One thing that will become apparent to readers of this blog is that I have a soft spot for Japanese bands. In fact, in the case of some bands I may reach near obsessive levels of ardency. Though there are many deserving Japanese artists that do receive attention from some Western media (Boredoms, OOIOO, Cornelius, Shugo Tokumaru, etc.), many others are also inevitably ignored. I hope to discuss all kinds of Japanese music here, while paying particular attention to bands that don’t get the attention they should. The first band I’m featuring is Sparta Locals, a fantastic post-punk band with an uncanny ability for crafting sweet melodies and incredible guitar interplay.
Kanashii Miminari / Second Fanfare
Sparta Locals are a productive band, having released six full-length albums in just five years. They started strong in 2002 with Kanashii Miminari, probably one of the better debuts of any J-Rock band. However, the first album I heard was the even stronger Second Fanfare, in which they truly staked their claim as one of the most interesting rock bands in Japan. On this sophomore effort Sparta Locals noticeably expound upon their original sound, flushing out even stronger melodies and impressive angular guitar work. “Kogane Wave” still blows me away. Itou Shinichi outdoes himself as he lays down not just one, but several fantastic guitar leads that evolve and transform, carrying the song to completely unexpected levels. I seriously don’t think I could ever get tired of this song.
Sun Sun Sun / Yume Station
I was excited for the follow up to Second Fanfare, but not necessarily optimistic. It was one of those albums you just didn’t expect to surpass its predecessor. Yet, somehow Sparta Locals managed to put together an album that is easily their definitive full-length. If Second Fanfare was a significant progression from their debut, then Sun Sun Sun was at least an equal step forward from Second Fanfare. Sparta Locals cite Gang of Four and Television as their main influences and while this is more evident on Sun Sun Sun than any of their other records, the album still feels surprisingly unique. Nearly every aspect of this release is close to flawless, and again the guitar work helps separate Sparta Locals from their peers. It’s devastating… from the intricate pop-sweetness of “Tokyo Ballerina”, to the Televisionesque layered solos at the close of “Boku no Poppa”, to the absolute onslaught of “Peace”. Sun Sun Sun may sound a bit like dance-rock revival on its surface, but don’t write it off as such — it has more depth and more to appreciate.
I honestly tried to maintain reasonable expectations for the material that was to come after Sun Sun Sun; how could Sparta Locals hope to ever follow up such an album? It seemed inevitable that any attempt to do so would only result in disappointment. And then about one month before the release of their fourth full-length, Dreamer, I heard the Yume Station single. I couldn’t believe it. Not only did their sound again seem to be evolving, but both of the songs on the single were two of their best yet. In fact, these songs hinted that Dreamer was to be their definitive work. While maintaining elements of their sound on Sun Sun Sun, they seemed to be reintegrating them into a surprisingly fresh, if somewhat more conventional, pop sound. It all made such perfect sense, making it seem that perhaps Sparta Locals had planned this logical progression from the beginning.
Dreamer / Self-Titled / Maboroshi Forever
However, Dreamer did not turn out to be the masterpiece that I had hoped. On the contrary, it was the first Sparta Locals album that was actually disappointing. Even in the absence of the expectations created by Sun Sun Sun and Yume Station, it probably wouldn’t have been considered anything more than mediocre. Though they had managed to adopt a new sound for much of the album, it was not particularly compelling. The shining pop of “Yume Station” is replicated only on the decent “Rock & Honey”, while the majority of the album is made up of slower, pensive songs that mostly fail to grab the listener’s attention. Even more troubling, “Get Up!” and “Party” feel like rejects from the sessions for the previous album — suggesting that the creativity of Sparta Locals had begun to wane. Sadly, this has proven to be true, as they have yet to emerge from this slump. Last years self-titled effort felt a bit phoned in — they returned to a more energetic pop sound, but it just wasn’t characterized by the strong melodies and song writing fans of the band have come to expect.
However, on April 4th they released their sixth full-length, Maboroshi Forever, and the word is it’s the strongest release of their “pop phase”. While that may not be saying much, perhaps Sparta Locals still have one or two good albums in them. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see… though I can’t imagine them creating anything that could approach the quality of Sun Sun Sun or Yume Station.
Bonus: Check out the first video from Maboroshi Forever, a satisfying live version of the title track: