The long-running J-Pop trio embrace tropical house, and find their own perspective on the style.
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3 Apr 2017 - 3:45 PM  UPDATED 3 Apr 2017 - 3:45 PM

Pop groups in Japan don’t necessarily need to change up their sound once they’ve reached a certain point. Trio w-inds, a boy band performing since the start of the 2000s, certainly fit that description.

They’ve achieved plenty of success at home and in Asia using a time-tested mix of ballads, mid-tempo dance pop and the occasional R&B cut. That’s more than enough to stay in the spotlight over the past decade.

w-inds mix their style up on latest album Invisible, an unexpected late-career highlight from a unit who have all rights to coast on a loyal fanbase. Their 12th long-player finds them wading into “tropical house” waters, a somewhat misleadingly titled style that gained global prominence over the last few years thanks to Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and, recently, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You.” Those songs conjure up a seaside vibe thanks to island percussion and a breezy tempo, and that template can now be heard in no shortage of other pop songs (not to mention EDM festivals). It’s not a new sonic palette, but has become the dominant one for pop in most places. But not Japan, where Invisible marks one of the first big instances of it appearing in J-Pop. And they find their own intriguing perspective on it.

This isn’t to say Invisible is w-inds complete Balearic turn. The weakest moments here sound like they could have come from any point in the unit’s last decade. The R&B bounce of “In Your Warmth” and the sparse acoustic strummings of “Separate Way” are sounds w-inds have long dabbled in, and here sound fine but forgettable. Save for the harp-accented lushness of “TABOO.”

Starting with second song “Come Back To Bed,” w-inds show that they aren’t content, or at least willing to try gliding on the trade winds of contemporary pop. It’s a song built on warped vocal notes and shifty percussion, full of rich details that would make the instrumental intriguing enough on its own. The island atmosphere is more direct on the marimba-featuring “Complicated,” while songs such as “ORIGINAL LOVE” and “Backstage” imitate the pace of these songs using other instruments.

This would all just be above-average efforts to recreate buzzy sounds abroad if it weren’t for w-inds’ vocals, which finds the three members singing in a high-note eyeing style that makes for an interesting tension when paired with the music. No cut showcases this vibe better than “We Don’t Need To Talk Anymore,” one of the only songs written by the group’s lead vocalist Keita Tachibana rather than a team of Swedish producers. It draws both from Bieber and The Chainsmokers’ “Closer,” but instead of settle into the rhythm, w-inds — especially Tachibana come the chorus — aim for high notes.

When I first heard this song, I thought the dramatic singing was off-putting totally at odds with the smoother melody. Yet as the hook refused to get out of my brain, I realised that what makes it so memorable. Like a lot of the other tropical-house-leaning numbers on Invisible, w-inds wants to adjust their sound, but also act like a J-Pop boy band at the same time. Which is to say, they want their singing to be the focus. The music and vocals, intentionally or not, make for an intriguing albeit sometimes at-odds combo, and makes this a great listen. Considering how many boy bands here settle in their ways, hearing w-inds come upon something different is a welcome change.

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