Issue #42: ...Makes Me Smile
Highlighting the new Toriena album, Yen Town Band's number one and Dream Comes True's new single that's inspired by Sonic the Hedgehog
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Dreams Come True’s latest single, “Tsugi No Se-No! De -ON THE GREEN HILL-,” should sound very familiar to the video-game heads out there. The veteran J-pop duo reworks the iconic Green Hill Zone theme from the first Sonic the Hedgehog game for a track commissioned for Ito En and their bottled green tea. The horn riff immediately gives away the source while they sprinkle some twinkling bells as if to recreate the sound effect of Sonic collecting a row of golden rings. The MASADO & MIWASCO version runs the arrangement through a synthesized filter, getting the music even closer as it’s heard in the 1991 Sega Genesis game.
The reworking of Green Hill Zone makes more associative sense considering one-half of the duo Masato Nakamura is also the one who worked on the music for the first two Sonic the Hedgehog games. Dreams Come True in general have also been in the mood to look back these days, recently putting together a remix album, DOSCO prime, that revamps their biggest hits from the past three decades into synth-filled tracks for the dance floor. “Converting their top hit songs into dance tunes in DOSCO prime must have got them to reflect on the core essence of their music,” read the liner notes for “Tsugi No Se-No! De.” “It’s what made it possible to do something outside the box as making a Dreams Come True song using ‘Green Hill Zone’ as the base.”
“Tsugi No Se-No! De” certainly highlights a thread that ties “Green Hill Zone” with Nakamura’s work for Dreams Come True. The all-speed-ahead synth-funk of Sonic can be traced in works as recent as last year’s synthwave-inspired jam “Yes and No.” But what I also love about this new single is how it re-contextualizes “Green Hill Zone” from this ambiguous label of video-game music into a proper pop song, allowing listeners to examine the music as it relates more to other pop styles and idioms. With analog instruments used in the arrangement, too, it’s easier to recognize the theme now as a tune inspired by genres like funk, jazz fusion and the adult-contemporary pop inspired by the two styles.
The reframing of the music into pop can extend into the rest of the Sonic the Hedgehog soundtrack. More than a few instrumentals from the game can potentially be given a similar treatment as “Tsugi No Se-No! De.” Nakamura doubles down on jazzy cool in the suave theme for Spring Yard Zone, with its slap bass well pronounced. The tender, effervescent synth melody of the Star Light Zone theme needs minimal retouches to back a late-Showa pop ballad. Thinking of the soundtrack as a collection of pop songs rather than electronic beats offer a fun new perspective in which to take in once-familiar compositions. And it’s a worthwhile perspective to adopt going into other video-game soundtracks as well.
Wouldn’t you know it: the artist responsible for this issue’s Album of the Week has worked on a track for a Sonic game, in collaboration with Jun Senoue at that. I also did not notice that the Oricon lookback for this issue covers yet again a number one by a fictional band from a movie—a fun coincidence! And I put in a little bonus for Singles Club because I couldn’t resist sharing an EDM banger.
Album of the Week
Toriena Makes Me Smile by TORIENA [Mad Milky]
Toriena’s releases since her move to a major label buzzed with an urge to prove a personal point. For the producer’s first for Toy’s Factory, 2017’s MELANCOZMO EP, she refused to get boxed into a single identity like a chiptune producer or an idol-adjacent act. Once she felt her singing overshadowed her production chops, she put out a mostly-instrumental album simply titled Pure Fire and delivered exactly what was advertised. After all the show and prove throughout the years, Toriena finally seems to sit in a comfortable place in her latest full-length, Toriena Makes Me Smile.
According to her, the only real aim for Toriena Makes Me Smile is channeling her experience playing a virtual live set directly on record. While the flow of the album retains the spontaneity of a DJ mix, the chosen material resembles parts of a greatest-hits collection showcasing the strength but also the range of Toriena’s production work. If her past few releases felt like a part of a slash-and-burn tactic, Toriena Makes Me Smile collectively builds off of Toriena’s successes throughout the decade to offer a comprehensive work as an EDM producer.
The album’s on-the-fly feel can be found within individual tracks as much as the record’s general flow. Rather than leave a full hardstep banger here and an electro track down the line like bread crumbs, Toriena often strings together a constellation of her EDM interests into a single stream. “Speed Dog” nods back to the producer’s chiptune days with a Game Boy boss-level-like sequence introducing the bombastic rave; the 8-bit blips then give way to high-speed piano stabs and finally a brutal gabber drop akin to the explosions of Pure Fire. The following track, “Hot Spots in My Head,” compacts an even more aggressive smack of gabber in between grinding electro, interspersed with brief vocal lines reminiscent of her pop-leaning outputs found in MELANCOZMO.
Brain-melting EDM continues to be the draw for Toriena Makes Me Smile. While Toriena makes no concessions to appease to those who recoil at guttural beat drops, the album covers a wider range of dance than the deliberately narrow scope of Pure Fire. The back half plays with outside styles to switch up the presentation of the pyrotechnics of the front stretch. “Under the Skin” wields a vicious electro bass line like a sleeker Gesaffelstein anthem, and electro bubbles up again in a more glitched form in “Overload” over pumping four-on-the-floors. Though it still moves with reckless speed like what came before, the prickly techno of penultimate track “Print F” sounds texturally IDM more than festival-packing EDM. For those whom the dips into gabber goes too left for their tastes, the album hands a variety of other entry points to ease into the harder stuff.
Toriena provides exactly one vocal-led track in Toriena Makes Me Smile, just like she did in Pure Fire. Though, the lyrics in “C.Q.C.” functions more like a command from the DJ in charge: “Just keep your body moving on beat,” she softly repeats while throwing things your way—a growling dubstep wub, a high-BPM d’n’b break—to make said task a physically demanding challenge. “C.Q.C.” marks the most pop entry in the album, but she still pushes audiences to approach her music under the rules she set. The overall construction of Toriena Makes Me Smile similarly works in this attitude: while its all-encompassing make-up places the album as the producer’s most welcoming record, Toriena still indulges in the wildest antics without a care for how it may be received.
“Tabeta Ai” by aiko [Pony Canyon]
Aiko swiftly returns with a new single to follow up her fourteenth album, Doushitatte Tsutaerarenaika, from earlier this spring, and she sings about a head-over-heels love that’s been her bread and butter for more than two decades. “Only the days I think about you stick to my body,” she sighs in her signature cadence like she’s fitting a melody to her feelings on the spot, and the swooning pop-rock emphasizes the high like she’s walking on clouds. What hits above all is hearing her begin to obsess over the mundane in fine detail. “When you’re away, what are you drinking? What are you wearing,” aiko can’t help but wonder in the chorus. It’s full of frustration, but it’s that intimate frustration that also makes her sentiments sound adorably sweet.
Tabeta Ai / Atashi Tachi is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“kuromi.” by CVLTE ft. 4s4ki, sacha online [self-released]
Usually one to play in the heavier parts of the emo rap/pop punk lane, CVLTE cross over to the dance-pop side of today’s emo-pop in “kuromi.” The three-piece adapt their double-pedal metalcore drums to play a beat indebted more to happy hardcore, edging their sound closer to the DDR-dreaming hyperpop crowd. Though, they can’t help but indulge in their usual antics, launching into a huge metal riff as a drop in the chorus while the drums pummel away. And who else to recruit for this but 4s4ki, an artist (and past collaborator) who stakes out a significant space in this EDM-laced side of the emo-pop divide? The other guest sacha online meanwhile reminds of how rap as a genre lies at the core of this style, delivering a verse in a slippery voice influenced heavily by Playboi Carti.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“DON’T STOP the EUROBEAT” + DE DE MOUSE Remix by HARETOKIDOKI ft. motsu [Hyper Pop]
While the synth-pop duo dreamed of the neon-lit ‘80s in their 2019 full-length, Nebula of Reminiscence, HARETOKIDOKI move the nostalgia needle over to the ‘90s and supply some Eurobeat as advertised in their new track. As if the blindingly bright keyboards and the hi-NRG beats didn’t already complete the package, the duo invite motsu of m.o.v.e—an Avex Trax group responsible for a number of Eurobeat songs for the Initial D anime—to lay down raps and ad libs. The chorus in particular reminds me of MAX’s “Seventies,” a cover of MEGA NRG MAN’s song of the same name, though it’s bound to call back a few more other early hits by MAX or Namie Amuro.
If straight-up Eurobeat isn’t quite your thing, HARETOKIDOKI also collects a series of stunning remixes for “DON’T STOP the EUROBEAT” that modernizes the song to meet current-day EDM standards. My favorite is the one by DE DE MOUSE, who flips the original into several different variations throughout the course of the track. He first cuts up the song and mashes it back together into a skittering electro-house, then he unleashes the brightest of synths to lead into a fist-pumping EDM chorus. It eventually segues into growling hard-trance before he sets off another stadium-dance explosion. As if “DON’T STOP the EUROBEAT” couldn’t get any louder, DE DE MOUSE expands the track into an anthem larger than life.
DON’T STOP the EUROBEAT / RAVE ON is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
This Week in 1996…
“Swallowtail Butterfly ~Ai No Uta~” by YEN TOWN BAND [Epic/Sony]
No. 1 during the week of Oct. 7, 1996 | Listen to it on Spotify
The lore of Yen Town—the main setting of Shunji Iwai’s 1996 film, Swallowtail Butterfly—goes like this. After the yen had become the world’s most powerful currency, Tokyo had attracted an influx of immigrants, who has come to refer to the capital as Yen Town. Disgusted at the foreigners flocking in, the natives had looked down on the outsiders as second-class citizens, calling them Yentowns. Yen Town Band is a rock band made up of those very immigrants who used to scrape by while living at the bottom before a fateful event allowed them to pursue music at a price. While the six piece exist solely in the world of the film, they also managed to snag a number-one hit on the Oricon with a track that served as the movie’s theme song.
The capital in Swallowtail Butterfly resembled nothing like the actual Tokyo. Most of the film is instead set in the slums with the characters in dilapidated bars and brooding industrial infrastructure. While Iwai paired the imagery of the First World and Third World to build Yen Town, he also mashed up multiple film genres to tell his story of a band of outlaws. The movie wants to be a crime tale, an experimental art film, and a romance drama with a music-career subplot in the background, all at the same time. The busyness in style and perspective doesn’t let the film to settle into a singular aesthetic or timeline but rather a sum of many moving parts.
“Swallowtail Butterfly tells a story based on its own imagined history. It’s set in Japan, but there’s a unique exoticism throughout, and you never know in what year it takes place,” music critic Tomoyuki Mori told Real Sound in 2015. “The band that appears in the movie, Yen Town Band, was also of course portrayed without being tied to a specific place or country. I listened to [the band’s album] MONTAGE again, and it felt surreal how it still feels like the future while being analog in sound and how it felt nostalgic even though it’s music that I haven’t heard yet.”
For how otherworldly Yen Town appears in the film, it’s intriguing how Iwai, Takeshi Kobayashi and Chara settle on a textbook classic-rock sound for their band. A veteran arranger and producer already in 1996, Kobayashi could’ve pursued any eclectic style to express the music born out of a society that doesn’t exist in reality. But the resulting music does make narrative sense: aspiring musicians coming up from such an environment would most likely end up forming a group in the blues/rock set-up of guitar, bass and drums, especially with the characters lacking access to technology. “Shanghai Baby” and “Mama’s Alright” from MONTAGE sound precisely like pop records by a band who cut their teeth performing at bar stages.
“Swallowtail Butterfly ~Ai No Uta~” meanwhile sounds exclusively made for the film’s curtain call. The somber synth whistle in the intro establishes an elegiac feel to the proceedings. Considering how the song bows out a story which ends with a death of one of its main characters, it’s a fitting atmosphere. “You went behind the clouds to chase the dreams of tomorrow,” Chara sings in the ballad’s chorus, echoing her character Glico in the film, mourning the death of her former lover. “Absentmindedly, I thought of our goodbye.” The strings solemnly chime in, elevating the farewell letter into the school of eternal classics in the vein of late ‘60s pop.
While “Swallowtail Butterfly ~Ai No Uta~” gives poetic closure to Swallowtail Butterfly, the melancholy of Yen Town Band transcends its associated film. The song’s initial success seemed to hinge on the success of the movie: the single was released in July but didn’t hit number one until September when Swallowtail Butterfly hit theaters. But it has since become a beloved song for many singers to cover, from moumoon to Kumi Koda, from JUJU to Haruna Hanazawa. Many have pitched in their takes, but Chara remains supreme as the chosen singer with her inimitable vocals giving the song a unique emotional dimension: grieving but in gratitude, cathartic but not devastated.
The single has sustained its popularity enough to be re-purposed 20 years later to accompany something everyday as a fabric softener commercial. That Lion ad pulls a line to inflate its associated emotions: “No matter where I go, the world rides through the night / and then the love song starts to echo in my heart,” Chara begins to sing as Yuriko Yoshitaka inhales the scent of her scarf, then gains confidence to apologize to her partner via text about fighting with them the night before. The sentimental lyrics, delivered by Chara’s dreamy vocals, proves key to the record resonating with many two decades since the song’s release, now belonging to memories far beyond the film that inspired it.
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