The first single from capsule’s upcoming WAVE RUNNER, “FEEL AGAIN,” finds capsule entering a new arena, trying to capture the zeitgeist with a healthy dose of trendy EDM sounds. It’s not Shibuya-kei by any means, but we’re covering it due to producer Yasutaka Nakata’s pedigree – which is discussed at length in the review. Check it out!
The career of Yasutaka Nakata, currently the hottest producer in Japanese pop music and, increasingly, a force in the international music scene as well, could hardly have began less auspiciously than it actually did. Joining up with vocalist Toshiko Koshijima to form capsule when they were both only 17 years old, releasing their first single on Yamaha’s undistinguished record label 4 years later, his early work was precious to a fault – clearly Nakata was enamored of the Shibuya-kei scene, even as its popularity was waning fast, and the first capsule album High-Collar Girl was as loving of a tribute to Pizzicato Five as any musician has ever made. The parallels between the two groups are impossible to ignore, especially as capsule’s debut single came mere months after the legendary band announced they were breaking up in January of 2001. Both groups were composed of a female vocalist and a male songwriter, playing sample-based pop steeped in Western tradition; but, while Pizzicato Five’s music broke new ground for Japanese artists, emboldened by the success of their contemporary (and occasional collaborator) Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada without ever openly aping his style, for their first set of singles capsule’s list of artistic influences seemingly both began and ended with Yasuharu Konishi’s discography. If Nakata’s ambition actually did extend further than a desire to carry on Pizzicato Five’s legacy after the original group’s breakup, there was absolutely no indication of this in openly derivative singles like “Tokyo Kissa.”
Despite the first capsule album’s derivative nature and ambivalent reception, Yamaha liked what Nakata was doing enough to give him a rare privilege – in 2002 they allowed him to start his own record label, contemode, with distribution through Japanese music giant Avex. Clearly emboldened by the vote of confidence this signified, Nakata began to branch out musically, experimenting with styles outside of the Shibuya-kei milieu that birthed the early capsule recordings. If one is to write the history of Yasutaka Nakata as a bold and fearless innovator, the first contemode release, “Music Controller,” would be the ideal place to begin. The single found Nakata searching for his own creative voice and moving away from the Pizzicato Five template, adding hints of vocoder to add interest to Koshijima’s otherwise straightforward Maki Nomiya impersonation, in the process establishing the prototype for the “Nakata sound” that he would later make his name on. It was around this time, also, that Nakata started working with then-teenaged idol group Perfume, presumably because he needed the money that poorly-selling capsule singles and odd jobs like scoring the undistinguished salaryman thriller Utsutsu clearly weren’t getting him. Yamaha may have given him a push that was surely unprecedented for such an unpopular artist, but he still needed to put food on the table that his capsule releases weren’t putting there.
Had Perfume been a more popular group initially, perhaps the dramatic musical transformation that Nakata affected through his shockingly aggressive production on “Computer City” might never have occurred. He had already scored something of a hit with the whimsical “Linear Motor Girl,” Perfume’s first single after the move from indie label Bee-Hive to Tokuma Japan Communications, but “Computer City” was a calculated risk that most certainly would have alienated and angered fans of a more well-established group. As Perfume were still relatively obscure, their label could afford to make dicey decisions regarding the group’s musical direction – and the gamble paid off explosively. People took to the throbbing wall of digital sound that made up “Computer City” to an unprecedented degree, and in a landmark first for idol-group music, the focus was squarely on the producer. The song’s vocals can barely be heard, drowned out almost entirely by an electro-house bassline that flagrantly violates the J-pop dogma that says songs should be mixed to maximize the midrange and taper off at the highs and lows. Nakata took this even further with follow-up single “Electro World,” although the record-buying public found the ferocious barrage of electronic noise on that particular single too much to take – it sold just shy of half what “Computer City” did, and still stands as the group’s weakest-selling single since the move to Tokuma in 2005.
To spill any more digital ink on Perfume’s 2007 single “Polyrhythm,” statistically the most likely reason you’ve heard of Perfume to begin with, would be a waste. You know “Polyrhythm” already. It was in Cars 2. It outsold previous single “Fan Service (Sweet)” by just shy of 70,000 copies. It was Perfume’s breakthrough hit, turned Yasutaka Nakata into a household name, gave the group their first placement in the Oricon singles chart’s weekly top 10, and for a brief, weird period of time seemed poised to turn Japanese idol music into a cultured realm of music-theory devotees providing challenging, different music for groups of interchangeable pretty faces to dance to. OK, so that last one never really happened outside of the realm of congratulatory, far too optimistic thinkpieces, but either way a lot of people wanted in on the Nakata sound after “Polyrhythm” hit. Derivative acts sprang up in unprecedented numbers, Avex got Nakata to revitalize the career of failing former idol Ami Suzuki, and he became one of the most in-demand remixers in the game – but, distressingly, one single thing was missing: compared to his works for other performers, capsule albums still weren’t selling.
Perhaps out of a need to distance himself as far as possible from the knockoff Pizzicato Five sound that capsule once called its own, the most obvious influence on capsule’s 2008 LP More! More! More!, the first to sell in considerable numbers and their definitive breakthrough hit, was an album that had taken the world of electronica by storm one year previously; French electro-house duo Justice’s † (Cross). Catapulting the heavily compressed, abrasive sounds of the Ed Banger Records collective into the mainstream, Justice’s take-no-prisoners approach to dance music was inspired as much by hard rock as the electronic dance music it rubbed shoulders with – a major factor in the group’s considerable crossover success. While nothing on More! More! More! quite matches the intensity of † selections like standout single “Waters of Nazareth,” it’s doubtful that Nakata would have been so willing to push his sound to extremes without that landmark album as an inspiration. Marrying Justice’s compression-heavy synthesizers, which imitate the power chords of their heavy-metal forebears, to a repetitive vocal that recalls the other big French electro-house crossover success, the new capsule sound was best shown by single “JUMPER” – a song that, while about as distant from Shibuya-kei’s sound as one can get, ironically embodied the spirit of Shibuya-kei by being a distinctively Japanese composition made entirely up of borrowed European elements. Justice and Daft Punk may have been years away from the “Beatles, Beach Boys, and Beck” trifecta that Cornelius memorably claimed as his primary influences, but the important part was that Nakata was keeping the tradition of borrowing from other cultures to make Japanese music more interesting than the insular sounds of stale idol music and MOR pop-rock.
Although the wave of imitators has almost completely subsided – the unexpected onslaught of the Korean wave washed away the last remnants of that brief trend – the sound that Nakata popularized has become an essential part of the Japanese musical landscape. It’s no surprise that he produced one of the biggest pop stars in Japan or anywhere, model-turned-singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – his distinctly international sensibilities are practically begging to be applied to a big crossover success like the baile funk-influenced “PONPONPON,” regardless of the fact that much of the attention on that video was due to unfortunate remnants of Orientalist ideas about “weird Japan” leading people to jump on the Harajuku candy-junk fashion imagery as being somehow indicative of the Japanese as being essentially different from “normal people.” Nakata’s production has precious little to do with any of that, though; regardless of the imagery that people who aren’t him choose to set his music to, he still makes slick, unusually worldly electro-pop first and foremost.
Although More! More! More! was a success, Nakata has clearly entered the part of his career where he’s uncomfortable staying in the same place for too long; best shown by the most recent capsule album, CAPS LOCK. Officially changing the group’s name from capsule to CAPSULE, a change that Memories of Shibuya has proceeded to flagrantly ignore for no particular reason, CAPS LOCK was an open refutation of just about everything that Nakata had come to signify. There were no commercial tie-ins, only one single, and no big pop hits to be found anywhere on its runtime. While capsule’s previous albums had found the group’s sound getting bigger and bigger, CAPS LOCK was almost as confrontational in its stark minimalism as “Electro World” was in its anything-goes maximalism. Sole single “CONTROL” recalls Cornelius’s work with Salyu x Salyu, a bizarre case of two former Shibuya-kei musicians meeting up in the same place after spending years going off in opposite directions, and the rest of the album finds him discarding the French electro-house influences in favour of IDM – the once-trendy realm of intentionally undanceable “dance” music popularized by artists like Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. CAPS LOCK was the first release on Warner’s ultra-trendy unBORDE imprint, and it could hardly have been more of an anticlimax for such an inauspicious release to christen a much-hyped new label. Perhaps due to pressure from label executives, Nakata’s work since CAPS LOCK has been surprisingly conventional – his music for the soundtrack to mediocre anime feature Appleseed Alpha barely sounded any different from Skrillex’s contribution to the same, and all signs seem to be pointing to the upcoming WAVE RUNNER as Nakata’s big “EDM record.”
If we’re being far too kind, EDM could be seen as kin to Shibuya-kei, in that it provides a hodge-podge of diverse styles and influences, repackaged democratically and embraced as-is. Its name simply means “electronic dance music,” and it encompasses everything from pop with synthesizers to dubstep and grime – although genre purists are, increasingly, sick of those blurred lines. The argument against EDM is that it reduces once-distinct styles to a bland, homogenized whole, devoid of any unified aesthetic or ideology more sophisticated than “we like to party.” The superstars of the EDM scene, to detractors, represent everything horrible about contemporary music, pop culture, dance, media, celebrity, drugs, sex, people, and probably some other things as well – and, with recent promotional videos, Nakata seems to be openly lusting after a place in their ranks. The recently-posted “Mega Mix Movie” which accompanied the iTunes exclusive release of “FEEL AGAIN” (ah, yes, another thing that EDM signifies the worst of – music distribution methods), shows concert footage from capsule’s 2014 tour, Nakata hidden on stage behind a daunting array of music peripherals, facing an ecstatic crowd of thousands while Toshiko Koshijima awkwardly dances beside him. It’s an absolutely horrible visual, and its mash-up of four songs from the upcoming album seems to embody all the worst excesses of the EDM scene – the arbitrary genre-blending that just seems to emphasize how different the styles actually aren’t, the arena-rock approach to dance music, large crowds of people dressed in really stupid outfits – without much of anything to indicate that this is a capsule show and not, say, an Afrojack or Calvin Harris one. Nakata seems comfortable with the mass of hardware he hides behind, but Koshijima is as lost as any remnant of the lower-case capsule seems to be.
Divorced from the horrid visual, though, “FEEL AGAIN” is actually surprisingly interesting. The song is completely awful, make no mistake, but it’s awful in that fascinating train-wreck kind of way – from the sampled harp that begins the song for no apparent reason to the stunningly hideous vocoder that makes Toshiko Koshijima’s vocals sound gargled more than sung, the indifferent EDM breakdown to the tone-deaf cheese of the electric piano and “whoa-oh” backing vocal that tries to make an anthem out of its ineptitude, every aspect of “FEEL AGAIN” is invigoratingly inept. Nakata once drew from the best of European dance music to make potential J-pop ephemera into unforgettable, unique songs that saw an unpopular niche genre – synthpop – rise from the ashes to temporarily take over music, producers struggling to remake themselves in his image. He was a kingmaker, a rare talent with a Midas touch that turned even lost causes like disgraced former idol Ami Suzuki into chart fixtures and allowed the unbelievably untalented fashion model MEG to become a pop star on the strength of his production alone. Yet, here he is, dipping his toes into a genre loathed in no small way due to the fact that it’s the easiest music on planet Earth to make, and managing to bungle the whole venture from the word “go.” Making a good EDM drop is not difficult, yet the uninspiring Baby’s First Trap Drop performance Nakata brings to “FEEL AGAIN” almost makes you wonder if he’s intentionally sabotaging himself because he’s sick of churning out album after album (WAVE RUNNER will be his 15th as capsule) – but, given the EDM scene’s well-documented lack of taste, it’s far more likely that he’s merely giving them what he thinks they want. And he’s probably right – yes, there are countless 15-year-old YouTube DJs cranking out songs that do the generic EDM formula better than “FEEL AGAIN” on the regular, but they don’t have the privilege to play sets at big festivals like the ones featured in the “Mega Mix Movie” and, frankly, those festival sets are the entire point of EDM. The music is second or third, all depending on where the drugs are on your list.
An incredibly over-optimistic reading of the song could interpret it as Nakata expressing frustration with his own disconnection from the youth that flock to his performances. When the big stupid buzzing synths go away and Koshijima sings “I wanna feel again” repeatedly (which the gurgling vocoder renders as more or less the only intelligible lyric), it could easily be a comment on a desire to have any interest in the music that so inspires these mostly-teenaged fans, but the ultra-cheese production suggests instead that he’s just drawing from his well-worn bag of lyrical clichés. If there’s a sincerity in the vocal sections’ unabashed corniness, I’m embarrassed for Nakata. If he’s just cynically exploiting the easiest of shortcuts to making formulaic dance music for people who really couldn’t care less about things like “art” or “subtlety,” then I’m ashamed for him. Either way, there’s no winning with a song this bad; “FEEL AGAIN” is, truly, terrible. An extended mix, packaged as the B-side in the anemic iTunes release, fails to do much to improve the abject failure of the song it’s attached to, but at least it does away with the harp intro. It’s the better version, for sure, but at the same time its longer runtime makes the original still slightly preferable – at least that mix does its thing quick and goes away.