “Crybaby” is a sign that things are heading back in the right direction.  

The single is currently available on Japanese iTunes, though I’m not sure if there will be plans to release it on the US store.  It also appears to be available on Recochoku.jp.  Here is a brief teaser that’s been posted on YouTube.