Monday, November 23, 2015

Fire Bomber - Angel Voice

This is going to be a weird one.

The first challenge I ran into when composing this review was who to credit as the artist. The song “Angel Voice” was written and composed by Yoko Kanno, the singer performing the song is Yoshiki Fukuyama, but no official name for the band is credit for the song. The character who sings the song is named Nekki Basara and his fictional rock band is called Fire Bomber. Really I could have chosen any of the listed options.

Yoko Kanno, writer/composure or
"Angel Voice."
Alright where to begin; music saves the world, at least it did in the anime mega hit of the 1980’s Macross Super Dimensional Fortress. Macross was a science fiction adventure that pitted humanities battle mecs, called valkyries, which were capable of transforming into jet fighters as well as a halfway in between robot and jet mode, against giant armored aliens called Zentradi. The Zentradi were emotionless warriors who had segregated their men and women completely from one another so they really, really had no idea about strong intimate emotions and as a consequence music really messed them up. Humanity learned that by projecting a giant broadcast of beloved pop singer Minmay out into the battlefield this would cause the enemy to lose focus and effectively become stunned in place. So effectively music saves humanity in a very literal sense in the original Macross series. It is charming.

Yoshiki Fukuyama, singer of
"Angel Voice."
Macross 7 is a sequel to the original series, and it is weird. Self absorbed orphan rock star Nekki Basara and his band Fire Bomber end up working with the military abroad the city sized battle station the Macross 7, because their music is assisting them in a great many ways. They even build Basara valkyrie that can be controlled by his guitar, which is stupid. Macross 7 is a stupid anime, that is not to say that is it necessarily bad, but it is stupid.

However Macross 7 had one thing going for it that the original did not, it had a rock band. The music from the original Macross Super Dimensional Fortress has a charm in its own right, but for a rock and roll guy like me, the pop music that consisted of Minmay’s play list never did much for me. While Macross 7 is a bizarre and at times bafflingly silly story about unlikeable characters mostly doing unbelievable things, the music is pretty damn good.

It is something the Japanese musicians seem really proud of is writing music for their animated television shows. There is a whole genre dedicated to it. Here in the west bands may volunteer to write original material for a motion picture, but we rarely see established musicians spending their time on televisions shows, let alone, cartoons. There is an endearing nature to enthusiastic musicians like Yoshiki Fukuyama who put into their work for what might be considered childish nonsense.

Basara Nekki, main character of
"Macross 7."
If I am being perfectly honest I never finished watching Macross 7, but it was not the series or it’s soundtrack that warrants the attention I write about today. There is a four episode sequel titled Macross Dynamite 7 which involves a whole new dilemma involving mystically space whales; I’d say you can’t make this up, but evidently somebody did. The climax for this sequel is our protagonist Basara in his valkyrie, that is controlled by his guitar, performing a song to the space whales and thus forming a bridge of communication as the space whales sing along with him. It is a strange moment, in a strange series, about a strange man. However in many ways this feels like the natural conclusion to the series, more so than the series I never actually finished, so maybe I’m wrong, but it feels like the natural conclusion to the story arc that Basara was experiencing.

Every connection Macross 7’s plot attempted to make between the rock band Fire Bomber and the boring main story felt forced. It was like there was two completely independent and mutually exclusive plot lines going on that had nothing to do with one another and nothing about them indicated that they should ever cross paths, that is, until this ending to this sequel. Space whales, sure, very weird plot device, but all of a sudden warring factions have to stop and behold while a rock star makes the breakthrough that neither of them could. Basara does not use music to save the world, but he stops a galactic brawl from taking place and forms a bound with a truly alien life form with music, and that is impressive nonetheless, and more important than that perhaps it feels like the sort of heroic thing a not very heroic, and frankly self absorbed, artist like the character Basara would seek. This is the naturally conclusion for that character, this is want he looking for all this time.

Then again maybe I am wrong I never could muster the patient to watch all of Macross 7.

So why talk about this at all? Because the song Nekki Basara plays at the end of the series is freaking beautiful. That song is “Angel Voice.”

The lyrics are in Japanese but a simple translation reveals the song, more or less, about searching for something beautiful, and if we listen carefully we should be able to hear it, an angel’s voice. For the most part I feel “Angel Voice” is a guitar song, sure there is a bass and drums like any traditional rock song, but the focus is very much on the guitar and Yoshiki’s voice, and the intro and outro is made up exclusives by this lead guitar. Speaking of Yoshiki’s voice we have to address the most iconic and obviously best part of the song, the wailing “whoa whoa whoa,” that compromises entire last third of the song.

At roughly the four and a half minute mark there are no more words to be said and Yoshiki breaks into a repeating of “whoa whoa whoa,” which in plain text may not sound overly exciting but believe me it is, and you don’t have to believe me, you can go listen to the song and hear it for yourself, which is, after all the whole point of me writing any of this.

There is a lot of emotion in this ending display, and it is very powerful and catchy. Either intentionally or unintentionally Kanno has touched on one of the oldest and most effective tricks in pop music’s book, create a sing along part that literally everyone can learn instantly, the best way to do that is to not use words but a sound like “whoa.” A truly irrelevant side effect is anyone speaking any dialect can sing along with Yoshiki, but I must stress this is an irrelevant effect, because there is something very special in the way he wails and the heart he puts into his voice that transcends language anyway, and the soul of his voice strikes in the heart of humanity itself.

Also, because the fountain head of inspiration for this song is a truly bizarre one, you can hear the space whales singing along at the end of the song, and the song fades with them. This perhaps would normally be lame but it somehow works. It adds a little extra charm and it ties itself back into its bizarre anime connection.

I guess the moral of the story is great music can come from the wildest of places and it is always worthwhile to keep an open ear for what you might find.

- King of Braves

Saturday, November 7, 2015

X Japan - Forever Love

Most people would probably agree that the most commercially successful Japanese rock band of all time is X Japan. If not domestically in their native Japan, X Japan is probably the most popular Japanese rock band outside of the land of the rising sun.

The first important reason X Japan is so successful is simply because they are good. This reason often escapes music critics when discussing the more complicated nuances of musician’s popularity and relevance, but the reality is the overwhelming majority of bands who find popularity only do so because they first earned recognition for their ability, and X Japan is no exception.

Song titles like “I’ll Kill You,” “Sadistic Desire” and “Give Me Pleasure,” all from their first album gives you some indication what X Japan liked to sing about, sex and death were on the forefront, and that alone in rock and roll is not so strange, but there is a certain level of intensity that was rare in the eighties and nineties and even rarer in Japan, a very reserved country. Combine these subject matters with the eccentric line up and we really have something special. But it was not just sex and death that made X Japan a curious commodity, I always found their intensely depressing songs the most possessive of my attention, most notably “Forever Love,” but we will get back to that in a moment.

Hideto Matsumoto, aka hide,
aka The Pink Spider
The drummer and piano player Yoshiki is credited as the band leader and his almost solely independent involvement in the song writing process clearly contribute to the feel and style that makes X Japan so great. The lead singer Toshi is a solid singer but also his solo career speaks for itself, the man is a celebrity in his own right, even without X Japan. Rhythm guitarists Pata and bass player Heath are both good at their jobs and certainly contributed but I have little to say about them unfortunately. Lastly we have hide, and yes he spelled his name with no capital letter.

Lead guitarist hide was, in my opinion, the most interesting person in X Japan. Dressed all in pink leather and owning the nickname “The Pink Spider,” hide was impossible to ignore. A talented guitarist and a respectable song writer to boot, it is no wonder hide was able to become a fan favorite. Surely there is no denying the most popular member of X Japan contributed enormously to their global success.

As stated earlier X Japan had a knack for writing ridiculously dark songs about depression and heartbreak, almost like it was their goal to keep the suicide rate in Japan number one. In the endless effort of making people feel deeply depressed X Japan did their part by creating “Forever Love,” which I am unsure whether or not is my favorite X Japan song.

“Forever Love” means a lot to a lot of people. I can no longer find the video, but I can vividly remember watching a live performance of “Forever Live” where the camera panned over the crowd and there were literally hundreds of girls openly weeping, which is the sort of sight that stays with you, and it was only possible because “Forever Love” is the sort of song that beats up your feelings, and stays with you, forever.

X Japan has a lot of sad songs, but “Forever Love” is ridiculous. The wailing chorus is savagely sang to us by Toshi and with a few words in English, to give westerns like me a sense of what the rest of the song is about; “forever lover, forever dream.” Once we look at the translation of the rest of the lyrics however we experience the full depth of despair at hand. Check out the open verse:

“Mou hitori de arukenai (I can’t walk alone anymore)
Toki no kaze ga tsuyosugite (The winds of time are too strong)
AH... kizu tsuku koto nante (Ah... this thing they call being hurt)
Nareta hazu dakedo ima wa (I should be used to it, but now....)”

Sadly it is important to dwell as the sadness of a song like “Forever Love” because sadness is the primary narrative theme for X Japan, and most notably guitarist hide.

“Forever Love” may be X Japan’s saddest song but it is far from their only sad song, and it is heart break, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts were not exclusive to the X Japan discography but hide’s solo career was riddled with songs about contemplating suicide. Most notably hide’s flagship song “Pink Spider” is about a spider wanting to kill himself, given hide’s nick name is “Pink Spider” obviously a lot can be taken from that track. X Japan broke up in 1997, hide continued his solo career for about a year and then sadly... and predictably... he killed himself.

It would be comical if it were not so unbelievably sad. The Pink Spider, a very solemn, beloved rock star, who was clearly battling with depression (or something), talked about how horrible it was to be him and how to he wanted to kill himself, and he lived out that eventually.

Hide clearly idolized David Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust character a little bit. The get up hide had created for himself instantly strikes the eye with thoughts of Ziggy Stardust, only in Pink, and Japanese. The creation of Ziggy Stardust was a strange androgynous alien rock star whose narcissism and self importance was personified with his death corresponding to the end of the world. While David Bowie never lost sight of the fact that he was not really Ziggy Stardust he did find himself very deeply involved with portraying, and being, and becoming the character, so sadly, after much deliberation, David Bowie “killed” Ziggy Stardust and broke up the band, he felt obligated to do it, because that is what Ziggy would have done.

I sometimes wonder if hide felt obligated to kill himself; hide had created this strange androgynous pink rock star whose character was possessed with the idea of dying in a fit of depression and rock and roll glory, immortalizing himself and forever establishing his self importance through death. The problem was Hideto Matsumoto, the man, was hide, or was entirely too much the same person. So if hide had to commit suicide to conclude the rock and roll hero narrative, maybe Hideto thought that meant he had to go too. It is a fascinating thought, but not necessarily accurate.

The details surrounding hide’s death are difficult to pin down, he did kill himself but I am constantly finding conflicting stories regarding his mental and emotional health. Close friends and loved ones do not agree on whether suicide is something hide was likely to do, and even the member of X Japan who worked with hide on creating music that was sometimes about killing yourself are torn whether or not a song like “Pink Spider” was in any way a warning. So when I talk about the possible scenario that hide might have killed himself out of some overly devout artistic expression, it should be noted that I, and no one at all really, knows what was going through hide’s mind when he committed suicide, because we will probably never really know why hide did it.

"Forever Love" at hide's funeral:

To tie things back to the song of the hour, at hide’s funeral the surviving members of X Japan performed “Forever Love” in tribute, and it is in this moment that I feel X Japan is best personified. Heath and Pata look absolutely devastated, and Toshi is clearly beside himself while he sings. To his credit Yoshiki never misses a note on the piano during the ordeal. But this moment pretty much sums up X Japan in a nutshell, everyone, including the band, are horribly depressed and someone has killed themselves, yet we have a great song and everything is weirdly beautiful. I think hide would have liked it; in fact I am very confident he would have.

- King of Braves