We’re back !!!
Both of us ended up mentioning it in our respective year-end posts, but all the same, Al and I are back for more J-Music Exchange/Rate! We managed to pull off doing it as a monthly recurring series last year so, might as well keep going right? XD
If, however, this is your first time coming across or checking out this series — the J-Music Exchange/Rate is a tandem album review series between myself, and my good friend and fellow Japanese music enthusiast Al who runs Omunibasu.Blog. Every month we pitch albums to one another from out respective libraries for the other person to talk about and review. Of course, regardless of what each of us end up thinking about the other’s album, do know that at the end of it all these are albums that we handpicked ourselves, and are thus albums that we would personally recommend to you guys to give a listen to on your own time 🙂
Al and I have since taken to choosing albums based on a particular theme each month, and this time around Al decided we’d be basing our picks on some of our favorite Girls Rock albums. “Girls Rock” is one of my absolute favorite genres of Japanese music, as its one that I quite literally grew up with, having listened to it for almost a decade now. Suffice it to say, I do think this is one of the few that I can definitely call my wheelhouse (lol), and I guess to reflect that, Al actually ended up pitching me an album that I’ve already gone and listened to extensively (which would be a first for me in this seties), so I was more excited than usual for this one ngl.
That being said, I can’t have us talking about Girls Rock without either of us bringing up arguably the most important name in Girls Rock today, so I thought it best to toss Al what is (in my opinion) one of the quintessential albums for that genre; TEMPTATION BOX by the one and only SCANDAL. Al on the other hand, gave me Akai Ko-en‘s THE PARK and, I said this to him on the lead up but, this is an album that I’ve been wanting to talk to you guys about for a whiiiiile now too so 😀
A mainstay of the Japanese Rock scene, as well as a standard-bearer of contemporary Girls Rock, Akai Ko-en is a name that I’m sure a lot Japanese music fans would be well familiar with over the years. Following the departure of the band’s longtime frontwoman Sato Chiaki back in July of 2017, Akai Ko-en had looked to reintroduce themselves as one of Japan’s premier Girls Rock performers by recruiting the very promising Ishino Riko as their new vocalist come 2019.
（＊Spotify link to the full album)
０２ 紺に花/kon ni hana (flowers in navy blue)
０３ ジャンキー/jyankii (junkee)
０４ 絶対零度/zettai reido (absolute temperature)
０６ ソナチネ/sonachine (sonatine)
０７ chiffon girl feat. Pecori (ODD Foot Works)
０８ 夜の公園/yoru no kouen (night park)
０９ 曙/ake (dawn)
１０ KILT OF MANTRA
Ａ ｌ : I’ll admit that I barely know anything about this band, AKAIKO-EN, as I kind of just listened to The Park on a whim. However, I enjoyed this album enough that I wanted to recommend it to Leap for this month’s Exchange/Rate.
One thing that a lot of people will probably notice when first listening to this album is that there’s A LOT going on, especially regarding the instruments. So many sounds and rhythms being mixed together, ranging from guitars to pianos to even the use of electronic-produced beats, but the result of all that is just a great variety of pop rock. You got upbeat songs like “Kon ni Hana” and “Yumeutsutsu” with its fast-pace and lively energy… while at the same time, it has its chiller moments with tracks like “Sonatine”. Even with that kind of variety, AKAIKO-EN does a great job maintaining a good pace throughout the album, so that it isn’t as overwhelming as you may think at first.
Add in some great vocals from Ishino Riko and overall, you got yourself a solid collection of songs.
＜Ｓｏｎｇｓ ｏｆ Ｉｎｔｅｒｅｓｔ＞
I remember tweeting about Mutant right when I first started listening to THE PARK back in June of last year, and in digging up said tweet, you will find that I end up describing this song as one heck of an opener; which is a statement that I still stand by after a good half or so of a year after making it. If anything, the time I have since spent listening to the album as a whole (thanks to its being a staple in my heavy rotation) has only further reinforced my feelings towards Mutant with regard to both where it finds itself in the album as well as how good of a job it does in introducing fans, old or otherwise, to the band’s new and reinvented sound.
That said, as someone who listened to Akai Ko-en on occassion prior to the change in vocalists, there’s really not a whole lot of difference in the way they sound now compared to back then. Of course, it does help that the lengthy run that the band has already had with ex-vocalist Sato Chiaki on the helm made it so they already had time to explore all sorts of styles in finding one that fit them best, and we’re seeing the fruits of that here. In that respect, I think what I love about Mutant the most is that it pulls no punches. The song just erupts with energy right out of the gate, which pairs nicely with the youthful vigor in Ishino Riko’s deceptively textured voice.
０４ 絶対零度/zettai reido (absolute temperature)
One need only to listen to Zettai Reido to realize that Akai Ko-en didn’t really change all that much following the departure of longtime vocalist for the band Sato Chiaki as far as their intstrumentation is concerned. I mean, in my opinion at least, everything about the way this song sounds is textbook Akai Ko-en. The band has a sound that I believe is best described as being more Melodic Pop/Rock in nature than the prototypical Japanese Girls Rock, with its marked emphasis on theatric and orchaestral-like escalation in song structure accentuated by heavy guitar riffs and crushing drum work, that in turn I feel evokes a sense of harmonious discord for the listener.
While most of this can be attributed to the genius of Tsuno Maisa, who laregely stood as the Akai Ko-en’s main composer and lyricist, I also do think that some praise should also go the way of Ishino Riko for being able to wade through the band’s music showcasing both the power and the finesse that comes with being a frontwoman for Akai Ko-en. I personally find this somewhat remarkable considering Ishino’s background of being an idol singer prior (she comes in at around the 01:13 mark), which mind you wasn’t that long ago, and seeing how much she has since grown under the tutelage of the band is just outstanding.
０８ 夜の公園/yoru no kouen (night park)
There always used to be this air of maturity that Akai Ko-en seemed to exude. I’m sure a lot of that was in large part due to how the band carried themselves public, but at the same I believe there’s something to be said too about the way they performed their songs. While I do note that the band’s sound predominantly remains the same as it always has throughout the entirety of THE PARK, one thing that stood out to me when comparing the album to Akai Ko-en’s earlier works is in how much more polished their older songs came across. I surmise the reason for that lies in the difference between Sato Chiaki and Ishino Riko strictly in terms of their band presence.
Something to keep in mind is that Ishino, much like Sato before her, is a dedicated vocalist for the Akai Ko-en. That is to say, where traditionally most Girls Rock bands has the vocalist play rhythm guitar or keyboard (or some other instrument altogether), both Ishino and Sato carry no instruments and are thus vocalists in the truest sense. Where Sato makes her presence known with her confident delivery, at times almost seemingly leading the tracks with her vocalization, Ishino by comparison doesn’t commandeer as much attention. While the latter isn’t inherently wrong, as you’ll hear in Yoru no Kouen, Ishino does sort of blend in the background a fair bit as a result of that.
Of course, a lot of Ishino’s shortcomings (if you can even really call it that) as a band vocalist can and should be chalked up to her being fairly new to Girls Rock. While she does not have the same band presence as Sato, it’s important to note that these are just some of the things that come with time, as she sure as heck have everything else that she would otherwise need to be become a full-fledged frontwoman. She has the power, the finesse, the attitude; all she really needs is the confidence to put all those things to good use, and that’s what I feel Tsuno Maisa and the rest of the members of Akai Ko-en are doing such a good job at.
I featured yumeutsutsu in the Monthly Recommendation Roundup back in April of last year, and at the time I described the song as being “fun” and “rowdy”, and just not at all like something you would expect from Akai Ko-en, which I subsequently took as sign of their restructuring as a band. The more I’ve since listened to it though, the more I now see yumeutsutsu as being more than just that. When Ishino sings the line “watashi wo shinjite (believe in me)“, I honestly believe she’s singing that from her heart. It’s a promise. She’s saying she’ll get to be being who needs to be eventually, and with the band supporting her the way they do, it was inevitable.
＜Ｗｈａｔ Ｉ ｔｈｉｎｋ ｏｆ ＴＨＥ ＰＡＲＫ＞
It’s… honestly quite bittersweet that I’m doing a review of THE PARK with the relatively recent passing of Tsuno Maisa just this past year. I mentioned this to Al when we were picking albums for this month’s Exchange/Rate, but this album in particular was something that I’ve been wanting to talk about ever since I first picked it up, not only because of how much I ended up liking it (to my own surprise), but also because of the narrative that I believe it carried with its being Akai Ko-en’s first album following the inclusion of Ishino Riko to the band. Now though, I don’t think I can help but remember THE PARK in two different contexts.
My initial takeaway from THE PARK was that it was an album that chronicled the process of Akai Ko-en slowly nurturing and raising Ishino Riko as a proper frontwoman for the band. It’s always quite peculiar as it is whenever a band changes members, more so ones as prominent as the main vocalist, but Akai Ko-en also has the added distinction of being a well-established name in the Girls Rock scene for a number of years already. Under these circumstances, what you’re seeing here is three seasoned musicians coming across an unpolished gem in Ishino, and teaching her to shine as comes to her own. For that, I believe the band did a splendid job.
The tragic loss of Tsuno Maisa is concerning in that regard. Of course, any life that is lost brings about it’s fair share of difficulties for those close to the deceased, and for Akai Ko-en especially, we do need to ask the question of where do they go from here. I think it’s fair to say that Tsuno Maisa served as the backbone for Akai Ko-en in terms of their sound, and there’s a good chance that the band (should they continue to make music) will sound markedly different moving forward. THE PARK, in turn will be the last of Tsuno Maisa’s work that we will ever get to hear, subsequently making it that much more of a memorable album for fans both her music and of Akai Ko-en.
５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ ５
１０ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ １０
While it might seem that I’m giving THE PARK a perfect score in the wake of Tsuno Maisa’s passing, do believe that I personally enjoyed this album even before the tragedy that befell her. I only pick out four songs to talk about when I do my album reviews for the sake of brevity, but trust that there’s not a single song that I didn’t like from here; Kon ni Hana, Akebono, and KILT OF MANTRA are lighthearted and very uplifting tracks that add a bit of texture to the album, Junky and chiffon girl are fun and wacky though might take some time to get used to, and Unite and Sonatine are two perfectly situated downtime tracks that help settle the mood at just the right moment before the album starts picking up again in its second half. I love this album to bits, and I HIGHLY recommend it that you give it a try.
The story of Akai Ko-en is something that I personally want to trace back and internalize in the future, so you might see me revisit this album once I do. For now though, that’s gonna be it for my review of THE PARK!
What did you guys think? As you can see, I do hold this album in high regard so I do hope I got you at least a little bit interested in what it has to offer. Lemme know your thoughts in the comments on it down in the comments below 😀
Lastly, don’t forget to check out Al’s J-Music Exchange Rate album review of SCANDAL’s Temptation Box over at Omunibasu.Blog.