By: Ryo Miyauchi
Graduations of idols happen all the time from the top to bottom of the chain yet the first quarter of this year saw a few that shook up respective areas of the scene. Momoka Ariyasu left Momoiro Clover Z in January, and it’s still sort of odd to see the group as a four-piece on TV; Pour Lui exited BiS in March (she returned but as a member of Billie Idle in May), closing the bridge to the Society’s past legacies in the underground. After such big departures, it amazes how Morning Musume has lasted so long after many cycles — 20 years to be exact, an anniversary which the franchise celebrated this February. Such a benchmark raises a question: is it better for a group to try its best to persist or fold while it’s hot? Momo Clo also hit year 10 this year, and it takes up too much space to stop now, but look at Idol Street groups GEM and Cheeky Parade, both set to disband this summer: lasting a decade into this business is a very rare thing.
Despite the departures, the idol scene in Japan in 2018 is already off to good start from rich pop singles by groups old and new. Here are some of them.
Gang Parade - Breaking The Road
Gang Parade experienced its own goodbyes too, with some of its beloved members returning to their original groups after several months spent bonding. But GanPare overcomes separation with inspiring optimism in its punk-pop single, overflowing with newfound energy. "The shape may be different / but we are the one / we're looking at the same thing," Yumeno Yua sings, and that lyric perfectly sums up the group, if not the overall idol scene these first few months.
BiSH - Paint It Black
The rise of BiSH as a mainstream idol group since last fall has been fascinating, if not slightly overwhelming from just how fast things happen. Perhaps its exuberant pop-punk single "Paint It Black," slotted as the title track to the anime Black Clover, sped up the process. While it cleans up a lot of the muck and grime that added a charm to its previous pre-Guerrilla BiSH music, its screams as far-from-perfect underdogs still seems well earned.
BiS - Whole Lotta Love
The other huge news concerning talent company WACK was the graduation of Pour Lui, who with BiS arguably inspired if not birthed a lot of the so-called alt-idols covered in this column. That shake-up may have inspired a devastating song, but the future of the group seems rather bright from the sound of this lightning bolt of punk energy. BiSH may be bigger in popularity, but BiS remains far unmatched in hunger and drive.
Billie Idle - P.S.R.I.P.
The future of Billie Idle, meanwhile, looked unpredictable during the first quarter. Half a year after the cryptically titled full-length, Last Album, the group parted ways with WACK producer Junnosuke Watanabe to be solely produced by Nigo -- yes, that guy currently behind the clothing line Human Made. That said, B.I. tackles the unknown without an ounce of doubt in the last co-produced effort "P.S.R.I.P." Atop one cheerful pop-punk, the four laugh off any uncertainty to instead enjoy their company together while they still can.
Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders - Koi no Shadanki
Note: The full song can be heard on Spotify here
Out of the many choices in niche genres explored by an idol group, the jazzy, swing-pop sound adopted by Atarashii Gakkou no Leaders (ironically, Leaders of the New School) in this single stands out through its proximity to a more domestic source of reference. It’s no city pop, though the base of its poised, sepia-toned piano-pop recalls records from the Showa era. Elsewhere in its solid full-length debut, Maenarawanai, similarly aligns itself to a retro-pop path paved by the likes of Etsuko Yakushimaru and her descendants.
Dots Tokyo - Kimi ni Ochiru Yoru
Dots Tokyo stirred up some headlines last year for its "shoegaze idol" concept but also its various gimmicks, starting from the group's impossible-to-Google name, literally a series of nine dots. Fortunately, the music justifies a follow: members from cinematic dream-pop band For Tracy Hyde handle the music for this surging synth-pop cut that finds the girls a bit more extroverted than its older songs, like this one directly taking from the noisy scrawls of My Bloody Valentine.
Saka-Sama - Owarikara
Aside from Dots Tokyo, Trash-Up! Records have also produced dream-pop idol group Saka-Sama -- definitely a much easier act to search on the web. "Owarikara" leans to the more tender, starry-eyed side of the group's inspirations, closer to the school of Slowdive than Kevin Shields. Though not ones to be easily pegged, Saka-Sama explores a variety of hipster-friendly genres from '00s dance-punk to late '80s New Order in its latest Yumeno Hate Mademo EP.
There There Theres - Soil
The group formerly known as Bellring Shojo Heart began a new life last year as There There Theres, now three singles deep under its new name. The maudlin art-pop of "There's Something Behind" from last fall was a bit too musically stuffy for its own good, with crooked piano riffs spilling out from its seams. Third time seemed to be the charm with this year's "Soil," where the group smoothed out the rough ends of its former record to bring a neatly tied pop song.
Yukueshirezu Tsure Zure - Paradise Lost
The metalcore four-piece also known as Not Secured, Loose Ends brought yet another anxiety-heavy single. Instead of gunning harder with more brutal blast of music, the white-knuckled song retreats intensely inward. The members mentally push themselves into the edge over their insecurities while the serpentine guitars coil into mesmerizing shapes.
Junjo no Afilia - Sore Dakega, Ikiru Imi Nanda
This sweeping, loosely meta string-pop ("That's the Only Meaning to Life") looks at the road of an aspiring star with a pretty bleak perspective, favoring talks about being shot down by reality over reflecting upon inspirational dreams. Yet the chorus ends in a signature idol-pop call-out: "remember your promise / stay by my side forever / that's the only meaning to life," the singers passionately claim, and I can't say it doesn't work.
E-girls - Pain, Pain
Even Avex's leading girl-group E-girls had a run with forlorn string-pop in "Pain, Pain." A much darker affair than the collective's usual sunny disco, the single trades the joys of nights out in the city for a forbidden romance shrouded in elements of fantasy. The result is actually a welcome change of pace, especially after post-lineup-change single "Love Queen," which did not do well to assure the group's future after the departure of Dream.
Keyakizaka46 - Garasu wo Ware!
Keyakizaka46 seems to let others -- its sister units in the AKB franchise as well as other groups -- handle the lane of stern string-pop. The punk-pop call-to-arms "Garasu wo Ware" knocks out the facade behind its previous single, the bitter and dramatic "Fukyowaon," with a gutsy, Gen-Z chorus. Naturally, the teen-rebel anthem hits slightly cheesy due to its naivete, but it only adds to the group's appeal that's well tailored for the youth.
Tokyo Girls' Style - Last Romance
Another voice of a young generation, Haru Nemuri offers a rather apocalyptic pop for Tokyo Girls' Style, whose recent trendy dance-pop excursions don't seem fit for such a tone upon first impression. The four-piece imagines the title as the end of the world quickly approaches, atop an otherwise bright city-pop-revival tune. The clash between the bleak and hopeful actually results in an exciting, new sound for TGS.
Cheeky Parade - Marigold
Label mates of Tokyo Girls' Style, soon-to-disband Cheeky Parade tackles a similarly sleek, loosely Chainsmokers-inspired dance-pop sound for its new slow jam. This page of modern romance doesn't end on a uplifting note, though: the group observes a faded love gone from staring into each other's eyes to focusing only on Smartphone screens in this break-up song.
Callme - Hello No Buddy
Callme remains a rather unsung unit from Avex Trax while its earnest yet sophisticated synth-pop keeps getting sharper with each release. The trio got a lot deeper in touch with its feelings for its latest full-length, Hello No Buddy, which featured the group's most nakedly sincere songs to date. The melancholy of its title track should write that home, if not in the yearning chorus, then the soft, winter beat.
OnePixcel - Howling
After last year's solid full-length, Monochrome, OnePixcel returned with more mesmerizing electro-pop in "Lagrima." Yet the trio's dynamic B-side, "Howling," is a more memorable song from its latest single. The pumping synth production shouts like an updated Eurobeat track, and not to be outmatched, the girls tackle that workout of a chorus no problem.
Tsubaki Factory - Teion Yakedo
Hello Project! understandably put a majority of its attention this quarter on Morning Musume's 20th anniversary, and Up Front Works acts were more productive in the second quarter. Though, Tsubaki Factory dished a single worthy of attention amid the busy period. It's a top-to-bottom textbook HP! release from dramatic sentimentality to corny monologues, especially this title track: the girls groan at themselves for having feelings for this idiot of a boy, trying all they can for attention over a production equally bursting with shine.
Tenko Shojo Kagekidan - Chocola no Kokohaku
Equally pouring dramatic emotion is Tenko Shojo, who will soon drop Kagekidan off its name after a half of its group graduated this year. The members pull their hair in frustration yet again after falling for a close friend; "But I decided not to ever fall in love again," they groan in the chorus. It's classic idol pop that blows up teenage feelings, and actually a little bit of Hello Project with that loose aside of monologue going into the last spurt of the song -- traditional yet very reliable.
Sayonara Ponytail - Kabe wo Buchikowase!
Sayonara Ponytail mines its music from a different retro corner of pop, with its airy vocals and soft, whimsical organ keys lifted from pop records that Shibuya-kei geeks may have fawned over. The sound suits the exploration of teen-romance nostalgia in its new album, Kimi wa Boku no Uchuu (You Are My Universe), as well as the album highlight, "Kabe wo Buchikowase" (Break That Wall!). The bashful murmur sets the scenario, a discussion between friends about a crush, while the asides playfully add to the cute story.
CY8ER - Hello New Generation
After changing its name from BPM15Q to CY8ER, the group probably got more attention last year for its meet-and-greet antic than its neon, hyperactive synth-pop singles produced by Yunomi. The new full-length from January, Hello New Generation, works as a nice catch-up as a good half of it collects some of the past singles. That said, the new title track is a fine introduction as well with Yunomi smoothing out his signature sugar-high drop into a more contained hook for a pop single.