In May, I found myself spending a rainy weekend in Tokyo. Somewhere between trips to Denny’s and the official NHK store to buy gifts for friends, I ended up in Shibuya’s club district, a vast stretch of nightclubs and love hotels staring each other down, intoxicated folks spilling out of both. This district, the name slipping my mind, came off as slightly jarring to a rural-based English teacher who had last gone clubbing sometime in 2010, in the far less buzzing city of Osaka at that. Walking through the dimly lit streets filled me with a strange mix of adrenaline mashed with I-feel-so-out-of-place-here-ness, country-boy me wowed and intimidated by the big city.
I ended up at a joint called Club Asia to watch Yasutaka Nakata DJ. Though the promotional poster for his “Flash!” event should have tipped me off…the famed producer behind Perfume and Capsule wearing stylish sunglasses, placed in front of stark blackness like a catalog model…I realized just how fish-out-of-water I was when the bouncer started patting me down. “Wow, a bouncer, haven’t seen this in Osaka!” I am a country bumpkin. In I went into the bowels of the club, a place that might not have been quite as Enter The Void as I expected but still felt like another world. The interior was bathed in the same blue as a Skyy Vodka bottle. The women appeared more stylish. The place buzzed.
I, along with the people who I came with, went down to the main area to watch Nakata do his resident DJ thing. This, though, had the potential to be special…Capsule’s new album World Of Fantasy dropped only a few days earlier so this event seemed like a de facto release party, a victory lap even. Out he came and then the music started. Undeniably club-friendly music. Battering waves of sound. Something sounding like C-grade M.I.A. The sort of stuff I’ve heard in clubs from Osaka to Chicago.
We eventually went to the next room over to talk.
Nakata’s various projects…Perfume included…have always drawn just as much inspiration from dance music as from pop. World Of Fantasy, then, isn’t a huge shock – it is Capsule’s “club” album, the one tailor-made for Shibuya nightclubs thanks to 128-BPM being the default speed of every track here. Nakata has been spending more and more times in clubs, serving as Club Asia’s resident DJ along with some other places. A cynical take on Fantasy would be to label it Nakata’s peace offering to club traditionalists, an album thrusting away from the pure-pop of Perfume in favor of authentic floor-filling electro-house. I think dude just really likes nightclubs, sees them as an escape. A “world of fantasy” if you will.
Whether he’s posturing or just embracing nightlife ultimately doesn’t matter, because Nakata sacrifices a lot of the pop charm that made his previous work so irresistible in favor of clanging club music. Fantasy is aggressively so-so, a blaring wall of noise going nowhere. Any catchy ideas get chopped down due to overuse, while the more annoying ones get way too much time to drill their way into your skull. This is Nakata making his own Skyy colored club, one where the bouncer turns a lot of good ideas away at the door.
(Before we dive into this thing, lets talk about the two worsts songs on this album first because they are so bad, so grating they deserve special recognition but also not much attention at all. So…”I Just Wanna XXX You” imagines a world where Nakata listened to the last M.I.A. album and decided all the truly annoying parts WEREN’T QUITE ANNOYING ENOUGH that they needed to be melded with the worst of electro-house. And that’s before the part where it goes “move out the way bitchhhh comes in. “Striker” comes next and…this track features a faux vuvuzela yet that’s probably one of the highlights of the song. Should sum it up.)
The title track touches on everything good and bad about Fantasy. It continues Nakata’s long-held fascination with the sounds of the 80s, all Miami Vice keyboards cascading downwards and shifting pulses of bass. Primary Capsule vocalist Koshijima Toshiko coos like a woman intoxicated on strobe lights, clear enough but also at enough of a distance that she starts to blur. It’s a song full of good sounds and the obvious lead single – yet it also fails to go anywhere. For six minutes it just revisits the same ideas again and again. The deluxe edition comes with an extended version of “World Of Fantasy” which draws things out even longer, as if Nakata thought the original wasn’t long enough.
And so it goes on the album. “Keep Hope Alive” and “I Will” shift between interesting Toshiko-centric segments to zombie-grinding electro segments, while the album’s most joyous cut “What Is Love” goes through a few stretches of tedium that are saved by life-filled vocals and some good horn selection. World Of Fantasy’s most interesting moment comes on the three-and-a-half-minute “I Can’t Say I Like You,” which bounces between disco, house and whatever you classify Zomby as.
Honestly, talking about individual songs on this album seems foolish, because World Of Fantasy wants you to remember specific moments. This is club-centric stuff after all, and like a night out you want to focus on the specific triumphs rather than the entire affair. Almost every track here features at least one moment of transcendence, often courtesy of a Toshiko vocal. Speaking of…she’s the clear standout on this LP. Pre-release press mentioned how she played a bigger role on Fantasy but she’s actually not as prevalent as you’d expect…but when she does peak through the layers of neon synth, she steals the spotlight.
World Of Fantasy isn’t Nakata’s first foray into club music…most Capsule albums feature at least one “banger” and even Perfume albums have made concessions to hard beats. Yet devoting an entire Capsule album to that noise is a bit of a twist, one seemingly meant to gain the attention of a certain sub-sect at the cost of the ears of many others. Other critics have written this album will probably turn off the casual fan and otaku who came to Capsule via Perfume. I think they are completely right.
But is that a good thing? Nakata’s strength has always been his ability to take dance elements and work them into pop templates with dizzying results, a formula that has turned Perfume famous and resulted in a handful of great Capsule albums. He mostly abandons that on Fantasy, to make club music that not everyone will enjoy…in essence, he’s created his own club, highly exclusive and serving a very specific clientele. Even this wouldn’t be a problem if Fantasy wasn’t so muddled, more of a chore than a joy to listen to. Props to Nakata for going in a direction he wants to go, but that alone doesn’t mean the music will be any good.
Back to Club Asia…after an hour of chatting, we go back into the main area. Toshiko joined Nakata on stage and they are no longer playing clanging electro-house. They play J-Pop. Poppier Capsule songs, and then he dropped Perfume’s “Laser Beam” and the crowd went nuts. It was an excellent ending to the night, and a reminder that sometimes universal stuff can work better than nice sounds for getting people moving.