Hello AramaJapan readers! I’ve somehow managed to bamboozle my superiors into letting me handle our next Featured Artist; this week, we’ll be taking a good, long look at Akai Koen, who happen to be one of my favorite girl bands in the Japanese industry. However, this isn’t just any feature. This will be the first of a unique subset of original content that we’re choosing to dub a ‘Double Feature’, which will contain everything you’ve come to expect from our Featured Artist articles, but also include a full album review. I’ll be digging into Akai Koen’s latest full-length release ‘Mouretsu Rythmique’ and seeing how it holds up as a studio set. That said, we’ve wasted enough time here, so let’s get to it!
WHO ARE AKAI KOEN?
Akai Koen (“Red Park”) are an all-girl pop-rock/noise-rock band that are based in Tachikawa (Tokyo) Japan. Their members are all in their early 20s, with Chiaki Sato serving as the main vocalist and singer, Maisa Tsuno as the guitarist, Hikari Fujimoto as the bassist, and Nao Utagawa anchoring as the drummer. The vast majority of the group’s lyrics and composition are the work of Tsuno, who’s both a perfectionist in the studio and someone who always pushes her own boundaries with each new song.
The band formed in 2010, but did not release anything until 2012 when they made their major debut and dropped a pair of mini-albums, ‘Tomei Nanoka Kuro Nanoka’ and ‘Laundry de Hyohaku wo’, as well as a single, ‘Nozoki Ana’. The latter release would later make its way on to Akai Koen’s first full album ‘Koen Debut’ in 2013, albeit in a rearranged form. This would be followed by a series of multi-A-side singles which would eventually culminate in this year’s ‘Mouretsu Rythmique’.
WHAT MAKES THEM UNIQUE?
There are a lot of talented young bands in Japan, so much so that it takes a lot to stand out among the crowd. Akai Koen distinguish themselves via an incredibly eclectic set of influences and sounds, the unique combination of which isn’t something that you hear every day, whether you listen to music primarily from the East or from the West. You’re just as likely to find piano-led, jazz-influenced ballad on one of their releases as you are a loud, frenetic rock tune, and that’s a level of versatility that deserves to be admired.
Furthermore, as you listen through Akai Koen’s discography, the progress that they’ve made as both a band and as musicians becomes quickly apparent. The subtle shift of lead instrument from piano to guitar, the increasing complexity of not only their compositions, but also their arrangements, and the unique and interesting places that they’ve chosen to explore musically all a joy to behold. If you’re a fan of pop-rock in any respect at all, I can not recommend Akai Koen enough, as there’s truly something for everyone present in their discography. I’ll guarantee it.
At their core, Akai Koen are a band in the old spirit of the word, where passion and talent meant almost everything. Their commitment to their craft and their love of live performances give me hope that not only will they be around for a long time, but that they’ll continue to improve and continue to experiment as they go forward. What more can someone ask for in a good band, really?
WHERE DO I START?
Since we’ll be taking an indepth look at their new album shortly, I’m going to limit my suggestions here to their earlier releases. Which, honestly, is where I’d suggest starting anyway. Part of the joy of listening to a band like Akai Koen is watching them progress and evolve, and to really do that, you have to start at the very beginning. So, here are just a few of my favorites from the first few entries into Akai Koen’s discography.
THE REVIEW: Mouretsu Rythmique
All right, here at last. Going forward, I’m completely off the script and flying blind, so we’re going to see how this goes. I’ll be going through the album track-by-track and giving some brief (I promise) thoughts on each song, and then my overall opinion of the release as a whole at the end. So, let’s forge forward and see what ‘Mouretsu Rythmique’ has to offer.
1. NOW ON AIR
We’re greeted near simultaneously by the song’s opening keyboard lines and a healthy dose of static (a sound you’ll become quite familiar with when listening to this album). The latter soon quiets down as we launch into the track proper; ‘NOW ON AIR’ is a punchy pop-rock tune, with the keyboard and bass driving the verses and the guitar and drums pushing the chorus. Despite the plethora of sounds that make up this tune, including some solid vocals from Sato and some choral work from the rest of the band, it still somehow comes across as smooth, and serves as a fitting opening for this release.
2. Zettaiteki na Kankei
Remember how I mentioned ‘loud, frenetic rock tracks’ a bit earlier? Yeah, I was thinking of this song in particular, since it fits that description to a T. ‘Zettaiteki na Kankei’ is what I like to call a ball of energy, since while it’s not too long of a song, it certainly manages to pack a lot of riffs and attitude into its 2 minute length. Short, but sweet, so they say.
‘108’ is something of a hybrid between pop-rock and some more easy-going lounge music, with more leanings towards the former than some of their past efforts. It too is short, only clocking in at 2:27, but I feel that it makes good use of its length, showing off both the fun and the technical side of the band. Some effects are used on Sato’s voice at key moments during this song, which I feel add a certain texture to her tone that stands out from the background instrumental, making her vocals clear and distinct.
I’ll admit, I didn’t know what to expect when I first heard the intro to this song, since it’s one of the more overtly electronic sounds that Akai Koen has played with over the course of their career. While the playful guitar melody and consistent baseline are certain to be praised here, I think that the real star of ‘Ichigo’ are definitely Sato’s vocals, which come across as both full and sweet, just like the strawberry this song is named for.
5. Dareka ga Itteta
‘Dareka ga Itteta’ is nothing if not a fun romp of a song; its playful melody, led by Tsuno’s adroit guitar-work, reminds me of days just spent walking around town, without a care in the world. Supported by some solid and well-placed keyboard playing and some oh-so-fitting clapping to the beat, this song’s instrumental is one of my favorites on the album and makes me long for the warm summer days that have just passed us by.
The long, sharp lead-in to ‘Watashi’ might lead one to believe that it was going to be a much heavier track than it in fact is. I’d call this song the first real ballad on ‘Mouretsu Rythmique’, and it has the powerful, yet emotional chorus that’s so very endemic of this style of song. This is one of the few moments on the release that I admittedly feel is somewhat formulaic, since while the song is good, it’s also remarkably safe and displays that Sato still has to work a bit more to get her breathing fully under control. Not bad, but could have been better I think.
7. Dry Flower
This ballad however, I very much like. ‘Dry Flower’ contrasts a set of very sedate verses with an incredibly dramatic, discordant chorus to brilliant effect. The breathing is this song is well placed and almost seems to add to the drama that the song is trying to convey, even the instrumental seeming operatic at the track’s highest moments before it all fades out into some sharp static.
8. TOKYO HARBOR (feat. KREVA)
Which leads us into yet another of my favorite songs on this record, which just so happens to be a collaboration with well-known Japanese rapper KREVA. This is definitely the jazziest, most lounge-influenced track we’ve heard thus far, which means that it’s right up my alley. It’s weird just how well Sato’s vocals and KREVA’s rapping come together to make this one of the more unique experiences on the album. However, I do think that the sonar-aping guitar melody towards the track’s conclusion goes on just a bit too long.
My favorite part of ‘Hitsujiyasan’ is actually its fast-paced, sometimes experimental instrumental, with particular kudos going to Tsuno for both her guitar-playing and her composition. Really, Fujimoto and Utagawa deserve just as much credit for my enjoyment of this track though, since it’s how everything comes together that truly impresses me. That said, Sato’s voice on this song kind of … grates on me, particularly the high staccato bits she runs through at the beginning. It gets better as the song goes on, but can’t quite make up for a bad first impression, unfortunately.
With the sound of a school bell we’re off, ‘Cider’ wasting little time before kicking into a good, old-fashioned guitar-led pop-rock melody. While I don’t think there’s much particularly ground-breaking about this song beyond a few vocal effects and some twinkling here and there, it doesn’t necessarily need to be. The song is just enjoyable and oddly soothing to listen to, even if I can’t quite explain why. Still, your mileage may vary with this one, so take my words with a grain of salt.
This is a throwback that has a bit more thought put into it, harkening back to just a bit of classic rock without losing the pop sheen that coats much of ‘Mouretsu Rythmique’. The latter manifests in some vocal filtering thrown over the chorus, with the former primarily showing through in the guitar and drums. This feels like a song that was written to be played for a crowd, and with a title like ‘Tanoshii’, that fits perfectly. ‘Tanoshii!’
We slow down just a little bit with ‘Rouya’, which is one of the other tracks that I feel Sato’s voice shines particularly well on. She just sounds incredibly clear, yet still has plenty of personality inserted into every phrase, punctuated by the nice punchy instrumental. Of note, there’s also some interesting synth-work meshed with the guitar towards the song’s end that I hope to see them expand on more in the future.
This track has stood out to me every time that I’ve listened to this album, mostly due to its subtle inclusion of the actual band and the creative mixing of vocals and sound effects. That, and the fact that it sounds so utterly different than everything else on this release, which given the amount of variety Akai Koen have already put on display, is impressive in and of itself.
14. Kaze ga Shitteru
‘Kaze ga Shitteru’ manages to achieve a surprisingly smooth delivery despite having many standout instrumental moments, in particular the wild abandon that comes into play during what sounds like a xylophone solo right at the song’s center. This is definitely the height of this track, which also has plenty of excellent drumming and keyboard-playing on display. The guitar comes off as a little too prominent at some moments, but overall meshes nicely with everything else on this song.
We finally arrive at our closing track, which is ushered in by the bass and guitar, then joined by the drums, and finally our vocalist. There’s a certain acoustic feeling to this song’s first verse, which transitions smoothly into its synth-supported chorus, the synths staying with us until the track’s outro where they fade out once more. As a closer, I feel that ‘Ki’ does its job admirably (though I honestly wish it was a bit longer) and highlights both the four-person band set and the additional effects which Akai Koen have made liberal use of throughout the album. A nice way to put a coda on a very worthwhile listening experience.
Final Thoughts: While not perfect, I do feel that Akai Koen’s ‘Mouretsu Rythmique’ is more than worth the time for those that enjoy either pop-rock or indie-rock. The release sacrifices a bit of its cohesion for the sake of variety, and while I normally prefer consistency over anything else in an album, I might be willing to make an exception for a release like this one. It’s multi-faceted, complex, and certainly not lazy; Akai Koen’s grown a lot since 2013’s ‘Koen Debut’, and it shows in how far they’ve strayed away from simpler, more straightforward arrangements. My favorite songs off of ‘Mouretsu Rythmique’ are ‘Dry Flower’, ‘TOKYO HARBOR (feat. KREVA)’ and ‘Rouya’. Recommended? Very much yes.
SO WHERE CAN I FIND AKAI KOEN?
You can find Akai Koen’s releases digitally on iTunes or physically from vendors like Amazon.jp or CDJapan. Simple enough really. You can keep track of the band online at any of the following locations:
Thank you for taking the time to read through this (kind of long) feature, and please leave comments and/or feedback below. I’d particularly like any comments on the review or the format used, since I’d like to do more album reviews (both as part of Featured Artist articles and as their own standalone piece of content) and want to know if there are any preferences as to how people would like them to be approached. Thanks again, and have a good night/day.