My thoughts on “969”, the self-titled debut album from 969.
Release Date: August 22nd 2018
1. Catch The Light
5. Brand New World
6. A NEW LEVEL
7. Missing Blue
9. By Your Side
So today I’m going to be stepping out of my usual comfort zone and reviewing a release from a group that I’m not all that familiar with. The group in question is 969, which you’re supposed to pronounce as “Clock” because 969 would be “Ku-ro-ku” if you say it in Japanese. Yep, definitely learned my lesson with that one after some of their fans came down on us like a ton of bricks when we got it wrong on a podcast many moons ago.
The group has been active since 2016 but the current line-up has only been going since February of 2017. I also believe that Akamatsu Rei recently left the group in less than pleasant circumstances so they’re currently performing with 3 members. You can go look into that for yourselves in your own time if you wish but I figured I should at least mention it here in case there’s any casual listeners who might go on to check the group out after this review. Yeah, that would be nice wouldn’t it?
969 draw from a wide range of influences for their sound. I’m talking genres like Rock, Punk, Metal, Hardcore and whatever other crazy combinations you want to come up with. What I’m basically trying to say is that this isn’t going to be a Bubblegum Pop album. Now coming into this review I’m somewhat familiar with a few songs due to talking about their MVs on podcasts, but for the most part I’m just going to loop this thing a few times and see where my thoughts take me. Sound like a good time? Let’s find out.
Rather fittingly “Catch The Light” was the song that was chosen to lead off 969’s debut album. It is after all the group’s first indie single and also the song that the group’s current line-up redebuted with after being rebooted in early 2017. It starts out in that Digital Hardcore style that I know a lot of people are into right now and has a little hint of Industrial to it as well. As the song progresses it eases off on that style quite noticeably and heads in more of a Rock direction, especially when the girls are singing. Part of me does feel like the song loses something because of this but on the other hand I do think it was probably a good idea to let the vocals have some more room to breath. Speaking of the vocals, 969 are a pretty talented group in that department with several really strong voices and the now departed Rei being a particular standout in this and several other songs. I wouldn’t have minded a slightly more catchy chorus on this track but I think the solo spots given to each member more than make up for that in my book. Off to a good start here.
Maybe the first song isn’t really your thing, I get that the Hardcore music paired with synthesizer style has been done quite a bit by now. How about a foot stomping Rock song then? That’s what second track “FATE” starts out like at least, with a pretty dense but also rather catchy guitar riff that definitely caught my attention pretty quickly. I was then left a bit perplexed by the somewhat Rap style vocals that are the first instance of singing that we hear on the song. It got even more confusing when this switched to a more Pop, then Rock, then almost Visual Kei style as things really got going. I guess everyone just went with what they were best at and the crazy thing is that it actually works somehow. Did I mention there was also harsh vocals too? Everyone is on the same page for the chorus though which is in that sort of highly charged, emotive Rock style that Japan seems to be able to pull off oh so well. It was also interesting to hear how the instrumental was able to change itself up to match each of the vocal styles while still somehow maintaining undertones of its original Rock style throughout.
I’m not sure how I feel about leaving the album’s third track as simply “Untitled”. Surely for a song that sees the distortion and fuzz pedals get cranked up to create a very muddied backdrop for a trip into the world of Metalcore they could have at least come up with some kind of cool title. I’d say I digressed but I guess I didn’t really as this is for the most part a Metalcore song, although they do enlist the use of a synthesizer to create the sound of an alarm or siren to really set the tone. Oh and I guess there’s the whole matter of the chorus where things probably get a bit too Poppy and danceable for the purists. Let’s not forget the bit near the end where things go a bit Power Metal too either. The vocals do a really great job of adapting to all of these different ideas, helped out I’m sure by each member seeming to have a specific style that they’re good at. Seriously though, those VK kinda sounding vocals are just working for me in so many ways. If I actually knew what I was talking about I could probably tell you which member is responsible for them too. This song is definitely trying to go in a lot of different directions, which might not be the best idea but I can’t say I wasn’t entertained by what I heard. That’s the main thing right?
The piano arrangement that opens track 4 “Moment” didn’t totally catch me off guard, but it did make me wonder if the song was actually going to be a noticeably less rowdy affair or if it was just trying to lull me into a false sense of security. Well the piano didn’t stick around for too long, pretty quickly making way for a synthesizer accompanied Rock instrumental. However, the instrumental itself on this track is quite muted actually. It still makes the song feel substantial, but in an understated way that doesn’t rely on simply just turning every amp in the room up to 11. There’s a few points where it does all get a little too undefined but on the whole I thought it was fairly different and quite interesting to listen to. Oh yeah the vocals, I should probably talk about them. They flow between the more traditional Pop Ballad style and something a bit more Rockish, a bit like the instrumental really. It did get a little bit too high pitched at times for my personal tastes but it wasn’t that bad on the whole. I wouldn’t say this was my favorite of the songs I’ve heard thus far but it brings yet another different style to the table and that’s kinda cool to hear.
Alright, enough of all of that, we’re heading back into some more energetic territory with “Brand New World”. I thought that this song might have been a bit more Punk than it actually ended up being based on the opening few chords but I can’t say I have too many complaints with how the song turned out. I had a lot of flashbacks to the style of J-Rock from the mid-00s or so that borrowed quite a bit from VK without actually fully committing to the bit. By that I mean this is very much a Rock song but it also possesses a slightly more theatrical sound…I’ve probably lost everyone under the age of 25 at this point. The vocals also have that slight VK quality to them in the way that they’re delivered from a slightly lower register, you could also point to a multitude of popular anime theme songs from the time period too for more comparisons. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking but I think this song is awesome, in fact I think you could play it to most J-Rock fans from my generation and they’d agree. They’d also probably never be able to tell that it’s an Idol song either. If any of what I just wrote about this song resonated with you then you have to go listen to it.
Half way through and the album’s main promotional song finally makes an appearance. I think they really nailed it with “A NEW LEVEL”, both from a promotional standpoint and also from a really cool song standpoint too. From the ticking clock sound-effects that kick off the song to the super danceable Digital Hardcore instrumentals that follow, the brutal harsh vocals or the somewhat unexpected but epic sounding Rock chorus, this song is the perfect billboard to promote this album. It has pretty much all of the main elements of the 969 sound while being just mainstream enough to draw in new or casual listeners. Quite a lot going on granted but they manage the transition between the various different musical styles really well so the song flows nicely and doesn’t feel disjointed like it easily could have. One small critique would be that I’m not super feeling the “Woah, Woah, Woah, Woah, Woah” part in the chorus. It works great don’t get me wrong, it’s maybe just something you hear a bit too much of in music in general. I’m sure it’s a great crowd participation spot in a live setting though. Apart from that this song is great and you should definitely go watch the MV right now.
“Missing Blue” sees 969 opt for a style that is at least initially more rooted in what most people would consider to be Metal. They don’t fully commit to it though as this song does also have its fair share of synthesizers which help to knock some of the sharper edges off specifically when it comes to the chorus. The piano and faux choir bells (I guess) during some of the more serene parts of the song were a pretty nice touch too. I wouldn’t have minded them to just go straight up Metal for one song but I can understand why they did things this way as it does all tie into what we’ve heard on the album previously. Voclly 969 once again showcase their talents across the range of different musical styles, from harsh vocals, to more traditional Pop style deliveries. There was also a few moments where they got a bit dramatic, perhaps some would say theatrical, which gave those parts of the song a pretty unsettling, almost creepy vibe. The song works fairly well and I think the hook in the chorus is very strong, but I’d point to it as an example of 969 maybe trying to do a bit too much when it could have been better to stick to a more straightforward formula.
This album has been pretty good about dishing out the new songs, so I guess it’s about time we went back and revisit a previously released 969 song. The song in question is “Colors” which was released on the same single as “Catch The Light” when the group got rebooted in 2017. Unlike the previous song where I thought that they might be trying to do too much, I think they got just about everything right with this one. It’s a sentimental sounding Pop Punk song and nothing more, which is a good thing. Scratchy guitar riffs and an exuberant drumbeat are all this song needs to have a very catchy instrumental, which is perhaps stating the obvious I must admit. I’m also likely incredibly bias as this type of music really is my thing as I’m sure most of you know by now. The vocals on this track are also exactly what they need to be as well. Clean, powerful when the occasion calls for it and also with some rather nice harmonies too, it’s a just a really nice performance that’s free of the trappings that synthesizers and “heavier” styles of music typically call for. Probably not the sort of thing people come into listening to 969 looking to hear but hopefully they’re able to appreciate the performance and just how rock solid this song is from start to finish.
Speaking of songs that opt for a more straight up approach instead of trying to do a bunch of different styles all at once. That’s exactly the case with ninth track “By Your Side”. It’s a Rock song, and a very good one at that, with just a little hint of synthesizers to give it a bit of a more symphonic feel. So not quite a no nonsense guitars and drums arrangement but also not a genre melting pot either. The idea behind the instrumental worked very well in my opinion and sounded great. It also allowed for the song to have a little bit more of a Pop influence than it might otherwise have had. I’m more talking about the vocals when I say that though, which while definitely matching the overall tone of the song also had that infectious Pop quality to them. This is most noticeable in the chorus in my opinion, as it’s clearly structured to be something that gets stuck in your head and it was quite successful in doing so too in my case. While this is definitely one of the least…experimental tracks on the album it’s probably one of the ones I would use as an introduction to 969 and their sound. It has all of the components to appeal to a wide audience in my opinion.
With 969’s debut album fast drawing to a close we crank the amps up once more for penultimate track “REAL”. Chugging guitar riffs and a thundering drumbeat open the song, which pulls mainly from Metal and Hardcore influences this time out. We’re talking lots of gain and distortion on the instrumental track, although it does let up a decent amount when there’s vocals being delivered so as to let them have a bit more room to do their thing. This is another fairly straightforward song that hits all of the notes that it needs to hit (pardon the pun) and is genuinely great without trying to reinvent the wheel. Vocally the song is a bit more melodic than you might expect based off of the opening instrumental but it hits that sweet spot where it works in a similar way to what you’d hear from a “real” Melodic Metal/core/etc (genres are annoying, you get what I mean) band. Powerful verses and a pretty catch chorus are always going to work for me and there’s even a little bit of a harsh vocal here and there to tie things together some. Another really good song, and for a whole other set of reasons too.
The album closes out with “TONIGHT” which is another song that has been around for a good while now, originally being released as part of the current iteration of 969’s second single back in the summer of 2017. We’re all headbanging along to that opening instrumental together right? I know it’s a pretty basic Metal guitar riff and drum pattern but come on man you can’t say it isn’t a fun little jam right? Well, I guess you could be boring that if you want to. I’m not really sure if this is going to make sense but I really like the flow of this song, which is a weird thing to say about this style of music but it’s a thought that came to mind so I’m sharing it with you all. I guess maybe I’m thinking more about the more Rap leaning parts of the vocals, which I actually thought were pretty good despite my usual stance on that kind of thing. I also liked how they worked “tick-tock” into the lyrics too, very on brand and kinda clever I must admit. There was also yet more great clean and also harsh vocals so this song really is trying to give you a little bit of everything. As far as album closers go, this one is pretty much perfect.
969’s debut album had a lot of great songs and ideas, although perhaps maybe a few too many ideas for one song in a few cases. There was definitely a lot of variety on offer in any case. I think this album will appeal to anyone who enjoys their Idol music on the heavier side but there’s also a lot of great melodies and impressive clean vocals that I think anyone who is a fan of the genre in general can appreciate.
It’ll be interesting to see how 969 adjust to the departure of Rei over the coming months. They seem to be taking it in the stride as best they can at the moment and hopefully that will continue to be the case. This album is definitely a great foundation to build the group on and despite recent setbacks it will hopefully stand them in good stead heading into 2019.