Review Summary: still the only good pop rock band on the planet?
Split End are nigh on perfect a lot of the time - that should be a lot of your
time. They’re as feel-good as straightforward guitar pop comes, a mobile interpolation of power pop-pop rock-alt rock-pop
punk stylings with a healthy dose of gazey shimmer-shimmer belying that it’s not all
hooks. They hail from Nara, the underrated former capital of Japan, at this point practically the only worthwhile country in the world for the interpolation of genres in question (all detraction to which can be traced to a place of not-feel-good, or of feel-not-good-enough valances). Yes. The reasons for this international stranglehold are hardly exclusive to Split End, but they do intersect fruitfully with the band’s euphoric manner, open-hearted outpourings of energy, and general disregard for angst and toxicity. Vocalist Nanami’s clear tone and bowl-u-over delivery both entirely circumvent the fatal cringe factor uniquely endemic to the Contemporary Pop Rocker’s American naslisms; she elevates innocuous romantic cliches into exhilarating hooks time and time again over everything from speedball rockers to shoegaze-adjacent space-outs to downbeat alt rock stewings.
Sound good? Sounds perfect
, I believe you’ll find - especially, especially, especially on their 2019 minalbum Deep Love
, probably their finest to date. It was good. It was great. It was so
fucking excellent that the only way I could describe it at the time was in track-by-track format with the largely unironic support of an extradiegetic Nickleback narration. Better times etc., sorry-not-sorry. However, it was more a showcase of Split End’s established strengths than a sudden revolution of their potential. Given how evenly their absolute-best cuts are scattered throughout their small canon, I had a hunch that Deep Love
’s uniform excellence was something they had been capable of at any given point - and, by loose extension, something that was hardly to be taken for granted from future releases.
Their latest EP Moratorium
confirms this in a variety of ways. First and most importantly, Split End’s finest qualities are as impressive and endearing here as they are anywhere else. Their performances are as tight and passionate as ever, their production is as good as it’s ever been, and their songwriting, though a tad more straightforward, hasn’t really improved or declined since Deep Love
. Good, good. What has
changed is their direction: for the first time since their 2014 debut Amamoyou
, they go entirely without upbeat rockers, focusing on the cutesier midtempo end of things. This is immediately evident on the sparkly opener “Teenager”, which lays down their trademark breathlessness pleasantly enough even if its hooks are far from their hugest. It’s wide-eyed and expansive at points, but in a way that suggests greater heights without ever soaring up to reach them. The following “2banme no Hoshi” goes a little further, dropping the tempo slightly as it deploys delicate layerings over an absolutely gorgeous bridge. This makes for one of the band’s most dreamlike numbers and an early highlight; good stuff so far, certainly enough to justify turning the adrenaline down and the reverb up.
However, the slower pace and mellow atmosphere inadvertently handicap the album when it comes to recovering from lapses of momentum. Slap bang in the middle of the tracklist, “Anemone” is perhaps the greatest such lapse in their entire discography, a gawkishly twee pop rocker that hinges around a disjointed bassline and some of the flavourless guitar leads I’ve heard from any Japanese group, mediocre or otherwise. It’s a total non-starter and not a style I would be keen to hear again from them in future; on a tracklist of this length or pacing, that ain’t the kind of blip you can shrug off in a hurry.
Things pick up, even if they don’t exactly kick off. The closer “week end” is the most Deep Love
-esque thing here, drawing that release’s classic alt rock melodies into a deliciously shuffle-able chorus, potentially the strongest of the lot. It’s a great note to conclude on, but the real keeper arrives just beforehand: “Yahan no Tsuki” is a stunningly smooth launch into full-on shoegaze and one of the most satisfying bliss-outs I’ve heard from anyone this year. It’s by Moratorium
’s greatest and most pleasant surprise; Split End have flirted on and off with shoegaze throughout their career, including on “2banme no Hoshi”, but they’ve never committed like this before. It suits them down to a tee; once again, the chorus melody here is a little weak, but the track’s hazy guitar lines and fuzz modulations are so arrestingly beautiful that, in true shoegaze fashion, it’s easy to forget half the track was there in the first place. I think Split End can, and likely will, outdo themselves in this style, but for the time being “Yahan no Tsuki” is a gamechanger as the shoegaze song we never knew we needed from them.
What does this all amount to? Well, Moratorium
is a solid addition to a solid discography but it hardly feels like an overall watershed. Stylistic footing adjustments notwithstanding, it suffers a little from dialling down the stakes and exhilaration in favour of mellower material, but it lands the marks that count and opens promising doors to more expansive territory. Split End have always packed just the right balance of comfort and excitement that I’ve envisioned them as a commute/travel band, but Moratorium
’s bliss-out tracks are equally appropriate for moodlit bedroom spaces. So that’s quaint: there are now more reasons to listen to Split End. More than enough for me, more than enough for you. Get goin’.