No way was I going to pass this up.
What’s good everyone? 😀 And welcome back to yet another installment of the J-Music Exchange/Rate! If you know you know 😉 BUT, in case you didn’t know ー
The Exchange/Rate is a monthly-published tandem album review series conducted by myself and my good friend and fellow Japanese music fan Al from Omunibasu.Blog. Every month we both decide on a theme that will serve as the basis for an album that we’ll pick out from our respective music libraries. Afterwards, we then “exchange” our picks to one another so that the other person may then listen to and subsequently do a review on it. This project has been a fun little way for me and Al to both expand our palate so to speak in terms of what we listen to as well as to provide opportunities to see our favorite albums in a new and different perspective. It is our hope that this series is able to do the same for you and that you either find something new to listen to and/or we give you a fresh take on some of *your* favorite albums 🙂
Al and I alternate between ourselves with who gets to decide the theme for the month and, fortuitously enough (lol), my turn ended up landing right after the release of Kusunoki Tomori’s first full album PRESENCE/ABSENCE. What’s interesting about this album in particular is that it’s actually a split release of two *separate* albums (PRESENCE and ABSENCE, respectively). Now… Why all of that matters here is that, if my lengthy write-up tribute to her didn’t clue you in, I’m actually a bit of a fan of hers. Of course, same with Al. For that reason, and given the rather peculiar nature of the album/s in question, I figured it would be perfect if we were to do reviews on *both* albums where we too just split the two albums between ourselves; meaning one person gets to review PRESENCE, and the other does one for ABSENCE.
I very selfishly called dibs on PRESENCE, which meant Al will be talking about ABSENCE on his end (catch his review of it over at Omunibasu if you haven’t yet!)
Kusunoki Tomori (楠木ともり) is a voice actress/singer-songwriter best known for her portrayal of Yuuki Setsuna as part of Nijigasaki Gakuen School Idol Doukoukai under the Love Live! franchise. Other notable roles include: LLENN from Gun Gale Online and Makima from Chainsaw Man. She made her official artist debut in 2020, with the release of Hamidashimono; which was used as the ending theme for Maou Gakuin no Futekigousha.
０４・青天の霹靂/seiten no hekireki
Ａ ｌ :
here’s mine While I did willingly choose to review ABSENCE for this month’s Exchange/Rate theme (and had a great time listening to it, may I add), I will admit that many of my all-time favorite Kusunoki Tomori songs are on PRESENCE. Ever since I listened to the acoustic version of “Akatoki” back in 2019, it instantly made me a fan of Tomoriru’s musical chops and vast potential as a solo artist. The intense vibe throughout “Romanron” and hearing her slow things down in “sketchbook”, it all showed that Tomori truly started to have a solid grasp on music composition. And fast forward a few years later: to see all these songs be a part of a culmination and an overall reflection of her own existence just feels very ‘appropriate’.
And actually finding out and understanding the meanings behind some of these songs (after neglecting it for so long), it definitely made me have a greater appreciation for who Tomori is. Seeing her talk about chasing dreams and growing as a person in “Romanron”, or even within some of the newer songs such as “presence” and the way she starts to realize her purpose in life… we get to see a vulnerable side to her, compared to her more upbeat and happier image that most people are familiar with (due to her activities within the Love Live franchise). And I think that just makes this album even more of an intriguing listen, especially to those who have been a fan of hers for the past few years.
＜Ｓｏｎｇｓ ｏｆ Ｉｎｔｅｒｅｓｔ＞
Starting us off here in the opener is presence which just so happens to be the title track for the album (something to note is that it’s also meant to act as a sort of bookends type thing with absence being the final track for ABSENCE). I actually got to talk a little bit about this song in last month’s Roundup, specifically with regard to what I like about it both purely as a song and it being a song written and performed by Kusunoki Tomori. I’ve mentioned this before in other places too but in particular I do genuinely believe that being a frontwoman in a band setting would suit her well so I was immensely glad to finally be proven right with how long I’ve been lobbying for it (lol)
A lot of the reason why I thought that is, more than anything, Tomoriru’s sense of identity. Those of you familiar with my thoughts on the matter (either via the Roundup or elsewhere on the blog) would know that something I always give emphasis towards when talking about what makes a frontwoman standout is them having a commandeering presence (fittingly enough) in the way they carry themselves. For what it’s worth, she looks and sounds right at home there. At the very least, presence is a good account of it, and I honestly do wish she consider being one at some point, with respect of course to her physical condition (you can read all about that here).
Before I get any further with this review I would like to point out that there are actually only three “new” or album exclusive tracks in PRESENCE (as with ABSENCE, making for a total of six out of the twenty-two that are in the split release… more on this later). If you’ve been following the Exchange/Rate for some time you’d know that I customarily showcase just four songs as part of the review. In line with that I thought it made sense for me to feature the aforementioned album exclusives here as the rest of the songs have already been made available in prior EPs and as such I don’t feel they serve to represent PRESENCE as an album (if that makes sense).
However, as there are only three new tracks, I have free reign to talk about any one of Tomoriru’s older songs available on the album and honestly I can’t not give the spot to Akatoki. It’s *the* song that made me a fan of her music all the way back when I first heard it’s original rendition on her STROKE EP. It’s an adorable little number about looking forward to tomorrow with a cheeky touch of modernity (the line in the chorus ‘update shite ikouyo‘ translates to ‘let’s update’ which kinda gives it this very ‘twenty-first century’ feel to it). Admittedly though I was a tiny bit disappointed in that I expected to see this further down the album as a closer, but alas.
０４・青天の霹靂/seiten no hekireki
Another thing to note about the album exclusive tracks across both albums is that, except for the title tracks presence and absence which were created by Kusunoki Tomori herself, the other four songs were written and composed by guest artists which is pretty neat. Seiten no Hekireki here for instance sees the handiwork of up-and-coming music creators “john”, better known as TOOBOE. TOOBOE I would say belongs to this emerging crop of talent alongside the likes of say Vaundy and Tani Yuuki; just these massive one man productions representing new age J-Pop who we do see proliferate their work every now and again through collaborations like this one.
True enough, and as you might come to expect from something that’s more representative of modern J-Pop, Seiten no Hekireki does carry with it the same sort of hyper energetic sensibilities made prevalent in the past couple of years by “Youth Pop” artists as I’ve historically taken to calling them here on the Roundup; specifically the likes of minami and TUYU with their guitar-infused offerings. I’ve talked before about how in a different life, Tomoriru might’ve found herself as being a “virtual” artist had she not pursued voice acting, as I really am of the belief that she’s very much cut from the same cloth, and it’s not hard to see why with this track.
If I had to say, one of if not my favorite thing about composers with a very identifiable style collaborates with artists who themselves have distinct vocals is in seeing how much the latter is able to imbibe so to speak the former; specifically in terms of being able to perform a song close to exactly the way its composer intended. I mentioned something similar in my review of Kamishiraishi Mone’s note where I talk about how impressed I was by Kamishiraishi’s ability to breathe life into the different compositions given to her just with her singing as opposed to one taking over the other where the identities of both kinda disappear into the song.
Like, take for example BONE ASH here where, in just the opening seconds you can tell right away that this song was unmistakably composed and arranged by Cö shu Nie if you were at all familiar with their work prior. But at the same time you never really get a feeling that this is Kusunoki Tomori singing someone else’s song, and I think a lot of that has to do with her versatility, as proven also by these collaborations with artists/composers with vastly different styles from one another. One of my pet theories is that this is something that she is able to tangentially carryover from her being a voice actor who *has* to adapt to a role given to her, being applied now to her singing.
＜Ｗｈａｔ Ｉ ｔｈｉｎｋ ｏｆ ＰＲＥＳＥＮＣＥ＞
To say that this album (or *these albums*, for that matter) have been a long time coming is an understatement. I guess to put that into perspective, Akatoki, Romanron and sketchbook, the three “oldest” songs here, all came out back in 2019 as part of her stroke EP; a release from before she even made her official artist debut. These songs (along with other older tracks such as Nagame no Sora and Boku no Miru Sekai, Kimi no Miru Sekai; both found in ABSENCE) would then be remastered following her debut and spread out in succeeding EPs between 2020 and 2021. She would also release two more EPs afterwards, for a total of four prior to PRESENCE/ABSENCE.
Granted, this is not entirely uncommon as a practice (Idol singles and their subsequent album releases have it worse in that regard), but what *is* a bit peculiar about this otherwise long-awaited first album/s is that literally every song that’s been on her prior EPs are part of this split release (which is really why it’s even a two CD affair in the first place). Now, even as someone who actually bought the PRESENCE/ABSENCE myself (multiple times in fac-) I… and this hurts for me to even say, honestly have a hard time recommending this to people, especially to those like me specifically, who have actively been keeping up with her releases in the lead up to this.
Allow me to illustrate; her EPs have all had four songs in them each time, which accounts for the *sixteen* of the twenty-two songs that are split between PRESENCE/ABSENCE. Doing the math, we’re left with six new songs that are also evenly split between the two albums (three each). In effect, we actually get *fewer* “new” songs than we would’ve gotten in an EP. It’s a curious decision from a release standpoint where it feels more like a Best Of album than a debut one. This, in my opinion, takes away from album-specific qualities like cohesion and uniformity in sound and theme respectively which would’ve been interesting to see Kusunoki try to explore.
３.７５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ ５
７.５ ｏｕｔ ｏｆ １０
This is attributable to a lot of things, though more than anything I’d point towards her still being very much an active voice actor, where she probably just doesn’t have the time to record a whole lot of newer songs as she would like. There is also the matter of her health condition that she is currently managing. Objectively speaking though, it does feel like an album that could’ve come out a year or maybe even two years ago, and it would’ve been fine then if not better. Like, as much as I genuinely do love Akatoki, it actually felt a bit passé talking about it as part of a new release now almost three years removed from when I first talked about it here. It’s unfortunate that this ended up being a bit of an unusual sort of release, especially for a first album no less. Now… with all that being said, it’s a 10/10 in my heart which is the score that truly matters so-
What are your guys’ thoughts on PRESENCE? Let us know down in the comments!
I would like to think that I did a pretty decent job not being completely biased over the course of writing this review, but likewise, lemme know how I did (XD)