Sunday, November 1, 2015

ゲスの極み乙女。 single review: 『オトナチック』 / Otonatic

Last week, four-piece Japanese rock band ゲスの極み乙女。(Gesu no Kiwami Otome., literally meaning "Girl at the height of rudeness." The period is part of the name, which is super confusing, I know.) released their fourth single, titled, 『オトナチック』 (Otonatic). The title is play on words, combining otona (meaning "adult" or "grown-up") with the -tic ending of automatic. And the lyrics speak to an ambivalence from Enon about becoming a real adult if it means swallowing your words and forcing yourself to smile.

The imagery of the video certainly speaks to that ambivalence, the band's tuxedo costumes making them look like kids playing dress-up. We see Enon's frustration written out ("正解の正解がわからない" or "I don't what the right answer to the right answer is") and we also see how those words can hurt if spoken. When the other members get hit with Enon's words, they're hurt. Hona Ikoka, the drummer, is splashed with ink; keyboardist ChanMari finds her hair hacked off; and bass player Kachou's bow tie is knocked askew.

But, like my all-time favorite band Belle & Sebastian, Gesu no Kiwami Otome. take those lyrics on the painful nature of existing in the world when you actually pay attention to it, and set them against unexpectedly beautiful, unusual musical arrangements. "Otonatic" goes from a quietly funky verse to a driving call-and-response pre-chorus leading into the chanted もう忘れて ("mou wasurete", "just forget it") before exploding into a harsh minor key indie rock chorus. The mix is far richer than computer speakers can provide, drums often echoing the keyboard and guitar riffs, the bass finding hooks in the rhythm you wouldn't have expected.

What sets Gesu no Kiwami Otome. apart from other groups, however, is that they weren't even supposed to be a band. They started out as a group of musicians who simply enjoyed playing together. Hona Ikoka, the drummer, asked Kawatani Enon, the singer, if he wanted to jam sometime. He said yes and invited along his friend Kyuujitsu Kachou, the bass player, who had just quit their other band, Indigo La End, in order to become a regular guy with a regular office job. Hona Ikoka brought along keyboardist ChanMARI because Hona Ikoka always used to see ChanMARI dragging her giant keyboard around the hip neighborhood Shimakitazawa (think Tokyo's Brooklyn) and thought she seemed cool. A few jam sessions led to a few gigs which led to a self-released single, which led to another, and another, and then a major record deal.

Coming from this background of four musicians playing together, we get a balance of instruments that's weighted extremely equally. The difference between Gesu no Kiwami Otome.'s sound and Kawatani Enon's other band, Indigo La End, for which he also writes and sings the songs, is striking. Indigo La End sound like a normal indie rock band. Anchored by Hona Ikoka's off kilter, self-taught drumming and Kyuujitsu Kachou's barely on this planet bass-stylings, Gesu no Kiwami Otome. take the same indie rock themes and pull them up to levels of pure sublimity.

The second track on the single is 「無垢な季節」 or "Muku na Kisetsu", meaning "The Season of Purity", a bittersweet song of awakening emotion and the beauty of a relationship that blooms and fades, which makes copious use of my number one vocal kink: male falsetto. Enon does these great vocal leaps from chest voice to falsetto, adding a whole other layer of pathos to the song. The lily, yuri in Japanese, symbolizes purity in the language of flowers. The hook in the chorus is a repeated 泣けて、泣けて、泣けてくれんだ ("Nakete, nakete, naketekurunda", "I could finally cry, cry, cry...") leading to the final line of the song: 僕だけがいつも取り残されて、夏が終わっていてく ("I'm always the only one left behind, when summer comes to an end.") You can't get more Belle & Sebastian-y than that.

The song is a high energy disco, pushing ahead so fast it's almost at the verge of tripping over Hona Ikoka's drum rolls. And just as the pace seems to slow and catch its breath, ChanMari glissandoes right back into the groove.

The other two tracks on the single don't have video or streaming so you'll have to take my word for it. 「O.I.A.」 is a solid fast-driving rock B-side. The title stands for:

俺は (Ore wa)

井の中に蛙で (I no naka ni kawazu de)

あった。。。 (Atta...)

I was

A frog

trapped in a well.

The final song on the single is my favorite, a moody indie rock number titled 「灰になるまで」 ("Hai ni naru made", "Until I become ash"). The song is done in a straight rock style, no funk. The verses, which Enon sings in his spoken word "rap" style, are quiet and sparse, switching to a pounding straight beat with some angry shouting on the chorus. "1, 2, 3 で灰になるまで歌う" ("I'll sing until I become ash with a 1,2,3...") everybody slamming the distortion in unison with ChanMARI's gentle piano providing the only bright spot of color. It's a powerful song. Listening the first time, walking around my neighborhood, I almost had to stop and sit down when the chorus kicked in. My skin prickled in pleasure at the cacophony of sound.

On the limited edition version of the single, which I bought, there's also a DVD with a few bonus goodies. Two live recordings, bass player Kachou showing us how to cook curry, and the group doing a Japanese variety show schtick in which they have to go out and interview random passers by. They are still raw on film but definitely have the charisma if they want to move forward with variety show work like other acts, such as The Bawdies, with their monthly TV show The Bawdies A Go Go!

Gesu no Kiwami Otome. are now positioned firmly in the middle tier of Japanese rock, the equivalent of which has almost completely disappeared from the American music industry. For one thing, the industry hasn't yet conceded their product to the tech companies, as happened in America, where the product became the iPod and streaming services, not the songs themselves. Bands also take interaction with fans very seriously and fans return the favor by signing up for official fan clubs (which I can't do here in America) and buying physical CDs for all the "extras" that are included (making this my main form of support). These mid-tier bands also benefit greatly from tie-ins with movie soundtracks, TV drama and anime soundtracks, and commercials, meaning that even though physical sales of CDs are down, like they are all around the world, bands still have alternate sources of income. Otonatic, itself, is a tie-in with cell phone company NTT DoCoMo.

They have a new album coming out in January. I am just waiting for the pre-orders announcement to show up.

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