Goto Mariko, Japan’s queen of eclectic, experimental pop/jazz/punk has already created quite a name for herself in the last three years since leaving her band, Midori (ミドリ) and debuting as a solo artist, through her emotionally charged and chaotic live performances as well as two well-crafted solo albums so far. This week marks her third album release, with Kowareta Hako ni Rinakkusu (Mariko has said “Rinakkusu” does mean “Linux,” as in the operating system.)
With her previous album, titled m@u being one of my favorite albums of any genre out of Japan in the last few years, it was pretty hard to quell my excitement for this record before release. Even though the song previews and full PV released before the album didn’t seem to even come close to many of the tracks on m@u in quality, there’s no way I was going to let that stop me from listening to the full album upon release.
Mariko describes her own work as a diverse mix featuring a list of elements like: Hardcore, Violence, Chaotic, Pop, Lovely, Emotional, Idol, Jazz, Experimental, among many other descriptors, and this album continues that tradition of mixing elements in a big way, while also moving beyond some of her previous work in some ways, which I’ll go into greater detail about.
Before I get into the full track breakdown, it’s interesting to note that this album is the first time that anyone besides Mariko and her band have arranged her songs, and every track on this album (except one) is arranged by a famous arranger/musician from the idol/pop scene. I’ll get into more details about the production on the tracks as I talk about them, but it’s interesting to see how much it changes the output of her music when other people handle the arrangement.
Here’s the trailer for the album, released about a month before release, to give you an idea of what Mariko is all about, if you don’t know her already:
1.) “Shokubai” is the album opener, and is a brilliant one, starting with some emotional Mariko vocals and clean guitar with light synth backing. A heavy guitar and strings section kicks in once the intro is over, leading into the superb verse. The melody here has a very strong pop sensibility, while also being extremely poignant, in Mariko’s usual style. Moving beyond her often-used jazz band arrangement, the arrangement here includes lots of acoustic guitar, strings, bells, and many other things often found in bigger pop arrangements.
This song is an absolutely wonderful representation of Mariko’s pop/rock style, but fine-tuned to near-perfection with the help of a seasoned pop producer working with the arrangement, and it feels like a natural evolution beyond her previous pop-style works.
All this comes as no surprise, given the song is arranged by Ikuta Mashin, who is responsible for literally dozens of songs from the 48 family, many AKB sub-groups and solo projects, as well as tons of other high-profile pop arrangements for artists like Momoiro Clover Z, Sakura Gakuin, Rev. from DVL, AAA, and Kinki Kids, among others.
You can hear a live performance of an early version of “Shokubai” as the first song on this live performance from earlier this year:
2.) “Re: Nakusu” is the 2nd track, a fantastic noisy track, with a really high-tempo punk composition and arrangement throughout. The whole track is produced very low-fi to give it a gritty sound that’s very appropriate for the composition. The entire thing clocks in at only two minutes, also very appropriate for punk style, but the composition includes all the feeling and quality you’d expect from Mariko’s work, albeit in a more straight-forward punk style than ever before. A really fun track that exudes punk attitude and fun, and is a fitting way to blast off after the dramatic opening track.
The arrangement here is done by AKIRASTAR, who is famous for his work as one of the main songwriters and arrangers for Hello!Project group Buono! as well as his work on Kirarin Revolution songs, Tamura Yukari, Horie Yui, YGA, Ro-Kyu-Bu! and many others in the idol pop world. It’s also the most raw and straight-forward heavy punk that I’ve ever heard from AKIRASTAR’s work, and a very pleasant surprise.
3.) “Sunameri” is the third track, and the first track from this album to get a full PV. The track is a strange mix of keyboards above a very standard Japanese rock arrangement. This track isn’t too bad overall, but fails to reach the level of uniqueness and experimentation as many of the other tracks on this record and ends up feeling a little more like “standard” Japanese noise-sprinkled rock than many of the other tracks.
There’s some dissonant track editing and distorted guitar thrown in the background during many parts, but it still feels like I’ve heard a lot of tracks like this before, and this is also reminiscent of one of the lesser tracks from m@u, giving me that feeling of “been there, done that” since it doesn’t really expand upon the idea.
The song is arranged by Tsuri Shunsuke, who has worked with Dempagumi.inc, 9nine, Tomato n’Pine, and Kanjani 8 from the idol world, so it’s a bit strange to hear a track like this coming from someone with those credentials. Check out the full PV for “Sunameri” below, where Mariko caresses a character from Planet of the Apes:
4.) “Suki, Koroshitai, Aishiteru” is the 4th track, arranged by “Jimanica,” who has worked heavily with Mariko’s fellow experimental music contemporary, Etsuko Yakushimaru. The track is another song like “Shokubai,” where Mariko had already written and performed it a number of times as early as May of 2014, and this album finally gives it a studio recording. As far as the structure of the song, it follows a pretty standard pop song formula, but the passionate melody and vocal delivery set it above many similar compositions and works.
The arrangement is a pretty experimental/ambient style, with lots of flighty keyboards and digital sounds of all kinds, with bass guitar and drums being the only organic instruments audible here. This style fits the song very well and makes it have a dreamy or float-y sound throughout, much like some of the best tracks off of m@u. Here’s a video of Mariko performing an “unplugged” version with only her voice and an acoustic guitar from earlier this year, if you want to hear the basic structure of the song:
5.) “Kantou Romusou” is the next track, also arranged by AKIRASTAR, who also arranged the second track on the album and was mentioned earlier. This whole track is arranged with loud guitars and heavy drums, much like the other track AKIRASTAR arranged for this album, but the song has more pop sensibility, as opposed to the straight punk approach of “Re: Nakusu.”
The main beat of the song is almost like a cheerleader chant, also found in many popular idol songs throughout history, and along with the bridge section mentioned below, makes the whole song have an “idol parody” element that Mariko has touched on before, and it’s very satisfying and welcome in today’s tiresome and over-saturated idol market.
The chorus features some synth piano accompanying a fun melody that’s not-quite-pop but comes very close, changing the feel of the track a bit to have a good resolution in the composition. The bridge section features a hilarious break with a parody of an idol concert, featuring tons of fans screaming while Mariko introduces herself in a cutesy voice as if she were an idol, before breaking into a rock guitar solo. After the bridge comes a very idol-pop key change, where the key goes up to give that extra emotional push to the feel of the song.
Overall, a very fun song and the idol parody elements give extra points here. Like many of the other songs here, it’s also very short, which is admirable in it’s own way in today’s market where music is often artificially extended for various reasons, but it should keep you coming back for repeat listens. Not the best track on the album, but a very fun one.
6.) “Rettsu Kiru Mi” (“Let’s Kill Me”) is a pretty fun track that’s arranged by Tom-H@ck, the man responsible for all of the music from the idol-rock group “Houkago Tea Time” from the anime K-On! This song actually feels almost entirely like a song from K-On!, with a standard five-piece rock band arrangement as well as some cutesy idol vocal chants and lyrics.
They take a few small detours from the typical K-On! sound a few times here, especially in the bridge, with a noisy breakdown that contains hectic, fast drumming and lots of static/noise/loudness thrown in, before returning back to the more usual rock sound for the solo and ending of the song.
This is a fun track, especially if you like the music from Houkago Tea Time/K-On! but leaves a little to be desired for a Mariko fan who might be looking for a little more experimentation or uncommon elements from the music.
7.) “Tadashii Yoru no Sugoshi Kata” is the next track, and is the only track on the album arranged by Mariko and her band, in the same way as her previous two albums. The difference in arrangement style is instantly noticeable, calling back to many of the songs from her previous efforts, and is a very welcome diversion on this album, which has so far featured some more traditional mainstream production and arrangement styles, comparatively.
This song goes back to a straight jazz rock/fusion style with heavy piano, even heavier bass, a high tempo, and very quick, sharp, and loud vocal delivery from Mariko. The song stays pretty fast and furious to the end, though it doesn’t quite reach the level of excitement as many of her previous jazz-style songs, but is still a very enjoyable listen.
8.) “Cinderella Time” is another instance of a song that Mariko had written and performed much earlier in 2014 finally getting a studio treatment. This arrangement is done by Ikuta Mashin, who also arranged the opening track for this album, as mentioned before.
The track starts with a heavily layered, slightly distorted guitar accompanying Mariko’s lone vocals (much like the opening track,) and making for a very impassioned feel to the intro, which sets up the rest of the song very well. The opening reminds me of some of Shiina Ringo’s classic songs like “Tsuki ni Makeinu” or Tokyo Jihen’s “Gunjyou Biyori.”
This song features some Mellotron-style flute in the background with heavy guitars, digital noises, and heavy drums in the foreground. The bridge features more flute sounds, brought closer to the front of the mix, along with the continuing heavy guitar and drums on top of it, giving a pretty unique feel to this section and break from the rest of the song.
The composition is a somewhat standard pop composition, but with a really effective and warm arrangement that exudes a lot of feeling, as well as an affecting vocal performance by Mariko. I’ve said it many times before, but songs like this just make me feel like Mariko is a second coming of Shiina Ringo in many ways, from her overall style and eclectic nature to her songwriting nuances, and I can’t stress how much of a good thing that is. Here’s a video of the acoustic version of the song from earlier this year:
9.) “I/O” is the closing track to this musical adventure, and the song is arranged by Kawada Ruka, a female musician who has worked with artists like Idoling!!!, Horie Yui, and Aice5, among many others. “I/O” is pretty close to what you might expect from a closing track for an album, with a slow tempo and very sentimental arrangement/composition. The arrangement saves this song from sounding like just another boring ballad, keeping it interesting with some ambient guitar sounds throughout and various keyboard layers keeping things interesting behind the vocals.
Half way through the song, it breaks down to just a keyboard with a harpsichord-type voice and a guitar playing together for an instrumental break before breaking back into the pre-chorus section with Mariko’s vocals. The outro is layered with heavy bass and dissonant guitar sounds in the background before dying out to just the keyboards and guitar, and finally a solo guitar to close out the album.
After going into the album with pretty neutral outlook, I was pleasantly surprised by this album as a whole. While it is a slight departure from her previous works, especially on the production and arrangement side of things, it’s not really a bad thing.
Some of the lavish pop arrangements and productions featured here definitely help the music quality greatly, while others make it fall a little more flat than I’d have liked, but it feels like a delicate balance in the end, with no track ever dipping below the point of an enjoyable listen.
Some tracks here shine like a diamond, while others pass like a pleasant breeze, but it all seems to fit together well as a package. I’d definitely recommend this album to anyone who is a fan of Mariko or even anyone looking for something a little different from what you’re used to hearing with your J-pop/rock music.
Buy Kowareta Hako ni Rinakkusu: