The most interesting artist configuration in the past decade
Hello everyone, and welcome back to yet another installment of the one and only, J-Music Exchange/Rate!
The Exchange/Rate, to those of you who are unaware, is the tandem album review series between myself and my good friend and fellow Japanese music fan Al from Omunibasu.Bog. The way it works is that each month we decide on a specific theme, and based on that theme we go and pick out albums from our respective libraries for the other to discuss and review. This project has been a great way for us to not only share with you guys albums that we personally like (I mean, why would we recommend something otherwise, lol) but to also expand our horizons so to speak in terms of both the music we listen to, as well as ways to appreciate them that we might not have thought of ourselves before. It is our hope that this series is able to provide you the same opportunies to enjoy Japanese music as it does for us 🙂
Al and I take turns on who gets to choose the theme for the month, and this month is Al’s turn to do so. He presents to us the theme of albums by singer/composer pairings which is an artist configuration that has really come into vogue in these last couple of years, spearheaded primarily by acts like Yorushika (with suis and n-buna) and YOASOBI (with Ikuta Lilas and Ayase). What’s interesting about this to me is that this isn’t really a new venture that only recently got explored (Sangatsu no Phantasia and Fullkawa Honpo were already doing something similar with their work much earlier on), but because of how popular this configuration has since become, there’s almost a ubiquity of them now in the Japanese music space where it feels like there’s new pairings making themselves known every month or so.
One such “new” pairing is Arika, whose debut EP 1440 is Al’s pick for me to go over this month. I in turn went and gave Al FantasticYouth’s BlueGuns, which hopefully ends up being a fun surprise for him given this duo’s unique approach. Catch his review here!
Arika is comprised of voice actress Natsuyoshi Yuuko and composer Yamato. Natsuyoshi’s most notable roles include voicing Sasha Necron from Maou Gakuin no Futekigousha, as well as portraying Mashima Himeko of Show by Rock!! Stars!! and Seibu Rio of Shine Post. Yamato is a member and product of the guitarist collective GUITARISTS ON DEMAND (G.O.D.)
(＊Spotify link to the full album)
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Ａ ｌ : When I first learned about Arika’s formation, I got pretty excited about it. Not only was I happy to see another voice actress I was already familiar with pursue a solo music career of her own (as I’ve always thought her singing abilities were really good), but I also thought it was unique that Natsuyoshi Yuuko went towards a specific route when doing so. The fact that she teamed up with composer/guitarist Yamato reminded me a lot of the singer/composer duos that have been popping up these past years, and compared to a majority of seiyuu solo music careers where they have multiple different producers and composers helping them out in the process, it got me interested to see how Arika would work out and the type of music they would perform. (even though seiyuu working with a single producer/composer isn’t anything new, as shown with another duo I had Leap talk about in DUSTY FRUITS CLUB)
That said, I thought Arika’s debut EP, titled ‘1440’, was a solid introductory release. You can immediately tell the stylistic direction they’re heading towards, as most of the tracks have a very eerie, atmospheric and subtly-electro feel to them. Arika reels you right in with “Gyoukou” towards the beginning, thanks to Natsuyoshi’s sudden burst of energy when singing and the epic-sounding backdrop of synths, beats and keyboard playing (same could be said about the EP’s ending song, “Karatachi”). The low-key nature of “Daydream” further adds to that atmospheric feel, and Arika even changes it up a bit with arguably my favorite song from the duo so far, “Kuregure”. The significantly more upbeat and poppy sound heard in that song, while a bit odd when grouped up with these other tracks, was a great showing of Natsuyoshi’s vocals and the group’s ability to do more trendy type songs.
And while the four-song tracklist can feel limited and leave you wanting more, I think ‘1440’ still gives us a really nice taste of what Arika’s all about and the potential they have as an up-and-coming singer/composer pairing.
＜Ｓｏｎｇｓ ｏｆ Ｉｎｔｅｒｅｓｔ＞
I’ll start this review of by saying this is the first time in Exchange/Rate history that I will be talking about every single track off an album/EP (lol) given how “short” 1440 is in terms of its total song count. Of course, I do have my reasons for only ever highlighting four songs at a time for these, but more on that later as it actually dovetails into my thoughts on not only the EP but for Arika as a whole. For now, let’s talk first about the opening track Gyoukou here. This is also the duo’s debut single and, as you would expect from a track that aims to introduce Arika and showcase what they bring to the table in terms of their sound, it leaves quite the impression.
The immediate takeaway to be had here are of course Natsuyoshi Yuuko’s vocals. What’s interesting for me personally is that after my first couple of listens to the track I could definitely feel that her singing (especially the chorus) was reminding me of someone I’ve heard before but for the life of me I couldn’t immediately recall who. After racking my brain in the weeks leading up to this review, I realized this whole time I was thinking about Shikata Akiko. In particular I find that Natsuyoshi Yuuko has a similar ‘metallic’/woodwind-like and otherwise unique timbre to her singing voice as that of Shikata Akiko’s, specifically when they both hit their high notes.
I have… mixed feelings about Daydream as a track. On the one hand, it does what it does quite well, being this sort of atmospheric but also up-tempo-y track that’s accentuated by Natsuyoshi’s singing. If I had to say, the song structure is reminiscent of something like, say, Utada Hikaru’s Beautiful World. On the other hand, and much like Beautiful World, Daydream kinda gives you this ‘coming down’ feeling of it being a song you’d hear while the credits start rolling. What I mean by that is it comes across (whether purposely or not) as a track that puts itself in the background for the most part while the main beat stays steady and consistent all throughout.
These kinds of songs are a bit hit or miss for me personally as they tend to be the ones that become forgettable over time, and I say that with respect to how memorable Gyoukou is by comparison. The latter has moments that stand out and give the song identity whereas Daydream I feel stifles them almost (at least in my opinion). For instance, the pre-chorus that starts at 00:50 is a nice build up to the next ‘phase’ of the song but instead it feels like a step back to a verse. There’s a way to do these kinds of tracks well (the aforementioned Beautiful World, SennaRin’s Limit-tension is also another good example) and Daydream falls just a bit short in that regard.
I find it funny that a decent portion of Kurekure reminds me of Kusunoki Tomori’s Mouhitokuchi for… reasons that should be readily apparent upon the first couple of seconds of both songs… (XD) With that out of the way (and I suppose talking about standing out as a track), Kurekure actually ends up being the most different-sounding track out of 1440 in that it sounds the most ‘organic’ out of all of them. At the very least I think as much particularly with the song’s use of guitars and live drum work (or the emulating thereof, it’s hard to tell nowadays, lol). It’s also the closest Arika actually ends up sounding to more conventional Japanese Pop.
I’m pretty sure most of you who have been following the Exchange/Rate for some time (or have read enough entries of it from me) already know about what’s sort of become almost a tenet of my review philosophy towards music albums in how the first handful of releases by a new band/artist will always be somewhat experimental. One of the main reasons why I believe that to be the case more often than not is that they really just have no way of knowing what sound will resonate the most with their audience until they try so the earlier they’re able to establish that the easier it would be them to pick out a direction of where they want to go in terms of their music.
That being said, I think it’s pretty clear cut what kind of sound Arika should be pursuing moving forward. At the very least, for me personally, I think the duo right now do their best work with these Electronic Chamber Pop/Rock-esque tracks while also utilizing Natsuyoshi Yuuko’s clear and resounding vocal timbre like with Gyoukou earlier and here as well with Karatachi. You don’t come across it often as I mentioned, and I feel like they’d be remiss to take advantage of that. Especially in the vocalist-composer/producer music space that they currently finds themselves in, which in recent years has slowly but surely started to show a bit of homogeneity.
I guess I should mention that I like these two songs more over Daydream and Kurekure for that very reason, and if I had to pick a favorite then it’s going to be Karatachi by a mile because of how much it leans heavily on the very elements that I just talked about. I love how dark and almost menacing the overall composition of the track is here (composer Yamato’s guitar work in particular gives this song a nice bite to it) and Natsuyoshi Yuuko has some absolutely transcendental moments with her singing here as well. Like, 02:39 I mean, c’mon, what are we even doing here?! Insane track from start to finish, and yeah, definitely more of this, please.
＜Ｗｈａｔ Ｉ ｔｈｉｎｋ ｏｆ １４４０＞
As I said in the beginning, I think now’s as good a time as any to talk about why it is that I strictly only ever talk about four songs max whenever I do these reviews as part of the Exchange/Rate. I don’t believe this is something that I’ve ever brought up before even in passing but you see, I equate the experience of listening to an album in its entirety to that of reading a book. It’s a very personal experience, and is in my opinion one best had without the influence of others. That is to say, I don’t want the things I say about the songs in an album to skew anyone’s perception of it, where I’d much rather have you listen to and experience the music for yourself.
Perhaps that in itself is what’s fascinating about Arika’s 1440 now is that, the story about them isn’t completely written just yet, rather it’s barely even begun. Like, there’s not much to ‘spoil’ in the listening experience here as they’re still relatively new. However, and by that same token, I think it’s fair to say too that this EP is more than likely about as raw as we’ll ever get to hearing this duo. Taking into consideration how they already sound, it shouldn’t be too long for them to truly start to grab attention with their music, more so if they continue down the path of making songs like Gyoukou and Karatachi which I do sincerely think is the way to go for these two.
In addition to that, what I would like to hear Arika experiment more with is layering more of Natsuyoshi’s own vocals on itself akin to how Shikata Akiko does it. She has a remarkable range being able to go low and high the way she does and it’d be great to see it get utilized more. Composer Yamato would also do well to reference the work of Sawano Hiroyuki, someone who has made a living out of making grandiose Electronic Chamber Pop/Rock compositions while also bringing out the fullest potential of his chosen vocalists. It’s a steep comparison, but I genuinely feel Arika has the capacity to do something similar. If anything else, they have a lot of time to do so.
３.５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ ５
７ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ １０
The only concerning thing about Arika’s artistic venture is that it’s not really garnering as much chatter even now after they dropped their debut EP. While I do appreciate the fact that Natsuyoshi isn’t even leveraging her being an active voce actress in promoting her singing career (she barely even shows her face), it can’t also be denied that a lot of the success of seiyuus transitioning to being a music artist are supplemented by fans of their work as the former as well their on-screen personae. For example, if you go look at PVs by seiyuus who do music work on the side (Kusunoki Tomori who we mentioned earier, Aimi is also a good reference), the ones that do well in terms of views are the ones where you can actually see them. Granted, YouTube is an audio-visual medium primarily, but definitely something to think about too.
What are your thoughts on Arika’s 1440? Let us know in the comments down below!
Likewise, what are some of your favorite albums by singer/composer pairings? Feel free to drop a link to ’em in the comments and I’ll for sure give them a spin 😀