Monday, July 17, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1659: Wagakki Band

My brain is a bit fried after a hard day at work, but I’m also home slightly earlier (for me) than usual, so I’m going to take advantage of the extra time and squeeze in a review.

Disc 1659 is…Vocalo Zanmai 2

Artist: Wagakki Band

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  A fairly classic Wagakki Band album cover, one you get to know them. Basically a group shot with some photo shopped art around them to make everyone look fancy.

The band came dressed in their finest which is a refreshing change from a lot of North American bands who seem to think it is cool to look slovenly. It is not.

Most of my Wagakki Band albums also include commemorative CDs and some of them have collectible playing cards of various band members. Vocalo Zanmai 2 comes with…Asa the bassist! Here’s a photo…

Collect them all!

How I Came To Know It: I have been a Wagakki Band fan for a number of years now but finding their albums has been devilishly hard, as they are not popular in North America, and not easy to order online either.

Then my friend Nick went to Japan earlier this year, armed with a list of albums I was looking for. He found every single one of them, including this one – which is their most recent release. Thanks, Nick!

How It Stacks Up: I have seven Wagakki Band albums. It is always hard to stack albums up when you listen to a glut of them in a short period of time, but since you didn’t read this category to watch me equivocate, I’ll put Vocalo Zanmai 2 in at #5.

Rating: 2 stars but almost 3

I’m not a big fan of new technology. I avoid most social media (this blog being the exception, I got a cell phone only when my work required it and you can just generally count me right out of the whole Chat GPT experience. With this background it is surprising that I enjoyed a record full of humans covering electronically created songs. And not just a record of this – but a sequel of a record doing this.

Wagakki Band occupy their own unique corner of music, combining anthemic metal, Japanese folk music, and J-pop. This confluence of odd influences was not enough for Wagakki Band, however. On “Vocalo Zanmai” and its sequel (and current topic) “Vocalo Zanmai 2” they take songs composed on the Vocaloid system and cover them with the aforementioned mix of styles.

If you don’t know what Vocaloid is, well – there is a lot to learn, and more than I can squeeze into this review. The Coles’ Notes version is that it is software that you can use to compose not only music, but original voice as well. So original that there are even unique AI voices pulled together from voice fragments and samples that are characters, some of whom (like Hatsune Miku) are famous in their own right.

I should not enjoy electronically created music but in the hands of Wagakki Band, with their multitude of masteries of instruments ancient and modern, I loved the remakes. The whole of the experience is tied together by lead singer Yuko Suzuhana who is ethereal and elfin as ever, and more otherworldly than usual covering this stuff. “Surges” and “Akahitoha (One Crimson Leaf)” are particularly awesome. One fast and adventurous, and the other mysterious and emotionally evocative.

Thus inspired, I decided to go and listen to these two favourites in their original Vocaloid style. However, after only a few bars it was evident that whatever magic Wagakki Band had pulled out of these songs, it was of their own creation. Stripped of the artful human instrumentation and Yuko’s enchanting vocals the emotion was lacking and without that, the whole experience felt hollow in comparison. Maybe Vocaloid is an acquired taste and I just didn’t put the time in, or maybe I just like how Wagakki Band does it better.

Apart from the marvelous realization (or maybe just confirmation of bias) that I preferred the human versions, the album has all the hallmarks of what I like in Wagakki Band. Yuko’s voice and the musicianship I’ve already noted, but the frenetic energy this band brings to their work is infectious. It is a lot to take in, but once you’re acclimate to it, it will fill you with a lot of joy.

Or it won’t. This stuff is a LOT for the north American ear. Some of the tunes have unexpected chord progressions, and the added undercurrent of bouncy techno beats (even when played organically) can make you feel like you’re in a video game. A really cool video game with a killer soundtrack, but still a video game.

I would not start someone’s journey into the wonders of Wagakki Band with “Vocalo Zanmai 2” but I liked it all the same.

Best tracks: Surges, Akahitoha (One Crimson Leaf)

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