My thoughts on “Shihatsumachi Underground”, the debut album from Shihatsumachi Underground.
Release Date: March 27th 2019
1. Kazemachi Time Travel
2. Kanjō-sen wakusei
4. Soto ni ita ao
5. HELP ME
7. Inu to Messiah
8. Yubisaki miraiyosozu
9. Yoru no owari ni
Let’s face it, there’s a ton of music getting released both generally and in the tiny little corner of the industry that I prefer to cover on this website. It’s hard to keep up sometimes and it’s definitely difficult to give everything a fair shake because as I always say, there’s only so many hours in the day. Sometimes though, you get a reason to go back to something that you might have passed over initially and maybe you were an idiot for doing so.
Shihatsumachi Underground are a group that I obviously know of but they never did too much to really catch my attention…before I went to Japan this year. They’re a 3-member (though this release was recorded with 4) group whose concept is that they were formed to kill time by girls who had missed the last train home from Shibuya station. It’s definitely an interesting concept for a group I suppose, though it does feel perhaps just a tad pretentious, to me anyway.
Their self-titled album “Shihatsumachi Underground” is the group’s first album release and features 9 songs. Several of which have appeared on the group’s debut release, an EP titled “Frustration”. I’ve never covered them for the site before though and I’m honestly just now really checking out the group after liking what I heard the couple of times I saw them in Japan a month or so back. Will that translate onto tape though? I don’t know, I haven’t even started the review yet. I suppose now might be a good time to do that, right?
After quickly counting us in, the album’s lead track “Kazemachi Time Travel” gets us off to a pretty groovy start, with a Rock instrumental featuring some fairly prominent basslines. There’s a slightly eerie air to it too, perhaps trying to invoke the idea of a deserted train station late at night…or I’m embellishing way too hard here. Then the vocals come in and what a smooth, rich tone they have to them. I’m not really one to get a ton of stimulus from the tone in which people talk/ASMR/whatever you want to use as a blanket term but man if these vocals don’t have something to them that makes them really nice to listen to. Especially when they introduce those whispery sighs into the mix. There’s something vaguely ritualistic to the structuring and delivery of the vocals too, they entrance you and draw you in even though you have the feeling something isn’t quite right. The choruses are a good bit more Poppy by comparison, and the vocals take on this ethereal quality not too dissimilar to what NECRONOMIDOL used to do when they had the personnel for it while also being super catchy. The instrumental also picks up in tempo and overall energy to match during these parts, after having been a pretty unassuming but constant pace setter for much of the rest of the song. I love the tone, I love the vibe, I love…well pretty much everything about this song.
“Kanjō-sen wakusei” continues the eerie, ritualistic vibes that “Kazemachi Time Travel” introduced by opening with a steady, pounding drumbeat and a clean, repeating guitar riff. All you’re really waiting for is some kind of chant, hymn or whatever to get brought into play by the vocals and we didn’t have to wait very long for just that to happen. Granted it’s not really full on chanting, but there’s just enough echo and the lyrics are delivered at just the right, deliberate pace to give you a pretty good impression of it while also not getting too far away from the fact that this is supposed to be an Idol song. One ridiculously slick, and rather catchy, instrumental transition later and the chorus is where this song really comes alive. The funky guitar riffs combining with yet more ethereal but at the same time powerfully delivered vocals make it so you can’t help but sit up and take notice of this song. Then we’re right back into the deliberately delivered vocal style of the verses which are also oddly catchy in their own way. The song flips between the two styles for a bit then after a somewhat psychedelic mid-song instrumental break thing start to slowly build and build until the lines between both styles completely blur together and the song reaches its climax and all we’re left with are the closing notes from the song’s repeating guitar riff.
Well, Shihatsumachi Underground named an entire EP after it so it’s not that surprising that they’d also choose to feature “Frustration” on their debut album as well. A bouncy drumbeat greets the ears upon hitting play and it’s then followed up with an equally bouncy, and also rather twangy guitar riff that once again has me wondering just what exactly it is about this that makes it sound so good to my ears. The party slows down a little bit with the introduction of the vocals but the instrumental retains a very pleasing tempo as they take the spotlight and do their thing. That particular thing on this occasion being some comparatively more “normal” singing than what we’ve heard on the previous two tracks, a nice change of pace and a good way of showing that this group isn’t just a one-trick pony in the vocal department. They do shift a little more towards the ethereal side of things for the song’s absolutely huge and ridiculously catchy chorus but it’s more of a blend of both styles than one dominating the other. It makes for yet another very pleasing listening experience and probably one of the better choruses I’ve heard this year honestly. That’s pretty much everything there is to mention about this track folks, it has like 3 or 4 key components, they’re all great and since that’s the case why would you need anything else right? Fantastic song, go listen to it if you haven’t yet.
“Soto ni ita ao” is a very noticeable departure both tonally and thematically from the rest of the album’s material up to this point. This is heard right from the opening notes of the instrumental which give off a lot of warmth as well as just a bit of a crackling fuzz to accent the otherwise very clean and clear guitar playing. It’s a pretty calm and relaxing sort of vibe being impressed onto the listener with hardly a harsh sound in earshot. The closest they get is with the drums and even they are positively muted and not even used that often in all honesty. The vocals, if you can even call them that, are more of a spoken word type of performance though there’s obviously a flow and structure to them that you wouldn’t have if the performer was just standing there talking into a microphone casually. Much like the instrumental there’s a soothing calmness to the way they’re being delivered and we get some pretty nice, natural performances if that’s the sort of thing that you’re into. The song is a little bit repetitive, the instrumental especially so as there isn’t really any flashy stuff going on to distract the ears and it wouldn’t be appropriate for the theme that Shihatsumachi Underground are going with here. Probably not going to be for everyone but if I’m telling you I enjoyed it then you’ve probably got a good chance of doing so as well.
Despite being rather aggressively titled, the album’s fifth track “HELP ME” couldn’t really be further from that if it tried honestly. It sort of continues that calm, relaxing theme that the previous song introduced but this time you can definitely call it a song. There’s a very apparent throwback feel to the instrumentals, which taken on this sort of 80s style summery Pop tone which is likely not where anyone would be expecting this album to go had they just hit play and come in totally blind. The vocals are done in a style that more than fits the theme, with soft melodies floating out of the speakers and into your ears as if they were being carried by a light summer breeze. There’s a great smooth flow to them, especially so in the chorus which reminds me a great deal of previous works by NEGICCO or maybe even Vanilla Beans if anyone reading this has been around long enough to remember them. I suppose in a lot of ways the entire song does now that I think about it. Once again the instrumental, and to an extent the vocals too, is pretty repetitive but in the good way where it’s designed to get its hooks deep into your brain. The perfect accompaniment to a lazy afternoon in the height of summer or to make those cold winter days feel just a tiny bit warmer.
After that unexpected but in the end very enjoyable change of pace, the album gets back on a similar path to which it started down with sixth track “Furifuri”. The bass guitar takes much of the spotlight in the song’s opening Rock style instrumental, with the lead guitar providing more of a supplementary component by throwing out a quick riff or two occasionally. The bass and drums really take over once the vocals come in for the first verse however, setting a pleasing tempo while also frustrating me as I try to place where I’ve heard a similar arrangement to this before. Speaking of the vocals, they once again have that mildly ethereal quality to them but with enough drive behind the delivery so that things never end up getting too whispy and floaty sounding. I suppose it’s more of an accent than a defining feature this time around. Outside of that, there’s a pretty nice guitar solo about three quarters of the way through the song that acts as a bridge of sorts before we’re treated to one last run through of the, once again fairly repetitive but also effective, verse/chorus combo and then the song is over. There isn’t really a ton to cover on this track as it’s quite short at just a little under two and a half minutes but Shihatsumachi Underground’s end product is once again very effective for the time given.
“Inu to Messiah” has an admittedly rather odd name but don’t let that distract you from this being another highly enjoyable song from Shihatsumachi Underground. Well, it’s enjoyable if you like that throwback, 80s Pop style because the album is back to that again on this particular track. There’s something mildly folksy to the song’s instrumental, with the drums providing a nice energetic, but not overly so, beat from which the rest of the song builds upon. The guitars feature a similar tempo and have a twang to them that is probably where I’m getting the feeling of Folk music from. It’s not the most loud and in your face instrumental that you’re ever likely to hear, and there are several on this album that are much more suited to that, but once again the hooks are where it’s at with this one. The same is true for the vocals, which strike a rather nice balance between the more natural and the more ethereal styles that the group are clearly very adept at. It does kinda sound like there’s a male backing vocal at times, to me anyway but I don’t think that’s actually the case so don’t go running for the hills right away. I also kinda liked how they added some wota calls to the chorus, it isn’t something I’m normally super keen on but they managed to blend them in seamlessly so fair play on that one. I’m probably sounding like a broken record but this is another great song.
If you like clean guitar tone with a little bit of warmth and brightness to it then the opening sequence of “Yubisaki miraiyosozu” is probably going to be pretty pleasing to your ears. We’re back to that summery vibe and it’s a pretty feel-good one, at least in my opinion anyway. The vocals are also pretty upbeat and happy sounding, being introduced into the song fairly quickly after it begins. A little surprising to me as I kinda figured they might have gone with more of a build-up but I’m definitely not complaining either. Things get a touch more hazy as the song gets it feet under it, and it’s hard not to find yourself yet again imagining a lazy afternoon on a warm summer’s day. I’m maybe just a little disappointed by the chorus, not so much because I didn’t enjoy it but the instrumental does get a bit busy and we ended up losing a bit of everything as a result. It’s a super minor thing, don’t mistake that for me trashing the song please. Vocally this is very much a Ballad which at this point you kinda had to expect was coming. Still, they do a really great job of making it sound interesting and the quality of the vocal performance is definitely helping it along too. Add in a few nice hooks and a smooth, pleasing flow and once again you’re onto a winner here.
Bringing down the curtain on this unexpectedly great album is ninth track “Yoru no owari ni”. Yet another well thought out guitar riff gets things started before we’re treated to a monologue of sorts, with the drums coming in to provide a steady cadence to the performance. About a minute in there’s a short guitar solo which acts as a transition of sorts and then suddenly the intensity gets ramped up and the lyrics are getting delivered in this sort of raw, half shouted style. Noticeably different to everything else we’ve heard on the album up until now but still trying to keep with the theme by way of the more melodic synthesizer tones brought in as an accompaniment. Also of note are the several instrumental breaks in the song, where the listener is treated to some rather enjoyable and once again mildly psychedelic guitar and synthesizer combinations. Without them the track wouldn’t be anywhere near the 5 and a half minutes in length that it ended up being but then it would also just be several spoken word passages and a couple of choruses. You all know that I’m not one for overly long and drawn out songs but as pretentious as this sounds, this is more of a listening experience than a conventional song and even if you want to scoff at that, you can’t really deny that the instrumentals aren’t at the very least an interesting listen. A nice way to close things out in my opinion.
I’m really glad I came back to review this album, as it’s definitely one of the better ones to come out in 2019 in my opinion. There isn’t a song on here that I didn’t enjoy, which is some achievement in itself. I particularly liked the somewhat unconventional mix of darker themes and throwback Pop styles that made for a pretty diverse but also somehow cohesive album experience. The vocals are also fantastic, spanning a wide range of tones and styles. It’s a little pretentious sure, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the release here.
I suppose at the end of this review I’m left wanting more, which is never a bad thing but I’m not sure when the more might be coming. Shihatsumachi Underground have been operating as a 3-piece for a while now so I’m not sure if they’ll wait to recruit new members before releasing a new CD or if they’ll forge ahead with the status quo. Either way I’m excited and impatient to see what they do in 2020 and hopefully some of that involves a new song or two, or three, or four.