My thoughts on “⸮”, the first album from Zsasz.
Release Date: March 17th 2021
1. Z ALERT
2. KAWAII NANKAII
3. Tokidoki Hikaru
4. Shokuji (2021)
5. Obaka na Pop
6. Menya GROTESQUE (2021)
7. Peter Peter (2021)
8. Kanbanmusume no Warufuzake (2021)
9. Ikiteru Obake wa Ikiteiru (2021)
10. MASSIVE EMOJI
11. Nuigurumi ni Naritai (2021)
We talk a lot about gimmicks and what have you when it comes to building an audience for an Idol group in the course of these reviews. They’re not the only way to drum up interest though, granted they are perhaps the most common one. Another way to at least try to do it is to enlist the services of a well known producer with their own cult following. Or in the case of the group whose album were going to be talking about today, just have the producer themselves be the one behind the entire project. Convoluted and hard to follow? Yeah, sounds like one of my opening paragraphs.
So a lot of you have probably already heard of Zsasz at this point. They seem to be decently popular in the foreign Idol fan circles that I keep tabs on, be it due to their music, Tim’s heavily tattooed look or more likely due to them being produced by Utsu-P who most people are probably going to know from his Vocaloid work in years past. We took a look at the group’s self-titled debut EP about a year ago right here and now it looks like they’re ready to follow up on that with a full-blown studio album of pretty much all of their material to date as best I can tell.
“⸮” clocks in at 11 tracks which is a pretty nice amount of material, though I do have to point out that about half of the album is comprised of re-recorded versions of previous Utsu-P releases so if you’re familiar with his work then you’re probably going to recognize quite a lot of the songs featured here. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you but I’ll be trying to approach this article with a fresh-ish pair of ears to the best of my ability. I don’t follow Zsasz super closely myself but I do quite like what I have heard from them and I’m looking forward to taking this opportunity to take more of a deep-dive into the group’s music. With that said, let’s go ahead and do just that and get started with this review.
The album leads off with “Z ALERT”, a pretty short but very ominous track that is pretty much just what Zsasz play when they’re getting read to go up on stage. You’ve got an emergency alert system style voice informing us that the performance is about to begin, the doors will be sealed, no one will be allowed to leave…all that fun sort of stuff so there’s certainly a mood being created here that’s for sure. Not a huge hint at what is to come musically I must say but it’s intriguing in its own way as it’s quite the production for what is basically an intro track. Sounds cool, but not a whole lot to really say about it so let’s move on and get into the meat of this album.
This all leads rather nicely into the album’s first proper track “KAWAII NANKAII” which is offering up this very dense, Industrial flavored Metal instrumental with a whole bunch of synthesizers and electronics added into the mix for some additional flavor. This is a pretty popular style these days so while it might not please any of the purists out there it’s certainly something that a lot of people do want to hear so I would imagine that this track is going to have a decent amount of success in catching some ears. There’s also a slight Rap dynamic that makes an appearance on occasion too which works rather well but could have easily been left out given everything else going on, especially when you consider the vocals. Speaking of which, the vocals are kinda interesting on this one given that they’re sung with a bit of a symphonic edge, which at first seems a little at odds with the instrumental but after you get used to it they actually compliment each other quite well. There’s a couple of Rap flows too to match up with those parts of course and on the whole it’s a very impressive effort from a group probably gets talked about more because of their producer’s legacy than the clear vocal talent of the people singing his songs. A nice catchy track with a bit of an edge to it to kick things off here, not a bad start.
The genre blending continues on following track “Tokidoki Hikaru” which pulls in influences from a whole host of genres including Electronica, Post Hardcore and Hip-Hop to name just a few that initially sprang to mind. It results in an instrumental that’s somehow equal parts ambient and intense which probably doesn’t make a ton of sense written down on paper but if you listen to the song you’ll hopefully understand what I’m trying to say here. Lots of energy being given off and some very bright melodies too, all while being underpinned by this rumbling guitar and drum combination that’s giving the track a lot of its body. Quite heavy-handed with the distortion at times for my personal tastes but I can appreciate what they’re going for with it so not a major issue. Vocally there are some pretty impressive emotional displays up and down the track which create some big, memorable moments and seem like they’d go over huge in a live setting. Lyrically the songwriting is also pretty catchy with some well placed hooks and some harsh vocals and Rap flows incorporated as well to keep things lively and interesting throughout. The Rap break towards the end of the song did feel a little bit out of place though I must admit but it sounded pretty cool so I’m not going to harp on it too much here. A big sounding, emotional track that goes out of its way to be as engaging with the listener as possible so plenty to like here even if there are a couple of small holes you could pick in it if you really wanted to.
“Shokuji” is the first instance on the album of Utsu-P revisiting some of his past glories, which like I said in the intro is going to either be a good or bad thing depending on your own individual outlook on producers doing things like this. It did also feature on the debut Zsasz EP (review here) but this is an updated version for 2021 so that’s kinda neat in a way I suppose. Moving on to the track itself and my initial “painting by numbers” comment on the instrumental still holds mostly true here I think. The track did originally come out in 2015 to be fair, which was long before the current trend of groups mashing up dense Metalcore compositions with synthesizer melodies but in 2021 that’s the sort of context that a lot of people are going to be viewing it from. It’s a solid composition for sure, I think the drumming in particular is rather great, but there’s a lot of competition these days in this genre so it’s hard to stand out. Standing out is something that the vocals do quite well though, even if there is a bit of a BABYMETAL vibe to some of the cartoony gang vocals and what have you but outside of that it’s more highly dynamic, emotionally charged stuff with really strong melodies and tone which I think wouldn’t sound all that out of place if any of these girls were fronting a “proper” band. It’s a bit weird to not be a huge fan of most of the clearly intended hooks on a track but everything around about it is pretty great so I guess whatever works for you is fine, right?
When it comes to song titles, “Obaka na Pop” is a pretty fitting one for the album’s fifth track. It is a pretty stupid Pop song after all, though there is a decent amount of crunch and distortion going on to tie it all in to everything else that we’ve been hearing up to this point. Chaotic, sugary Pop melodies are an obvious highlight here and they really do play things up to the fullest because I guess you sort of have to given the circumstances. The vocals sort of go along with it a bit too but not quite to the point where we’re getting ridiculous anime style tones or anything quite that extreme. Despite the hyperactive energy of the track it does still feel very much like a Zsasz and I think that the crunchier more Metal leaning influences that I mentioned previously do go a long way to make it feel like that while you’re listening. The vocals too are of a similar high quality as on all of the previous tracks but are also able to show off a bit of a different personality with this one which I thought was pretty cool and added a bit of variety too. The choruses are probably the only part of the song that I didn’t totally love, they felt a bit too much of a good thing for personally, but there were plenty of catchy hooks to enjoy and I thought the energy was really positive and enjoyable and there’s something to be said about that when you’re putting together a track like this. A pretty fun one here that I would encourage you to check out even if you think that Zsasz might not necessarily be your thing.
Another Utsu-P classic makes an appearance next with a 2021 update being given to “Menya GROTESQUE” which also featured on the debut Zasz EP from a year ago (review here). Blast beats, heavily distorted guitar riffs and Industrial style synthesizers are once again the order of the day on this one and make for a pretty intense listening experience on the whole so if any of that sort of stuff is your vibe you’re probably going to have a good time with this one. There is a vague “traditional” element to the instrumental too but it doesn’t get pushed too hard which is something I appreciate because the whole shamisen, synthesizer, Hardcore thing really has been done to death even if you could argue this would have been one of the earlier instances of it. The vocals do lean a lot more heavily in that particular direction however and you can pick it up pretty clearly in both the tone and structure of how the lyrics are being delivered. It works well enough and all of the Zsasz members are more than talented enough to put in a high quality performance so nothing to complain about from a technical standpoint but you will definitely have heard this sort of thing before if you’ve been around the block like I have. Nice melodic stuff to offset the harsher instrumental and broadly speaking a style of track that has been very well fleshed out in recent years you’ll be able to figure out pretty quickly if you’re going to like it or not. I think it’s pretty good myself for whatever that’s worth.
More bangers from the Utsu-P backcatalog follow with “Peter Peter” being the next track to get a rework for 2021. I’m going to be saying that a lot here in the back half of this release so strap yourselves in I guess. Anyway, this is another Rap meets Electronica meets Metalcore mash-up which is something Utsu-P is well known for and quite good at so if you aren’t familiar with his work before now hopefully you can spot a bit of a theme developing. This track does lean a lot more heavily on the Rap side of things which again introduces some nice variety in my opinion as while broadly speaking a lot of the material featured on this album is coming from a similar place it doesn’t mean it all has to sound the same. They manage to tease some pretty interesting melodies out of this track and the members get to show off yet another side to their vocals which only continue to impress with each passing track. Of course there’s plenty of familiar things going on too, most notably the choruses which have that very emotionally driven, J-Rock sort of style to them which makes them both instantly recognizable as well as feeling very important and like they’re making a strong impression on the listener. Probably not going to appeal to the sort of people who don’t care for Rap or are only here for the harder style Utsu-P tracks but I felt like this one brought something very different and quite interesting to the table and gave the album of a bit of a twist that most similar release probably wouldn’t have bothered to go for.
Continuing on with the theme of updated Utsu-P classics, next up we have “Kanbanmusume no Warufuzake” which like most of the other re-records on this release was also featured on that debut Zsasz EP that we heard about a year ago (review here). The instrumental on this track is very infectious and has a great groove to it as well despite its gritty, loud personality and I always get a kick out of it when a composer is able to marry those two things together as generally speaking they’re probably don’t make all that much sense to pair together in the first place. Some nice twangy guitar riffs are also there to provide a bit more of a melody and a vague “traditional” sort of instrumentation sounds like it might be going on in the back of the mix too which is likely lending a bit to that as well. Vocally it’s generally a good performance though there are times when things get a bit too exaggerated for my tastes but I get where they’re coming from with it and the choruses more than make up for any criticism I might have there with how big and how catchy the sound. There’s also a pretty cool instrumental break towards the end of the track with some nice solos and such though you could argue that this is an Idol group, they should be the focus and all that fun stuff and I wouldn’t really have a comeback for that. Still one of my favorite Utsu-P/Zsasz tracks and if I’m recommending maybe one or two songs to people to check out from this album then this one would certainly be in the conversation when it comes to that sort of thing.
Even more 2021 reworks of older Utsu-P material follow, this time with “Ikiteru Obake wa Ikiteiru” getting the update treatment. I don’t recall this having featured on any previous Zsasz releases so I suppose in that sense it’s a bit more “new” than a lot of the other material featured on this album, but a re-recording still nonetheless. A very Gothic sounding take on the base Industrial tinged Metalcore sound that has dominated much of this album and a welcome bit of variety because let’s face it, it would have been pretty easy to just stack this release with a bunch of songs that all sort of sound the same. Plenty of personality out this one though, and the same can definitely be said for the vocals too as they’re covering quite a range of styles from more Pop leaning in the choruses to a bit of a Visual Kei vibe in the verses and even some harsh vocals make an appearance from time to time too which I suppose we haven’t actually heard a ton of here previously have we? I could easily see this being some kind of anime song or other which makes sense I suppose considering it wasn’t originally produced with an Idol group in mind I have to imagine. Zsasz pull of everything expected of them incredibly well though so if you’re into this style of song then I can wholeheartedly recommend that you check this one out as it more than holds its own against anything else out there right now for me.
I’m far from an expert on Utsu-P’s extensive catalog of songs but I’m pretty sure that the album’s penultimate track “MASSIVE EMOJI” is a new one, it certainly isn’t listed as being a 2021 update at least. Anyway, things get off to a pretty intense start with some thunderous drumming dominating an otherwise heavily distorted instrumental over which the Zsasz members are providing some gang vocals to really drive home that aggressive vibe that they seem to be going for on this one. There is a bit more of a playful element to things too to be fair, with some exaggerated anime style vocals also working their way into the mix along with the typical sort of stuff you’d expect from Zsasz at this point. Things actually end up getting quite catchy and energetic the more the song goes on, though the more Ballad style of the choruses does pull the reigns on everything a little bit which I can’t say I was overly enthusiastic about if I’m being honest. I am pretty enthusiastic about the breakdown that bridges into the last part of the track though, it sounds really cool and is very well placed to kinda cool things off a little bit before ramping everything back up for one last aural assault as the song hits its crescendo there at the end. Another really fun track here and I can’t help but wonder if maybe we could have had a few more of these if there was more room allotted to new material on this release.
We close things out with yet another Utsu-P classic that has had a bit of an update for 2021. The track in question is “Nuigurumi ni Naritai” which also got a featured back on the debut Zsasz EP which you can read all about here if you haven’t already done so. I still think that the percussion in the opening part of the track is pretty cool I must say, and it is something just a little bit different from what you typically hear these days. The synth tinged Rock instrumental that comprises most of the rest of the song also has a pleasing tempo to it and the chug of the guitars are going quite a long way to making that a reality. The vocal melodies are complimented rather well by all of this and are a very pleasant listen as they bounce along with the beat of the instrumental. Very catchy stuff but reserved enough that not one part of it is dominating the other and a good thing too as there is quite a lot of effort going in on both the instrumental as well as the vocal side of the track. The chorus does still end up probably being the weakest part of the whole thing but that’s only really because I sorta have to pick something to criticize. It could pack a little bit more punch perhaps but it’s still perfectly enjoyable otherwise. The song definitely has grown on me since I first heard the Zsasz version I’m happy to report and it’s a pretty strong place to end things off on for this particular release.
I feel like “⸮” is likely going to be one of the stronger album offerings from 2021 but I suppose it should be considering it’s almost an Utsu-P Greatest Hits album. All of the songs featured are incredibly well produced and the vocal performances are top notch too. The only real sticking point for some people might be that there isn’t really a ton of new material here if you want to get technical. How much you let that detract from your enjoyment is of course up to you, but I personally wouldn’t have minded a few more original Zsasz songs were included here myself.
From here I would like to see Zsasz get more songs that are distinctly theirs and produced with the members’ strengths and weaknesses in mind. I don’t know how likely that is to happen considering Utsu-P still has a ton of material from which to pull from but it would be nice if it were to happen. I feel like it would also help people to think of Zsasz more as their own entity and not just an extension of what their producer has been doing for going on two decades at this point. That’s just my opinion though, feel free to sound off with yours on social media as I’m interested to hear if I’m alone in thinking like this.