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New Sakanaction: “Tabun, Kaze”

This past summer, I watched Sakanaction play to a packed baseball stadium just outside of Tokyo, going on before Radiohead at one of Japan’s biggest music festivals. It’s not like I needed confirmation that Sakanaction are a big rock outfit in their home country — I’d already heard their songs countless times on TV, or coming out of the mouths of my junior high students back when I taught. I’ve seen them play to thousands upon thousands of people before too, with all the green lasers and lighting freakouts that come with playing a venue that size. Japan’s recent band boom has been good to a lot of young acts — but Sakanaction was ahead of the curve, and already feel like an act towering above the field.

Still, this felt like an arrival of sorts, or at least a reminder that they have reached a point where they can attract the same number of folks as Mr. Children or X Japan (who played here in previous years, and who also had people clogging up the aisles). They’ve done it with a formula — one they are constantly tinkering with, but one that’s consistent. They merge rock with dance music, chugging guitars colliding with synth dapples, and are skilled at bringing out the drama in these songs. Sakanaction always build towards something — usually, a big ol’ scream-a-long release — and add little twists along the way. This is the blueprint, one in almost all their singles, including last year’s “Shin Takara Jima,” which — based on that ballpark audience — is probably their most well-known song now.

“Tabun, Kaze” follows it too, and there’s always an impulse when thinking about artists like this — especially artists you really really really like and really really really believe in — to want a radical shift, a break away from familiar templates. Push all the times that very move has resulted in forgettable music — “oh, Flying Lotus made a jazz album, great!” — aside, because this will be the time it works.

Yet Sakanaction don’t, choosing instead to refine and poke at a structure that is familiar, and come up with another song that highlights what Sakanaction do best — arena-sized, arty cathartic rock. String swells appear almost immediately after the song starts, but they simply set the atmosphere, as the bulk of the song is carried forward by guitar and bright keyboard notes, all moving towards a big, sing-a-long hook. And, to keep things interesting, the song practically fades in and out at times, and features a breakdown where everything gets woozy. They’ve been in this territory before, but Sakanaction still find new ways to look at it, and wring out the same compelling feel. This is a big band crafting a sound true to who they are, while still knowing the people hanging off the guardrails will bop along. Listen above.