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 comprise 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, but it also 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. It's 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 shimmering guitar wandering in and out of focus before the rest of the band joins in to shake the album out of bed and into a clear midmorning jog of upbeat rock. It's the band's most exhilarating track since the fist-pumping 1999 single "Faust." Yoshimura shouts with determination while his bandmates hammer away at the rhythm section, the highlight coming during the bass-heavy bridge.
"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 didn't always pay off. But on Kouya ni Okeru the band has perfected it, condensing their delightful instrumental sections into more effective lengths. The album's jamming usually revolves around Imoriya playing a melodic, repeating bassline as Yoshimura's guitar deliberately wanders throughout. By the time "Drama" rolls around, the album's autumnal undercurrent has arrived in full force, with a twangy, rural sound that sounds exactly like the Butchers, but is distinct from their previous work.
"Saraba Sekai Kunshu" ("Farewell, world ruler") is another fantastic, straightforward rocker that makes great use of Yoshimura's Jazzmaster guitar in the verse, suggesting that unlike most bands inspired by My Bloody Valentine, Bloodthirsty Butchers managed to take Kevin Shields' ideas and place them in a new context. The real highlight is the instrumental break, even better than that of "Lucky Man," 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 and Masahiro Komatsu's explosive 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 as former Number Girl guitarist Hisako Tabuchi, who later joined the butchers full time, adds 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 Shtaite" 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. But "Goblin" may be the best song on the album, epitomizing Kouya's autumnal warmth with the record's best instrumental section yet, a moment of true beauty as Imoriya's bass, Yoshimura's layered melodies, and acoustic strumming evoke a nostalgic swirl 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 (which have sporadically appeared in Bloodthirsty Butcher's music since Kocorono.) 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.