Review Summary: Tricot's tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil
It’s been a good few years for Tricot. Starting up as just another math rock band in a land of math rock bands, they’ve broken the usual barriers related to the Japanese language and undanceable rhythms and have established themselves as a respected staple in international indiedom. I’m not sure exactly which time span a few years
refers to, because it doesn’t matter - you can pick any Tricot LP, music video or international tour from, say, 2013 onwards and chart it as a cogent slab in the pavement of a band whose highway was clearly headed somewhere worth going. But wasn't all hits and excitement; part of the reason Tricot have done so well internationally where the Paranoid Voids, Cabs, Uchu Conbinis and Owarikaras of the world have not is that their sound has always been chorus-heavy and thoroughly uncontroversial. Math rock with a great live show, a penchant for (shock horror) emo, selectively linear song structures, wire-taut guitar frenetics, and viable singalongs? You’ve got a recipe for broad church genre appeal right there, and if you can point to a single concrete instance where being (almost) a girl group with a conveniently stunning lead vocalist didn't help things along, your next beer’s on me.
This is all to be read unsalted; Tricot deserve their success and I’m on board with them. There will never be enough decent math bands that are both Japanese and
can be brought up as a household name with that fidgety hipster you’ve barely met at an overcrowded houseparty. Chalk up a few brownie points extra for the way they’ve held onto an easily recognisable staple sound adaptable to various different ends. 2017’s 3
played out like an anthology of directions into which the band could
have steered their sound wholesale, without committing to any of them entirely; that album’s highlight tracks were remarkable for sounding nothing like each other on paper, yet fitting the band seamlessly in performance. As such, Tricot have been more or less exemplary in the how they’ve reaped every benefit of a rising platform while eschewing all the accompanying baggage of success and heavy expectations.
Up til now.
If Tricot’s new album Makkuro
has a great accomplishment, it’s in the way it simultaneously lands as the most controversial Tricot album and their most compact, palatable tracks to date - quite apt for an album themed on darkness yet musically flashy as hell. The controversy in question is less to do with it being their long time coming major label debut, and much more with how it marks the end of the time when Tricot would continually test the boundaries of their sound just
enough to get away with never substantially inventing themselves. I didn’t realise I had so many reservations about what Tricot’s follow-up to 3
’s accessibility and the Repeat
EP’s introspection might sound like until I found all of them being squarely validated by this album. Makkuro
is a competent streamlining of Tricot’s longstanding tropes into one neat, disaster-proof package that sounds slicker than ever but fails to deliver the same lasting impact. The music is good
. It’s competent, energetic and feels destined for a large audience of positive disposition. There are no weak links and I can’t fault the development of any given track. As usual, band bring their all: vocalist/guitarist Ikkyu has a field day, holding the spotlight in almost every track; bassist Hirohiro enjoys prominent placement in a mix sensitive to her contributions like never before; guitar heroine Motifour feels a little reined in yet as impressive as ever; now full-time drummer Yuusuke Yoshida is a sturdy foundation for his bandmates’ übertight chemistry.
All good, so far. Things get a little dicier when you look at the production. Makkuro
’s inevitable major label gloss-job is a far cry from the knife-edge guitar tones and delicate dynamics of the past and will likely split people between those enjoyed the way this band managed brittleness and those who actually really like mainstream rock [and that’s okay]
. I won’t pick bones over it because there are other, more obvious targets - namely, the wider scheme of the songwriting. Going through Makkuro
end-to-end, there are several points at which I’m convinced the band collectively decided that the easiest way never to make a bad album was to hold as tightly as possible onto all the stylings that had previously brought them praise. Accordingly, the most adventurous cuts here sound like they were directly lifted from 3
’s better ideas - and when I say directly
, I mean that “Himitsu” might as well be “DeDeDe” transposed down an octave with the odd sinister melody thrown in, “Junpuu Manban” is “Pork Ginger” pt. 2 with the same plot and half the stakes, ditto for “Naka” and “Sukima”, respectively, opener “Mazeru na Kiken” is a sawn-off “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” except this time Motifour loses her shit instead of Ikkyu, and “One Season” is “Reflection” rehashed and stripped of all its dynamic nuance. At least these girls know their own best songs.
These reappropriations aren’t poorly conceived; as B-stream versions of their originals go, they’re pretty neat (and, admittedly, “Naka” takes the crown from the clunky “Sukima”). Where things gets dangerous is when you consider that I’ve just named half the album and the remaining tracks are either singles or singles-in-waiting that predominantly sound exactly as you’d expect from a straightforward Tricot single in 2020: upbeat, slick, occasionally a little off-kilter and guaranteed to go down a storm live. The likes of “Afureru”, “Unou Sanou” and “Makkuro” play things by the book so tenaciously that they hardly leave a scratch compared to their predecessors “Pool” and “E”, amongst others. Consequentially, a significant part of the Makkuro
experience consists of tapping your foot in objectively warranted appreciation while secretly hoping for something that sounds just a smidge less deja vu. I mean, the interval “Teisoku Douro” is a straight-up reprise of A N D
’s “Kobe Number” and it’s one of the most individually memorable moments here!? Give me a break.
By my count, Makkuro
brings two Strong New Ideas into the mix in song form. The first, “Mitete” is less an idea and more the lowest common denominator of the band embracing a more accessible sound, but they do it with such confidence and hold down enough of an edge in their chord choices that it pans out as an ultragratifying banger. The other, “Abenakunakunai Machi E”, is an gorgeous twinkly ballad no-one saw coming from Tricot, putting Ikkyu front and centre and, for the first time in their career, turning the rest of the band into a support unit. I would normally make a mean-spirited joke about this one being phoned in from Avex Trax HQ, but fortunately enough it makes for the album’s only real left-term and a clear highlight. Ikkyu delivers probably her finest performance to date and earns my infinite respect for turning *that* title lyric (not a typo!) into something beautiful and somehow fluid at the start of the chorus. Reflective of Tricot’s usual niche it is not, but “Abenakunakunai Machi E” is hands down Makkuro
’s standout track - and I’ll be damned if that isn’t as inauspiciously backhanded as such things come.
Taken in isolation, Makkuro
is probably a formidable album. It shows off all of Tricot’s strengths, even if none of them are at their strongest. It’s short of the same emo crossover appeal that T H E
balanced so masterfully, but otherwise I can see this being an excellent starting point for newcomers; that factor alone gives it a certain Mission Accomplished factor. Likewise, the band are as watertight as ever and never once drop the ball; old hat songwriting and dubious new production aside, there’s a lot to enjoy here for longterm fans. Where it falls down is in the way it does something anathema to past Tricot albums, with their musical pluralism and jack-of-all-trades ethos: it asks a Firm Yes/No Question, is the principle of “More Tricot is good Tricot!” enough to carry a whole album?
earns a grudging “yes”, but in posing that question to begin with, it ushers the language of binaries into the band’s previously unpolarised world and bursts the bubble they once sustained as such. Bam. That’s it for the happy equilibrium they once rode so fruitfully. The album’s dark/light theme suddenly becomes a metaphor for a set of opposites that have always been there, but are no longer as easy to dismiss when it comes to framing Tricot’s sound: comfort vs. innovation, idiosyncrasy vs. palatability and, lurking in the background, success vs. artistry. Back in the day one of Tricot’s great qualities was that these didn’t need
to be opposites, but Makkuro
rewires their sound into something equally functional, equally animate and equally competent, yet somehow a distinct notch less engaging.