Issue #61: PAL Sounds
The first issue of 2023 looks at the new PAL.Sounds compilation, m-flo's "come again" and the creative growth of For Tracy Hyde
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The break-up of For Tracy Hyde came as a surprise because the dream-pop band seemed to still had so much life left in them. Their late 2022 entry Hotel Insomnia hinted at several new musical directions they could have taken next. The record’s overall mix-like feel was refreshing in itself coming from a band so devoted to the album format, going far as packaging one release with a literal film poster as its cover art. As they upped the ante with each album, they always held up the promise of their cinematic ideals with the band’s best songs utilizing the magic of dream pop and shoegaze to blow up feelings like desire and yearning into a larger-than-life force.
To honor For Tracy Hyde before their disbandment in March, I charted the band’s growth through one song chosen from each of their albums, starting from their 2016 LP, Film Bleu. Here’s a crash course into the band’s incredible body of work.
“Her Sarah Records Collection” [P-Vine, 2016]
Recorded as early as 2012, “Her Sarah Records Collection” suggests the foundations of For Tracy Hyde’s music have been established even before the band put out their debut album Film Bleu. While the translucent jangle pop reminiscent of the likes of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart remains a signature sound for certain, the way the band incorporates nostalgia carries over to their future records. “Her Sarah Records collection / and that feeling of summer love,” singer eureka closes out the song, and the evocative music places an image of that emotion better than words ever can.
…from Film Bleu (2016)
See also: “Shady Lane Sherbet”
“Floor” [P-Vine, 2017]
For Tracy Hyde’s he(r)art invited comparisons to films not only from its cover art stylized as a literal movie poster but also through its thematic cohesion as well as a sequencing that resembled a narrative arc. “Cinematic” as a descriptor comes to mind, too, for “Floor” with music that elevates an everyday scene into a production that feels larger than life. Rather than conjuring blurry shoegaze, the band polish their guitar tones into a sleek sound that aim closer to flowery, The 1975-esque funk. The music is still all in service to lyrics about being transfixed by desire: “You make me almost forget how to breathe / please wait a little,” eureka sighs as the guitars bloom into an iridescent riff. Yet with them sporting an urban sound, the song feel not like a dream but a story happening somewhere close to home.
…from he(r)art (2017)
See also: “Underwater Girl”
Welcome to This Side of Japan’s first issue of 2023! And welcome to any first-time readers of the newsletter who subscribed through my year-end lists or from Substack recently featuring This Side of Japan on their page. I don’t know if you still want to hear my thoughts on J-pop in 2022 a month into the new year, but I was invited as a guest again on Nante Japan’s year-end podcast if you want to check it out.
For Tracy Hyde has been on the mind from their break-up news, but also because I interviewed them last month for Tone Glow! You can read that here. We got more newness down below, starting from a techno compilation for the Album of the Week. I took liberties to once again pick a non-number one for the Oricon flashbacks to write about a personal favorite J-pop hit.
Album of the Week
PAL.Sounds2 by Various artists [PAL.Sounds]
*Recommended track: “Undertow” by ktskm | Listen to it on Bandcamp/Spotify
“Based on 3 ecologies: natural environment, social relationship and human spirit,” PAL.Sounds and its driving ethos were nascent when producers E.O.U., Keiju, ktskm and Vis launched their dance label in 2021. The four introduced their new venture with PAL.Sounds1, and while the compilation album ran slim with just a track from each of them, the small release provided enough variety: the junglism of Keiju and ktskm—who also work together as Kross Section—make up the crew’s traditionalist half, and the warped bass of E.O.U. and Vis represent the eccentric side. Their grasp of atmosphere meanwhile brought a unifying focus to the four tracks with each being light to the touch as it dealt with the densest of bass lines.
If PAL.Sounds1 expressed the first tenet through a consistency in quality, PAL.Sounds2 tapped into the ecology of relationship and community. The second entry in the series has grown double the size from its predecessor, inviting producers who the label’s leading four see as their creative peers. As Keiju, ktskm, E.O.U. and Vis bring newcomers into the mix, the intrigue behind PAL.Sounds2 now lies in how outside names interpret the concept of PAL.Sounds and tweak their music to fit within the world of the label.
Abentis and Chanaz experiment in their tracks a looseness to the beat as encouraged by the label, especially founding member Vis, whose expansive techno gets slotted between the two guests. The former’s “Ceaselessly” aptly zones out into a meditative ambiance, its spacey synths ebbing and flowing underneath the thick, gamelan-like stabs. The latter, meanwhile, hands a more traditional piece of techno, though just as entrancing. The spooky, phased-out synths and its bubbling bass lines of “Unyo” find a peer in E.O.U.; the lopsided feel of the track also calls to my mind some of the bass tracks coming out from Hessle Audio or Livity Sound.
Other guests Rilla and T5UMUT5UMU turn in records tailor their singular sounds to suit the airiness present in PAL.Sounds1. For their own works, both artists deal with bass and techno that feel a whole lot more austere than what’s favored by the Kyoto label: the former recently put out a few EPs full of heady, industrial-tinged techno from SVBKVLT, and the latter have been putting out fierce bass music embracing much of the hardcore continuum. Despite the contrast from their main works, their contributions for PAL.Sounds2 feel harmonious without lightening heft or impact. T5UMUT5UMU in particular presents a spectacular maximalism in “Virtual Church” built upon sleek and shine than deep bass and grime, and the blinding glow of its synth make for a seamless pass-off from E.O.U.’s preceding synth-scapes.
As ambitious as it reads, the three-ecology concept behind PAL.Sounds is left very open-ended on paper. And yet outside names featured in PAL.Sounds2 have interpreted it in fine detail, with some retooling their music to hue closer to the label’s core. With support from its friends, the label makes the case through its second compilation album that the collective has established its creative identity with clear definition.
“Itsunomani” by MAISONdes ft. Aimer & Wanuka [Sony]
Save for her signature rasp, Aimer sounds unlike herself in the newest MAISONdes track. The singer’s name calls to mind solemn, baroque epics, thanks to the singer lending her husky yet towering vocals to grandiose tracks featured in various anime series—like “Zankyosanka” of Demon Slayer fame, which ended up being the number-one song of 2022 on Billboard Japan’s Hot 100. “Itsunomani” meanwhile finds her singing along a twee pop tune that you’d be hard-pressed to find in her own catalog. Though shrinking the singer’s voice into a bedroom-pop like scale might seem counter-intuitive on paper, it actually ends up fitting her vocals into a new, refreshing context, unraveling for her an unseen personality.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Drumshiki Sousaki” by Azusa Tadokoro; “Fantasy?” by Mashinomi ft. maco marets
“sink into my lust” by poetry of torch [self-released]
“sink into my lust” marks a moment of transition before the second strike in poetry of torch’s new record monuments. Though, that’s not to mistake it for a period of calm—plenty of brutal damage still abound. The emoviolence band ride out the shifty riffs introduced at the end of the preceding track into an extended breakdown, and a few brief minutes feel like several left in the tank as multiple sequences get packed into its compact length. Poetry of torch blitz through their songs with more speed and fervor, best experienced by consuming monuments as a whole.
monuments is out now. Listen to it on Bandcamp.
See also: “Ghost Town” by HAERERE; “Morgue” by Otus
“One Tree” by unknownX9 [self-released]
The beats on unknownX9’s new album IBIPIO sound much brighter in color than the down-and-out emo raps in last year’s D.S.L. EP, and the fuzzy, video-game synths of “One Tree” make an especially glowing impression. But if the track’s neon pulse recalls the flashiness of swag rap, unknownX9 remains too bashful to really self-indulge. His melodic, Auto-Tune-warped instead turn to self-reflection on his own growth, which isn’t without corny references—“grass types, beware of fire” goes a line in the chorus—that turns into a kind of sweet charm.
IBIPIO is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Where to go next” by DADA & AZU; “Lost” by HITOMIN
This Week in 2001…
This section is usually dedicated to the Oricon number ones throughout the chart’s history, but for this issue, I’ll write about a hit that did not make it to the very top.
“come again” by m-flo [rhythm zone, 2001]
Highest position at #4 during the week of January 29, 2001 | Listen to it on YouTube/Spotify
A hop-scotching kick and snare loop in the background as m-flo’s Taku Takahashi work on a new song on his computer. His collaborator for the track, a young producer by the name of JUVENILE, comments in awe at the camera upon hearing the music being made: “Doesn’t this beat just feel like m-flo?” Takahashi quickly brushes it off with a chuckle, responding that, no, it’s just basic 2-step. But the dance subgenre’s skip-and-step rhythm has become so foundational to the m-flo sound since “come again,” the group’s biggest single still to date, it’s practically inseparable from the music made by the trio of Takahashi, rapper Verbal and singer LiSA.
The hushed break beat and the slinking hi-hats certainly makes obvious of the influence behind the production of “come again.” Takahashi had been playing around with the style not long after the group released their debut album Planet Shining in 2000, shown off in the m-flo remix for Hirai Ken from that same year. But he had already came up with his own take by the time he came around to “come again,” only loosely following the traditional form in comparison to, say, “FLOATIN’” by CHEMISTRY. “It definitely gets categorized as 2-step, but I think [the song] has the wrong ideas about 2-step,” Takahashi said in 2018. “There are rules like how you use certain kick drums to make it, but I ignored all of it for ‘come again.’”
His impulse to stray away from the routine extends to the production of “come again” as a whole— “it’s a track I made by ignoring all the standards of a traditional Japanese pop song,” Takahashi wrote on the m-flo website at the time of the single’s release. At one point, the track abandons structure altogether as an extended drum ‘n’ break solo cracks open a futurist, post-Darkchild R&B beat in the middle of the song. The clashing nature of the production turns out to be a matter of circumstance as much as creative decision. Verbal apparently laid his verse down when the track only had its drums, with LiSA’s vocals put down later, which explains how he slides in so abruptly without much regard in how it gels in theme with LiSA’s verses.
But if Verbal appears to not hear LiSA out, it actually goes along with the narrative unfolding in the track. LiSA recounts a character dealing with a neglectful lover who her friends all advise to split from: “Friday at La Scala / gonna dance / to forget you / tonight,” she sings in the chorus, cutting syllables in sync with the skipping drums. She channels the smoothness of the beat rather than build up to a cathartic release as the narrative might demand. Though, her hushed cool reveals to be resignation in disguise with her heading to the disco more so because she’s out of all other options.
The collisions happening in “come again” also hints at the m-flo classics to come. If the public remembers the group more fondly via the m-flo loves… records supported by J-R&B vocalists like Namie Amuro, BoA and Crystal Kay, it’s worth reminding that the “come again” provided the blueprint for those singles thereafter. The rapid drum break interjecting LiSA’s 2-step serenade hints at the expanded breakdown of “The Love Bug.” “Come again” also signals a phasing out the boom-bap found in a song like the 2001 single “orbit-3” for the drum ‘n’ bass blitzes driving “miss you.” In both style and format, this is where the m-flo sound officially begins.
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Next issue of This Side of Japan is out February 8. You can check out previous issues of the newsletter here.
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I wrote about CHEMISTRY’s “FLOATIN’” in This Side of Japan issue #37.