I realised I never said anything on here about Kalafina’s 2011 LP After Eden, despite going into the official shop in Shibuya and picking up a copy on release day. It’s a really nice record with some standout tracks, but looking back it sounds like it was trying too hard. It came out only a year after their previous full-length effort, so with that in mind I suspect that they were over-reaching themselves a bit and were suffering from the notorious ‘third album syndrome’.
Two years later, with their first European appearances under their belts, where do they stand with their fourth record? While AE took a few listens to get into, Consolation endeared it to me from the get-go. Quite honestly I don’t think they’ve sounded better – the songs on offer here are easily of the standard they set right back in ’09 with their debut Seventh Heaven.
There’s always that nervous feeling when you hear any new material from one of your favourite bands for the first time. If it’s different from what’s gone before it may clash with whatever expectations you may have had, and of course there’s the worry that the sound loses the special something that made you love it to begin with.
Throughout their career MONO have been placed alongside a distinct group of bands whose common characteristics are basically long, instrumental guitar-based songs. In recent years though they have moved away from this experimental rock-based format and have gradually crept closer to an ‘orchestral rock’ or neo-classical one. Their 2012 studio effort, For My Parents, is a continuation of that and holds back on the noise in favour of classical-style arrangements.
I wish it were easier for us overseas listeners to sample the eclectic and inventive independent Japanese music scene. We often have to rely on the efforts of bilingual fellow fans and/or word of mouth, which was how I discovered the instrumental five-piece mudy on the 昨晩 (the kana segment of their name is pronounced ‘sakuban’). Thanks to the wonders of the internet I was impressed enough with their full-length debut Pavilion to import the CD. Who says online music file-sharing is bad for record sales? ^_^
Sakuban already have two EPs Voi and Kidnie to their name but their reputation at home appears to be based largely on their live shows. Perhaps this is why the production of Pavilion has a deliberately live feel with little evidence of overdubbing or studio effects processing. Although it is the polar opposite of overproduced, the sound is clear, powerful and exhilarating; the arrangements are noticably more complex than those of their earlier material too.
I first heard the songwriting of Yuki Kajiura through the soundtrack to Koichi Mashimo’s Noir but for me her style became intrinsically linked to a certain visual aesthetic after the haunting Portrait de Petit Cossette. Kalafina, her current project, is best known as the vocal group behind the soundtrack to the Kara no Kyoukai films; my love for that series aside, the ‘Kalafina sound’ is instantly recognisable yet hard to categorise.
The fact that so many of their tracks are tie-ins to films and TV shows does carry an associated burden if you want to appreciate them on their own: the first LP, Seventh Heaven, is and always will be the Kara no Kyoukai vocal album to me but Red Moon follows a mere year behind with more album-only numbers in comparison. While it doesn’t quite scale the heights of, say, Oblivious or Aria, it’s still Kalafina. And these three girls can still sure as hell sing.
In the space of a year or two I’ve grown to appreciate the sound of instrumentalists Mono, mainly because I’ve been a long-standing fan of experimental guitar-driven soundscapes. My initial reaction to their Gone compilation – the first time I’d listened to them properly – was a fanboyish exclamation of “Holy shit, a J-rock Mogwai!”, although in retrospect I was selling them short. It’s easy to lump bands together when something as obvious as the lack of lyrics is one thing they have in common, after all.
Their latest studio effort at the time of writing, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, is my favourite so far because of its cinematic, orchestral grandeur but Gone is a neat way of experiencing a cross-section of their sound’s evolution since the tracks are set out in chronological order. Over time the arrangements have become more structured and purposeful; tunefulness is a subjective thing but alongside similar bands Mono lean towards the more sentimental as well as being one that uses the power of volume to get the listener’s attention.
I’ve had a .flac version of Seventh Heaven on my HD for a while now but when I was in Akihabara I was able to pick up the legal version (I decided against the limited edition since I was worried about spending too much…). It has the prettiest CD inlay booklet I’ve seen in a long time but above all else it’s the neatest way of getting Kalafina’s best material on one shiny disc. In fact the only disappointing omission here for me is the Lacrimosa single and its B-side Gloria but it does include all the major vocal numbers from the Kara no Kyoukai movie series, plus a track or two that you won’t find on any of the OSTs.
Interestingly the group members and Yuki Kajiura, the songwriter behind it all, are reluctant to categorise the material, instead describing it simply as ‘Kalafina sound’; given the range of influences in evidence I can understand their point. Choral-gothic-synth-folk is a bit of a mouthful yet still doesn’t go all the way to summing up how the musical approach of, say, Uninstall (or any of Kajiura’s similar work so far) has progressed. It’s pleasantly surprising how wonderfully this collection of songs works on its own merits outside the BGM/film theme context: you certainly shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re not familiar with the anime that inspired it.
How do you go about appraising the talents of a vocal artist who technically doesn’t exist? I’m not sure if Shoji Kawamori expected the arrival of the Vocaloid software way back when he made Macross Plus but it was a neat bit of foresight in envisaging a future when it is possible to not only synthesise a singing voice, but a scenario in which the said technology becomes a music phenomenon on its own. Time will tell as to whether Hatsune Miku’s great-granddaughter will be gracing music stages in holographic form or otherwise, but as a music nerd the idea of creating a singing voice from scratch with little more than typing in the lyrics and melody is spine-tinglingly exciting. doriko is one such artist in that field who has left me, well, pretty impressed actually.
Unformed is a thirteen- (or fourteen-, in the case of the Limited Edition) track album comprised entirely of songs featuring the virtual idoru Hatsune Miku: needless to say the same cute girly Jpop style is present throughout the vocals in all the tracks on offer here, but I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to forget that her voice is a computer programme. Considering how most pop artists these days seem to fall back on pitch correctors and all manner of electro-magic in the studio to the point where even their voices are effectively digital, maybe I shouldn’t find this too surprising.
I know it’s a bit pre-emptive nominating a contender for Album Of 2009 when we’re only three months into the year but in recent days I’ve become so entranced by Mono’s latest effort Hymn to the Immortal Wind I’m pretty confident that we may already have a winner. It’s their fifth studio effort but apart from the EP compilation Gone this is the first time I’ve had chance to properly check them out…and I absolutely love what I’ve found.
The band’s sound is in the vein of Mogwai or God is an Astronaut in that the songs are almost all instrumentals with keyboards and occasional samples woven in between layered guitar lines. Although there are several bands, including the two mentioned above, who fall into the category of atmospheric post-rock or shoegaze this is one of the finest examples I’ve had the pleasure to hear so far: a tender yet emotionally-charged gem of an album that balances experimental guitar noise with staggering orchestral beauty. If it isn’t the best thing we’ll hear in the next twelve months I’ll enjoy being proved wrong.
Many moons ago a now-absent AUKN forum-goer sent me an mp3 of the Dir en Grey album track Garbage. I was hooked on their sound from that point on, soon realising they’re one of the most innovative hard rock acts that the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer. I use the term ‘hard rock’ quite tentatively though because while Diru consider themselves to be an experimental metal band and have their roots in the visual kei movement they purposefully avoid pigeonholing themselves in those neat little boxes that the contemporary music industry is so fond of. They instead pride themselves on creating a dark, heavy and uncompromising sound and opting to express themselves through the music itself, rather than their image.
After working back from Withering to Death and their Western breakthrough LP Vulgar I was mildly disappointed with The Marrow of a Bone. It was abrasive, powerful and carried a brutal sincerity that begged to be taken seriously (I have a real problem these days with taking heavy metal seriously…put it down to old age or something) but it felt like they had gone too far in their embracing of their European and Stateside peers. I respect their drive to evolve but it didn’t exploit the full range of their musicianship and influences; 2008′s Uroboros, which takes its name from a mythical concept of re-creation and unity, remedies this by drawing from their past works while creating something new and really quite exciting.