Momoiro Clover Z’s AMARANTHUS: Homecoming

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After a month of continuous listening, I feel like I can finally put my thoughts on Momoiro Clover Z’s newest records. It’s been three painful years since their last album. The moment these albums landed in my hands, I grabbed my best headphones, turned off the lights, lined up the albums back-to-back, and blasted the music into my ears for nearly 2 hours straight, marathon style, in complete darkness. Extreme and slightly creepy? Sure, but this is what happens to a person who’s been starved for an original Momoclo album for far, far too long.

Momoclo is one of the few monolithically popular idol groups in Japan that I also consider to be a pioneer of music. Part of their creative success is in their ability to foster relationships with various musical talents, eventually creating for themselves a continually growing network of fantastic music producers to collaborate with.

Momoclo’s trademark sound is a hyper-pop variation of idol music that earned them a lot of coverage by the media, and carved out for themselves a… let’s call it a “alternative pop” niche that has roots in the traditional, established idol sound, but also trots in elements from rock opera, heavy metal, disco, orchestra, punk, funk, blues, hip hop, and EDM among others (you name it, they got it). And more impressively, these elements aren’t just slapped on like a Black Sabbath sticker on a Lisa Frank binder; but with a real intimate knowledge of the genre, building these sounds into the foundation of the track to create a different beast altogether.

These songs ended up resonating with a whole lot of people: idol fans, music fans and music creators alike; enough to become one of the top musical acts in Japan today. Momoclo, to many followers, is synonymous with the music. Their image and personalities are fundamentally tied to their musical output; the members are living examples of grass roots hard work, and releases rallying songs that nearly anyone can internalize into their own lifestyle and routine. One can trace their origins to free public performances in the park to a crowd of none in 2008.

After 2011’s Battle and Romance and the 2013 semi-conceptual album 5th Dimension, which broke records, 2015 was really the year that they should have dropped a new album. It would have injected some much needed shake-up to Momoclo’s largely established discography and their comparatively toothless musical offerings of the past year or so.

This relative period of inaction on the music front was largely spent on multi-media projects — live concerts, television appearances, cross-promotional releases and even film. Mainstream idols are not just musical acts, but omnipresent media celebrities, and Momoclo is no different in that regard.

They’ve sprinkled in a few singles here and there but the tracks have mostly been toned-down tie-ins with big franchises like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball, created for wide appeal with straightforward arrangements which aren’t as adventurous, experimental or playful as they’ve been prior to 2014, leaving some to wonder if Momoclo would still be able to put forth truly exciting songs that they were known for.


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As if the producers suddenly realized that they forgot to drop an album in 2015, Momoclo pulled double duty and announced a simultaneous double album release for February 2016. AMARANTHUS and Hakkin no Yoake are Momoclo’s long awaited homeoming to the music front, producing over 20 original tracks for music-starved fans to finally chew on. And after listening to these albums back-to-back for the first time, it was honestly difficult to process the sheer number of new tracks these provided.

But what was clear to me fairly quickly during my listening experience was that the Momoclo of AMARANTHUS was channeling a very different energy than the Momoclo of the Battle and Romance/5th Dimension era; an era when the members were fresh, hungry, and limitlessly optimistic — an outlook and attitude that was largely reflected in their music at the time. The Momoclo of 2011 were like fresh cadets right out of the academy: Bold, optimistic, and feeling like the world could bend at their will.

Songs like ‘Kaito Shoujo’, ‘Pinky Jones’, ‘Roudou Sanka’, ‘Chai Maxx’, ‘Push’, ‘Mugen no Ai’; They were songs befitting of a young, up-and-coming group declaring war on complacency and despair. This concept is still core to the group’s values, but Momoclo has grown significantly since. The Momoclo in AMARANTHUS are battle-worn. Sure they’ve won plenty, but they’ve lost as well, and the tracks reflect more complex emotions as a result. The tracks show tremendous range, from frail and vulnerable to combative. AMARANTHUS has Momoclo swinging harder than they ever have before, both vocally and sonically.

The first track sets the tone with a short prologue. Choir-like vocals, piano, and synths layer and build on each other, creating almost a spiritual atmosphere. A beating heart throbs as the underlying beat, accented by the encroaching cacophony of crying babies that ebb between the left and right channels to an eerie effect. And just like that, you’re plunged head-first into the hyper-aggressive track ‘WE ARE BORN’, an encapsulating song about lack of control and turbulence you experience from the moment of birth.

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The instrumentation carries a destructive, heavy, apocalyptic tone, opening with a spiraling arpeggio that pulls you into the depths. The booming instrumentals play out like a tour through a hellish, jagged landscape: The thundering drums pound craters into the earth, scalding guitar riffs explode against the cool piano that crashes in and out during the chorus like violent tidal waves. The track is absolutely relentless on all fronts.

The lyrics describe being born into a ruthless world and how crushing it can be, and the instruments tell a parallel narrative about the charged, violent, grand, and beautiful process that is creation. ‘WE ARE BORN’ brings forth the same kind of energy that powers ‘Mugen no Ai’ or ‘Saraba’, but trading the sleek, glossy production of those tracks for a more chaotic and raw feel. ‘WE ARE BORN’ spits molten fire, and it’s been in my head ever since the first listen.

It’s important to understand that AMARANTHUS is a honest-to-goodness concept album. 5th Dimension was arguably a concept album, but there were only really a few songs that really stuck to a theme. Nearly very track in AMARANTHUS is very much tied to the cycle of human life: birth, love, tribulations, and death, with a very clear through-line from the first track to the last. The resulting collection of songs end up becoming wildly different than most idol albums, in both sound and content.

One of the divisive tracks on the album will probably be Monoclo Dessan. Breaking the silence after the thunderous ‘WE ARE BORN’, is a spacy, cavernous piano acapella with a tempo that a garden snail could easily outpace. I imagine a lot of people starting ‘Monoclo Dessan’ after ‘WE ARE BORN’ feel like their ice cream sundae was swapped out for a giant plate of broccoli instead. “Eat your ballads, they’re good for you!”

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But despite the halt in momentum, it actually grows into an engaging song. The progression of the track and its changes in tempo and newfound vitality gives a musical narrative of a newborn taking its first shaky steps, growing into walking, running, and eventually flat-out sprinting as it reaches the rapid last quarter before the final wind-down. It’s a breezy, airy, playful track, taking you through several movements and shifts through its 6 minute running time. An appropriate song that captures an innocent and nostalgic time of experiencing things for the first time.

Unlike the strong meaty tracks like ‘WE ARE BORN’ which are mood-makers, ‘Monoclo Dessan’ is a mood enhancer. If you’re in a great state of mind, Monoclo Dessan is a song that will take those feelings and elevate them to another level. Just try listening to this song after you’ve aced a test, killed at a job interview or received any kind of great news. You’re welcome.

As expected, there’s a couple of singles on this album. ‘Naite mo Iin Da yo’ has a powerful composition with great low register vocal performances and possesses one of the more stirring melodies out of Momoclo’s singles. It’s been one of the more underrated singles in my mind, and a fitting track to include into AMARANTHUS. Seishunfu is a ballad track with very conventional instrumentals and arrangement, primarily created to coincide with Momoclo’s major film debut in 2015. It fits conceptually with the album, but I just can’t say I’m a big fan of what is a very by-the-books high school graduation ballad that’s a mere drop in the ocean of similar idol offerings.

A quick revelation I had after listening to these dense, complexly crafted songs was the unshakable feeling that I was listening to lesser tracks by the time I hit the singles. They ended up sounding bare and skeletal compared to the meaty, fully developed sounds that occupy the original tracks. I later went back to listen to previous Momoclo albums and singles, and I could hear a clear difference when it came to sheer production and style of sound crafting. There’s a crystal-clear clarity to Momoclo’s songs, but the tracks found in AMARANTHUS carry a different sensibility. They’re stuffed to the gills with layers upon layers of tracks, creating a messy, but ultimately grand sound.

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Gorilla Punch’ for example, is a colossal track; a truly cacophonous overload to the senses with shifting instrumentals and rhythms. As a listener you feel like you’re being assaulted; pulled and tugged at by a violent tornado of idol pop, heavy metal, electronic, and classic show tunes. You almost don’t see the bright, exuberant chorus coming because of all the switch-ups the music is performing on you; but when it does, it’s a complete knockout.

In my head I visualize ‘Gorilla Punch’ as a caged battle royale in which different schools of music relentlessly kick the living shit out of each other, resulting a glorious aural spectacle. There’s a sense of anarchy, like nothing is holding this track back. The vocals carry a cocky, mischievous cadence that relays the palpable energy felt throughout the track. It feels unrestrained and lawless, with a untamed wild sound that you really have to hear to believe. ‘Gorilla Punch’ is a high velocity, nonstop laser-filled amusement park roller coaster ride into another dimension.

Another tremendous track is ‘Buryoutougen Nakayoshi Monogatari’, written and composed by none other than famed musician Hyadain. He was key in creating Momoclo’s musical vibe and style in their early years, but there was some sort of dispute that led Hyadain to drop off from their projects. The great news is that they have since resolved their differences — and after 4 years, he is back with a vengeance.

Utilizing a swing-infused, largely electronic band of Hyadain’s making, it’s difficult not to imagine him merrily composing every bit of this song with the glee of a wild-eyed mad scientist. The instrumentation is creative and packs a wallop. We get Hyadain’s take on electro-swing: piano keys dancing on a blaring brass symphony, noodling clarinet, and a thumping, driving bass beat.

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It’s not as dense and layered as ‘Gorilla Punch’, but it’s jam packed with a variety of sharp and bloomy synths that give it a full sound profile. ‘Monogatari’ distinguishes itself from a lot of its other tracks with its very clean and refined synths, put to great use in complex arrangements. It’s a melodically complex entry that is befitting of Hyadain, and as with some of his best works, the song feels like barely contained pandemonium, like it could explode off rails at any moment.

The vocals here are also stellar, the opening lines spitting hot fire in a facetious scenario in which Shiori has eaten Kanako’s pudding (which Kanako hasn’t labeled, which is fair game as far as I’m concerned). Hyadain was very particular with the inflections and tones the members gave during the studio recording, and the result is a highly curated assortment of entertaining deliveries that compliment the track superbly.

It’s only fitting that his first produced track with Momoclo since their reunion is about resolving differences and forgiveness, but it’s also worth noting that even while carrying a positive message, the song feels like it’s on the offensive the entire time; constantly in your face and slamming notes down with great impact. It’s delirious, exuberant, spirited, and uncompromising; easily some of the best pure ear candy on the entire album.

If I think back on my favorite songs from Momoclo, they tend to be songs that I find difficult to categorize into one or even two genres. It’s a bit from A, B, C, maybe some X, Y, and Z as well. Momoclo’s songs can be pure frankenstein creations to create pop tracks unlike anything I’ve heard; and ‘Guns n’ Diamond’, is a prime example of one — a song with immense style that doesn’t quite fit into any established musical movements.

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After the prelude of singing strings, the ‘Guns n’Diamond‘ begins with a earth-swallowing bass during the opening verse, accompanied by haunting and tense instrumentals. It’s not long until the song opens up, letting the the myriad of sounds spill through. There’s blues guitar and bass, sweeping cinematic orchestrals, hard hitting rock drums, and chirping synth notes with piano accents drifting over the track. The song has a jerky stop-and-go movement, and the varied rhythms and cadence in which the vocals are delivered carry great power.

There are sweetly melancholic and nostalgic emotions embedded in the verse and pre-chorus vocals, but when the chorus drops, the delivery turns into a notably more hostile and belligerent tone, backed by lush instrumentals. The chorus lyrically narrates the plight of someone who is inevitably going to lose, and refusing to accept it. It sounds like a traditional Momoclo scenario, but instead of the typical style of heading tribulations head-on with brimming positivity, this declaration sounds much more weathered; more like a plea or a defiant crying out than trying to head into a situation with guns blazing, which gives the song a new wrinkle and a side of Momoclo seldom seen.

The song also takes a complete musical turn in the last quarter, like an epilogue or addendum to the track; almost as if the anger harbored throughout the track was suddenly released. The real twist however, are the lyrics in this final segment, revealing that the song is actually about losing a loved one, and encroaching death. “You turned into the stars in the night sky; We will meet again, but until then we will be parting for a short time, good bye.

In the context of the album, it’s safe to assume that the inevitable “shadow drawing near” as the lyrics put it, and the exasperated chorus is pleading with, is Death. Death is the antagonistic force in this track, a force that no amount of self-belief, friends, or attitude can stop. ‘Guns n’ Diamond’ is a song about grieving the lost and self pity about one’s own mortality. It’s creative, daring, and downright chilling. It’s a heavy subject matter for a idol group to tackle, but it ended up becoming one of my favorite, if not THE crown jewel of AMARANTHUS.

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And if you thought ‘Guns n’ Diamond’ was heavy, the following track ’Bye Bye de Sayonara’ is probably one of the gloomiest songs in Momoclo’s discography. The lyrics speak directly about death, singing about fearing the imminent end, wanting more time, and the approaching “final parade”. The lyrics are an inner monologue of someone who knows they are about to die; and someone who is not necessarily at peace with it. Everyone has limited time on this Earth and we’re all trying to fill it with things we want to do; but no matter how much we accomplish, how many of us will actually feel fulfilled when we face death?

There’s a super crunchy, distorted thud that comes with the bass drum during the verse, as if the thuds of falling bodies from the sky were making the beat. A spindly piano and accordion play the main melody, giving it a gothic sensibility. The tune itself is darkly playful, adding a lighter touch to a somber, bleak situation. The male chorus underlying the track is also darkly humorous, adding an element of surprise that I didn’t expect at all, and it can be taken in several ways: during the verse they sing almost mockingly, like a chorus of death minions coming out to take you into the underworld; but by the chorus, it’s more like they’re singing in support of you with the swelling, sentimental instrumentation that accompanies it. It carries a celebratory feeling with horns, bells, piano and guitars.

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Now, to lighten up a bit, let’s talk about ‘Demonstration’ — the single most uplifting song in the entire album. ‘Demonstration’ is a supremely well made track with exquisite detail, and the result is nothing short of exhilarating. Celestial and sweeping, the instrumentation is incredibly layered and thick, bordering on overwhelming your ears — a whirlwind of sparkling, chirpy synths, marching band drums, strings, and layered harmonies. It’s a complexly crafted song using a mountain of sounds at a lightning fast pace. The track opens with a 40 second intro that I felt was a bit too long, but once it gets going, it grabs you by the collar and tosses you into the clouds.

There is also ‘Saboten to Ribbon‘, the lightest and most minimal track on the album. A sparse digital instrumentation of a circus band underlines the track playing a maudlin, whimsical tune, fitting for a track about young love. It bears similarities to ‘Nippon Banzai’ or ‘Nippon Egao Hyakkei’, with a large chunk of the verses devoid of singing and replaced with heavily rhythmic line deliveries, leading to a main chorus which is when the instrumentals really come to fruition. The line deliveries are imbued with personality and starry-eyed whimsy.

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Last but not least, ‘Happy Re:Birthday’ follows ‘Bye Bye de Sayonara’ as the closing song of the album. Airy and spacey, the track opens with a light, uplifting piano intro, later accompanied by flutes, strings, and guitar that play alongside the vocals, carrying a very bloomy, dreamy sound. The lyrics seems to describe a place of enlightenment — a place or a state of mind that is virtually indescribable, sounding almost like gibberish.

In contrast to the upbeat verse, the chorus carries a more sad tune, but with a gentleness as it welcomes you to this new place. The song eventually spills over, going off rails towards the end of the track as it tries to overwhelm you with its ebbing strings and overlapping vocals, giving it a dizzying, disorienting effect in a very surreal, Evangelion-esque way. It’s a fitting, etherial track that ends the album on a final, bittersweet note.

Now there are a few tracks in this album that I didn’t find as captivating; ‘Katte no Kimi ni’ is one of them. Although I’m finding that I like the song the more I listen to it, I felt the track was an outlier. The song feels too even across the board, lacking dynamic range. The vocals and melody are quite well done; it’s a laid back, breezy pop arrangement with a serene quality. The melody and instrumentals evoke the classic ‘Hashire’ in tone and spirit. But the instrumentals feel overpowering here, never letting up with its layered cavernous synths, giving the overall song a muddy quality.

It’s a sound they will admirably try to stuff into your ear, but without any dynamic curves or shape, it simply remains a block of sound. There are moments of clarity to be found, namely during the bridge where the percussions take over, and serves as a nice break from all the noise. The chorus itself is well balanced and memorable, popping into my head whenever my brain calls for a tune to hum to, but the verse leaves something to be desired.

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Bussouge’ is another track that I felt was an outlier. It’s simply a straight forward, basic folk song. I liked the instrumental choices made by adding classic folky elements like the twangy guitar and harmonica that lie on top of the typical swaying strings, but this kind of sleepy, slow tempo song is just not my style. It sticks out more as a prestige track, showing Momoclo doing a type of song they don’t typically release. Momoclo has a television segment called Folkmura, where they take requests and cover a lot of classic songs, so I can see a connection there; but as part of this conceptual album, among highly creative and unique tracks, I’m not quite sure it fits. It’s a fine country song, and it certainly has its time and place, but it’s not my cup of tea, and it’s not something I’ll be throwing onto a custom playlist anytime soon.

As much as I enjoy ‘Naite mo Iin Da yo’, it’s been around since 2014, and ‘Seishunfu’ to me trails further behind in terms of listenability. These two and ‘Bussouge’ are the tracks that I found skipping most frequently when casually listening to AMARANTHUS.

As Momoclo’s first fully realized, fully integrated concept album, they really swung for the fences, taking some big risks and going in bold directions — and they knocked it out of the park with this one. It’s not as consistently good as 5th Dimension or Battle and Romance, but its highs are an absolute achievement, breaking new ground for this musical group.

The spotlessly clean records they’re known for are passed over for incredibly dense and layered instrumentals, resulting in a grander, messier spectacle of harmonies and sounds. The songs are not straight forward and carry several secrets within them, keeping you listening for the next revelation and rewarding you for staying until the end. With every album it becomes clearer that Momoclo doesn’t really have a “sound”; Momoclo’s “style” is simply a promise to continually surprise the listener with whatever new sonic creations come out of their alchemy lab run by sound wizards.

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It’s also worth noting once again that it’s been three years since 5th Dimension. The members’ showmanship and singing abilities have grown significantly since then, something fans have been witnessing in their stellar lives. But at long last, it feels like the electrifying energy found in their live performances of the past couple years transferred perfectly onto these tremendous studio recordings.

I’ll rate this a MUST LISTEN. That’s not to say that this record is flawless, or that you will love it as much as I do. But AMARANTHUS is one of a kind, and the production is truly unlike anything out there. Momoclo continues to be the smallest mainstream idol group producing the biggest sounds, and it’d be a real shame to let this pass you by.

Official album website

AMARANTHUS
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AMARANTHUS
Tracklist:
1. embryo -prologue-
2. WE ARE BORN
3. Monochro Dessan (モノクロデッサン)
4. Gorilla Punch (ゴリラパンチ)
5. Buryoutougen Nakayoshi Monogatari (武陵桃源なかよし物語)
6. Katte ni Kimi ni (勝手に君に)
7. Seishunfu (青春賦)
8. Saboten to Ribbon (サボテンとリボン)
9. Demonstration (デモンストレーション)
10. Bussouge (仏桑花)
11. Naitemo Iin da yo (泣いてもいいんだよ)
12. Guns N’ Diamond
13. Bye Bye de Sayounara (バイバイでさようなら)
14. HAPPY Re:BIRTHDAY

About Dae Lee

-Dae, aka Mizu -Writer, broadcaster, and podcaster on New School Kaidan

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