By Ryo Miyauchi
The second quarter of pop in Japan was a rather grim one to witness. Misconduct with young women by numerous male idols from the ages-old Johnny & Associates agency made headlines. While a couple of NEWS members were caught drinking with underage girls, TOKIO’s Tatsuya Yamaguchi was dropped from his group after sexually harassing a teenage girl. Reports later turned worse with a story on the suicide of a local Ehime idol, an act her family ties to stress from her agency. A Buzzfeed Japan story also detailed how a former member of Niji No Conquistador sued the president of Pixiv for sexual harassment. It’s an unfortunate reminder that toxicity isn’t too far in proximity of this scene of music, no matter how sunny it may all seem from the outside.
=LOVE - Teokure Caution
HKT48’s Rino Sashihara has been involved in quite a few releases this quarter. She knows what she's doing as the producer of =LOVE and its latest single. That melodramatic, string-led chorus escapes the shadow of producer's home AKB satellite group, and the intensity of it is doubled in comparison to any unit under the umbrella.
Someday Somewhere - Kono Koi wa Transit
Note: You can stream the full song on Spotify here.
Sashihara's work for Last Idol group Someday Somewhere, meanwhile, sounds closer to HKT's main single this quarter, "Hayaokuri Calendar." She hands in an energetic pop sound for the subunit, and the singers answer to the single’s bubbly spirit by shouting out loud of every obsessive detail of who their hearts want. It sounds like typical idol fodder on the surface, though the group sings with a modern attitude that beats out the other producers involved in Last Idol, featuring a much older generation such as Tsunku, Tetsuya Komuro and AKB's chief songwriter Yasushi Akimoto.
Nogizaka46 - Against / NMB48 - Yokubomono
After Nogizaka put out "Influencer" and Keyakizaka struck big with "Silent Majority," the two groups tried to shift away from their respective sentimental theatrics. The former 46 group decided to reserve that emotionally serious attitude more for its B-side this time around, as heard in "Against." That maudlin sound has carried its way instead to NMB48, who doubles down on both the stark baroque-pop workings and the commanding hooks of both 46 groups for its new single.
Hiragana Keyakizaka46 - Kitaishiteinai Jibun
With now a release of a new album, Hiragana Keyakizaka46 further complicates the AKB universe. The Hiragana subgroup exists along with its main 46 group as a unit of sunnier juniors in contrast to the edgy seniors. The lead single still carries a defeatist spirit sung in, say, "Eccentric" while built by familiar string-pop embellishments, yet the relative lightness sides the group closer to Nogizaka and its recent main single "Synchronicity."
EMPiRE - For Example??
A group born as a collaborative effort between Avex Trax and WACK, EMPiRE initially looked too clean and proper compared to the hot mess displayed by its sister groups. Yet not only does the group tackle music with an equal die-hard intensity as the others in its debut full-length, THE EMPiRE STRiKES START!!, the music shows a surprising amount of range within the agency’s aesthetic. There are the naval-gazing emo-punk numbers as expected from a WACK release, but the Avex A&Rs have also done their homework, culling a variety of dance-pop beats like this single to widen EMPiRE's palette.
Takoyaki Rainbow - Niji Iro Shinkaron
The Stardust group's cutesy yet placid first single, "Sotsugyo Love Tasty," did not do much to hype up its new album, Double Rainbow. Their second go with this dynamic take on modern R&B is a better sell for what is promoted as a showcase of the group's variety. The members try their best to wear a hip-hop brand of cool yet they don't let it fully rob their kansai-indebted personality.
Wa-Suta - Tapioca Milk Tea
You'd think tapioca milk tea would be a more popular subject for an idol song. The crowd-favorite beverage plays a big part in Wa-suta's latest summer jam, and the Idol Street group takes it a bit beyond the cliche, writing the drink as a center of heart-warming relationships. Coming from the typical, sweet idol vibe of its previous single, "Welcome to Dream," the slight throwback pop sound gives the song a refreshing kick.
Avandoned - After School
After a brief hiatus due to one of the girls focusing on college entrance exams, the duo returns with a cheery single to celebrate her getting accepted. "Ending is beginning" goes the hook, and both are ready to bask in the good news in a lively comeback record that sounds like the Go! Team producing yet another idol single.
Malcolm Mask McLaren - Light On!!
A skate park provides a much appropriate scene for the new video of Malcolm Mask McLaren. The rambunctious crew tackles a Warped Tour-ready metalcore track, breakdown and all, with a bubbly pop-punk energy. Despite the rowdy teen spirit, the group's sincere as it can be, all the way down to that chorus about friendship.
Passcode - Ray
Note: The above video is not an official upload
Speaking of Warped Tour, here's a group who actually performed at the Japan edition of the punk-rock festival this year. And Passcode makes a perfect fit for the line-up with its pop package of a more synth-charged metalcore, including the blood-curdling screams unique to the subgenre. For the group's latest single, though, the group tones down the screams and breakdowns to bring a more focused pop record.
Burst Girl - Great Fxxking My World
Burst Girl debuted in January from the ashes of the now-defunct metal idols Guso Drop, and the unit certainly takes some of its former group's no-fucks-given rock spirit in "Great Fxxking My World." Both the sound and vocals have less polish to them in comparison to, say, Passcode or Malcolm Mask McLaren above, though the rough-shot feel to it adds to the group's scrappy charm.
Band Ja Naimon! - Koi Suru Kanzen Hanzai
Band Ja Naimon's new double A-side offers two different moods, both produced by GLAY's HISASHI. While "Born to Be Idol" delivers cleverness in its meta-idol pop, I prefer the straightforward rock-out of "Koi Suru Kanzen Hanzai." The riff as well as its punchy chorus competes with any other metal-inspired bands, or any rock bands for that matter.
Yanakoto Sotto Mute - Louvre no Sora
Yanakoto Sotte Mute increasingly showed growth on its past two EPs, Stamp and Echoes, fine-tuning its earnest emo-rock sound into bigger, deeper-hitting songs. While the group's newest full-length Mirrors bundles those two records together, it also features new tracks like "Louvre no Sora" that up the intensity as well as the complexity of the group's music.
Payrin's - Soredemo Bokura No Kokyu Wa Tomoranai
Crooked guitar riffs play hot to the touch in "Soredemo Bokura No Kokyu Wa," and the trio refuses to let the restless energy go to waste. While the music already makes clear that the group prizes activity, the three gets further frustrated seeing you standing still in relation to life progress. With a lyric like, "even if you curse your powerlessness, god won't give you anything," to kick you in the ass, this isn’t your typical cheer-up idol song.
Sora Tob Sakana - Lightpool
A favorite Sora Tob Sakana quote of mine comes from a J-Melo interview when the group got asked how the members tackle such complex music of spidery math-rock tailored to idol pop. "At first we didn't understand how difficult they were," Fuka Kanzaki of the four-piece replied. "We just sang them at shows." The innocence behind that answer can be heard in the wide-eyed whimsy of "Lightpool," a strong single to the group's great alight EP.
Qumalidepart - Piano
A similar whimsical spirit can be found in Qumalidepart, a recent project of producer Kenta Sakurai. He takes a more typically idol-pop approach to his signature kitchen-sink production, which sounds here like the result of a cat walking all across the keys of this single's titular instrument. The girls add more charm to the song's fuzzy warmth as they vow to hold on to their promise with their respective crushes.
Maison Book Girl - Rain Coat To Kubi No Nai Tori
Kenta Sakurai's more known for his more art-pop-inclined group Maison Book Girl. The lead single, "Rain Coat To Kubi No Nai Shima," off its latest single elude takes a more dramatic turn with stern strings atop its usual assemblage of quirky toy-box sounds. The lyrics here remain impressionistic as its previous feels-heavy single Kotoeri, and it only deepens the group's mystique.
Kolokol - Squall
Kolokol works a well-defined aesthetic in its latest full-length, Nostalgia, with the group finding a sweet middle between emo-rock's earnestness and dream-pop's pastel softness. The group lays its emotions bare in the music of lead single "Squall," but the song sounds far from vulnerable.
RYUTist - Mujyuroku Fantasia
This B-side should sound familiar to anyone who fell for Especia and its future-funk-predicting pop music earlier this decade. RYUTist’s latest A-side, "Aozora Signal," may be a great cheery piece of idol-pop, but the dreamy midnight-funk of "Mujyuroku" overshadows it.