Hellooo~! Belated Happy New Year’s! and welcome back (!!!) to yet another installment of the J-Music Exchange/Rate! Yep, we’re back at it again for (hopefully) another year of album reviews, so we will be in your guys’ care once more as we continue to embark on the journey of musical discovery.
IF however this is your first time here on the blog, and/or your first time coming across this particular series; the Exchange/Rate is none other than the monthly tandem album review series between myself and my good friend and fellow Japanese music enthusiast Al (whom you can find over at Omunibasu.Blog), wherein each month we trade each other albums from our respective libraries based on a particular theme for the other person to listen to and subsequently talk about. We do this to both recommend some of our favorite albums to you guys, as well as to continue to expand our horizons so to speak in terms of who and what we listen to.
As I mentioned, what albums we pick out for this series depend on a theme chosen by one of us prior, and as it was my turn to suggest one, I figured since it’s the first month of the new year, it’d be nice if we could talk about albums that relate to and reflect our New Year’s Resolutions towards Japanese music. It could be anything, from planning to listen to more songs by a particular band or artist this year, to resolving to try out a particular genres or styles of music that we didn’t otherwise normally go for in previous years.
On my end, my New Year’s Resolution is to listen to more songs sung by male artists (LOL), so to that end I picked out Takayan’s Zutto Ikitene (catch Al’s review here!). Al’s resolution is to listen to more songs by the duo HoneyComeBear specifically, starting with their debut album HappyEND. Let’s go ahead and check it out too 😀
HoneyComeBear is the composer/singer-songwriter duo of Monkey and Kaako. The two started making music shortly after meeting at a vocational school, and continued with it in earnest as an artistic endeavor after graduating. They released their debut single “Sneaker” back in 2017, and has since garnered a cult-following both in Japan as well as out in the West with their youth-friendly EDM sound.
（＊Spotify link to the full album)
０１・夏の魔法/natsu no mahou
０８・きみと君/kimi to kimi
０９・さよならの支度/sayonara no shitaku
１０・十夏の花/juunatsu no hana
Ａ ｌ : I first heard about HoneyComeBear through a voice actress I’ve been a fan of for a bit now, and once I listened to a song of theirs, I immediately knew I was going to like this artist. The mellow, calming and light electronic vibe they give off is something I haven’t really listened to, yet it just felt like a style I would really enjoy.
And as I expected, listening to HoneyComeBear’s first and only full-length album so far, HappyEND, was a very pleasant experience. A lot of the tracks had a very intriguing combination of relaxing tones mixed with mild electro beats. There were even times where it made me feel like I was in some sort of dream while listening to a few of these songs. “Uchiageboshi” and “Sayonara no Shitaku” definitely conveyed that kind of atmosphere really well, while tracks like “Yumesanpo” and “Kimi to Kimi” had a bit more of a happier/lively ambience. And of course, the incredibly soft and delightful vocals of Kaako just helped bring everything together for a nice album you can put on in the background while you’re studying or just lounging around.
＜Ｓｏｎｇｓ ｏｆ Ｉｎｔｅｒｅｓｔ＞
０１・夏の魔法/natsu no mahou
Something that came to prominence in the Japanese music creation space in recent years is what’s called DTM or “Desktop Music” (more commonly known as Computer Music in the Western parts of the world). DTM is a style of composition best characterized by its use of Music Sequencer Software in tandem with a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), which allows composers to create a series of rhythm loops with recorded and/or synthesized sounds to make up a track. While the practice isn’t entirely new, DTM saw a particular rise with the advent of the Doujin-esque Youth Pop, which has Vocaloid composers take on composition work for singer/songwriters.
Because of its robust capabilities and modular nature, the application of DTM in song production can vary from being a supplement to otherwise traditional instrumentation, to its more prominent use in making Electronic Dance Music (EDM) with fast-thumping bass and sweeping waveforms. HoneyComeBear, in so far as their sound is concerned, gravitates more towards the latter with their DTM, as you’ll get to hear right away with Natsu no Mahou (it literally starts with a bass drop, lol). The imagery, the lyricism, and in some respects even the vocals present in the song however are both anything but the kinds you would normally expect from this particular subgenre of music.
Though apart from the quaint combination of Monkey’s hard-hitting synth loops and Kaako’s light and airy singing style, another thing that curiously stands out both for fans of HoneyComeBear and for myself as well, is the sense of nostalgia that the duo seem to evoke with their songs. You will notice, as you listen through HappyEND, that this is somewhat of a theme that builds over the course of the album and at first I wasn’t entirely sure what it is exactly that’s nostalgic here when I haven’t really listened to any of HoneyComeBear’s songs prior nor do I think that this particular genre is reminiscent of anything that I’ve come across in the past.
Interestingly enough, and I arrived at an answer after checking out more of their PVs of the songs over on their YouTube channel; most notably this one for Uchiageboshi, wherein almost instantly I was hit with a wave of memories. Not of my own experiences, but from something I watched when I was younger. Specifically I got reminded of the second act of the critically acclaimed “5 Centimeters Per Second” by none other than Shinkai Makoto which, as some of you might recall, takes place in Tanegashima Space Center, which is a research institute known for their rocket launches. It was here that I felt I understood where HoneyComeBear were coming from.
０８・きみと君/kimi to kimi
It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that HoneyComeBear are taking inspiration from stories *like* 5 Centimeters Per Second if those are what they grew up on and is conversely what makes their music have that nostalgic sort of feeling for the majority of those listening to it. This becomes more evident the more that the audio-visual narrative of HappyEND unravels itself the further along in the album you get and, having now this idea that the duo are purposely deriving imagery that were prevalent in their childhood, it’s hard not to ignore the fact that the overarching theme behind HappyEND can’t possibly be anything other than ‘Sekai-kei’.
‘Sekai-kei‘ (literally “world-type”) isn’t a literary genre per se, but more of a metanarrative of sorts that came about in the late 90’s/early 2000’s, when most stories that proliferated Japan (at the very least the ones that were popular at the time) all seemed to share key thematic elements. Although there are some differences in execution, for the most part they were stories that involved an ordinary boy meeting and subsequently falling in love with a not-so-ordinary girl, with their eventual relationship ending up being larger than life. Kimi to Kimi is where HappyEND introduces this very conflict and as a result serves as a narratological turning point for the album.
１０・十夏の花/juunatsu no hana
Suffice it to say, this whole narrative that HoneyComeBear created of a boy meeting an angel ten year’s ago in the summer of his childhood and the hardships that come with it is the cohesive glue that holds HappyEND together. Not that I think that the album can’t stand on its own *without* this story to accompany it, as I do believe that it can for the most part, just that having a dedicate overarching theme helps tie the songs to one another in context. In so so doing it gves the album an extra layer of depth as an audio-visual experience, which is perhaps the strongest aspect to HoneyComeBear’s musicality and their artistry as a whole (more on this later).
In as much as I have likened listening to an album in its entirety as if I were reading a book in recent years, HappyEND does end up being just that. In a lot of ways consciensciously so, given how this *tenth* and last track here is aptly titled Juunatsu no Hana (lit. ‘Flowers of the Tenth Summer’), which again just goes to show how much thought went into the storytelling aspect of this album. Whether or not it is a “happy ending” however is perhaps purposely left open to interpretation. That being said, speaking in terms of it being an album-closing track, this song does a fantastic job in reflecting this sort of climax and subsequent denoument with its emphatic breakdowns.
＜Ｗｈａｔ Ｉ ｔｈｉｎｋ ｏｆ ＨａｐｐｙＥＮＤ＞
I want to go back to what I said just a little while ago about the audio-visual aspect of HoneyComeBear’s sound. Now, if I’m being perfectly honest, my initial impression of HappyEND when I first got done listening to all its tracks was that it sounded… unremarkable. Despite the negative connotation that the word comes wtih, I don’t really mean that in any sort of negative way. I mean, literally half of the album goes hard on the EDM once the chorus hits, and I for one am not immune to just vibing to a song when the beat drops. In isolation, these tracks are straight bangers that I would without a doubt recommend to anyone.
However, when compiled into an album like this, the novelty of these kinds of songs does wear off fairly quickly. While the lighter tracks spliced in between the heavier-hitting ones stave away fatigue from otherwise listening to the latter in succession, the high-low track sequencing ends up feeling repetitive as a direct consequence. In truth, I was ready to judge the album based off of that up until I checked out the songs PVs as I mentioned. The supplemental experience that the nostalgic imagery and visual context that their videos provide is really what makes HoneyComeBear’s music work in my opinion, at least in so far as HappyEND is concerned.
It’s a bit of a shame (at least for me personally) that in as imaginative of an audio-visual concept HappyEND is, there were definitely times where it couldn’t be helped that the music by itself ends up feeling a bit lacking some areas. At the extremes I’d describe the feeling as that of listening to an EP that feels like it was forcibly made into a full album by putting in some intersitial tracks to fill in the spaces. I would think that more variety in terms of song structure would be something to explore for young duo in the future, and for their debut album this is within expectation. The creative energy is there, as was put on display here, so it’s only a matter of time.
３.５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ ５
７.０ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ １０
It takes a while, but HappyEND does grow on you eventually the more times you listen to it. At the very least it did for me, where I would just find myself putting the album on the background and just letting the synthwave hit me once it came. This would be one of the few times that I’d recommend this specifically, but having audio gear that emphasizes bass increases the enjoyment you would have listening to the tracks on this album tremendously (LOL). Definitely a “time and a place” kind of album in that regard, but if you’re ever in the mood to listen to something a bit more emotional with splashes of EDM here and there, then HappyEND is a good pick.
What do you guys think of HappyEND? Likewise, what are some of your Japanese Music -related New Year’s resolutions? Let us know down in the comments section. We’d love to know 😀
Don’t forget to check out Al’s review of Takayan’s “Zutto Ikitene” over at Omunibasu if you haven’t yet. It’s an… interesting album to say the least (XD).