Review Summary: Two pixelated thumbs up.
Any music fan can point to an album (or few) that dramatically shifted the landscape of what they thought was possible with music. For most of us, it happens in our teens, when we come across an album – maybe The Illusion of Safety, or Led Zeppelin IV, or Loveless, or OK Computer – that turns our musical worldview upside down; we can't stop listening to it; you no longer see the things the same way after hearing that album gets inside your mind.
For me, it started with The Pillows; I was sixteen, and hearing the driving, anthemic power rock tunes of Happy Bivouac and Little Busters is what inspired me to pick up guitar and truly chase after rock music. And a few years later, as a college freshman, it happened again when I discovered artists like Number Girl and Zazen Boys, who enacted a similar musical mental sea change with their fierce, angular take on indie rock.
Now, in my mid-twenties, I certainly never expected it to happen again. I thought I was set in my musical ways for the rest of my life. I knew exactly what I liked, and I figured I was never likely to veer too far from these established tastes. In the middle of 2010 – the silent year of my post-college unemployment, living at home, often isolated, always bored – I discovered Anamanaguchi, an intriguing band with a bright, melodic, nostalgic sound that immediately appealed to me. I'd never liked electronic music, but there was something immediately authentic about their earnest beeps and chirps, created by a combination of rock instrumentation and NES synths.
I was hooked, but the short records Power Supply and Dawn Metropolis contained moments of brilliance among more uneven, unmemorable material. The Scott Pilgrim soundtrack showed incredible promise, but was inherently limited by its format of short, repeatable songs. And the 2010 singles were arguably Anamanaguchi's best showing yet, filled with incredible songwriting that reached its peak on tracks like Airbrushed, My Skateboard Will Go On, and Aurora. Some of the most singable music I'd ever heard, somewhat ironically, had no lyrics. I was impressed, and eager to hear more from Anamanaguchi. 2011 passed in silence with no news of a new release, and so did 2012. By then, they'd been relegated to occasional plays, a small anomaly in my music-mind.
Nothing could have prepared me for Endless Fantasy.
This record is Olympus Mons crashing into the Pacific ocean. It's shooting a wiffle ball bat through a trans-dimensional super-collider so fast that it blows the moon in half. It's the feeling of getting high on a pixelated rainbow smoked through a Super Nintendo, and it's the crunchy, tactile satisfaction of carving through motor vehicles with a giant sword. It's the sound of falling in love. It is ebullient, violent, hormonally hyperactive, innocently immature, and self-confidently adult. It is aural pizza.
I've been listening to Endless Fantasy for over six months now; the honeymoon period ended long ago, yet I find more and more to like with ever listen. Hearing each song dozens of times has only led me to appreciate them more and and more. I had high expectations for this record but Anamanaguchi blew them away. It is absolutely one of the greatest records I've ever heard in my life, and (at least for me) absolutely the greatest of 2013.
The heart of Anamanaguchi isn't the performances of the individual band members (who are average musicians most of the time) or the bleeps and bloops of vintage game sounds. If that was all the group had going for them, their schtick would have worn out long ago. No, the heart of Anamanaguchi is their compositional mastery and their peerless proficiency in manipulating an old, obsolete sound chip to its maximum effect, overcoming the inherent limitations of their hardware and musical skill, infusing their music with heart, afforded through a conceptual unity and vision that few artists posses.
If there was any justice, Endless Fantasy would go down as the defining record of the Millennial Generation – those of us born roughly between 1980 and 1995, who spent some or all of our childhood in a pre-internet era dominated by toy commercials, cheesy top 40 radio, endless monolithic cartoon blocks ruling Saturday mornings and weekday afternoons; of pizza parties, VHS tapes, 8 and 16-bit video games, and good times. This is music for nerds and dorks and hipsters, rave enthusiasts, otaku, aspergians, and anyone else who's ever longed for the world to be a place where you belong, a world where your quirks are not just tolerated, but actually desired.
With Endless Fantasy, Anamanaguchi has created that world; they knew they didn't belong. This quartet of adult children created their own world, and shared it with us. And for the seventy-six minutes you inhabit the realm of Endless Fantasy, everything is good.
What really makes Endless Fantasy so special is just how well it works as both an entire, continuous listening experience, and as a collection of songs. It's truly astonishing how little filler there is on the album - out of all the tracks, SPF 420 and (T-T)b are the only ones I find myself rarely listening to. Part of what makes the album so good is Anamanaguchi honing and perfecting their craft – doing what they've done before, only better. This is most obvious on highlights like Akira, one of the most driving and outright thrilling songs the band has ever written. Endless Fantasy and Meow are very much in the same vein as the 2010 singles, but they're such good songs that you can't blame the band for wanting to perfect something they'd done before. And Space Wax America feels like the summation of everything the band had been trying to accomplish up to that point.
Yet what's really impressive is how much new stuff the band tries. Japan Air introduces singing that compliments the song and helps it stand out, while Prom Night – one of the album highlights – sounds like a sleazy Top 40 single by the likes of Katy Perry, if one of those commercially pre-packaged singers possessed Anamanaguchi's endless gigabytes of songwriting ability. The best part of the track is the point where the vocals and NES effects converge into a sputtering mess that's equally chaotic and beautiful. It's the first time Anamanaguchi has tried to write a slick radio hit, so it's almost disturbing how they accomplish their goal perfectly, on the first try.
Though a fast tempo and strong melody propels most of the songs, there's plenty of variety and innovation on the record. Viridian Genesis has an airy, vague feel that's much closer to conventional electronica than the mood of most Anamanaguchi compositions, but it's one of the first tracks on the album to display the band's evolving sound (as well as the influence of friend/co-producer Sabrepulse.) It leads into the stunning John Hughes, one of the most beautiful songs on the album. The band often slows down on Endless Fantasy, giving moments to breathe on tracks like Interlude (Gymnopedie No 1), Planet, and U n ME. The band is just as good at wistful, nuanced tracks that balance out the high-velocity melodic chaos dominating their style.
Endless Fantasy is a pizza: you can eat it all at once, or take it in slices. Viridian Genesis through Prom Night are one of my favorite slices. The five-song assault stretching from the euphoric Space Wax America through Bosozoku GF are the best of all, showing that the band has saved their best for last. Unlike pizza, you only have to buy Endless Fantasy once, and then you can eat it as many times as you want.
Of all the record's outstanding compositions, it's hard to single out one as the best, but in the end, it comes down to Bosozoku GF, a song that encapsulates all of Anamanaguchi's growth into a single track. Progressing through six distinct but connected movements, the track starts with a goosebump-inducing opening in which you the player watch the sun rise from the pinnacle of the Tokyo Sky Tree, before the song explodes into a drum and bass jam fueled by a furious synth/guitar melody preceding a supernova climax.
Anamanaguchi might come across as a bunch of hipster goofballs, but their detached facade hides the incredible confidence and ability that they display on Endless Fantasy. It is easy to accuse Anamanaguchi of being hipsters, or nostalgia-addicted kidults who can't grow up and live in the real world. This is all very plausible, the problem with this idea is that hipsters are defined by their irony, and Endless Fantasy is anything but ironic. It feels like one of the most sincere, heartfelt albums I've heard in years. It is playful, but it takes itself seriously. This is an album that resonates with a rare kind of optimism that's all too rare in a musical landscape where being drearily detached seems like some sort of prerequisite to indie rock stardom.
In an increasingly pessimistic world addled with recession, unemployment, dim prospects, and life in general, Anamanaguchi's fantasy isn't just good music – it represents hope. We all need hope; and when attaining it is as easy and fun as listening to this record, there's not really any downside, is there? Endless Fantasy is a record of rare beauty that only comes along every once in a while, and it deserves your attention.