2013 has been nothing short of a turbulent year for KAT-TUN. The beginning of the year brought us EXPOSE, then promotions for Kamenashi Kazuya’s Ore Ore movie began (prompting, as usual, break-up rumours), culminating in October with the departure of polemically loveable rapper, Tanaka Koki. KAT-TUN have been a staple in my J-pop collection for a long, long time. I’ve dipped in and out of their work, but find them to be incredibly consistent – for people who enjoy the style – and that’s what makes them work for me over the other Johnny’s acts. It was pretty heartbreaking to watch this all unfold. After Jin’s leaving, fans alike winced at losing another member so soon. After the announcement I waited with baited breath for the split. Thankfully, it never came. A mini-album did instead! I’m happy to report that listening to Kusabi was an enjoyable experience, and one I look forward to writing about below.
Covers! Forgive my poor attempts to make them a decent size… anyway, on the left is Limited Edition 2. It’s a very cold cover. Junno looks so pissed off that he’s getting squashed by a rock, Kame looks like he’s experiencing a quarter-life crisis and Ueda and Nakamaru are like “What up”. But I guess it marks what is definitely a “cold” period in KAT-TUN’s career, so for that I give it artistic props. Top right is Limited Edition 2, which is probably my favourite. I always sway toward images that are darker – literally colour-wise. It makes things warmer and cosy. Bottom right is the Regular Edition, and I think it’s a very nice promotional image. The gap between Kame and Nakamaru is achingly empty. This also really looks like it could’ve been shot in Scotland! Maybe that’s why these covers feel so cold to me…
1. 楔-kusabi- (Wedge)
2. GIMME LUV
3. ON & ON
4. FIRE and ICE
5. 僕なりの恋 (Boku Nari no Koi; My Own Style of Love)
6. MONSTER NIGHT (Ueda Tatsuya solo) – Limited Edition 1 only
7. FANTASTIC PLANET – Limited Edition 2 only
8. BLESS – Regular Edition only
9. 4U – Regular Edition only
10. PHOENIX – Regular Edition only
Adding a little preamble here can’t hurt, I guess. For all the backlash that KAT-TUN receive in the Western fandom in particular, I have to say that (and this is honestly not just the sad defence of a fan, I can tear these boys to shreds if it called for it) their music is freakishly consistent. As a pop unit they put on excellent shows, sing catchy, sometimes daring songs and the image they present is generally aesthetically pleasing. However as a boyband, a group of young men, they are criticised for lacking in what Arashi seem to have in abundance: friendship. A solidarity; a dependence on each other; an intimacy that suggests they are more than just “colleagues” and actually enjoy spending time with one another. To an extent, I understand where this idea comes from. But in the past 4 years the group have faced rocky situations, the threat of their popularity always hanging in the balance – yet a glance at their last 5 or so singles “Making Ofs” suggest the total opposite. Never before have I seen the group so relaxed in communicating with each other, eager to laugh and have fun. Koki of course was a part of this, so his loss is going to be greatly felt (watching them prior to Jin’s departure gave the impression that Jin wasn’t really “there” anyway). As they welcome in this new era, I only hope that the bonds between the remaining four members grow even stronger, and we see them grow and mature. Releasing this mini-album was a form of resistance, and I’m so glad everything came up roses in the end. On to the music!
楔-kusabi- is… a grower. For sure. It’s in vogue. It sounds vaguely like Arashi. It polarised fans. It has a lot of Nakamaru. I wasn’t overly-taken with it at first. I liked the restraint of the vocal delivery in the verses, it gives it a very polished and collected sound. However when I heard it in higher quality, I really fell for it. One might be duped into thinking this is the “new” KAT-TUN sound, but when heard alongside the rest of the album tracks it’s clear that this is just one of many styles that the group have played with. The absence of Koki’s vocals is definitely felt, but this is a commendable effort. It was a strong choice as the promotional track: very listenable, touching lyrics and the right amount of KAT-TUN-isms to appeal to fans. Now, GIMME LUV on other hand, is pure KAT-TUN. Once again, it wasn’t until I heard it in full HQ that I was sold. I can’t iterate the feelings of nostalgia this evokes – it is exactly the kind of thing they would have released in their LIPS/DON’T U EVER STOP era. The resemblance is utterly uncanny. The rock influence, the desperation in the vocals, the melodic bridges: everything is there. Even though there’s no rap, I’m really floored at just how effectively they’ve managed to retain what is ultimately their most well known “classic” sound. It’s necessary for them to push the boat out, and this is it. A resounding success.
Koki may not be there to rap, but that doesn’t mean Nakamaru can’t still beatbox. ON & ON is sunny and upbeat, and sounds like everything Going! should have been but wasn’t. It’s hard not to smile, it’s so positive and cheerful. Necessary, some may say. Sometimes their upbeat numbers can be hit or miss, but this hits all the right spots. It sounds like an “old” boyband song, but they’ve got the production just right – the beatboxing and the radiant synths complement each other perfectly. The energy isn’t lost with FIRE & ICE – opening with a dramatic piano, it’s once again very a-typical KAT-TUN. The build up to the chorus is pretty intense, and the chorus itself is.. stimulating to say the least. It’s refreshing to hear this kind of strength injected into their music. For months it’s felt like they have been playing it safe, but who’d have thought with their most crucial release (save for their debut single) they would bring their revered, fan-favourite sound back? It’s so them, in all their dramatic glory. Following such an explosive track, Boku Nari no Koi brings some much welcomed mid-tempo goodness. It seems a bit of a misnomer to dub this the token ballad, but the bittersweet lyrics and smooth horns and piano are unlikely to make another appearance. It’s a very Johnny’s styled ballad: suggesting a hand-holding finisher at a concert. That said, the lyrics are very very touching, and I’m a sucker for cute songs like this.
BLESS has such a fresh sound – in the same clean, breezy fashion as the title track. It’s very reminiscent of songs like FREEDOM and FARAWAY from their previous albums, both songs I really enjoy. The slower tempo songs are well thought out and flow nicely. There’s been such a decent spread of genres so far that it’s impossible to fault their placement or inclusion, and this is no exception. Just a very sweet pop song. The next song however – only available on Limited Edition 2 – is FANTASTIC PLANET. This is one of my favourites on the mini, it’s really similar to the futuristic-electro-fused-with-guitar sound they’ve been using lately (i.e. RUN FOR YOU, COSMIC CHILD etc). The instrumental is interesting, I love the danceable synth interspersed with the more sophisticated club sound, but in the last bridge the guitar is really prominent. I wouldn’t be upset if KAT-TUN were to consider in this way in a more permanent matter. Unfortunately, there is one song here that doesn’t quite do it for me: MONSTER NIGHT. The solos up until now have been rather impressive, and to be honest I was really looking forward to Ueda’s. He’s always delivered in the past, either with catchy rock or heartbreaking ballads, so I was excited to see he was up next. However it is remarkably like Halloween Junky Orchestra, VAMPS’ special Halloween project in 2012. I get what Ueda is trying to do, but the resemblance is just too much for me to get on board with. It’s pretty messy, there are freaky-ass stock English vocals (“Don’t be such a hard-ass!” – what), it’s theatrical but not in a hugely accessible approach. The fantasy, pseud-Alice -in-Wonderland is hard to get right and I’m afraid this falls flat -for me, anyway. I’m certain there are some fans who will lap it up. I’m not deducting too many points from the end score for it however as it is Ueda’s solo, so it can be considered something of an exception.
4U is another charming little track led by Junno at the start, which is a pleasant surprise. I really love the simple yet absorbing piano that drives the verses. The line distribution here is A+, and the positivity flowing throughout sounds sincere and pure. What stands out for me with these songs is that none of them are worthy of a “filler” label, there’s a feeling (listening to the album as a whole) that each song has been included for a good reason: lyrical content, a chance to showcase the new era, vocal abilities… but also to bring the group’s past successes and individuality to the forefront. With this latter point, I’m talking about PHOENIX. It begins almost exactly in the style of Kusabi, 4U and BLESS. However it does a complete and total 180 into absolutely epic territory. I hate that word, but there really isn’t another one more fitting. Seriously, this is a trailblazing, relentlessly theatrical affair. It’s so reminiscent of not only the QUEEN OF PIRATES album (to quote Akanishi Jin from many years ago, it sounds “Piratey”), but just 6-member KAT-TUN in general. It’s dark, grandiose, has over-the-top melodramatic melody and delivery, amazing and all the descriptors that made people either loathe or love the group. I can’t sing praises for this track enough. It’s proof that all hope is not lost with a 4-member group – if they can effectively utilise producers (here, Maiko Kawabe Rivera) to compose songs like this, then we really have nothing to worry about.
I ended up writing a lot more than I intended to. There’s many things I could comment on here and I hope I’ve covered most bases! KAT-TUN have been so instrumental in my J-pop journey, it’s such a nice feeling to see them flourish despite the hardships. If listening to Kusabi even as a casual fan, you will not be disappointed. It’s equal parts digestible, enjoyable, appealing and listenable. It’s like we’ve been given a mini-history tour with this album, taking us back to the salient successful sound of their earlier career but tipping the balance by showing us what they have to offer in the future. It’s an exciting prospect. I’m going to give Kusabi a 8.9/10, which is pretty generous for a group that is expected to produce standard boyband fodder. This is truly a valiant effort that I sincerely hope doesn’t fly under the radar. Given the circumstances and events that led to the rushed announcement of the album, the end product is one that all involved should be proud of.
Favourites: GIMME LUV, 楔-kusabi-, 4U, PHOENIX