My thoughts on “GATHERWAY”, the first album from MELiSSA.
Release Date: August 18th 2020
1. FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST
2. UTPA (Ultimate Five Ver.)
4. DEAD HEAT DRiVE
5. planet dance
6. Imitation Warriors
10. Shinkai pearl
11. Sentimental days
12. UTPA (God Seven Ver.)
I think it’s pretty fair to say at this point that if you’re looking for coverage of Idol groups that fall more towards the “Traditional” end of the spectrum then this site’s content isn’t going to be filling that need for you. I used to be pretty big into all of that stuff in a past life but these days I tend to focus on the more weird and wonderful things that the Japanese underground scene has been producing in abundance in recent years.
Idol College were/are a group that I’m familiar with and they certainly fall very squarely into the Traditional side of the Idol genre. So when I heard they were putting out a Rock focused sub-unit I sort of brushed it off as a one-time thing that probably wasn’t going to go very far. That project ended up being MELiSSA who we’re going to talk about today and as you can see, they’ve come quite far indeed in the group’s year and a bit of existence.
If you’ve been reading the site for a while you might remember that I covered the group’s first single “MELiSSA / DEAD HEAT DRiVE” about a year ago now (review here) and was shocked to discover that not only were all of the songs written by SCRAMBLES but they contained my favorite era of the WACK style. Since then they’ve been putting out a few tracks on SoundCloud which have also been quite excellent and it looks like they’re all on “GATHERWAY”, the group’s debut album so I’m really happy about that already. If you’re a WACK fan you’ll probably want to read on as I get into this and fans of Idol Rock and all that fun stuff are also encouraged to join me on what is sure to be a very enjoyable journey here.
Leading things off is “FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST”, which had me quirking an eyebrow because obviously that’s also the name of a rather popular anime. Here though, it’s just the name of a short intro track to get the album started off on the right foot. By that I mean we’re treated to some nice, moody Rock tones from guitars that aren’t afraid to show off with a well placed lick or two when the occasion demands it. There’s also a bit of a synthesizer element to things, which combines with the drums to give a pretty ear pleasing beat to everything. Not a whole lot to say apart from that but given what I already know MELiSSA are capable of, I think this track does a good job of setting the table for things to come.
The first real song to feature on the release is “UTPA (Ultimate Five Ver.)”. I’m going to make a few assumptions and guess that they’ve gone for a fancy way of spelling “Utopia” there and that the “Ultimate Five” refers to this song having been recorded before the group added two additional members to their ranks. Let me know if I got close on any of that. The track’s opening instrumental features a very loud and hard-hitting EDM composition which certainly fills the room, before settling down into a more Rock leaning, but still synthesizer supplemented, affair just in time for the first round of verses to come in. Speaking of which, the vocals play it a bit more straight than the very exuberant instrumental and I think the contrast of their lower, more natural tones makes for a pretty interesting and multi-layered listening experience. Things get a bit brighter and uptempo on both sides of the coin when the choruses roll around, and I kinda don’t like what they did here honestly. More the vocals than the runaway train nature of the instrumental which I didn’t mind that much but yeah, vocally things get a bit pitchy at times and it just doesn’t feel quite as cohesive as the rest of the song. Not a bad opener for the album and the closing sequence was actually really good to be fair, I just know that MELiSSA are capable of a lot better than this and you’re about to hear some examples of that coming up.
Speaking of which, three tracks in and we’re treated to our first instance of previously released material in “MELiSSA”, the group’s title track I suppose is what you’d call it. It originally featured as one of the title tracks of the group’s debut single and you can read my initial thoughts on this one here if you would like to do so. My thoughts haven’t changed too much in the time since I wrote this review, as I certainly do still really like the song’s high energy, synthesizer tinged Rock instrumental which judging by how this album is starting out we can safely say it’s a bit of a theme we’ve got developing here. Vocally it’s a pretty solid Idol Rock style performance so I’d have no hesitation recommending this one to anyone out there reading this who is normally into that sort of stuff. The flow and lyrical hooks of the chorus are pretty understated at first but they definitely start to grow on you very quickly after a couple of listens. Those hi-hats are still there and kinda more forward in the mix than I would have preferred personally but it’s not really the end of the world I suppose. The drums get a bit muddy at times too but that’s just sort of the way things are with this style so my comments are definitely more of a preference thing than an actual critique at this point. A fun, pretty catchy Rock tune that’s not really breaking the mold that much but it should have pretty broad appeal as a result.
Following on from that we have the second part of MELiSSA’s debut single package which takes the form of “DEAD HEAT DRiVE”. Again, initial thoughts can be had here if you so wish to read them. This one was pretty interesting at the time, and still is to an extent because of just how similar it sounded to a lot of WACK’s output. Then you discover that it’s composed by Iguchi Ichiro from SCRAMBLES and things start to make a whole lot more sense. From the great solo lead-in to the track, to the vocals that sound very much like BiSH on their best of days to the super catchy choruses with several WACK hallmarks sprinkled in along the way. Maybe not quite as energetic as some of what we’ve heard so far but increased intensity more than makes up for that in my opinion. I guess the main argument over this track is at what point do you stop loving it because (especially when it came out) it’s doing pretty much everything BiSH aren’t these days and start to criticize it for being too derivative and unimaginative. I don’t know the answer to that, and it’s likely to differ from person to person. All I can say is that I really love this song and if you’re missing that old style of BiSH/WACK/whatever song then you’re going to hear plenty of that here. I said at the time MELiSSA were doing BiSH better than BiSH are and given the latter’s recent output I have to say that I stand by that statement even now.
Iguchi Ichiro’s influence on this release continues into the next track “planet dance” and as a result, so does the WACK vibe to things. The instrumental features a pretty intense, punchy synthesizer and guitar arrangement that’s also pouring on a healthy dose of distortion for good measure. There aren’t quite as many parallels to be drawn here as there were in the previous track but there is something to the instrumental that feels a bit familiar. Vocally it’s the complete opposite, where things are incredibly familiar sounding with the lines in the verses being delivered in that signature, almost sneering way that you hear on plenty of releases from BiS, GANG PARADE and the like. The chorus also feels very reminiscent of another song but I can’t quite put my finger on it so if you can then let me know in the comments. It’s fairly catchy to its credit, it’s just a little bit too good of an imitation for me and though I defended the previous track I have a hard time telling anyone that this song isn’t wearing its influences very proudly on its sleeve. I do like the energy that it’s bringing though and the breakdown that’s acting as the bridge into the final sequence of the track hits hard and in a way that you’re definitely not going to hear from many/any of the groups that we’re drawing influences from here. If you’re a WACK fan then you should be all over this one.
The reigns are then passed off to another member of SCRAMBLES for the album’s sixth track “Imitation Warriors”. Tanaka Keita is responsible for this one and for my money this is one of the most criminally underappreciated Idol songs I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve been playing this one a ton since it was released on SoundCloud last year, so that should give you an idea of how highly I think of it. From the really catchy synthesizer melodies to the song’s infectious beat, there’s a lot to like about the instrumental even if it is a bit at odds with the slightly more reserved but still very harmonic nature of the vocals during some parts of the verses. Lots of nice little hooks are included here too, which is never something that you’re going to catch me complaining about that’s for sure. The chorus is the star attraction though, at least in my opinion anyway. Really great harmonies paired with some really catchy vocal hooks and an absolutely killer structure to the ending transition have me finding pretty much nothing bad to say about anything there. The energy is also pretty contagious, with the track taking on more and more of it as it plays out before closing with one last rendition of said chorus. If you listen to no other tracks from this album then make sure that you at least listen to this one.
Up next is another contribution from Tanaka Keita, this time taking the form of “Berserker” which kinda had me thinking that this one could perhaps get a little bit wild. That’s definitely the vibe the song is giving off early too, with some blistering guitar riffs and fairly intense drumming setting the stage for what is presumably to come. Then the vocals come in and things take on a very different tone to where I thought we were heading with this one. Much more rhythmic guitar and a rambunctious drumbeat appear to back up some slightly more reserved, I suppose you could even say a bit moody even, vocals which are firing off their lines in a quick and rather ear pleasing way. Not what I expected, that’s for sure but I’m still having a pretty good time with this one. Well, until we get to the chorus at least where things get a bit too busy and muddied on the instrumental side of things while the vocals are off doing a very nice but also kinda unremarkable emotive Ballad sort of thing. I know titles really don’t mean anything but even after that opening instrumental I would never have guessed that we’d end up here from where things started out. That said, the verses are a fun listen and the chorus ain’t that bad but I’m just not really sure how it fits here is I guess what I’m getting at. Not going to be making my Top 5 from this release I think it’s safe to say.
In a move that’s fairly befitting of its name, “DREAMERS.” starts out on a pretty bright and light note when it comes to its instrumental but there is also quite a bit of intensity to the synthesizers that dominate much of the composition here. Things turn a little deeper in tone as we work our way through the first few verses, with the synthesizers making way for the beat that was always running as an undercurrent but this is the first chance that we get to properly hear it. It has a nice tone and tempo to it and it compliments the natural tone in which the MELiSSA members are delivering their lines, of which many are quite catchy I might add and as a result it all comes together to make for a rather enjoyable, smooth listen. The synths are slowly worked back in as we build towards the choruses which see a return to the kind of instrumental style that the song opened with. The vocals get a chance to turn a bit more emotional as a result and unlike earlier in the track I think this does a good job of balancing the instrumental out actually. Maybe not the most exciting of lyrical content to listen to, compared to other offerings on this release, but I liked the emotion coming through even if the lyrics weren’t super catchy to the ear initially. That’s pretty much the formula for the track right there, some pretty straightforward stuff when it comes to how they’ve laid it all out but the end result is an enjoyable one in its own way. Not bad at all.
Our streak of Tanaka Keita songs continues into the album’s ninth track “DiSEASE” which looks like it could easily have been a song title from any number of WACK projects down the years. The opening vocal salvo kinda has that familiar WACK style of flow to it when they’re doing that half Rock, half Rap sort of style that makes for some very effective rapid fire delivery of lines. There’s a very moody tone to the instrumental that’s accompanying all of this, with some muted drums and heavy, distorted guitar riffs painting quite the dark picture in ones head as they listen along. The chorus gets mildly brighter, with the introduction of some synthesizer sparkles that are almost comical in how ineffective they end up being at lifting the mood. Much more effective however are the vocals which do a great job of cutting through the dense instrumental with their soaring harmonies that are also just a little bit rough around the edges so as to not sound too out of place with the rougher feel of the rest of the track. Once again it’s a pretty simple format as far as the song’s layout goes but we are treated to a really cool guitar solo during the bridge which ended up being a highlight I suppose just purely for the fact that it was so different to everything else going on here. It also lead into a pretty nice ending sequence too where we finished things off a little bit brighter and more energetic than where we started from.
I think the point where you know that you listen to too much of this stuff is when you can pretty much nail what sort of song a track is going to be by the tone of its opening instrumental. When I heard the very familiar sound of “Shinkai pearl”‘s opening instrumental my immediate thought was “this is going to be a sentimental Rock-ish Ballad” and sure enough when the the track developed a little bit more and the vocals came in, that’s pretty much where we ended up. They do their best to dress it up with very forward drumming and interesting little guitar riffs but the tone and tempo of the vocals really give it all away. Don’t get me wrong, nothing here is bad or unpleasant to listen to but it’s just one of those ones where you kinda sit back and think about all of the other examples of this style and you’re left wondering if this song is going to try to put any kind of spin on it or not. The answer is…no, not really though the emotional intensity of the chorus was a definite highlight and I thought the raw, slightly out of control but not really nature of the performance itself was really quite something. Outside of that though, I’m finding it difficult to say much that I haven’t already said about many other songs in this style over the years. It does what it’s doing really well but I wouldn’t say there’s anything here that you have to go out of your way to hear either. A bit harsh probably but they can’t all be swinging for the fences.
While I’m never one to judge a book by its cover, if an album throws up a track with a title like “Sentimental days” and we’ve been pretty light on the more Ballad-y content up to that point then it’s hard not to form a preconception of what it’s going to sound like in your head. To be fair, this song has a lot more of a Rock component to its instrumental than one might perhaps have expected it to have, which is good because it gives a bit more excitement and energy to the overall tone of things. It is quite muted of course and there’s other elements like piano and I think a bit of percussion too to reinforce the bright tone that the track is going for. The vocals definitely have that Ballad quality to them but we also get to hear quite a nice range of both tone and emotion from them throughout the track. The verses mainly stick to this lower, more introspective vibe then soar and become a lot more emotional and energetic for the song’s rather impressive choruses. There are a lot of subtleties to this song that aren’t so apparent on the first couple of plays but the more time that you spend with it the more you start to pick out little parts of the impressively layered instrumental and the vocal control as well as the harmonies never become any less impressive either. Not what I’m usually looking for in an Idol song but even I can appreciate when a group pulls off something as good as this one.
The second to last track on the album is pretty interesting in that we’re being presented with another version of “UTPA” which featured all the way back at the beginning of the release. This time though it’s the “UTPA (God Seven Ver.)” which I’m guessing means that it’s the updated version of the song with the current 7 member MELiSSA line-up. There isn’t really too much else that I feel like I need to say about this track that I didn’t already mention previously, because as best I can tell they’re both pretty similar if not identical in terms of instrumental content. Of course the addition of two extra voices adds a bit more depth and variety in the vocal department and I think it mostly removed any issues I had with the pitchy nature of the previous version. In that regard then I suppose that, at least in my opinion, this is a much better version of the track and I guess in a way it’s a bit strange that they decided to include both of them on this release. It’s probably not really needed on an already 12 track long album but I’m glad we got this 7 member version at least so I’m probably being a bit pedantic here really.
Bringing the album to a close is its final track, the near 7 minute long “Requiem”. I wonder if the track being almost 7 minutes long is supposed to be symbolic in some way, but I’m probably just overthinking things here like I usually do. It’s quite the journey that this song takes us on, with its symphonic instrumental combining with an acoustic guitar to really start tugging at the heart strings and stirring up all manner of emotions in the listener as we’re taken on this incredible, sweeping journey. The song isn’t out to make this crazy impression on people, but it’s here to tell a story with lots of nuances and subtleties which definitely seems to be something that MELiSSA are really good at when not paying tribute to WACK’s past glories. The vocal performances on this song too are just fantastic if you’re into that sort of Ballad-y, Singer-Songwriter style that I know is pretty popular with a lot of people these days. It’s so stripped back and it’s nice to hear everyone be able to sing without a ton of bells and whistles also attached. For me, that’s the test of how good a group is vocally and I’m happy to say that MELiSSA pass with flying colors on this one. It maybe didn’t have to be almost 7 minutes long, but this was such a great way to close out what has been a really interesting release from a still relatively new group.
In my opinion, “GATHERWAY” is a really solid release and given that MELiSSA are backed by the long-running Idol College brand that should hardly come as a surprise. There’s probably going to be a lot said about just how many tricks have been borrowed from the WACK playbook, but if said groups aren’t even doing most of that stuff anymore these days then where’s the harm really? MELiSSA also take several opportunities to showcase some other sides to their sound too, so they’re far from a one trick pony in that regard either.
That being said, while I enjoyed this release a lot for what it was I do kinda worry that this WACK influence might not only see MELiSSA be pigeonholed by a lot of people, but that it might also become a crutch for the group in general. If the goal is to bring in producers with established sounds then let’s get a bit more variety happening, or I’m sure they can come up with plenty more “original” sounding material for this talented group of singers to perform. As it stands, this album is going to catch peoples’ attentions, but it’s going to be more interesting to see where things go from here and if they can hold onto them.