Review Summary: All the gloss, all the glory.
Production sheen and rock music can be a troublesome pairing. The idea of combining rawness and glossiness isn’t exactly novel - the musical trajectory of Linkin Park might as well be a cautionary tale as much as a zeitgeist milestone at this point - but there are only so many times you can witness it hideously mishandled before a certain sense of reticence starts to develop. Bring Me the Horizon are just the latest band to mire themselves in the aesthetics of radio appeasement, and that’s before you even have to contend with the scene-specific vapid notes-per-minute daydreamcore perpetuated by the likes of Blue Swan and Sumerian Records. This theme is particularly contentious in relation to Japanese music, where ‘gloss’ is effectively a by-word for over-the-top airwave-appropriate regrettability. Now, as far as the (relatively) modern J-scene goes, I enjoy a wide range of production stylings: I can deal with raw (Number Girl), I can deal with sparse (Soutasei Riron), I can deal with chaotic (Mass of the Fermenting Dregs), I can deal with digitalised (Shinsei Kamattechan). Now, there’s nothing wrong with gloss in and off itself - hell, Oomori Seiko’s out there proving that all the production excess in the world can be an asset if your songwriting is up to scratch - but if there’s one thing I struggle with, it’s over-polished production that covers up for weak writing.
As a convenient riposte to this, let me introduce an unlikely J-rock band with a flair for instrumental pyrotechnics, snappy songwriting and studio polish (not to mention album art with a deeply impressive ratio of fluffiness:sternness). With their latest album, HOWLS
, Hitorie have crafted a thoroughly slick offering that brings an exciting set of tracks to a production treatment that would likely feel excessive in other bands’ hands, but seems largely appropriate here. The operative label on HOWLS
is ‘alternative’, but without the tedium or dryness that often accompany that utterance. They can be comfortably placed within the genre at any given moment, but the band reach for every tool in the alt-rock toolkit and cover a surprising amount of ground with style and ease.
This is largely compounded by exemplary sequencing, by virtue of which each song bounces off the one before it and brings something new to the table. The trade-off between the album’s most chaotic song, Idol Junkfeed, and its most straight-laced alternative number, Ao, shows this at its finest, as does the way the pop banger Sleepwalk and the ballad November are separated by a short punk-ish blitz (殺風景). The first three songs alone offer a case study in dynamic songwriting and album structuring, showcasing a perky rock jam, a swinging romp and a excitable jitteriest in turn. Each of these tracks is strong on its own merits, but back-to-back they are a force to be reckoned with and the album as a whole flows seamlessly as a result.
Any account of HOWLS
would be remiss not to mention the guitar performance, which dominates much of its runtime. The majority of the riffs here are tremolo-happy noodlings delivered almost exclusively on the uppermost frets of the guitar, both as conventional hooks and as fleet-fingered accompaniment to verses. Fortunately, guitarist Shinoda has a tasteful knack for catchy melodies and his busy performance is a highlight of the album. He also explores a range of effects, offering Melt-Banana-esque riffs a la laser beam on LACK and Idol Junkfeed and hyper-polished leads on the closer Windmill / ウィンドミル, but the competence of his performance anchors these firmly within the album’s realm of slickness; these are carefully selected melodies, not scattergun shredding. Think of a less indulgent take on Hail the Sun’s Wake
and you’re most of the way there.
On the other hand, the relative scarceness of guitar around the album’s middle section (Sleepwalk and November) is an opportune tactic, since those songs are carried well by their respective synths and piano while affording the listener a pause for breath from the relentlessness either side of them. Frontman Wowaka’s vocals are up to scratch throughout the album and carry its stylistic diversity admirably; he has a strong enough voice to suit the level of sheen the band go for, while his performance is animate enough to keep things infectious. He and Shinoda’s flashy performances tend to overshadow those of their bandmates, but Hitorie are clearly quite a tight unit, with a strong enough foundation to allow for such extravagance.
isn’t entirely to my tastes (Sleepwalk in particular is the kind of pop song that inevitably grinds my gears), it’s a successful and largely enjoyable outing in lavishly-produced rock music from an experienced and talented band. Glossier than Tricot, less frantic than Ling Tosite Sigure and more tasteful than many other contemporaries (e.g. Soko ni Naru), Hitorie prove their worth on the J-rock scene here in a fresh and exciting manner. Whether or not HOWLS
will raise the game for other bands toying with production stylings or inspire a wave of further tastelessness remains to be seen, but it’s a very worthwhile album either way.