Issue #41: Attitude Fancy
Exploring the new FNCY album, "Glamorous Sky" from the NANA film and the pop punk bands behind B.O.L.T's great new album
Welcome to This Side of Japan, a newsletter on Japanese music, new and old. You can check out previous issues here.
B.O.L.T. isn’t the first group to discover how potent pop punk can be as fuel to drive an idol song, but they are one of the best current acts in the scene channeling the best qualities of the rock subgenre. If their debut full-length, last year’s POP, was the four piece testing the waters of their then-new sound, they detach the training wheels to sprint full speed ahead in their latest LP, Attitude. The riffs strike huge, the hooks and choruses just as massive and direct, while the drums whip up a relentless momentum. It’s a fitting vehicle for naive, wide-eyed youth music that wears its heart proudly on its sleeve—a description apt to define both pop punk and traditional idol songs.
The authenticity of B.O.L.T’s pop punk checks out from the credits of their albums with the group hitting up several musicians from actual pop-punk bands. And the liner notes of Attitude also provide a solid entry point for some awesome pop-punk bands Japan has to offer. Some have already been running the circuit for more than a decade while others are young guns with a few promising records under their belt. So I figured let’s knock the two birds with one stone by highlighting the idol group’s new album but also using the tracks on the record as a mini guide to some of the pop-punk bands who worked on the music.
SpecialThanks (Track #1, “Smile Flower”)
“Movement,” from SUNCTUARY (2020)
Attitude kicks off with its standout song, “Smile Flower,” that doubles as the idol group’s mission statement: “Anytime / Smile no matter what / Let’s get the world to blossom through our smiles,” B.O.L.T. sing a classic idol-song chorus as a high-octane riff blasts out of a mellow acoustic jangle. The idols’ words of optimism but also the limitlessness of youth is supplied by Misaki, whose band SpecialThanks practically leads by example when it comes to perseverance as well as faith in their own work. Trucking along since 2005, the Aichi band has shown no signs of dying down in last year’s SUNCTUARYalbum. Like “Smile Flower” for Attitude, “Movement” delivers the band’s thesis for SUNCTUARY: “Let’s share joy / The song of love rings in the heart,” Misaki sings in the chorus. “We become one / and together we start a movement.” SpecialThanks and B.O.L.T. strive to accomplish the same goal—it’s no wonder they make a great pair.
TOTALFAT (Track #5, “Yummy!”; Track #6, “Don’t Blink”)
TOTALFAT’s songs about love resonate more as odes to brotherhood and camaraderie, and so the three piece seem to reach into a different perspective when writing music for B.O.L.T. “Yummy!” from Attitude in particular employs a few lyrical gestures more specific to idols than a punk band. “If these memories that I tasted for the first time with you won’t let me go… I’ll just eat them myself,” B.O.L.T sing with a fishing wink; “My world began to spin for the first time with you, and it won’t stop… Because I love you,” the idols close out the single with a winsome confession. But TOTALFAT’s Shun knows what he’s doing with these lyrics, adapting the band’s passions and bet-it-all attitude into more innocent yet equally wholesome topics.
When TOTALFAT does away with cute metaphors and gets straight to the point, B.O.L.T. are more than welcome to meet the band halfway. “Don’t Blink” immediately kicks into high gear with a guitar scrawling and “let’s go!” ad lib cuing a galloping beat. TOTALFAT’s Jose can’t help but include a few idol-like phrases: “Be under my spell / don’t blink,” the idol sings in the titular chorus. “I just want to keep looking at you.” But elsewhere, the single stands broad enough to encompass the thoughts of a girl yearning to bump into her crush as well as a band dying to reunite with their fans—a dual perspective that idol groups can exclusively assume both at once.
Album of the Week
FNCY BY FNCY by FNCY [King]
Before they officially formed FNCY, rappers ZEN-LA-ROCK and Chinza Dopeness and producer-singer G.RINA already had fostered their own shared space after years spent together as collaborators as well as tour mates. “Even on YouTube, ‘Seventh Heaven’ [featuring G. RINA and Chinza Dopeness] did by far the best in terms of views, so I thought it’d be better if I invited them to form a group,” ZEN-LA-ROCK told Natalie. “Touring together being fun was a big part of it too.” The trio brilliantly captured their dynamic in their self-titled debut that exuded a looseness found from musicians engaged in works outside of their main projects: they dedicated a song solely to their love of fashion and filmed a video for another in homage to ‘90s dramas.
That free spirit of the first record remains intact in their sophomore album, FNCY BY FNCY, now crystallized as the guiding force of their music: they indulge in their own take on booty bass in “COSMO,” and they show gratitude to having delicious food on their plate in “FOOD GUIDANCE.” But the three also solidfy a more firm vision for the project with the collaboration starting to grow into a proper act than a fun side gig. Their second outing finds the trio settle on their mutual core values as well as the purpose they wish their music to serve, all without it cutting into the sense of fun that defined their debut outing.
FNCY stick to what they know in terms of production style—West Coast electro, New Jack Swing, first-wave hip hop, and several other drum-machine funk—but they reveal a breadth of adjacent influences that hadn’t been explored in the last record. A collection of their favorite dance music circa ‘80s and ‘90s get mashed up in “REP ME” like a mini DJ mix; the hip-house beat transitions into a B-boy break a la “It Takes Two,” then circles into a snappy four-on-the-floor house outro. The booty-bass tribute, “COSMOS,” similarly throws multiple ingredients in the pot. The trio shared how it was first more explicitly Miami bass, then it took on the shape of UK garage until it finalized into this party track that replicates the experience of bouncing around multiple DJ rooms.
But while the trio enthusiastically runs through their favorite sounds, they steer clear from indulging in a more self-conscious appreciation of their influences. “We actually didn’t mean to consciously make ‘80s and ‘90s music or do an homage for it for FNCY,” ZEN-LA-ROCK explained to Natalie. “I know the feeling is there, but it just seeps out.” And the lack of deliberation in the music partly owes to their creative process. The songs of FNCY often seem inspired by either a casual, almost superficial idea, like their thank-you to food in “FOOD GUIDANCE,” or an immediate reaction to current events, which the subtitle of “FU-TSU-U (NEW NORMAL)” should make clear. The trio’s methods hardly leave room for any deep calculation and instead encourage something more instinctual, like they’re freestyling to the topic on the spot.
The trio’s embrace of ephemeral results in a carefree summer jam like “Minna No Natsu,” an ode to the sunny season without a care if its COVID-era references will age particularly well. FNCY BY FNCY showcases more modes and dimension than pure feelgood vibes, though, and the melancholy tracks in particular prove to be highlights. The trio soul-search in the middle of the big city in “TOKYO LUV,” and they yearn to be held close by a significant other in “CONTACT” to the tune of 3 a.m. synth-funk. Both ZEN-LA-ROCK and Chinza Dopeness dial down their raps in the latter track to meet the beat halfway, and the contrast in mood is especially detectable when the two were feeling the excitement in the air from the shuffling, bass-heavy beat just a song before.
More than the use of the 808 or hip-hop chants, it’s this celebration of the here and now that satisfies FNCY as rightful spiritual successors to their creative influences. The trio understands their favorite genres like disco, hip hop and house have historically served as great artistic vehicles to speak to and make the best out of a fleeting moment: those foundations frame the pandemic-dreaming sentiments in “FU-TSU-U (NEW NORMAL)” into palatable music. FNCY promote the fun and beauty in enjoying the present, and that very idea resonates in FNCY BY FNCY especially during a time when tomorrow seems less predictable.
“Bloomer” by ASA Wu [ASOBIMUSIC]
“Bloomer” hits extra heavy in the track list of ASA Wu’s new omen EP as it follows a set of flirtatious dance-pop. The nights out and the negotiations made on the dance floor in previous tracks seem like a distant, poignant memory in this painfully lonely space. “The iPhone screen shines bright held in my naive hands / Network connecting in high speed in this tiny world,” she opens the somber, acoustic-guitar-driven R&B, not before timestamping the track to lay down crucial context about her isolation: “Heart voice to you / without it being heard, 2020.” She deeply yearns for intimacy and just things to go right for once in this wretched pandemic state. That said, the real dig in “Bloomer” is how it drags into 2021 without much change in situation: “I realized I still haven’t got to see you yet,” ASA Wu sighs, and the seasons keep changing despite it all.
Omen EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Hokuto” by Loota, Brodinski & Modulaw [self-released]
After bending his Travis Scott-like, effects-fried vocals into unique shapes across a series of singles throughout the year, Loota reached new heights with his experiments in the album, Kuuga, with Tohji and Brodinski. “Hokuto” sees the rapper linking once again with Brodinski, who supplies him with another raw, wounded beat that wouldn’t be out of place in their previous collaborative album. Loota conjures apocalyptic imagery to accompany such brutal music while his voice gets increasingly distorted as if it’s a side effect from the acidic atmosphere brewing in the production. He remains collected despite the destruction swirling behind him, his verse settling into an entrancing cadence like he’s in deep meditation.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“#141” by Toiret Status [self-released]
Visual artist Kai Yoshizawa’s work just looks like how Toiret Status’s music sounds. The latter producer’s music for Yoshizawa’s Post Matter exhibition back in May—a USB exclusive release at the art show out now compiled as the Brue EP—features the amorphous IDM signature to his catalog, and its tactile surface complements the visual artist’s metallic, shapeless, texture-heavy designs. The synthetic sheen of “#141” establishes an alien atmosphere as it mutates seemingly upon its own will. But above all else, its the chorus of disembodied voices creeping into the music that gives Toiret Status’s haunted, uncanny world a sharp sense of eerie.
This Week in 2005…
“GLAMOROUS SKY” by NANA starring MIKA NAKASHIMA [Sony Music Associated]
No. 1 during the weeks of Sept. 12 - 19, 2005 | Listen to it on YouTube/Spotify
When it comes to “GLAMOROUS SKY,” Mika Nakashima had a lot more to live up to for her titular role in the song’s attached movie, NANA, the film adaptation of the hit manga of the same name. The singer played goth rocker Nana, who aspires to get her punk band Black Stones back up and running after her former band member/love interest left to join another group. While the movie is populated by musicians, its central story doesn’t focus so much about music than the relationships that surround the unlikely friendship between the titular character and Nana, her roommate-turned-best friend who represents the polar opposite version of the former.
As exciting a prospect to record actual music for a fictional band from a hit book, the songs of Black Stones don’t exactly call for the most technically impressive music. Not only are the Black Stones a poster-child rock band who straightly follows the genre’s rules and traditions, they are also made up of amateur musicians who are still just a little more than the sum of their influences. Their songs actually should sound more rough to the touch as they work from a limited palette. The challenge instead would be to let the music exude a sense of charm in spite of (or because of?) their amateur hand to properly accompany a beloved series.
For the film’s lead track “GLAMOROUS SKY,” the producers brought on HYDE, whose main band L’arc~en~ciel could very well be one of the direct influences of Black Stones and their leather-clad punk image. HYDE hands the fictional band a flashy piece of glam punk with power chords aplenty—a vibe not outside L’arc’s then-new album, AWAKE. The guitar tone shines white hot, but the band keep it modest with the solos. That slight restraint captures a band eager to hit the big stage yet a still little too shy to command that big a crowd.
“GLAMOROUS SKY” places Mika Nakashima, singing as Nana, on center stage as it should. Her husky, vibrato-heavy vocals befit the model rock song so well, it surprised me to know later that rock and punk was not at all a genre she dabbled in. I expected to find at least one song borrowing from punk to some slight degree in her then-new album, Music, as a precedent for the NANA involvement at minimum. The record instead positions her with the rest of J-pop circa 2005, taking on funk and R&B while wedging ballads in between. And ballads were especially a big money-maker for Nakashima before “GLAMOROUS SKY”: the singer is still best remembered for “Yuki No Hana,” which finds her pressing her dramatic vibratos against somber pianos to convey a deep loneliness from a fresh break-up.
Nakashima lets the guitars do more of the screaming here. Her job as Nana is to keep cool while commanding the mic, singing in hushed tones until it’s finally time to let go come the chorus: “I want to cross over that rainbow, and go back to that morning,” she sings, the jet-engine blast from the guitars raising the scale of her lyrics tenfold. “The days we shared dreams and walked together / glamorous days.” Nakashima does her best with the naive lyrics given by Ai Yazawa, the author of the NANA manga. The singer sounds the most exposed in the bridge, trying hard to elevate the rudimentary weekday format. That said, the language overall works in the song’s favor as it complements the youthful energy flowing from the rock music.
Despite “GLAMOROUS SKY” being one of her best-selling singles, not much of its influence has carried over to Nakashima’s own music. It took 13 years for Nakashima and HYDE to collaborate again, fittingly for another media tie-up, but the pop climate had changed drastically since NANA by then and so it brought about a whole different result. Nana lives on as a separate identity, who has left music for good after putting out THE END in 2006, following NANA 2. Though it makes sense to retire the moniker as the franchise films came to a close, it’s bit of a shame the singer’s promising exploration with the rock genre can be facilitated only in connection with the NANA franchise.
This Side of Japan has a Ko-Fi as a tip jar if you want to show appreciation. A subscription to This Side of Japan is free, and you don’t have to pay money to access any published content. I appreciate any form of support, but if you want to, you can buy a Coffee to show thanks.
Next issue of This Side of Japan is out October 6. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
Need to contact? You can find me on Twitter or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org