Yanakoto Sotto Mute - Mirrors

review - 13.04.2019 01:01

Grunge is a thing of beauty.

Idol quartet Yanakoto Sotto Mute have given themselves something of a problem. Just how do they follow their superb debut album Bubble? A near perfect fusion of alt-rock and idol, it collected tracks from their first two EPs and added a sprinkling of new songs to make one of the best J-rock albums of 2017. The question is, given that more than a third of that album’s tracks were cover versions, do they have the original songs to stay ahead of the competition?

Starting out back in 2016, the producers behind Yanakoto Sotto Mute took a cautious approach with their first release, an EP entitled 8cm. Rather than jump straight in with original songs they enlisted Tokyo grunge bands Backdate November and Say Hello to Sunshine and reworked their songs to suit an idol group. Retitled, re-recorded and given a slick production polish, the transformation was complete when the grungy male vocals were replaced by female idols singing in harmony, making the songs their own.

Yanamyu, as they’re known to their fans, are a well matched vocal unit. Each member’s strengths combine to give them their distinctive sound. Nadeshiko is the ace in the pack. Not a typical idol voice, she gives the group the power and hard edge to stand up to their rock music backing. Mani Mamiya pours emotion into her performance while Ichika Minami, with her slightly lower tone, gives balance and depth to their harmonies. Rena, who joined the group shortly after its formation, is the final piece in the puzzle. Her gentle voice brings sweetness and light to the quieter moments.

As it turns out, the ‘difficult second album’ problem is no problem at all for Yanakoto Sotto Mute. Members of Backdate November and Say Hello to Sunshine are still on board, carrying on where they left off without missing a beat and keeping a continuity to the group’s sound. The songwriting crew is bolstered by the addition of a select few lyricists and composers whose voices bring freshness and variety to the album.

From the moment Louvre no Sora’s intro crashes in, it’s clear Yanakoto Sotto Mute have stepped up their game. The twin guitar attack spins a complex web of riffs back and forth, matched by the powerful delivery of Nadeshiko, Mani and Ichika. Rena’s soft and gentle voice fills a quiet interlude before the song builds to a crescendo of a gang vocal-backed guitar solo.

There’s no letting up with the next track Closer, a two minute sprint driven on by galloping drums, and the opening combo of new songs is rounded off with another fast-paced emo rocker, GHOST WORLD. Though Yanamyu have their roots in the rough and ready grunge sound, this track has more of a pop feel to it. Some simple but effective production touches give the track an ethereal atmosphere as the vocals are dropped down in the mix with a dash of reverb before they snap back in your face for the chorus.

They back off the gas with HOLY GRAiL, a track previously released on the digital-only single echoes, and it shows the benefits of using an array of songwriters. Contributed by former Backdate November member Yohei Shibata and Mariko Nii, the singer and guitarist of Tokyo indie band HOMMヨ, the song is still instantly recognisable as Yanakoto Sotto Mute but its lighter touch and emotional lyrics give the album a variation in tempo and intensity. The ‘B-side’ of the single, palette, appears later in the album and is more in the same vein, a gentle track with the sound of water lightly running through it, matched by languid, rippling guitars. The sweet, high-pitched vocals soar in harmony like a choir of angels.

Much like their debut album Bubble, Mirrors collects previously released material alongside new songs. The middle section of the album is dominated by tracks from 2017’s STAMP EP that have been re-ordered and slightly remastered. It makes sense to keep these older tracks together, bookended by the noticeably more complex new tracks. Fans will already be familiar with the pacy emo-rocker No Regret and the spirited, perky Any. While they may have switched places from the EP, the gloriously light and breezy Tenki Ame to Sekai no Parade still contrasts with the brooding slow burn of AWAKE.

The STAMP tracks are broken up by the newcomer Reflection, although it fits in comfortably alongside the older tracks, being more of a straight rocker in the same style. This is one of several new songs fans were given a sneak preview of in the digital-only live album of the group's echoes one-man, which was released just a few short weeks before Mirrors. It showcases Mani’s expressive vocals and Nadeshiko’s impressive power.

The album closes with Phantom Calling. The guitarist from the group’s live band, credited as J.og, seems to be emerging as one of Yanamyu’s main composers and he’s joined by fellow live band guitarist Kotaro Baba, moonlighting from his day job with alt-rock outfit Nengu, to create this four minute prog-rock symphony. It’s a dynamic, restless song that is loaded with clever but understated guitar work, shifting rhythms and dark, impenetrable lyrics. The members get to show their full range with vocals that switch from light and delicate harmonies to Nadeshiko’s trademark powerful delivery.

Many idol groups depend on the ‘girl next door’ appeal of their singers, with plain, barely trained vocals being part of the charm. Yanakoto Sotto Mute are altogether different in their approach and are one of the strongest vocal units on the idol scene today, striving to create rich, layered harmonies. It shows how much the group have developed in the two short years since their formation that they can take on a challenging vocal like this and pull it off in style.

Combining alt-rock and idols is hardly a new idea but it’s rarely been done this well. Yanakoto Sotto Mute have reeled off two killer albums in as many years and we can only hope that, given the fleeting ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ nature of the idol world, they’ll stick around for the long haul. There’s something special going on here.

Mirrors is available for download from Amazon and iTunes and also for streaming from Spotify.
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