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(Flipped) Issue #71: Expo Expo
This Side of Japan returns with a deep dive to m-flo's groundbreaking album as well as guest song selections and blurbs
Hi! Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter about Japanese music, new and old! This issue is a Flipped edition, meaning we’re doing the opposite of the original format: we cover an older album and three older singles. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
Hello! It’s been a while since a new issue of This Side of Japan. For this flipped issue—it’s been a minute since the last one, too!—I spotlight an album that’s been a subject of interest for me since the beginning of the year. I wanted to really explore and invest time putting down as much as I can, both on the main body of the review as well as its joint bonus feature. It ended up becoming very long, which got me worried that it’d take attention away from the my dear guests and their awesome song selections, so I switched up the usual order of sections with the singles getting top billing. And apologies this issue missing words on an Oricon number-one: I completely forgot to prepare, and by the time I realized, it was cutting too close to the publishing date to put anything worthwhile together. (It would have been on Snow Man’s “Dangerholic,” if you were curious.)
Enough from me! Let’s start with what our guests chose for this issue’s singles.
“Kioku” by Every Little Thing [avex trax, 2002]
Every Little Thing (or ELT for short) had an impressive string of hits since the band debuted in 1996 with “Feel My Heart.” In the ‘90s, their signature sound could be defined as synth-dance rock that perfectly fit in with the energetic music scene of the decade and their contemporaries from Avex. Songs like “Future World,” “For the moment,” and “Dear My Friend” showcase lead singer Kaori Mochida’s clear and lively vocals over infectious melodies and beats. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and their sound took a shift towards a more soft-rock route after the departure of keyboard player and composer Mitsuru Igarashi. Now a duo, the band scored a megahit in 2001 with the single “fragile” that went on to top karaoke chart rankings and number 13 on the yearly Oricon charts for 2001 with 834,020 copies sold. With the success of “fragile,” the group continued to release singles and albums with a similar sound but did not replicate the success of that song.
“Kioku” was released on May 15, 2002, and was Every Little Thing’s 20th single overall. It was used as the theme song for the drama Shiawase no Shippo and as the Kanebo Pro-Style CM song. Despite being released a year after “fragile,” the single ultimately went on to reach number 4 on the Oricon Weekly charts with 136,970 copies sold. The song is a soft-rock ballad with melancholic overtones that reaches the climax during the powerful refrain.
The progression from the verses to pre-chorus followed by a short pause that leads to an intense and explosive chorus is what makes the song so satisfying. The intro opens up with a lively orchestra, followed by Mochida’s soft vocals over a familiar electric guitar. But during the chorus, Mochida’s vocals are no longer subtle and have become more emotional, channeling the energy of the song about remembering a love that was lost. The second half of “Kioku” is guitarist Ichiro Itou’s time to shine and showcases his skills with two solos that interact with the orchestra. Despite not being as well known as the band’s 90s singles and “fragile,” the singles and albums that ELT released during the rest of the decade have a lot to offer musically and are definitely worth listening to. —Luisa
…from Many Pieces (2003). Listen to it on Spotify.
Luisa writes about Japanese music, film and culture for Nante Japan.
“Mercirou” by NEGOTO [Ki/oon, 2011]
Perfume’s GAME ushered in a new era of electro-pop following its release back in 2008, which saw a good couple of few landmark moments for the genre as well as other synth-associated acts. CAPSULE dropped what would become their best-selling album, MORE! MORE! MORE!; Sakanaction broke into the Oricon Top 10 Weekly Album charts for the first time with Shin-shiro not long thereafter the following year; and the year after that would come the debut of the electronic-rock band, Negoto. While the four-piece from Chiba will perhaps be thought of primarily as a stalwart of electronic rock, not just for “girls rock” but for Japanese music in the 2010s, one might be remiss to recall how Negoto’s earlier offerings actually sounded, relative to how the band ended up sounding (and will mostly be remembered by) in the years that spanned their decade-long career.
There are only a few things that I am hard-pressed to call anything other than simply “magic” when it comes to Japanese music. Sawamura Sayako’s drum work in tandem with Fujisaki Yuu’s bass lines present in Negoto’s debut album ex Negoto would be one of them, as they are some of the most enchanting things that I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. One of the best examples of it, in my opinion, is what you’ll hear here in one of the album’s A-side tracks, “Mercirou.” The two not only sustain the otherworldly atmosphere created by the opening synth riff, but they also do a tremendous job building off of it over the course of the song. Right out of the gate, the drums break the air wide open with a hard and heavy beat and, mixed with a dark and low rumbling bass, it together makes “Mercirou” sound like an expansive dreamscape. I particularly love how Sayako occasionally finds spots in the arrangement for a beautifully placed fill that leaves the listener teetering at the edge of reality from beginning to end. —Leap
…from ex Negoto (2011). Listen to it on Spotify.
Leap writes about Japanese music and provides monthly recommendations on the blog Leap250.
“Souten Delight” by Wienners [Toy’s Factory, 2013]
“Praise! So Highest!! It’s My Youth!!”
Spirituality permeates Wienners’ entire discography. Some might find that hard to believe, given how one of their most popular songs is them poking fun at toxic idol fans. But after listening to “Souten Delight,” they cemented themselves as one of my favourite bands because of how well this song demonstrated their versatility, and really made me stop to appreciate the decision behind coalescing such philosophy into a relentlessly loud and upbeat musical flurry.
“Souten Delight” tells the tale of one’s plight for survival, love, and the meaning of existence, across a four-minute-long celebration of life. Upon my countless watches of the original music video, I’ve had endless fun interpreting its sound and scenes into a narrative: humanity’s struggle for comfort against the whims of three forces of nature, until he learns to exist in tandem with the world around him. Lament, anger, acceptance, and eventual happiness are all sequentially conveyed even in the constant repetition of “Bye-bye, bye-bye my youth!” in every chorus, eventually becoming an ode to joy in itself by the end of the song when chanted in tandem with the carefree electric guitar musings of Tamaya2060%.
In 2015, a new drummer and synth-player joined Wienners, and the band decided to re-record older songs into an extensive 24-track album. This new version of “Souten Delight” is audibly reformed right from the start, trading the fuzziness of the original’s guitar intro for a cleaner electric buzz, and the inflection of the singers’ cheerful chants are elevated to even greater planes of unified happiness. Even the subtle background buzzes are given more attention in this version, creating a powerfully palpable atmosphere as the song’s tale speaks of “waving electric noise” and “guardian spirits, protecting me…. protecting you.”
I’ve watched as many live performances of ‘Souten Delight’ as I can find, and the search began when I came across this particular upload. The sheer theatricality thrown into the live version not only makes it endlessly entertaining to re-watch, but also adds so much to the song’s sentiment and message: Tamaya2060%’s sneering lament about the afflictions of drunkenness at 1:36 is as catchy as it is genius, and the growls of “ZOTTO!!!” and “DORONNNNN!!”—onomatopoeia for both the trembling of fear and the act of suddenly disappearing, respectively—both amplify the feelings of interacting with intimidating, invisible beings in the depths of darkness. Even the manic scream of “I HAVEN’T DANCED ENOUGH!!!!!!” in the final chorus is always directed at the audience, encouraging and reminding the listeners to appreciate the present.
Given how effortlessly easy it is to pinpoint “Souten Delight” as my favourite work of theirs—it’s my most-replayed song ever, after all—it’s a wonder in itself to explore its intricate journey across so many years of studio and live performances. There’s an ever-rewarding listening experience within each individual recording of the song, all of which strengthen the grander presence it has in the ever-expanding legacy of Wienners.
“I can’t let go! I’ll never fade away!!”
…from DIAMOND (2014). Listen to it on Spotify.
Mustafa writes about Japanese music and interviews musicians on Substack.
Album of the Week
EXPO EXPO by m-flo [rhythm zone, 2001]
M-flo introduced their early music as products from the distant future. Originally calling themselves “mediarite flow,” the trio of high-school friends — producer Taku Takahashi, rapper VERBAL and singer LiSA — envisioned a far tomorrow steeped in space-age fantasy in their groundbreaking sophomore album, EXPO EXPO. Announcing the grand opening of the titular interactive expo, a newscaster in the intro reminds listeners to wear their “helmet-like simulation gear” to access the event from all across the galaxy. A live feed interrupts the album not long after, with a little word from the virtual guide on how to best navigate the gadget while enjoying all that’s on offer at the expo.
The sci-fi narrative running through the course of EXPO EXPO constructs a vibrant pop world colored by the group’s fascination with advancements in technology and travel, not so far in presentation from the retro-future, kitsche concepts framing the albums from the Shibuya-kei scene. The idea of an intergalactic expo also helps make sense of the wide range of genres on display throughout the album. New York hip-hop and American R&B remain key to the group’s sound as established in the trio’s debut LP, Planet Shining, but they no longer served as the trio’s prime backbone in its follow-up. Those foundational sounds made up for only one of the many influences that were also just about to be excavated by future tastemakers at large. EXPO EXPO then stands not only the site where the group’s wide-ranging musical interests mingle but also the intersection in which new, bubbling J-pop genres from different spheres meet.
“Just to give you some context on what it was like in the late ‘90s in Japan, hip-hop and R&B were booming at the time so there were a lot of new acts coming out,” VERBAL told Otaquest in 2018. “It was a very prime-time for us to release our kind of music and do what we had aspired to do.” The country’s rap scene around the turn of the century was on the verge of a commercial breakthrough. After its pioneering groups had spent much of the first half of the decade working together to legitimize the genre, major labels began to scoop up more and more of the scene’s key players who would soon participate in chart-topping pop records. M-flo themselves were part of this wave with Avex Trax signing them as one of the first acts of the label’s hip-hop-focused subsidiary rhythm zone, where they debuted with the tripod e.p. in 1999.
If VERBAL fulfilled the rap component of the trio heard in the debut EP’s “been so long,” vocalist LiSA made sure their records courted the country’s R&B audience. The major labels had been supporting R&B since the music market’s transition into J-pop during the ‘90s, from New Jack Swing, post-TLC girl groups to nods to neo-soul. An interest for the genre exponentially rose, however, after the wake of Hikaru Utada’s record-setting debut album First Love in 1999. The three only had to stick to their guns to capitalize on the wave in the group’s debut full-length, 2000’s Planet Shining, with VERBAL and LiSA co-starring in one B-boy hip-hop and R&B hybrid feature.
Hybrid might be a good way to start looking at m-flo’s production style. Takahashi as a producer is prone to throw together more than a few styles without a care if the seams still show. Consider Planet Shining’s “chronopsychology” and its marriage of break-beat loops and the group’s mixture-band origins that is somehow built to scan as a R&B track. His best production in EXPO EXPO is driven even more by intuition, the beats abruptly speeding up in tempo or switching up altogether. This freewheeling approach unpacks a sprawling passion from Takahashi to show each and every bit of his interests at the time, like he’s a personal DJ itching to skip to the next great song on the queue.
Takahashi’s fusionist approach positions m-flo slightly away from the more formalist rap acts. “I get a little nervous when people tell me ‘so you're a hip hop group,’” Takahashi told Anime News Network in 2019. “Honestly speaking, I'm more of an electronic artist who loves hip hop.” That said, the group still had their ears tuned directly to hip-hop: the sleek boom-bap behind tracks like “Orbit-3” and “The Bandwagon” channel the Ummah with the latter featuring LiSA shouting out Takahashi’s favorite A Tribe Called Quest. Japan’s own rap scene gets a spotlight in “Dispatch” with m-flo bringing along Dev Large and Nipps from the seminal Buddha Brand crew as guests. The latter’s old-school routines meet Takahashi’s hydraulic boom-bap driven by a sample of dial tones, and the mic toss channels a Neptunes-ian spirit with classic hip-hop rubbing elbows with futurist cyber-funk.
While the Buddha Brand rappers rock a classic style in “Dispatch,” VERBAL runs off syllable after syllable as if he’s being chased down by the beat. After he signs off his verse, his producer counterpart inserts a brief flash of a para para beat as though Takahashi’s riffing on his sign-off bar: “Space gyaru, wanna kiss me, mirror ball astrology.” Takahashi often cuts in the track as such, manipulating the music live as he feels while laying trust in VERBAL to ad lib to his tweaks. The chemistry between the two also unravels in “EXPO EXPO.” During VERBAL’s verse, the drums gradually turns up from a hip-hop tempo closer to speed garage and then back to mellow boom-bap. The rapper meanwhile smoothly maintains his wordy, syllable-dense rhyme schemes like the change-up is all part of the act.
The production of “EXPO EXPO” unreels like a supercut of the break beats fashioned in Planet Shining transitioning into the groovier, more agile steps of garage, which showcases the other significant influence driving the album: dance music. The opening track “Prism” establishes a break from their previous full-length through its house-inspired sound, offering a new tempo and cadence through its four-on-the-floor beat. UK garage in particular had begun to seep into m-flo’s works around this time. After Towa Tei introduced it to him, Takahashi had fully embraced the slinky drum-programming but also the micro sample chops inspired by the likes of Todd Edwards. While the group had invited other producers to remix their records, Takahashi had been testing out this imported style under the banner of a m-flo remix for other artists.
By the time the trio began crafting EXPO EXPO, Takahashi had been ready to take apart his dance-music obsessions and put them back together in his own image. “It definitely gets categorized as 2-step, but I think [the song] has the wrong ideas about 2-step,” Takahashi said in 2018 about the group’s breakout anthem “come again.” “There are rules like how you use certain kick drums to make it, but I ignored all of it for ‘come again.’” He doesn’t ignore convention in the single as much as he foregoes traditional pop structure altogether, letting the group’s multiple different stylistic spheres collide on one record. LiSA tiptoes the fine line between everyday R&B girl and deep-house diva while VERBAL kicks through the track with a rapid-fire verse like he’s bum-rushing the club. If the worlds of the two seem like parts of fully separate stories laid on top of the other, it only reinforces Takahashi’s presence over the album as a DJ, locating the middle point of the beat where the lost souls can potentially meet.
M-flo’s savvy grasp of emergent pop styles lends EXPO EXPO to sound hypercurrent for its respective time as the trio cross ideas that’s emblematic of Japanese pop music around the turn of century: the next steps in the marriage between hip-hop and R&B, the importing of Timbaland and Neptunes’s vision of pop, the continued fascination with Eurohouse. And yet the trio’s own eccentricity behind the fashion-forward arrangements doesn’t so much present the music as ahead of the curve than it places it along its own unique timeline. Though the stuttering drums of “come again” might pair the song well with Darkchild-inspired R&B production, it also seems a touch removed from materials like, say, SMAP’s “Lion Heart” or BoA’s “Listen to My Heart” that are made later from the same cloth.
More than its virtual-expo storyline, the cultural fluency on display throughout the album expresses m-flo’s vision of the near future in retrospect. EXPO EXPO foresees the trends but also pioneers the upcoming rhythms and structures of J-pop in real time. Takahashi’s stylistic collisions in the likes of the album’s title track sparks the development of a grab-bag approach soon perfected as the group’s signature in their next LP, ASTROMANTIC. His maximalist vision driven by genre alchemy hints at the zany beat manipulations and the resulting off-the-wall energy informing the Western imagination of modern J-pop. M-flo seemed to have taken a peek into what was to come for J-pop in the following decade, and EXPO EXPO made the case that the future may have already arrived.
Explore the Expo
Since a lot of my fascination with EXPO EXPO was based on how it represented many of the larger movements happening around the group during its time, I wanted to get a good grasp of what was happening in J-pop around the turn of century. I tried to dispel what I call “the Utada Hikaru myth,” where First Love is talked about as if it’s the ground zero of modern R&B in Japan. I looked into how UK garage ended up in the hands of Japanese producers. I even dipped into how the Shibuka-kei scene had evolved going into the new millennium. Here are 5 records I enjoyed from this research that are also relevant to m-flo’s own path during the making of EXPO EXPO.
Last Century Modern by Towa Tei [East West, 1999]
Chances are, Taku Takahashi might have discovered UK garage on his own had Towa Tei not introduced it to him first. But the latter still looms heavy in J-pop’s overall transition into the 21st century as his output from the last few years of the ‘90s fashions dance music in a way that will also inform the scene’s future hits. Sure, Tetsuya Komuro had already played with jungle, and rock acts had been incorporating big beat and drum ‘n’ bass, but his take on d’n’b in the 1998 single “Butterfly” suggests another way forward that hints at a sleeker path informed by, yes, garage. His collaboration with Chara in “Let Me Know,” included here in 1999’s Last Century Modern, stands just as pertinent, with the waltzing drums even more fit for a R&B ballad.
A connection I couldn’t quite fit in the main review for EXPO EXPO was its echoes to Shibuya-kei. While m-flo operated very separate from that scene, Takahashi considered few players from Shibuya-kei as his peers and mentors, like Tomoyuki Tanaka of Fantastic Plastic Machine and, of course, Towa Tei. It’s likely more a coincidence that the trio’s Jetsons-like vision of the future matched in tone with Shibuya-kei’s cartoon-ish dalliance with futurism; it shares a likeliness also with the childlike perspectives of Pharrell Williams then of the Neptunes. But Expo Expo’s approach to modern-living, organized by its interludes of news broadcasts, nevertheless aligns with Shibuya-kei’s, an exploration also done in Last Century Modern that’s adjacent in spirit to the scene.
MG4 by MONDO GROSSO [Epic, 2000]
“Shinichi Osawa – he's my mentor, my friend,” Takahashi told Anime News Network in 2019 when asked about his favorite artists. The producer has been a peer among m-flo’s circle since the early days, and you can draw parallels with his creative developments to Takahashi’s during the year Expo Expo was in production, specifically through his fourth album, MG4, as Mondo Grosso. While Osawa initially drew more from neo soul and jazz than Takahashi for his own work, MG4 introduces a dip into dance music just as EXPO EXPO did. Around the same time m-flo embraced UK garage, house music inspired noticeable shifts in the rhythm and definitely the song lengths of this set of Mondo Grosso tracks: consider the jump from bird’s “Kimi No Oto Ga Kikoereru Bashoe,” off of the singer’s debut album produced by Osawa, to the 2000 album’s “Life,” also featuring bird. He can’t help but pay respect for hip-hop and spoken word as he does in the album’s four-song suite, but an exciting new influence was paving a path forward for Mondo Grosso as it did Takahashi and his groundbreaking album.
Crystal by Double [For Life, 1999]
Influential and massively popular as Hikaru Utada’s “Automatic” was in 1999, the single of course wasn’t ground zero for Japan’s R&B. The song’s style of hip-hop-inspired R&B fit right in with what others in J-pop were exploring, and then-duo Double’s debut album, Crystal, represents the popular sound of the genre during that era: a product pioneered by the likes of Mary J. Blige during the early half of its decade with thwacking New Jack Swing drums smoothed into hip-hop breaks. Taku Takahashi contributed an arrangement for the album, too, adapting his boom-bap chops into suave R&B—nothing surprising considering his own work with his group’s LiSA. This was the environment in which m-flo found itself in as an R&B act during its early days, where it had been easy for them to blend right in.
Yameru Mugen No Buddha No Sekai ~BEST OF THE BEST (Kinjitou)~ by BUDDHA BRAND [cutting edge, 2000]
*Recommended track: “Ningen Hatsudensho”
As far as the timeline for Japan’s rap goes, m-flo’s major-label debut lands somewhere near the end of the scene’s first wave, whose keys players can be best spotted in the billing of defining 1996 festival Sanpin Camp. Many of the featured groups like Rhymester, King Giddra, Nitro Microphone Underground and Soul Scream usually top lists compiling the best Japanese rap albums lists, and the crew who often ranks at the top of that canon is Buddha Brand with its 2000 compilation album, Yameru Mugen Buddha No Sekai. While much of the popular groups had firmly stuck to a New York-inspired template, almost stubbornly so, I’ve found Buddha Brand to be a more playful act sporting a looser, more nimble style than their gruff-and-tough contemporaries.
“Taboo (A Tip of M-Flo Remix)” by Ken Hirai [Sony, 2000]
According to Kiyoshi Matsuo, producer behind Ken Hirai during this era, m-flo’s “come again” was apparently built from the trio’s remix of Hirai’s “Taboo”—a B-side the 2000 single “LOVE OR LUST.” The 2-step-inspired drums definitely carry over to the group’s breakthrough single but also the ebbing, yearning strings. A Ken Hirai record being a platform for Takahashi to workout his 2-step sound also provides an incredible snapshot of the time as Matsuo, too, would be a big part in the growth of Japan’s R&B during the turn of the century. Apart from Hirai, the producer would soon get behind duo Chemistry, who also later imports UKG straightly for a single. While m-flo’s remix for Hikaru Utada’s “Distance” might be the more popular pick during this part of the decade, the link-up here is just as important through the personalities involved who would help shift the sound and style of J-pop.
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