review - 04.15.2018 20:01

SCANDAL serve up a sweet treat with their latest album.

After spending the recent past looking back on their career and celebrating their tenth anniversary, SCANDAL have made a fresh start with their latest album, HONEY. A quick glance through the credits of their 2017 double album best-of compilation serves as a reminder of how much of their back catalogue involved professional songwriters, lyricists and arrangers. Perhaps not surprisingly, given their origins as non-musician students at a performing arts school persuaded by a teacher to learn on borrowed instruments and start a band, their management had entrusted much of the song writing to other safe pairs of hands.

Even after spending years at the top end of the Japanese charts, it wasn’t until their seventh studio album, the sunny and cheerful YELLOW, that SCANDAL were able to claim full control of their music and write every song. If anything, YELLOW suffered slightly as they explored their hard-won creative freedom in almost every direction they could think of. With HONEY, they’ve refocused their sound, returning to their garage rock band roots, and mastered the art of making an album. Mainly written and arranged by MAMI, with lyrics by RINA, this is more than just a collection of songs. HONEY is built around a central lyrical theme, love and all the joy and pain it brings. The album has a consistent sound but still manages to throw in interesting variations and has a well-constructed, easy flow to it.

They kick off with what SCANDAL do best; fast, catchy pop-rock. Platform Syndrome’s aggressively upbeat tune contrasts with the down beat lyrics of this break-up song. It finishes on a mature and hopeful note though, reflecting on the selfishness that’s left this lonely figure at the railway station but resolving to move on.

They complete the one-two opening combination with another break up song, OVER, which follows the same pattern of upbeat tune matched with downbeat lyric as Platform Syndrome, but goes just that bit harder. MAMI, never a flashy “look at me” lead guitarist, takes the opportunity to show off just a little bit, rocking out with some extended breaks and an understated solo.

SCANDAL fans will already be familiar with TAKE ME OUT and its snappy delay pedal riff. Originally released as a single back in 2016, it fits in comfortably with HONEY’s new material, suggesting that SCANDAL have been heading in this direction musically for a while now.

It’s noticeable from the opening tracks that HARUNA is singing at a higher pitch than in the past, much closer to TOMOMI’s normal vocal range. TOMOMI sticks to the bass and backing vocals for this album and doesn’t sing a lead anywhere, not even on the song she wrote herself, Mado wo Aketera. MAMI steps up to the mic instead with Oh! No!. While she might not be able to quite match HARUNA’s voice for power and finesse, she always finds her own distinctive way around a song and Oh! No! is no different. MAMI wrote both the music and lyrics and it sounds like she’s had fun coming up with this freewheeling gallop of a love song. It bounces gleefully between rhythms and styles while the scatterbrain lyrics capture the frenetic jumble of insecurities and emotions of a girl in love.

RINA takes a rare turn at lead vocals next with her own composition Midnight City and she dominates the verses with her drumming. Combined with MAMI’s lean and spiky guitar, the track has a math rock feel before completely flipping in to a glittering neon-lit disco of a chorus. It really shouldn’t work, but with HARUNA taking over the vocal on the chorus they pull off the song’s dual personality with ease.

They finally take their foot off the gas with Short Short, a light, sparkling pop number with some sweet vocals from HARUNA. The “sha la la” refrain gives it a pleasantly 60s retro feel and paired with the next track, Mado wo Aketera, forms the emotional heart of the album.

The new material on HONEY was written during and after SCANDAL’s 2017 tour through all of Japan’s 47 prefectures. The only exception is Mado wo Aketera which dates back to 2015. This track was written by TOMOMI while she was going through a tough time personally, never with any real intention of ever releasing it, just as a way to unburden herself of the emotions dragging her down. Even so, the song had stayed with her all that time and now she’s decided to share it with the world.

TOMOMI enlisted her close friend Mizuki Masuda of synth pop band NEGOTO to help with the song’s arrangement. Rather than employ one of the usual arrangers, she wanted to work on it with a friend who’d understand her feelings and they’ve succeeded in creating a heartfelt and moving song. Masuda’s influence shines through thanks to the addition of her soulful synth and HARUNA sings in a slightly lower register to give the song emotional weight. The lyrics give some idea of the bleak place TOMOMI was in back then and now by including it here, with the support of her friends and bandmates, hopefully she’s been able to finally exorcize the ghost of those difficult nights.

The mood and pace picks up again with Futari as the album heads into the finishing stretch. Happily, this track gets another outing after featuring on the 2017 digital only single, Koisuru Universe. It’s too good a song to end up a forgotten B-side and MAMI’s lead guitar lines that dance lightly around HARUNA’s vocals show how she’s going from strength to strength as a songwriter and lead guitarist.

MAMI has admitted that next track Electric Girl is not exactly what she intended to create when she set out. Looking for something that would add impact to their live performances, she came up with this odd mash-up of rock, disco and electronically distorted vocals, with a brief but funky bass solo for TOMOMI to spice things up. But much like SCANDAL themselves, it’s greater than the sum of its parts.

The 2017 single Koisuru Universe closes out the album as it started, at full speed. The accompanying music video may have raised a few eyebrows at the time as the band suggestively make their way through hot dogs, milk and ice cream, before sealing it with a surprising kiss but the song makes a fitting finale for an album released on Valentine’s Day in Japan and chock full of love songs. After all the heartache and confusion caused by love in the previous songs, they finish on a high with a celebration of being head over heels in love.

In many ways SCANDAL have found their way back to where they started as a rock band. Although the twelve year round journey has given them an emotional maturity and a technical sophistication to their song writing that’s a world away from the power chord chuggers they used to play in Osaka Castle Park as teenagers.

If there’s any problem with this album, it’s that there’s simply not enough of it. Running to just ten tracks, with only seven new songs, it’s all over in a short, sweet forty minutes which might leave some fans feeling a little short changed. But it’s often said, “Less is more”, and every single track here is a winner. HONEY is a concentrated espresso jolt of pure SCANDAL that leaves you buzzing and wanting more.

The European edition of HONEY, which includes English lyric translations and transliterations, is available from JPU Records.
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