Review Summary: One of the finest albums to come of out Japan in the last decade, Kouya ni Okeru bloodthirsty butchers strikes a perfect balance between grit and beauty.
Japan is one of the most crowded nations on the planet; roughly the size of California, the island is nonetheless home to 130 million some-odd people. But you'd never know it from the lush, beautiful countryside of northern Honshu and Hokkaido, where fields and forests offer a pleasant escape from the drab concrete and dull, depressing architecture that make up most of Japan's modern cities. Hideki Yoshimura and his bandmates are natives of Hokkaido and no stranger to the comparatively rough, wild landscape of northern Japan, and it's this that served as the inspiration for the album, its title translating to "bloodthirsty butchers in the wilderness."
2003's Kouya ni Okeru is undoubtedly the poppiest album the 'butchers released up to this point in time, but at the same time the album incorporates some new developments for the band as they perfect their use of layered instrumentation. The style that's been present since 1996's landmark Kocorono is still here: roaring alternative rock in the vein of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., so devotees of late eighties and early nineties indie rock will find a lot to like in this album.
The opening track, "Houi," starts with Hideki Yoshimura's distant, gliding guitar picking melodically, temporarily fooling the listener into thinking they're about to hear a shoegaze album. But when the rest of the band joins in, they blast the song into the stratosphere, easily the band's most exhilarating track since the fist-pumping 1999 single Faust. "Houi" sounds like a song suited for getting up in for a late-winter, early morning jog, a sensation reinforced by Yoshimura shouting semi-motivation lyrics about pressing on; fortunately, in characteristic butchers fashion, he keeps the motivation speech vague and concise with isolated words and lots of space to breathe, preventing the track from coming across as contrived and sappy from a lyrical standpoint. The highlight is the bridge, propelled by Takeshi Imoriya's thick, thundering bass melody, a moment of perfect synthesis that comes rarely to most bands, but is all in a day's work for the bloodthirsty butchers.
"Lucky Man" delivers another exceedingly strong track, introducing one of the most important aspects of the album: jamming. Previous butchers efforts would devote something like seven minutes to unnecessarily long instrumental exercises that don't always pay off. But on Kouya ni Okeru the band has perfected it, condensing their delightful instrumental sections into the perfect length. The song opens with Imoriya supplying a strong melody on bass, while Yoshimura's layered guitars pick beautiful, wandering melodies before the song kicks in and Yoshimura shouts about how he's, well, a lucky man, and comes across as somewhat humorous and maybe even autistic. Another great instrumental bridge tops of the song, giving it enough breathing room to prevent repetition.
"Drama," the third track, has an earthly, dare I say even country-esque beat to it, with a good chorus but otherwise less enticing than other tracks on the album. "Saraba Sekai Kunshu" ("Farewell, world ruler") is another fantastic, straightforward rocker that makes great use of Yoshimura's Jazzmaster guitar in the verse, offering a gliding guitar sound not often heard outside of My Bloody Valentine. The real highlight is the instrumental break, which follows the same formula laid down on "Lucky Man," but even better, and topped off with a more straightforward fuzzed-out guitar solo.
One of the album highlights is "Kanashimi wo Buttobase!" ("Push away your sorrow!"), a frenzied, rollicking instrumental propelled by the freight-train synergy of Imoriya's massive bass, which makes Lou Barlow sound tame in comparison, and Masahiro Komatsu's nimble drumming. Yoshimura layers screaming guitars to invoke a sense that the song could fall apart at any moment, but a beautiful chorus melody on harmonica (!!) keeps things coherent. Former Number Girl guitarist Hisako Tabuchi, who later joined the butchers full time, appears on this track, adding her signature screaming guitar solos into the mix, repeating the chorus melody at the end to perfect effect. Few bands walk the line between beauty and madness quite as well as bloodthirsty butchers.
"Kage wo Shi.taite" is easily the darkest track on the album and features what's probably the heaviest sound ever heard from Takeshi Imoriya's bass, but isn't quite as strong as other songs despite the good and unusually clear lyrics. "Goblin" is another strong, upbeat track, but the long instrumental section is even better than the previous ones, a moment of true beauty as Imoriya's bass, Yoshimura's layered melodies, and acoustic strumming evoke a nostalgic warmth that's one of the album's most moving moments. "real/melodic" is in the same vein as "Kage wo Shi.taite," and features a great buildup at the beginning and some great drumming, as well as former Number Girl frontman Mukai Shutoku singing backing vocals. "Acacia" is a more atmospheric track evocative the butchers' previous album, "yamane," which makes great use of snyths as an understated backing to the song. The best part, though, is the more aggressive shift halfway through the song that prevents things from getting boring.
The closing track, "Jigoku no Rocker" ("A Rocker of Hell") offers a fitting, emotional end to the record, with a great guitar melody in the verse and one of Yoshimura's most emotive performances with dark, introspective lyrics that could fit alongside early nineties emo akin to Sunny Day Real Estate. Fortunately, the butchers never fall into cliches of angst or depression, instead focusing on a nostalgic longing for experiences and emotions that seem all too brief. Regardless, the warmth and emotion the lyrics hint at is given full life in the band's music, proof that the best artists can transcend the language gap to deliver a truly timeless statement. Here, at the top of their game, bloodthirsty butchers prove that becoming more accessible doesn't necessitate selling out, and deliver a truly outstanding indie rock record.