Aimer – ONE

Soundtracking the hotly anticipated Fate Stay Night Heaven’s Feel movie (which by all accounts, has ended up as quite the success at the Japanese box office, netting over $8 million to date), Aimer’s 13th single ONE is the kind of all-out anthem the singer seems capable of banging out without blinking these days. It’s felt like Aimer has been on the cusp of genuine, ‘proper’ breakthrough for a while now – aided not only by her liberal use of English lyrics but also her frequent collaborations with industry and fan favourite Sawano Hiroyuki, garnering her a hefty dose of attention from Western industry aficionados.

With ONE we see her typical anthemic style in flow flow, the kind of building, elegiac flow and build that demands the track be played incessantly loud, wind blowing through your hair and sunlight pelting down. Aimer’s tracks always burst with an irrepressible optimism and ONE is no exception. Coupled with a visually arresting video that takes the ‘raise your flag’ refrain to its logically literal conclusion, the song feels like the kind of thing ready made to soundtrack an eventual Tokyo 2020 Olympic opening ceremony. But they’re probably just going to get AKB48 or Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, right…?

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May’n – Shine A Light

Recently, I’ve been absolutely obsessed with the latest May’n single, Shine A Light. To be honest, I’ve been a fan of May’n for quite some time now, and if pushed, would probably nominate her as part of my personal all time Top 5 anisong singers. But there’s something about Shine A Light that’s stuck in my head above and beyond barnstormers like Taboo Tattoo OP theme Belief.

With its unique blend of sultry sleek Japanese vocal lines peppered with proclamatory English phrases (Sun rises… Shine A Light…) and even a blend of the two (Let’s get hikari!), Shine A Light feels like it owes a lot to Western pop styles in general – recalling the kind of energetic dance pop the likes of the Saturdays were hashing out aplenty five years ago. The video recalls something of that vibe too with its neon poles, cleverly orchestrated cinematography and illusory ‘one take’ shooting style. It’s a masterfully engaging watch, and adds a lot to both the track’s charm and May’n’s natural swagger and confidence as a performer. It goes without saying that the track is catchy, but there’s something special about its inoffensive, mid-tempo swoon that particularly appeals to me.

I’ve always felt May’n has to a certain degree fallen into the cracks between being a strictly ‘otaku’ anisong singer and an out n’ out bonafide J-Pop diva. The view count on the song’s official video seems to suggest more the former, lingering around 66k – which, to be honest – in the current musical climate on YouTube, isn’t great. But then, May’n’s music has never made any pretences to clinging to current trends in an effort to be hip or fashionable. No, she belongs firmly to the pure ‘pop’ school, one that even J-Pop seems increasingly eager to shake off. With both the hipper end of anisong (see DAOKO et al.) and the likes of populist import groups like TWICE quickly shifting the sound to a more globalised, dance-centric pop sound, May’n’s music is joyful exactly because it sounds like something permanently stuck in a world of 2007-2009 pop. They don’t *do* choruses like this anymore.

As Macross Frontier nears its tenth anniversary, it’s important not to forget that May’n, to many, always is and always has been *the* Sheryl Nome – the voice behind some of anisong’s most enduringly excellent compositions. With Macross Delta and its Walkure project already seeming like a fleeting memory, one has to wonder if Frontier – released in today’s more fickle climate – would have fared any better? Or maybe, just maybe, that late 00s era was the only time it ever could have come out – a last gasp for an older age of both anime and anisong, one where sales were still colossal and true divas still existed….

Lovebites – Awakening From Abyss

Another absolutely rocking release from the good folk at JPU Records. Picked up a copy of this one at the latest MCM Comic Con, and it fits very neatly alongside similar releases of material from Aldious and Mary’s Blood. There’s a real upswell of these fantastic girls-n-guitars groups in Japan right now, and Lovebites are one of the most instantly engaging of the bunch with a speedy, frenetic style that recalls the best riffs of the 80s. The aesthetic is there to match, with some cracking cover art and videos. Some of the most powerful vocals I’ve heard amongst the many similar bands clamouring for attention in this particularly little sub-genre too, with a proper sense of heart and soul to it – one to really turn up loud and pester the neighbours with.

MAN WITH A MISSION – Dead End in Tokyo

Man With A Mission remain endlessly fascinating for me, and I don’t just mean the wolf-head outfits. Moreover, I find their clear strategy to put out an all English language track part of a wider trend of Japanese hard-rock acts moving into the English-speaking market, filing them next to the likes of One OK Rock – part of a concerted effort that is seeing the biggest inroute of Japanese music to the West in years (and yes, I suppose you can factor the ‘Babymetal effect’ in there somewhere too.

But whereas Babymetal could arguably be dismissed as a quasi-gimmick act, in much the same way Hatsune Miku could be, Man With A Mission ally themselves more with the existing route of Japanese metal acts like Crossfaith making headway in the Kerrang sphere – and indeed, earlier this year Bad End In Tokyo featured on the Kerrang radio playlist itself, a sure sign that they had ‘arrived’ in Western music circles (and crucially, beyond the insular sphere of purely anisong/Jrock fandom).

To be completely fair, Dead End In Tokyo lacks some of the unbridled, high octane pace that made Raise Your Flag such a supreme joy. But it more than makes up for it in swagger, a cocky strut that eyes the global music market and goes ‘I Want a bit of that!’. If anything fully ‘breaks’ Japanese music in the West, it will be via bands like Man With A Mission and One OK Rock.

And yes, the song really does sound like nothing less than the return of Hard-Fi – which in my eyes can only ever be a good thing.

Kenshi Yonezu – Peace Sign (My Hero Academia OP)

When the second season of My Hero Academia started airing, I’m not sure anyone expected the show to become the behemoth it now currently is. While the 2nd season was always hyped to a strong degree, many initially wavered on it, put off by the slow pacing of the 1st season and the fact season 2 was airing alongside another ridiculously hyped second season: Attack on Titan.

But as MHA’s tournament ark got underway, treating us to some absolutely stellar animation and a renewed sense of urgency, it quickly became apparent that MHA was fast becoming *the* hottest ticket in anime fandom right now, with volumes of the manga approaching Tokyo Ghoul levels of public appetite. MHA had officially entered the major leagues.

And the second season’s OP theme Peace Sign is much the same – initially something of a dark horse, not overly bombastic or powerful, but there in the background, ticking away, growing on you until suddenly – BAM – you realise it’s a fully fledged smash. Now occupying the No. 1 spot on YouTube’s Japan top tracks even though it’s now been switched out with another OP theme for MHA’s second cour of the second season. In the process, the song has racked up over 21 million views on YouTube, it’s energetic, brisk indie-pop guitar stylings a fantastic match for the show’s own athletic, brawling ode to self-improvement.

May’n – Belief (Taboo Tattoo OP)

When it comes down to it, May’n remains one of my favourite J-pop singers at the moment – and of course, while much of this is down to her definitive tracks as the singing voice of Sheryl Nome for Macross Frontier, her post-Macross material is totally up to scratch too, delivering much of the same swagger and class as her Sheryl songs.

Belief is chief among them, a fast-paced, frenetic anthem that ended up soundtracking the OP for much-maligned manga adaptation Taboo Tattoo. I’ve always seen shows like Taboo Tattoo in much the same lineage as things like Black Bullet, firmly b-tier action/fantasy shows that throw up simplistic tropes and pretences at ‘darkness’ but are generally forgotten swiftly after the season they aired in ends.

And while Taboo Tattoo ultimately ended up being largely forgettable (though not without some decent moments), I feel Belief ends up being one of the best things about a show – doing exactly what an OP theme should do; pump you up for the action that’s to follow. ‘What can I do for you?’ May’n sings – and really, the possibilities are endless.

Aldious – Radiant A

Picked this CD up at MCM Comic Con earlier this year and am incredibly glad I did as it introduced me to the sultry, super-sleek world of Aldious and their fantastic blend of Japanese girl-group glam and some absolutely rocking guitar riffs. Put any Babymetal comparisons aside, Aldious are the real deal, combining a striking visual appeal with a bevy of energetic rock numbers. The world of Japanese girl-group rock/metal is becoming increasingly crowded of late, but Aldious stand out as by far one of the catchiest, with songs that work just as well as pop numbers as they do as gutsy rock tracks. If you’re a fan of anime music – particularly bands like Scandal – then Aldious will be right up your alley, it’s the same brand of catchy, hype-as-hell material that’ll have you up and ready to take on the world in seconds. Check out their music videos on YouTube too, because Aldious look amazing.

Mary’s Blood – Fate

I think of all the Japanese girl-group metal bands I’ve heard, this is definitely the most ‘authentic’ in feel – it absolutely ‘rocks’ in all sense of the world, going for a gritty, androgynous feel that’s a real throwback to all kinds of classic stuff. The vocals are powerful, the riffs right up close and person and in your face, tripping from pure speed metal stuff to a rougher, grungy tone. It’s dark, it’s stylish – it’s surprisingly ‘old school’ at times, like something dredged up from the early 90s. Sometimes these girl-metal bands can basically just sound like girl-band pop over a metal backing track, but Mary’s Blood are the real deal, right to the core.

Moso Calibration – Greatest Hits World Selection

Picked up a copy of this disc at Hyper Japan this summer and was absolutely won over by the performance from the band there. They have so much energy and charm, and it pairs perfectly with the high-octane, pumping feel of their music. Expect big, full-on EDM vibes mixed with gloriously cute vocal hooks. One of the things I really like about Moso Calibration is that while, to all intents and purposes, they are ‘just’ another Japanese girl group, the fact they go for the harder end of club music adds real punch to their package, and also fills a nice void since Perfume started opting for softer, more pop-oriented material (eschewing their older, electro feel). In short, the girls look great, sound great – what more could you ask for? JPU continuing to do fantastic work bringing the freshest new Japanese music over to the West.

(ps. the cover of Irony – which you’ll recognise as the Claris OP theme from Oreimo – is an excellent addition to the tracklisting here)

Yoko Kanno – Wanna Be An Angel (Macross Plus OST)

I’ve avoided talking about Macross Plus’ stunning soundtrack here until now, as I’m currently writing about the film in depth for my MA thesis. But now I’m near to completion, I’ll spend a little while selling you on the majesty of its OST – in my opinion one of Yoko Kanno’s greatest works to this date, and one of the finest anime OST ever created.

 

While for ages I was initially swayed by the pop energy of tracks like Information High, in recent times – after many re-watches of the film for my MA thesis – I’ve found myself coming around more to the angelic choral power of Wanna Be An Angel, a song that in many ways serves as Sharon Apple’s elegy and central ‘theme’. Reoccuring in snatches throughout the film but occupying a key role in the second concert sequence in the film, this is when Sharon really ‘goes wild’, drifting across the city in a dizzying storm of feathers and digital effects – the crowds and unlookers gazing away in soporific adulation. All under her spell.

 

But returning to the track itself, sung as it is in Kanno’s invented language for the film, I love how it weaves between almost recognisable phrases (maybe English at times, maybe Spanish at others) but remains utterly undefinabe and alien to our ears – as does the melodic structure itself, which seems to fit itself naturally to simply what will sound most utterly pleasant to the ears. A hymnlike opus for the ages themselves – this soaring melody which reaches back into antiquity and away into the distant future. Just as the film itself is dedicated to future pioneers, so to this song – which , like many of Kanno’s other compositions for the film, like *something* that might really exist as a musical form in the future – pan-human, -pan-nation, a new transnational ode that speaks to all humanity and races as one.

 

And as it drifts away on an instrumental outro, this twinkling piano and guitar line intertwined as one – bells twinkling in this soupy production that reminds me of Madonna’s True Blue era, I’m reminded of how much this song really is this uber-idol paen to the power of music and the way it speaks to the very essence of our emotions. The key change in the final stages uplifting the song even further to newer heights, a melody that seems to touch the heavens themselves. It goes without saying that Wanna Be An Angel is a beautiful song, but something in it speaks to a beyond-beauty that perhaps only comes because the lyrics are unknowable and alien – it is the great unknown, but also the truest essence, the simple truth that music – in any language – can speak to our very hearts.