Review Summary: Japan's seminal post-hardcore group craft one of the 21st century's best indie rock albums.
Post-hardcore, like many other musical genres, includes ideas from a variety of dissimilar artists that nonetheless maintain a certain tangible unity from band to band. Early bands such as Fugazi and Sunny Day Real Estate broke hardcore punk down into a more understated, dynamic form, effectively birthing the genre. At The Drive In popularized it in its most familiar form, as a headier, more technical offshoot of punk that nonetheless avoids the excesses of prog and math rock. And more recently, bands like Thrice and The Receiving End of Sirens carried the torch as hordes of pasty white teenagers with v-neck shirts, tight pants, and ridiculously long bangs hijack the genre as a sort of post-emo outlet for crunchy power chords and delayed-laden lead guitar.
But back in 2002, unbeknownst to the West, Japan's Number Girl released Num-Heavymetallic, the biggest progression for the genre in years. The band's earlier material culled influences from a variety of indie rock favorites - Pixies, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, and more - to create a clanging, stomping, noisy trio of rock albums that garnered deserved attention throughout Japan, if not the West, where artists such as Mono and Boris had yet to show the press that Japan was capable of far more than freak show antics and ridiculous visual kei glam metal. Number Girl's first three albums show a pleasing progression from chimey, wistful pop punk to dense, dark, and driving rock, but their penultimate Num-Heavymetallic shows that the band saved the best for last.
Produced by Dave Fridmann of Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips fame, the album's production and mix is dry, with little overdubbing, and yet maintains a haunting, ethereal quality that nearly disarms the listener from the face-melting rock assault that is to come. The first, titular track opens with spacey arpeggios over a fuzzy, dub-inspired beat and drummer Ahito Inazawa's haunting chants, sounding like a fusion of The Police's reggae influence and traditional Japanese music. "INUZINI" kicks the album into high gear, the band unleashing their trademark rhythmic assault as Mukai wails, screams, and shouts while his ringing Telecaster tones and Hisako Tabuchi's clanging Jazzmaster bounce off each other. The end of the song culminates in a blazing reprise of their single Urban Guitar Sayonara in a chaotic, yet precise effect - trademarks of Number Girl's sound.
"NUM-AMI-DABUTZ," the only single from the album, offers a short three-minute burst of dub, hip-hop, and noise rock as Mukai shouts a dark tale of isolation, urban decay, and disillusionment. Kentaro Nakao's distorted bass rules the rhythm section while Inazawa's chaotic drumming functions almost as a lead instument, the stuff of Keith Moon's fever dreams. The real star of the song is Tabuchi, however - her vicious guitar freakouts howl, shout, and feedback like an angry counterpoint to Mukai's vocals, and effectively push the song over the boiling point as Number Girl reaches the apex of their cacaphonous insanity.
Tabuchi is likewise the star of "Tombo the Electric Bloodred" in a ripping solo section as the rest of the band holds down the rhythm. In Delayed Brain, they return to the dub beats of the beginning of the album for more of Mukai's angular, angsty musings. The track, while strong, is probably the low point of the album if only because Mukai's improvised yet understated soloing in live performances is so much more impressive. "Chibicco-San" sounds like Sonic Youth covering Television as Tabuchi's grinding, repeating melody propels the song. The band saves the best for the second half of the album, with "FU-SI-GI," perhaps the heaviest track on the entire album, summoning the gliding guitar My Bloody Valentine made famous. "Seiteki Shoujo" brings back the combination of hardcore and reggae before the climax, at which Tabuchi's Jazzmaster phases in, stealing the show in an orgiastic, sensual wave of bends as Mukai wails away. "MANGA SICK" throbs on metallic, screeching guitars while Inazawa's thundering drumming continues its relentless assault. "Frustration in my Blood" is perhaps the album's most emotional track, putting frontman Mukai in his rightful place as the star, foreshadowing his future band Zazen Boys. "Kuromegachina Shoujo" brings Num-Heavymetallic to a close with well-executed quiet-loud dynamics to create a beautiful, atmospheric track. It's the perfect close to a great album.
Number Girl never lauded themselves as a post-hardcore band, or as any other genre aside from rock, for that matter. Num-Heavymetallic takes wide variety of influences and fuses them together in a singular, transcendent, and utterly unique way. There's nothing else that sounds quite like this album, on either side of the Pacific. Although they broke up nearly seven years ago, Number Girl's influence is still strong in the Japanese indie scene in artists such as Mass of the Fermenting Dregs, Ling Tosite Sigure, and 9mm Parabellum Bullet, but their final album stands in a class all its own. With modern, American post-hardcore becoming increasingly stale and repetitive following the mainstream success of emo, bands could learn from Number Girl's unique sound and approach. Num-Heavymetallic sounds incredibly heavy, despite a lack of double bass drum pedals and downtuned shredder guitars plugged into Mesa amps. A bold, innovative, and timeless album, Num-Heavymetallic not only deserves recognition as one of the best post-hardcore recordings of the 21st century, but as one of the decade's best albums, period.