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Reveiw: √thumm’s Yamatopia

Yamatopia, Nara trio √thumm’s second album, manages to meet every stereotype associated with the hotly-anticipated sophomore record while also marking an astronomical leap forward for the young group. Last year’s Coton burst into the world a catchy subversion, √thumm flipping the script on Japanese electro-pop. They took a sound often dependent on studio excess…the pop tinkering going on with Perfume and Capsule, or however the hell genre-fathers Yellow Magic Orchestra did it…and brought it to a more DIY-place. Those songs sounded simultaneously as glossy as the latest Yasutaka Nakata project while also being way more raw, pretty pop songs created by people who are clearly not pop-stars willing to experiment with it even more.

And now comes Yamatopia, every bit as immediately catchy as Coton but also so much more. This album dropped at the end of July, but, as the WordPress timestamp can attest to, it took a long time for this review to be written. This album needs time to fully bloom…it’s not a grower, as it pleases right away, but given time reveals itself as not just 10 hyper earworms (with bonus remixes!) but as an honest-to-goodness cohesive album. It’s just what the fledgling “techrock” movement needed – an album highlighting the micro-genre’s strengths and acting as a blueprint forward.

So, the non-revelations first: this album is packed with insanely catchy pop. √thumm know how to write a great song in the Perfume style – unafraid to smoosh as many noises into a song as long as they leave room for an excellent chorus. In this regard, Yamatopia easily matches Coton. See the thumping spin-around of “Fuji” or the strobing hook on the laid-back “Alive.” Best of all is “Kiss Me Kiss Me,” a hyperactive laser-light show of a song boasting the group’s best build-up to an insanely good chorus yet. Yamatopia’s songs – down to opener “Cubic Star” which recalls the last album’s “Health Voice” by serving as the neon-smothered warm-up full of nonsense lyrics – remain as strong as ever, part pop but also just as club-worthy.

√thumm could have coasted on an album of nothing-but rehashed pop-madness and probably been fine, but Yamatopia sees them pushing into territory often passed over by even artists they cop steps from. Two tracks in particular stand out for going down paths rarely skipped down by electro-poppers. The first comes on the album’s second song and lead single “Harukami,” which is a ballad. Coton’s slower songs came off as bright, incoming tides of sound, less proper songs and more atmospheric experiments. “Harukami’s” a legit J-Ballad run through a synthesizer, even opening with the faint sound of wind chimes that hints at the sort of every-sappy-sound-we-can-fit approach most artists seem to approach ballads with.

It seems set up to be a divider – no manic beat or chorus, even the vocoder seems turned down a bit – but repeated listens reveal this sort of song is actually ripe for √thumm. If most J-Ballads cram as many different sounds into the space of, say, four minutes, why can’t a group who does the exact same thing with electronic noises in pop pull it off? “Harukami” shoots its hand up to answer an emphatic “duh,” going to great lengths to show the versatility of electro-pop. Post-chorus strings get replaced with post-chorus synths, while lead singer lio makes the jump from pop-android to one of those soul-filled robots from Bjork’s “All Is Full Of Love” video, easily the best vocal performance from her yet. Not all J-ballads suck, and √thumm recognize they can work when you really sell them, and that’s exactly what they do (just check the vocal peak late in the track). It’s, oddly enough, one of their most unexpected turns yet and also the best chance they have of getting mainstream attention.

“Since Yesterday,” meanwhile, attempts to be the least-cluttered pop song √thumm have ever penned. Following the glow-stick-rich force of “Kiss Me Kiss Me,” “Since Yesterday” sounds like √thumm trying to be The Beach Boys. Or, more accurately, trying to write a very simple pop gem. Save for a few surplus drum hits and the liberal use of vocoder smeared over lio’s voice, this track comes off as minimal by this trio’s standards. Opening with plinking keyboard, “Since Yesterday” quickly becomes a colorful bit of melancholic bouncy pop. √thumm write the most coherent English lyrics of their career here, skipping the zany t-shirt slogans of prior songs to focus on the end of a relationship. “When tomorrow comes you’ll wish/you had today,” lio sings, the digital manipulation warping her voice so much she already sounds like a memory, “And as we sit here alone/Looking for a reason to go on/It’s so clear that all we have now/Are our thoughts of yesterday.” Whereas most √thumm songs seem mostly giddy, “Since Yesterday” (and “Harukami,” for that matter) show the band not only embracing new forms to fit their pop touch into to, but also writing surprisingly conflicted songs.

The other new developments for the group on Yamatopia aren’t quite as thrilling as the above two tracks, but certainly deserve praise for sounding damn good. “ヤマトコトノハ” gives in to sounding distinctly Japanese – not “Japanese” in the sense of taiko drums or tea ceremonies, but rather how one would imagine a Pachinko parlor to sound in the 80s. “皐-satsuki-” may be the closest √thumm ever come to trance with its pulsing center and hypno-chorus. The only real misstep on Yamatopia comes on late cut “Rise On Prism,” in which the band dabble with hip-hop-ish beats and discover they don’t really mesh with their style of hyper-pop…and even that song boasts a killer chorus a remix away from being a beast.

Yamatopia’s biggest triumph, though, comes when you realize how it sounds like an actual album. Coton, great as it was, felt like a collection of songs – this sounds unified. The slight increase in Japanese lyrics…ones I mostly can’t understand, so accept I might be making a jump here…implies a focus on more personal subject matter best expressed in one’s native language. Though, even lacking a Japanese dictionary app for your phone, the English lyrics to “Since Yesterday” and song titles like “Kiss Me Kiss Me” and “Alive” hint at this album being about relationships, how they start and how they end, two appropriate instances given the extreme emotion √thumm convey in their loaded pop. The songs on Yamatopia just sound way more emotional – “Cubic Star” and (especially) “Kiss Me Kiss Me” bubbling over with joy, “Harukami” splitting somewhere between longing and whispering into someone’s ear, “Fuji” and “Since Yesterday” coming off as a bit more downtrodden. Members sujin and Shimaru deserve credit for delivering amazing music, but the emotional leap comes courtesy of lio’s singing, which has become far more confident since Coton. She’s also example one that artists can sometime make vocal manipulation work in their favor.

It all reaches a dizzying conclusion on the final track “Good Bye Bye!” √thumm flirted with “Star Space” on last year’s debut and always sound a bit cosmic, but it’s here they finally break through the atmosphere. On an album seeing them slowly branch out, they simply embrace their primary style on “Good Bye Bye!” and take it to dizzying heights. A fat acid-bass line wriggles beneath a typically bright collection of synths as lio delivers gibberish English…then the chorus hits. The music itself soars while that newfound vocal confidence goes even higher, delivering a simple line like “Let me good bye bye everything/I feel 8 rising sun” with catharsis. It’s an appropriate ending for Yamatopia – after exploring the highs and lows of love while also delivering a sophomore album both better and bolder than their debut, √thumm say farewell to it all and launch into places unknown.