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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Going back to Ongaku No Susume

Admittedly, I didn’t much care for Ongaku No Susume when it first came out. I think I can put that down to two reasons, neither of which now sound particularly convincing-

1. I had had waited so long to hear it that my expectations of it had skyrocketed to some ridiculous level.

2. it didn’t exactly sound like the Halcali we were used to.

I mean, whatever people were expecting from this album, I’m sure it wasn’t two six minute ballads, lyrically weightier songs about such un-Halcali things as concern about the future, and absolutely no songs about going to the beach (they wouldn’t go back there until album three).

For all that, the album still roughly follows the same pattern as its predecessor. It starts with a quick opening track (Intro/Introduction), has another one halfway through (Conversation of a Mystery/HISTORY) has two singles one after the next near the start, and then one more near the end. What’s different with Ongaku though, is that on this album they seemed to have stopped 'messing about’, and instead show an honest determination to be taken more seriously. Where Bacon opened with two kids laughing through the opening track, Ongaku replaces them with human beatbox, a “check one, check two” and a fairly straight up attempt at an unaccompanied rap on its own opener Introduction. It's still kinda dumb and kinda fun of course, but there’s an undeniably different feel to this album, and it’s present right from this first track. In fact, the record as a whole feels weightier, more serious, and looking back on it now, considerably more substantial than their pure pop inflected début. It’s a record that’s keen for them to shed their ‘teenage girl’ image and fully intends for them to try to get to grips with a more ‘we’re growing up’ one, a trend that they would continue to develop throughout all their subsequent releases.

Let's not forget of course, that despite all this, Ongaku No Susume still is, at it’s heart, a fun pop album. For those people who have yet to hear a single note of their music, it’s not hard to see how someone might prefer this over Bacon. It’s certainly more of a traditional pop record- it’s more varied than Bacon, it balances upbeat tracks with slower ‘ballad’ type numbers quite well, and generally has a much more accessible style than their debut. The ‘lo-fi’ ish sound that marked their début, those 8-bit bleeps and drum machines that were its hallmark, are almost entirely absent here, and the more solid production means that for the first timer the overall ride is probably going to be much smoother. As such, this album wouldn’t be a bad place for a Halcali newcomer to start.

Ongaku gives Halcali a chance to demonstrate skills they weren't really given the room to on Bacon; and the one that dominates this album the most is that the pairs' greatly matured singing voices are suddenly given a lot more room to breathe. That’s something that the sometimes rather tinny sounding Bacon wasn’t exactly renowned for. They gave it a decent go on the last track, Tsuzuki Mayonaka no Ground, but even there they sounded a bit uncomfortable, like they were unsure of what was expected of them. On the other hand, Ongaku gives them all sorts of material that tests their voices, and numbers like the second track Fuwa Fuwa Brand New and Dentetsu No Futari are tackled with skill and confidence. This makes the earlier claims about maturity in this band not simply confined to lyrical content; the two performers that made this album are artistically leaps and bounds ahead of the two that made Bacon.

It's far from a perfect album of course, and while my appreciation of it has grown a lot over time, I think a few of my original gripes still stand up.

While Bacon featured a number of different producers, they all roughly followed the template O.T.F. established with Tandem. I don’t know what happened exactly, but Ongaku is certainly missing the tight continuity in its sound that was one of the hallmarks of their début. They take credit as producers, but, fuller production aside, they feel almost entirely absent from it. In fact, anyone still after that old(er) school Halcali fix in fact would do well to skip right to the last, classic O.T.F. track Continued.

It isn't particularly pleasant to say, but sometimes Halcali feels like a Rip Slyme summer side project that the creators gave up on after they got bored. They certainly sound tired of the Idol processes on single Marching March. This is an awesome pop song masking a biting commentary of the artificial world of manufactured pop, and indeed they would work on only one more single with Halcali before, as it seems now, letting them go for good. It's frustrating to think how much further Halcali would have gone if they had maintained their partnership with O.T.F., but perhaps that’s a story for another night.

I think the album’s main problem isn’t that O.T.F. didn't contribute more songs to it; it’s that they didn’t seem to expend same effort of keeping it all together as they did with Bacon. This is something that would get noticeably worse on their (totally sans-O.T.F.) third album, but there’s definitely an unevenness here, and while their matured singing voices are welcomed, this album sees the uncomfortable start to two trends that would continue to plague Halcali in their upcoming, post-For Life years; putting them into songs that don't really suit them, and people from bands writing songs for them that just sound like the bands they’re from, aka producers who have no idea what to do with Halcali. Supercar, I’m looking at you (specifically, Oboroge Copy View).

One brilliant exception to this trend is Verbal. Koi No Bububun was a highlight of Cyborg No Oretachi, but it’s on Ongaku that he lays it all out with single Baby Blue! Even now, it’s the heaviest, hardest thing they’ve released and listening again it’s still incredible that such an unconventional pop song was chosen as a single; layering a breakbeat inspired wall of noise over them rapping about unrequited love and Ken Hirai.

Utamaru fared less well on his Cyborg contribution, but here he comes out with an unapologetically fun party number Wakakusa Dance that still a popular live favourite. As to my original comment, "It's got a chorus that could kick down a house"? Well, yes, indeed. As much as I love this song though, a few years on the more unconventional Halcali songs can impress just as much- like their newly energised singing voices on the utterly gorgeous Shibafu. All these songs are a hundred times more interesting than any of those dreary anime tie ins they put out as their early Sony singles.

I've been giving the album a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks, and really you should too! If you liked it the first time, Ongaku No Susume is well worth revisiting again now. If you weren’t too impressed back then, doubly so. As the last thing they released on their old label For Life, in many ways it serves to wrap up that section of their career with both nods to the past, and providing a hint of what was to be their more ‘grown-up’ future.

And that great cover? Well, that turned out to have a story of its own.


Anonymous sora-kara said...

nice review.

ive been saying for a long time that i like ongaku no susume better than bacon, and i always get laughed at by halcali fans.
i agree with yours points (both positive and negative), but there's something about susume that gets me every time. i think it must be the more mature feeling.
while bacon is lite and crazy and fun, susume is a little bit heavier, a little bit darker with some of its tracks. and while not all of them are 'perfect' for halcali, i like the varied styles and moods. it really shows how versatile the girls themselves are, which opens the door for new musical direction.
susume seems a little experimental with its direction, and it seemed to have the feeling of "lets do some stuff, then afterwards we'll see where we can take you", but sony didnt really follow up on that idea. :/

i love the blend of more standard pop with ideas and musical concepts that are undeniably 'halcali'. im all for slightly askew pop, and pop blends.

i also love that while bacon is a blinding bright yellow, like a ray of sunshine in yours eyes, susume is a much more lush and verdent colour. its warmer, more inviting, and at times completely enveloping in its depth of sound.

not perfect, but still my favourite. :)

6:28 PM

Blogger jariten said...

"Warm" is a great way to describe Ongaku. Although I don't actually know which I prefer, I do get the feeling that, because of the things you mentioned, Ongaku might stand the test of time better than Bacon.

I wonder if I'll come to appreciate Cyborg more given time. It still sounds like a singles collection with a few other filler tracks thrown in, but given a bit more time I might come to see it as an album in its own right.

6:36 AM

Anonymous sora-kara said...

youre right there. ive been thinking that bacon might tarnish as it ages, but it seems like susume will definitely hold up better as the years pass.

im a little unsure of cyborg too. while some of the tracks are great, it does feel like its not as close knit as its predecessors. and youre right, it does have a 'collection' feel to it.
when listening to it, the colours are a little washed out too. its not as vibrant, or strong as the colours from the previous albums. there's something about it thats a little blander.
but its growing on me. slowly.

*haha, sorry about being crazy with all the 'colours' and stuff. my brain is a little messed up :P*

3:49 AM


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