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.

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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.

Yoko Kanno – After, In The Dark (Macross Plus OST)

This 9-minute-long mega-opus from the Macross Plus soundtrack is perhaps the truest signifier for what I’ve come to see as a Pacific Era ambience for the film. This idea that in the film’s utopian future dream, the world exists as this humanist transnational paradise of people coming together in mutual adulation for the power of popular song.

 

Produced as it is to emulate the sound of a live concert, I’ve long come to love the general ambience and feel the song has – this visage of burnt umber sunset skies graced with the lens of neon lasers shooting away into the airy darkness of a modern metropolis. Cresting on powerful guitar riffs and sharp percussive drumming, this propulsive acoustic guitar line carries us away into the sweep and swell of the utterly alien lyrics – like other tracks from the soundtrack, invented by Kanno for the movie itself.

 

In its central refrain of ‘I’ve been waiting for you’ we have all the sultriness and unbridled desire of Sharon Apple set-loose, this siren call of irresistible sinuosity. It creeps into our ears, winding in and *in* – deeper over the 9 minutes, becoming this trancelike drug of auditory command – a lapping ocean of sonic desire. The outdoor-stadium, open-air feel continues into the song’s second movement, the lengthy, minimalist trance-synth sweep that soundtracks Isamu’s ‘final’ flight in the movie’s conclusive moments – as he flies toward the heart of Sharon’s digital projection. Away and away, into the clouds – mind and body seeping into one.

 

If Macross Plus is a movie about the power of music – of its almost drug-like ambience and capacity in its purest state, then After, In The Dark is the epitome of that manifesto – an illusory masterpiece that stands as a multi-genre exploratory journey into a universe of sonic delight.

Karen Aoki & Daisuke Hasegawa – Great Days (Jojo’s OP)

When Jojo’s part 4 started airing, did we really think, that in its final part, it would greet us with the greatest of all Jojo’s OPs to date? Yes, even greater than Bloody Stream. But the thing about Great Days is that every listen unveils newness to the song’s many depths. It is the *ultimate* of pure pop bombast, a rich duet of tones – from Aoki’s rich, sultry jazziness to Hasegawa’s boyish Duran Duran-esque pomp. The strut of the drum beat, the brassy stabs of sunny joy and *that* harmony line – it’s a timeless anthem for the ages that allies itself to the ultimate payoff all Jojo’s series hold at their core – that good will eventually, even in the direst of times, ultimately succeed. In many ways, the track reminds me of other contemporary pop song greats like Take That’s Shine – anthems that feel like they’re installed in the future of MOR radio, all throwback to the 60s halcyon era of radiant optimism. It’s about aiming higher, going higher – bettering yourself and basking in the sheen of humanity’s potential. And what could be more of a ‘get up and go’ unbridled optimism than this track and Jojo’s core essence – taken hand in hand?

Sawano Hiroyuki – 1hundredknight: M (Seraph of the End OST)

I always think of Seraph of the End as the moment Sawano Hiroyuki truly ‘arrived’. Of course, he’d had big hitters before, but it was with Seraph of the End and the launch of his NZK project that he seemed to become a truly essential, ubiquitous part of the current anime landscape. Inescapable, but always top class – firing out the smashes with every passing season.

 

And what a smash his soundtrack for Seraph was – a bestial roar at the heart of WIT’s rough and ready background art style for the show. 1hundredknight: M (utilising his trademark code-style track names) contains the core leitmotif for the series, one he would refashion in the series ED theme. Displayed here though, in the original OST, it achieves full majesty – the scale and bombast characteristic of all Sawano’s work reaching peak epic-ness. Building and building with this almost hip-hop like swagger. All brassy horns and aegis of ages – so full powered in its essence and majesty. From piano to strings, swelling and rising gently in the opening – applying gently more and more force, this track feels pliable and tactile to the extreme, so involved with the body and touch – like a flow of blood swelling and cresting in the bleakest of snow-blown nights.