Review Summary: I’m indulging in dreams again. In the future that continues unclearly,
I can still learn why I can forgive you.
Wow. When thinking of great debut albums, a few traits come to mind. If the artist released work prior, then the album should be both the amalgamation of the artist’s prior work and enough evolution to warrant another release. Some examples include James Blake’s debut, Bjork’s “Debut” and the self-titled debut EP from Mass of the Fermenting Dregs. All of these releases capitalized on what made the artists’ sounds so compelling, so unmissable, and then evolved them into relevance. Enter school food punishment, a band that, prior to their debut, released three critically acclaimed EPs. The band scored several hits before releasing their debut. Single “you may crawl” sold more than 1000 copies in its first week, and EP “riff-rain” became one of the group’s most popular releases internationally. So what comes next? A full-length debut that takes the group’s sound in a more pop-friendly direction while still retaining its flavor.
amp-reflection is a curious kind of album. The first three tracks (“signal”, an interlude, “goodblue” and “butterfly swimmer”) weave together an interesting aural tapestry, lending credence to the idea that the band had a planned concept when going into the album. These tracks are as good as or better than any of the tracks on the band’s first three releases. Following that triumvirate is obvious single “future nova,” a well-put together track boasting one of the band’s most accessible choruses. On the song, Uchimura-sama laments her stagnation, singing about being unable to awake from an elaborate dream. The lyrics are standard fare for Uchimura, but are more straight-forward than many of the band’s previous songs. The next few songs mark somewhat of a nadir for the album, with “電車、滑り落ちる、ヘッドフォ” and “light prayer” being some of the album’s more aimless tracks. But the nadir doesn’t last long, as the album hits a stride with the 4-song run culminating in the album’s best track and the most popular song of school food punishment’s career: “futuristic imagination.” The songs deserving the most praise are, of course, “futuristic imagination” and “04:59.”
On “04:59,” Uchimura sings of sobering up, and the uncomfortable clarity it brings. “I can’t take any more than this. I can’t walk around well,” she laments over the cozy, minimalist production. The song evokes daybreak in a heart-breaking way; with each verse the pain gets deeper, with the lyrics taking a turn for more personal territory: “Am I no good?” “…the night goes away; it turns into the day; I’m down again.” Instrumentally, the band shows a knack for balladry and evocative playing that was implied on songs like “transient” and “flow” from the band’s early work, but wasn’t quite realized in such a good way. Uchimura, in addition to halting lyrics, also brings her vocal A-game to the table. The high-notes leading up to the chorus sell the longing as, and the way that Uchimura breathlessly returns to the chorus after an instrumental bridge is nothing short of breathtaking. The song is beautifully melancholy, and the band does the vibe justice.
The next song (“駆け抜ける” or “Running Through”) is another should-have-been single, featuring an infectious string arrangement and pop chorus that would make some of America’s more chart-minded loathe themselves. The song is essentially about surfing the internet, but the excitement of Yumi’s delivery, as well as the wonderful string arrangement by Eguchi Ryou and Murayama Tatsuya, lends it a buoyance that helps it to transcend its lyrics.
But the album’s true highlight comes in the form of “futuristic imagination,” the album’s lead single, the ED song for “Eden of the East,” and the band’s most popular single to date. The arrangement is immaculate, featuring pitch-perfect keyboarding from Masayuki Hasuo, meaningful lyrics from Uchimura, and the best string arrangement in pop from anywhere in the world in the last 40 years (courtesy of Ryou and Tatsuya, again). On “futuristic imagination,” Uchimura again addresses her pet-theme of dreams and longing, but this time she does it vividly, connecting some of her more abstract lyrics (“I don’t mind cutting the roots of the future”) to more personal and tangible fare (“Before we rewind, let’s dry those tears./If you’re ready to be blown away, let’s return to the dream.”). The song serves a perfect waypoint in the album, with all the song’s parts (the strings, the lyrics) being alluded to in some of the other songs. It feels like the culmination of all the band’s work so far, and that makes for a remarkable song.
Unfortunately for school food punishment, following one of the best rock songs in a decade up is an immensely difficult effort, and had the album ended there, making a 10 track album, the album would be a near-classic. But the last three songs on the album: “line,” “percentage,” and “sea-through communication” all fail to live up to the pure bliss of “futuristic imagination.” “line” in fact takes the album in a wholly different direction, drawing more parallels to contemporaries Ling Tosite Sigure than Spangle call lilli line. There are points on “line” that are truly beautiful, like the bridge where all the excessive instrumentation falls off to give Uchimura’s vocals a much-needed bit of space. The chorus itself too is momentous, lending itself to a feeling of progression, albeit linear (pun intended).
“パーセンテージ” or “Percentage” is an electronic slowburner, ratcheting the album’s acquired pace down to a crawl. Like James Blake (who was mentioned earlier), Uchimura autotunes her vocals (not as a crutch, but for effect), and sings over a relatively minimal electronic song. The beat brings to mind Blake as well as it stops and starts jarringly like a broken dubstep beat. While the song isn’t nearly perfect, it still showcases the band’s versatility and range.
Final track and third single “sea-through communication” is suitably poppy to carry the album’s overriding sonic themes home, but still fails to truly stun in the way that “futuristic imagination,” “goodblue” and, to some extent, “line” did. The lyrics are some of the album’s most optimistic, talking about the miracle of interaction and communication. In many ways, the lyrics wrap up the album perfectly, ending the story that starts with “goodblue”’s escapism and travels through “futuristic imagination”’s confrontation.
For a debut effort, amp-reflection is the rare breed that does well everything that its predecessors did, while also adding new elements to the mix. While not all experiments pay off (“light prayer”’s foray into adult-contemporary pop-rock isn’t necessarily the album’s best moment), the effort is still admirable for what it represented: a legitimately fresh perspective on pop-rock and electronic rock music that made for one of 2011’s best album, as well as spawned one of the best songs of the last two decades.