Disclaimer: Am I in over my head with this? Definitely. I’m neither steeped deep enough or versed well enough in Japanese language and culture to be really accurate or even respectful in this blog post. However, the music is amazing, so I will quietly use my Get Out of Jail Free pass. Hopefully I will introduce you to something new and exciting!
This is a fascinating, perplexing album, by a fascinating, perplexing band, especially to an American. Gesu no Kiwami Otome, which roughly translates as “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl”, was formed in 2012 by the front-man of Japanese rock group Indigo La End, Enon Kawatani.
He transformed his band from a catchy, guitar focused indie act into a who-the-hell knows-what. Gesu no Kiwami Otome’s first album, Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, which very roughly translates as, “If you can’t dance then you must be a lowlife piece of shit”, is a frantic, out of control, piano-centric romp of an album. It storms through 29 minutes of music about dancing, interpreted as crazy piano riffs alternated with power guitar-rock, hush-hush rapping, male and female band members shouting back and forth, super catchy choruses, with the ugly, fierce, and relentless drama of life as a curtain to pull down at the conclusion of the frenzied dance.
Well, “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” is back with a full-length LP, Daruma Ringo, which translates as “Apple Dharma” (as in the Buddhist concept and historical figure Bodhidharma).
Besides the fact that I can’t even quite wrap my head around the title of the album, Kawatani is back with a vengeance. This time it’s not just about dancing, though, and it features some of the strongest songwriting, musicianship, and creativity that I have thus heard in an album by an artist from any country in 2017. It’s fast and frantic, beautiful and tender, expansive and progressive stampede of music, with all of the energy of Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, but with a lot more color to it, influences ranging from progressive rock to hip-hop, and has a lot more sonic invention to soak in along the way.
The album kicks off with “Happy Apple”, a frantic piano dance with one of the band’s typical stellar jazz piano solos, and one of the catchiest choruses of 2017 (piano chord progression is on point). The album moves through a series of moods, each compelling in its own right: the highway cruising, beat-focused groove of track #2 (Shadow Song); those cases where the groove kicks into overdrive and loses itself to progressive drumming (track #3, Mr. Bodhidharma) and insane background doo-wops (track #4, That Tokyo); chilled out, textured atmospheres (tracks #5 and 11, id2 and id3). My personal favorite section of the album is “Selfish Youth” (track #9) to the end. Selfish Youth is an incredible mixture of catchy-as-fuck guitar licks, and a complex structure that builds carefully to a finish, keeping track of its own momentum.
From there on out, you get a crazy math-rock tirade (track #10, “I want to be your kind of novelist”), an emotional, fast-paced ballad (track #12, “Dancer in the Dancer”), and it all ends on a nutso funk jam (“Story of a Lowlife”).
Each track is unique in its own right, and altogether creates an album that, while not quite cohesive, fits together through its forceful ambition and inventiveness. It’s weird, for sure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like most of it.
I’m not going to attempt to analyze the lyrics and meanings of the songs, since my Japanese level is simply not there yet. But there is a lot of interesting material to soak up, especially in tracks 3, 4, 8, and 9. The image of the “Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” strikes me as an ironic interpretation of the stereotypical sexy Japanese schoolgirl, an interpretation that can be seen in J-pop artists such as Oomori Seiko. For Seiko and for Kawatani as well (I think), the cutesy desirability implodes and reveals how fucked up its own concept really is. From there, identity moves on to either self-destruction (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s opening track “TOKYO BLACK HOLE”), or to revealing that self-acceptance and a motivated overcoming of cartoon stereotypes might lead to something truly good (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s closing track “Shonen Manga and Shoujou Manga”).
Bottom line: Apple Dharma is a worthwhile listen for anyone who likes music, regardless of your knowledge of or experience with Japanese culture. The catchy choruses and fiery solos are simply too fun to ignore, and the creativity is inescapable. There are plenty of parts where Kawatani overreaches: where things get too weird, or certainly where ideas get overdone or in the way of the listening experience. But that’s to be expected for an album with this level of explosive force behind it, and it still manages to wrap up at a neat 53 minutes. I respect that.
CHECK IT OUT ON SPOTIFY! Search Gesu no Kiwami Otome!
My rating: 8.9/10