My thoughts on “STRIVE”, the latest album from PassCode.
Release Date: December 23rd 2020
1. SPARK IGNITION
3. Shedding tears
4. Seize Approaching BRAND NEW ERA
7. Stealth Haze
8. STARRY SKY
9. Anything New (PrayInTheSky Edit)
11. GOLDEN FIRE
12. Remnants of my youth
I’ll be honest, sometimes I sit down to write a review and I’m just not really sure what I’m going to say. It doesn’t happen that often but when it does it’s a bit of a struggle to get started and you end up reading intros like the one that you’re reading right now as I try to grease the wheels as it were. What can I say, some groups you sort of just know how things are going to go and if you’ve written about them enough previously it’s just hard to come up with new ways of saying the same thing.
PassCode, much like most groups signed to a major record label, have been having a fairly alright time of things this past year while a lot of others have been struggling to get by. They’ve done a bit of touring, released a few singles and are currently gearing up for a headline show at Nippon Budokan in 2022 which is serving as the backdrop to pretty much everything they’re going to be doing in 2021. Not a bad idea to set a goal that far out given the current state of play and it gives people something to focus on and the group to work towards to keep interest healthy while we try to put this COVID thing to bed.
“STRIVE”, the group’s latest album, is the first step on the Budokan journey and also a bit of a recap of what the group has been up to this past year. It features a bunch of their recent material along with a nice amount of new tracks so definitely worth your attention if you’re a fan. If you’re not then I can’t imagine there’s going to be anything in here that will change your mind because it’s PassCode, you know what you’re getting at this point. It’s also going to present an interesting challenge for me as I try to find a dozen different ways to describe Digital Hardcore music so even if the subject matter isn’t super interesting to you then perhaps you’ll stick around to read as I fumble my way through that at least. Okay, with all of that out of the way let’s hit play and take a listen to what PassCode have in store for us this time. I’m sure it’ll be up to their usual style and standards…for better or worse.
The album leads things off with “SPARK IGNITION”, which is also performing the role of being the main promotional track for the release as well. A very upbeat and dynamic synthesizer melody, containing a little 8-bit flair to it accompanies some heavily vocoded vocals early on before a very quick drop of sorts happens and the song transitions into more of that Digital Rock direction that PassCode are pretty well known for at this point. All of the hallmarks are here, from the glitchy synths to the pounding drumbeats and the vocals also change up their tone to match, dropping a little bit of the vocoder in favor of some slightly more natural sounding melodies. There’s even a bit of harsh vocal thrown into the mix as well, though more as an accent than anything else on this particular outing but it is still there for those who are a fan of it. The choruses pump the energy further still and the lyrical hooks are as catchy as ever so on that front too if you’re a big fan of the PassCode style then there’s plenty of that stuff going on here for you. I suppose my main problem with this track is that it’s not really doing anything new, which it doesn’t have to of course but at this point I feel like I’ve heard all of the components here at least a dozen other times on other PassCode songs. It works just fine don’t get me wrong but at the same time I’m kinda left sitting here wondering just what this song has actually done to stand out from a lot of the group’s other material. Off to an alright start I suppose, but I hope there’s a bit more variety on this album the deeper that we get into it.
“Majestic” starts off sounding kind of interesting, though that could perhaps be more down to it sounding like the song was recorded in a hallway than a studio but I kinda dig the mild echoing vibe it has going on initially. One more almost identically placed drop later and the song really opens up and comes to life, with that signature Digital Hardcore sound filling the ears along with Yuna’s harsh vocals which are as impressive as ever here too might I add. When that sort of stuff isn’t going on it’s more bright, melodic and vocoded vocals though in this particular instance there’s a bit of a sneering edge to some of the delivery which I thought added a bit of a different dimension to things and let the members show off a bit more personality than they otherwise might typically be able to in this style of track. Add to that the slightly Gothic flair to parts of the instrumental and it definitely ends up being a rather…interesting mix of the usual PassCode style and a few newer influences. Why they couldn’t have just done the whole track in the newer style is a question that I could probably ask but I guess the answer would likely be that they don’t want to go too “out there” all in one go or something to that effect. But yeah, another bright and energy driven chorus, some Yuna screams and a whole lot of the Digital Hardcore style that PassCode fans all know and love outside of the few more experimental parts makes for a decent enough song in the end but they definitely could have pushed things a lot further in that (at least in my opinion) more interesting direction instead of reverting to type and playing it safer than they had to.
I guess at this point it’s about as good a time as any for a Ballad, so along one comes in “Shedding tears”…just kidding! Well, it does start out sounding like a bit of a Ballad with some piano instrumentation and fairly clean sounding melodic vocals, for a PassCode song anyway. Then Yuna’s gut churning scream crashes through the ambiance and it’s back to PassCode doing what they’re known for and what they do best…though we don’t really get to hear much else so I guess that could technically be incorrect. Noodley guitar riffs, floor-filling EDM synthesizers, bouncing beats, the gang is very much all here folks and once again I can’t help myself but to think that I’ve heard a lot of this stuff before on various other PassCode tracks and it got to the point here where I honestly think that I would have preferred the admittedly kinda by the numbers sounding Ballad that this track was hinting at initially. Anyway, we get some nice twangy but also of course heavily vocoded vocals to compliment this instrumental and they’re packed full of plenty of lyrical hooks that make the entire listening experience an enjoyable one so it’s not like I’m trying to say PassCode’s producers can’t write a catchy song or anything silly like that. There’s a few different vocal styles on show throughout the track too, which does add a bit more variety than we might have gotten; with a light dusting of Rap, some more brutal harsh stuff and a variety of cleaner Rock styles peppered in along the way. Maybe trying to do a bit too much on the vocal side of things but given the very familiar sounding instrumental I can at least appreciate that they tried to do something(s) to spice this track up a little. Decent enough once again but I’m still waiting for that one blow away moment to really catch my imagination on this album.
The album then hits us with our first previously released track with “Seize Approaching BRAND NEW ERA” filling the track 4 spot. It originally featured on the group’s “STARRY SKY” single and even all of these months later I can’t help but still feel like that’s one awkward sounding song title. Oh, you can read my initial thoughts on the single here if you’d like to by the way. This one takes on this sort of Industrial flavored EDM style with some nice slap bass going on which I thought sounded pretty cool myself. The vocal treatment is a bit all over the place in terms of styles, with Rap, Pop, harsh screaming and even some English lyrics all making an appearance over the course of the track. All of this of course with a nice coat of vocoding over the top because this is a PassCode song at the end of the day. The choruses are a bit more by the book, with that floor filling EDM style of instrumental once again making an appearance here which as played out as it is at this point is still a lot more interesting than the rather basic lyrical content that opts for a bunch of “Woahs” and the song’s title to make up the bulk of the content here. Then to cap things off we close out the song with a heavily vocoded Power Ballad because they pretty much threw everything else at this track so why not the kitchen sink as well I suppose. A ton of stuff going on in this one so you probably want to listen to it at least a couple of times to make sure that you get the full experience. Whether it’s an enjoyable one or not is likely to hinge on just how much you like chaotic songs like this but there’s definitely quite a few things to like in here even if I didn’t perhaps care quite so much for the song as one whole piece of music.
We shift back to new content for the album’s next track “Yin-Yang”, which just by reading that title alone made me think that there’s going to be some traditional meets digital mash-up going on here in the most expected of ways possible. Well I was very wrong of course because this 90 second number really doesn’t leave much room for hanging around, with the instrumental warming things up with some quick, twangy guitar riffs before launching headfirst into some hard hitting Digital Hardcore with all of the intensity and blast beats that you’d be looking for from the genre. The vocals are kinda what you’d expect here, both out of a song in this genre and from PassCode in general but Yuna really does shine with her harsh vocals a lot more than usual I thought and her parts are some of the most memorable on this admittedly very short burst of a track. I thought the choruses were pretty fun too in their own way and even if that sparkly, vocoded Pop style isn’t really anything new at this point either it’s still a pretty enjoyable thing to hum along to. Pretty odd to see such a short song out of PassCode here but they take their time and make full use of it and the results are very much positive ones so it definitely worked out well for them in my opinion.
It’s back to the previously released material once again after that brief but rather intense interlude and this time it’s “ATLAS” that’s making an appearance from the PassCode back catalog. This song was originally released as its own single all the way back in 2019 and you can pull my initial thoughts on it, as well as the other tracks featured, from this site’s archives here if you’d care to. The track was used for a promotional tie-up with an earbud brand when it was originally released and it definitely has that sort of vibe to it with the group toning down their usual style into something a bit softer and more brand friendly which in this instance leans more heavily in a Pop Rock sort of direction. Very bright in tone and kinda blowing out the guitars and drums at times which is unfortunate but I guess they were trying to maintain some sense of that heavy, Hardcore feel though I think they might have missed the mark a bit in doing so personally. The lighter guitar riffs and synthesizer melodies do try their best to offset this a bit and they’re pretty pleasant to listen to as well, so there are some more interesting things going on instrumentally at times thankfully. The vocal performance is also fairly different to the usual PassCode style, though the light dusting of vocoder does remain a feature here among the brighter melodic base style. Nice melodies and catchy lyrical hooks are also key features and especially so when it comes to the chorus where Yuna even manages to sneak in a few harsh vocal lines too to keep things on brand. A pretty fun track, especially where tie-ups are concerned though far from PassCode’s usual style and perhaps wanting for a slightly crisper instrumental in several places. Not bad though for a change of pace.
The yo-yoing between old and new material continues further still, with another new track “Stealth Haze” being next up in the running order. A bit of a darker tone to this track with a pretty heavy Industrial dimension to the instrumental once again, which makes for a pretty nice change in tone at this point in the proceedings honestly. The scratchy vocoder treatment that the vocals receive is also pushing things further in this direction too so we’ve got a pretty strong theme going on here right from the word go. Quite a lot of English lyrics too but honestly it’s not the easiest to make out what they’re saying unless you’re listening pretty hard for it, still all adding to that darker more Industrial vibe though so fair is fair. Eventually Yuna rips into another harsh vocal masterclass to try to advance things along a bit and we do end up going somewhere, though I’m not sure it’s the destination that I would have preferred personally. It all starts with the first chorus which brings in a heavier EDM/Pop dynamic and that’s fine because it’s offering the ears something different to listen to but then the back half of the song sort of just falls into this same style almost out of nowhere and I’m kinda left scratching my head at what exactly was wrong with the original direction that this track appeared to be taking. It’s all perfectly fine and up to the typical high PassCode standards, don’t get me wrong, but would it have been so bad to have taken a slight risk to see where things might have gone with the more industrial style? Call it being too comfortable, lazy or whatever you like but it’s really hard for me not to start getting annoyed at how safe they’re playing things on this release at this point in all honesty.
We’re heading back to take another look at PassCode’s most recent single now with “STARRY SKY” finally making its expected appearance on this album. Like with the single’s b-side you can read my initial impressions of this song here if you would like to do so. Despite being a tie-up with a nationally syndicated drama of all things, this track really doesn’t hold back that much and even opens things up with some ear shattering harsh vocals and an instrumental that wouldn’t sound out of place from a band like Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas for example. Things do mellow out quite a bit after this opening salvo however and the song settles into this calmer style with a lot of bright vocal melodies accented by a tasteful amount of vocoding, which is pretty much where I expected we’d probably end up one way or another given that this is a tie-up and all. There’s still a sprinkling of harsh vocals here and there to maintain something of an edge to the track though because this is PassCode after all and it’s something of a prerequisite at this point isn’t it? Even now the choruses are sorta hit and miss with me here and I still maintain that they could have dialed back on how bright and vocoded the vocals are and obtained a result that would have been just as good if not better than what we ended up with. That’s probably more of a personal preference thing on my part though and the energy and hooks are certainly very pleasing to my ear at least so like I said, hit and miss. I still like the chaotic bridge and the use of piano in the closing sequence too and despite this being a more restrained effort by PassCode standards I think I’m really growing to appreciate when they actually try to do something that’s actually different for a change.
“Anything New” was a digital single of sorts that was put out as something of a precursor to the release of this album. It also featured as the promotional song for the television show “Super Soccer” in Japan, which is a…news show all about the sport of soccer/football I guess? Anyway, this version is titled “Anything New (PrayInTheSky Edit)” which as best I can tell means they cut off the superfluous opening segment and maybe pitch shifted things a bit, though I could be pretty incorrect on the latter there. Anyway, this is probably the most “commercial” sounding PassCode song as far as I can remember and in some ways I kind of appreciate the upbeat, anthemic Pop style of this track because hey at least it’s something a bit different to the usual stuff right? There’s some pretty nice piano and synthesizer melodies happening in the verses which really adds to the atmosphere that they’re trying to create here and hey if you really want something a bit more familiar then they bring more of an EDM element into the mix when we get into the song’s choruses. Yuna doesn’t get left out either, don’t worry about that, in fact she pretty much gets and entire segment of the song all to herself where the Hardcore side of the PassCode sound is brought into play and we’re treated to a rather bruising breakdown that probably isn’t what you’d expect to hear out of this track but I don’t think it sounds too out of place here…kinda. PassCode always seem to strike the right balance when it comes to these tie-up songs somehow and this one is another fine example of that. Maybe a bit too clean and melodic for some fans but I liked this one quite a bit personally anyway. Different strokes and all that.
It’s fair to say that there has been a lot of EDM, Hardcore and what have you featured on this album up to this point and that is pretty much you’d expect from a PassCode release I suppose. Well tenth track “yours” is a pretty big departure from all of that sort of thing as this track is very clearly a Ballad more ways than it isn’t. You hear it right from the off with the very pleasant piano instrumental that’s accompanying the bright and very clean sounding vocals, which for some reason they just had to insist on vocoding I guess, which isn’t something that I would have done but it does keep some kind of theme going…sorta? Things continue in this direction for a while, slowly building in some guitar and drums to flesh the track out a bit more and the vocoder does fall off after a while which is good to hear personally. The choruses turn up the emotions and warmth of the track several notches as everything sort of swells up in this very sweeping style of performance which I think made for some pretty memorable moments on the whole and certainly they stand out when juxtaposed against the very comfortable rhythm that the verses find themselves falling into as the track becomes more fully developed. It’s a fairly by the book type of Ballad in the end I suppose, despite adding a little bit of PassCode flair at the beginning. Not a whole lot to really go too deep into as this is a very common style in modern J-Pop but it’s a solid take on it and I appreciated the chance to hear the PassCode members sing a bit without a bunch of vocal effects and wild instrumentation going on around them for a change. Definitely not what the average PassCode fan is tuning in to hear but I think this is a nice inclusion here myself.
The last piece of previously released material to feature on the album is its penultimate track “GOLDEN FIRE”. It originally came out as one of the b-sides on the group’s “ATLAS” single and like I mentioned previously, you can read my initial thoughts on all of the songs from that particular release here if you’d like to. Yuna really goes for it right away on this one with another stellar harsh vocal performance that’s being accompanied by some nice slap bass action that gives a bit of a funky vibe to what is otherwise a very intense opener. Once things get settled down a bit we’re treated to a heavily Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas influenced track which sees floor filling EDM mixed with foot stomping Rock and just a hint of Digital Hardcore to somehow round out a rather chaotic instrumental rather nicely actually. So much going on here that it’s kinda difficult to put into words honestly. The vocals are heavily modulated, as is the way for this style of track so nothing too surprising there and it obviously works perfectly well so no point in trying to be too experimental I suppose. The gang vocals and Rap parts littered throughout are perhaps a bit less conventional for the style but by no means sound out of place here either and we also get a very healthy amount of Yuna’s screams here too, so you get the feeling that they’re really trying to appeal to as many different people as possible with this one. A lot to take in then and despite the somewhat kitchen sink approach I would still say that this is one of the more interesting songs that PassCode have released in this era of their career. Worth a listen for sure if you haven’t already checked it out previously.
Which brings us on to “Remnants of my youth” which is the track tasked with bringing this album to a close. Definitely a heavy sentimental vibe from the title but we did just have a Ballad in “yours” so…maybe not the typical Japanese album closer here? Ehh, well kinda I guess because while this song really does have a heavy dose of that sentimental feeling to it they have done a pretty good job of spicing things up with a very powerful Rock instrumental to back it all up. I’m not totally sure about the synthesizers that they weave into everything myself as they end up feeling a bit weak and wimpy compared to the impactful guitar riffs but ya know, gotta keep it on brand somehow I suppose. A bit of a mixed bag instrumentally is I guess what I’m trying to say then. Vocally you get that album closing, time to be sentimental and emotional type of tone going on though it’s…enhanced by some vocoder here so it at least sounds a bit different in that sense I suppose. The lyrics are fairly catchy, more so in the chorus for me though and they even managed to work in some Yuna screaming too though I’m not really sure that the departure in tone and style towards the end of the track that had to be made to facilitate that was totally necessary, but once again you’re paying for PassCode so I guess they felt like they had to give you something along these lines. Not a bad way to close things out and the song is an interesting mix of the expected and PassCode’s own style so certainly not as by the book and unimaginative as it could have been. Whether what we got instead actually works for you or not is a personal judgement but I think on the whole this one is decent enough and did sort of try something different so fair enough.
“STRIVE” is an album that is going to please anyone who just loves that PassCode sound and wants more and more and more of it and doesn’t need anything else. Anyone hoping to hear a lot of growth or progression in the group’s music is probably going to be left wanting by this release but there are a few flashes of different things that show the group could take things in a few different directions if they ever feel the need to. I don’t really see that happening in the immediate future though as they seem pretty comfortable doing what they’re doing right now and there’s probably little reason to change that.
For me PassCode kinda fall into this awkward spot where their music is solid and there’s nothing to really complain about but at the same time, and at this point in the group’s career there also isn’t a lot to really get excited about either. I know they’re going to put out a couple of releases a year that are great Digital Hardcore songs, they’re dependable like that, but I don’t really expect too much more out of them and that does kinda kill the hype a bit in a way. Maybe that’s just me and I’m expecting too much though, the group certainly doesn’t seem to be wanting for fans or success right now at least so what do I know really, right?