You know what they say; don’t judge a book by its cover.
Appearances can be deceptive, and sometimes seemingly still waters can run surprisingly deep. Of course, as is the point of all these metaphors, one need to do their due diligence in truly trying to know something or someone before making a proper verdict, and well, that’s what we’re about to do here 😀
Welcome, once again, to the J–Music Exchange Rate! Some of you might already know this by now, but all the same (and also for any new readers out there); the Exchange/Rate is the tandem album review series between myself and Al over at Omunibasu.Blog, wherein each month we go and give each other albums from our respective music libraries for the other to talk about and review.
This is something that we started doing as a means to explore our shared interest in Japanese music through something we can collaborate on, but over time it has also become a way for both of us to find out about and discover bands and artists we wouldn’t have thought to listen to on our own. It is thus our hope that by through this series we are able to do so for you as well, as the albums we talk about are, albums we highly recommend ourselves 🙂
The albums we end up choosing are based on a theme that we decide on beforehand, and this month’s theme (chosen by Al) are albums by bands/artists who have a style that’s completely different from what you would expect them to have. That is to say, their overall sound or genre of choice might be contrary to what their image would otherwise suggest.
Al tossed me Ueda Reina’s Nebula, as you can see, whereas I went a bit of a different route and recommended that he check out Fujikawa Chiai’s HiKiKoMoRi, who is an artist that I at least find to be surpisingly more layered than she might appear.
Ueda Reina (上田麗奈) is a seiyuu known for a wide variety works, which notably include being the voice behind the likes of Tsuyuri Kanao from the globally acclaimed Kimetsu no Yaiba, and Gray from the massive Fate franchise’s spinoff series Lord El-Melloi II Sei no Jikenbo. Her first official release as an artist came by way of the mini-album ‘RefRain’ in December of 2016.
０３・Poème en prose
０９・わたしのままで/watashi no mama de
Ａ ｌ : When I decided what theme to go with for the month of October, Ueda Reina and her newest album, Nebula, was a choice that immediately came to mind. It’s not necessarily because she has performed a different style of music in the past but rather, when you compare her personality and mannerisms as a voice actress/person to her solo music, they are completely unalike. With Ueshama generally being an upbeat, goofy person with a huge and lovable smile, it surprised me when I found out that her songs express a much more dramatic, slow and mesmerizing tone. Songs like “Descorol” with the strange-sounding toy piano and Ueshama’s deep/quiet vocals, or “Poème en prose” where it features quick cuts and even a part where she screams like she’s in agony… to be honest, this has to be one of the most odd albums I’ve heard from a seiyuu, yet it’s just so intriguing. Especially when you realize that this is the same Ueda Reina who constantly flirts with fellow voice actress Takahashi Rie, it’s a pretty fascinating (and decent) album to experience.
＜Ｓｏｎｇｓ ｏｆ Ｉｎｔｅｒｅｓｔ＞
Nebula starts out with the ballad Utsukushii Hito here and, while it’s been somewhat customary of me to talk about the first track of the album whenever I write my reviews for them, there’s a bit more to it this time around apart from the reasons I usually lay out for me doing so. First and foremost of course, and what ended up catching me by surprise when I started listening to this song was how… dark and somber-sounding it was, at least in comparison with what can ve considered the standard affair for seiyuu performers like Ueda Reina (that is to say voice actors who transition to singing), who lend themselves more towards being bright and Pop-y generally.
I would come to find out later on that that’s the case for Nebula as a whole, and in an interview with Ongaku Natalie (one that I’ll continue to reference throughout this review), this was all how she intended it to be. In her words, while nebulae look shiny on the outside, they are filled with dust and gas on the inside and are thus completely devoid of light. Showcasing this duality was what Ueda was aiming for with this album, and setting the tone for that is this song, written and composed by rionos whom Ueda hand-picked herself. She is most known for her soundtrack compositions, the ED theme Hashitairo for Kujira no Kora wa Sajou ni Utau, and for her early work with JYOCHO)
The second thing that stood out to me from the first track, which actually shows itself a bit more in Hakuchuumu is the quality of Ueda’s vocals. Now, full disclaimer, I don’t have any sort of background in music so the technicalities of singing will almost always be lost on me. That being said, what my largely pedestrian ear picked up from these first two tracks was the almost uncanny ‘shakiness’ in her voice, which in some spots made for a thin and at times pitchy delivery. Not to say that it sounds bad, but it was also something that I wouldn’t really expect from an album produced for a seiyuu performer, wherein songs tend to be ‘cleaned’ specifically to account for these things.
According to the interview, Ueda openly admits to not having had a good sense of rhythm ever since, and as a result she at times has a hard time singing well. Despite that, she doesn’t opt to have her pitch corrected in her songs, and instead accepts it as just being part of who she is as an artist. This dovetails with the underlying theme of Nebula; the darkness that we hold inside ourselves, juxtaposed with Ueda’s apparent inner struggles with her own artistry. She describes the feeling as being a curse, albeit in a joking manner, in that she loves music that’s pleasant to the ear but she (at least in her own self-assessment) is incapable of creating it herself .
Ueda claims that all the songs that make up Nebula were built around anemone, which is a song that talks about stepping out of the darkness, moving on and starting anew to face the light of the new day ahead. According to her, Nebula is “an album that expresses the process of overcoming internal problems such as complexes and traumas“, and as was highlighted in the previous two songs, these are the kinds of darkness we all hold within ourselves. For Ueda in particular, it manifested in frustration for being unable to do certain things and jealousy towards those who *can* do the things she can’t; both negative emotions that she kept within herself.
A common behavioral trait in the values system of the Japanese people is the dynamic of ‘Honne’ and ‘Tatemae’. The general idea is that one’s inner thoughts and feelings (Honne), will at times not align with what’s expected of someone based on their standing in society (Tatemae). When this happens, one is expected to prioritize their Tatemae over their Honne. That is to say, maintaining the status quo is seen to be of greater importance than one’s own circumstances. While this is mostly done as a means to minimize conflict with society at large, this also conversely results in people, like Ueda, to have to deal with their own problems internally so as to not bother anyone.
The last track of Nebula, wall, further builds on the optimistic sentiments of anemone by further highlighting the importance of pressing forward and overcoming the many setbacks one might end up facing over the course of their lives. To “jump over the wall”, figuratively speaking, that someone might have knowingly or unknowingly built for themselves. To compliment this, and in contrast to how Nebula starts out, the song is noticeably chipper and cheerful-sounding both thematically and tonally. I’ll talk a little bit more about this later on when I go over my thoughts on the album as a whole, but for now let me say that this is about as perfectly placed of a track as any.
Something to think about with regard to the song’s message is that Ueda doesn’t really say anything about tearing or breaking down the walls that impede us. She merely talks about just jumping over them. Ueda notes that one of the main ways she was able to overcome her own setbacks was in accepting her shortcomings as an artist, and acknowledging that there are things about herself that she won’t be able to change. In so doing, she was able to “turn adversity into opportunity“, which is how she personally describes Nebula’s theme as being; that setbacks don’t have to be walls that imprison us; that they can just as well be used to jump off of and reach new heights.
＜Ｗｈａｔ Ｉ ｔｈｉｎｋ ｏｆ Ｎｅｂｕｌａ＞
It’s no secret that I’m not all that privy to the world of seiyuu performers (or at the very least not as much as Al here) so as a result, and in line with this month’s Exchange/Rate theme of artists whose music are different from what you’d expect it to sound as, I ended up having my fair share of surprises with regard to Ueda Reina over the course of listening to Nebula here these past couple of weeks. Though of course a lot of that was also thanks to the additional context provided by the interview she had with Ongaku Natalie, which I do highly recommend that you guys check out after you’re done here (here’s a link to a machine translation of it that I made/used for this review).
The thing that stood out to me the most was how introspective Ueda is with her approach to artistry, and in turn how involved she was in the creation of Nebula. I mentioned at the start of the review that she hand-picked singer-songwriter rionos to write and compose Utsukushii Hito, but it actually doesn’t stop there. Ueda also picked out writers and composers for ALL the songs in Nebula, based on who she thought would suit the mood for each song she had planned to have in the album. There was a clear vision from Ueda on what she wanted Nebula to be about (which, is again, “turning adversity into opportunity”), and her execution of said vision… is nothing short of brilliant.
Ueda was primarily in charge of the conceptualization and subsequent arrangment of each individual song on this album, and you can just tell that she put so much care and thought into it. In particular, by placing each track the way they are in the album from the first to the last, Ueda was able to construct this beautiful auditory narrative of coming out from darkness and into the light. The songs, both tonally with their instrumentation and thematically through their lyricism, progressively go from being dark and somber at the start to something more bright and optimistic towards the end; all of which perfectly line up with the overall theme of Nebula.
５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ ５
１０ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ １０
I’ve gone back and forth in my head with how I wanted to rate this album, but ultimately I settled on this. In all honesty, if Ueda wasn’t as forthcoming with her own abilities I probably would’ve rated Nebula lower. But because of how painfully honest she was about herself, and still pushing forward with her artistry despite all that, I can’t just go acknowledge her love for the craft and not give her her fair dues. Of course, astounding vocals will always be hype, but high concept albums such as this aren’t all that easy to come by either. At the very least, this is the kind of stuff I get giddy talking about more often than good singing, so ‘Ueshama’ was able to make a fan out of me here.
I had a lot of fun delving in the creative mind of Ueda Reina, so I do hope that feelings translates into how I wrote this review. That said, If I have made you at all curious enough to give Nebula a shot, then I’ve done my job (XD).
In all seriousness though, I’d love to hear what you guys think of the album (more so if you’ve listened to it yourselves), so by all means do feel free to share your thoughts down in the comments section. While you’re at it, who are some bands/artists who you believe perform in a style that’s completely different from what you’d expect them to? I would genuinely love to know 😀
Lastly, don’t forget to check out Al’s review of Fujikawa Chiai’s HiKiKoMoRi if you haven’t yet already over at Omunibasu.Blog.