Review Summary: A bittersweet farewell.
Thursday, May 30th, approximately 10:50 PM. I've just finished a video call with my younger brother and I'm getting ready to wind down and go to bed: I only need to survive for one more day until the weekend. I lazily glance across my Facebook news feed, when I see something that catches me completely off-guard; and as a jaded young man of the declining first-world, few things surprise me.
Hideki Yoshimura, the front man of Bloodthirsty Butchers, has died. The Butchers are probably my favorite band of all time; they certainly are the band that resonated with me on an emotional level that no other artist ever has. The Butchers get inside of my head like nobody; when I listen to them, it feels less like they're putting ideas into my mind, like a conventional artist, and more like they're drawing out previously-undiscovered memories and feelings from an earlier age; this is the soundtrack for bittersweet reminisces.
I step out of my apartment; the air is cool and wet, the inside of my body simultaneously cold and burning as I scramble down to the twenty-four hour supermarket a literal stone's throw away from my house. I need to eat. Some people deal with loss or anxiety through alcohol; food is my escape, apparently. I eat chocolate, probably too much chocolate. I don't feel sad, I don't feel distressed, I don't feel angry; I'm just numb. Perhaps that's because this band has, from the very first time I heard them, been so amazingly skilled at drawing feeling out of me. What higher compliment can I pay than that? Isn't music supposed to make us feel something – and isn't the loss of that feeling a small calamity?
And here we are now, over half a year later. I'm sitting at my desk, holding a copy of Youth, the penultimate Butchers album, which I picked up on the day it came out. I bought it from within the aurally-encyclopedic sprawl of Tower Records in Shibuya, the shimmering neon heart of the world's biggest metropolis, as songs from the album played through the store's speakers, a mini-miracle in itself. And as I sit, listening to the album, writing this review – I am reminded of how desperately lonely I am, but how that desperation is always present, in everyone – just suppressed to varying degrees.
Bloodthirsty Butchers thrive on desperation; their songs celebrate yearning, loss, hope, the thirst for love and meaning and emotional unity. Anyone can understand these sentiments, but few people are going to “get” a band like Bloodthirsty Butchers, with their seemingly-sloppy melodicism and wild, half-shouted singing. That's fine with them; these guys know exactly what kind of listener they want.
You'll hear this odd little clanging sound in several songs, like Hallelujah and Ennui, that would probably evoke wincing from the average person on the street. That's the sound of Hideki Yoshimura and Hisako Tabuchi's Fender Jazzmaster guitars, when using the vibrato in a certain way that causes the strings to bind at the saddles. The Butchers' music has always been filled with subtle flourishes like this, miniature love-letters written in code for people desperate and lonely enough to understand what this band is trying to say.
Youth is an immediately more likeable and gripping album than its long, unfocused predecessor No Album, and it's evident from opening track Requiem, propelled from start to finish by Masahiro Komatsu's drumming (which has never sounded better, by the way.) Yoshimura tells the world farewell, an eerily prescient track rich with the energetic melancholy that characterizes their best songs. While one might expect the band's last album to stick to what we've heard before, there's a fair amount of surprises here; from the unexpected lead guitar lines and rhythm of Korinai Men-Men to the wandering weirdness of Techno! Chidoriashi and Ennui.
No Album was lacking in tracks like Destroyer and Hallelujah (thankfully not that Hallelujah): propulsive tracks with freight-train choruses and wistfully-melodic flourishes. While the group's last three albums had a more or less musically-consistent sound, Youth gives us tracks that revisit the upbeat romps of Birdy (on Distortion), the subtle electronics of Kouya Ni Okeru (on Goth), and others. The emotional core of the album is Parallel Unison, a dreamy, captivating track that perfectly encapsulates Yoshimura's ability to capture nostalgic melancholy without maudlin sentimentality.
Over twenty years into their career, Bloodthirsty Butchers were capable of crafting beautiful, engaging songs that rank among their very best, long after their peers descended into mediocrity. There's plenty that can be said about the other members: Komatsu's heartfelt drumming, the melodic orbit of Imoriya's distorted bass, and of course, Hisako Tabuchi (the undisputed high priestess of Japanese indie girl musicians) and her terrific guitar playing. But in the end, it really comes down to Yoshimura and his singular, idiosyncratic vision.
Japanese rock has lost one of its greatest voices (somewhat ironic, considering that Yoshimura's lack of vocal prowess has always been a reason for the group's obscurity.) In all likelihood, there will never be another artist with the ability to strike the same vein of ambiguous, emotional indie rock that Yoshimura did. In the end, Youth is a fitting final chapter for one of the greatest and subtly-influential acts in the history of Japanese alternative rock. With his life and passing, as well as his final album, Yoshimura unravels the tapestry of loss, revealing the beauty within, seizing its transience and bottling it in music of rare power.