Enon Kawatani excels at misery. As a guitarist and vocalist in the band Indigo La End, he crafts driving rock numbers topped off by lyrics that find insecurity in even seemingly happy situations, and plenty of other words devoted to longing and loneliness. It’s a vibe he carries over to Gesu No Kiwami Otome., a project started in 2012 between him and several other artists frequenting Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood.
The music changed — emo-derived chugging replaced by rollicking piano lines and funky bass lines — but Kawatani’s focus remained downtrodden. Gesu’s breakout single “Watashi Igai Watashi Ja Nai No” charmed with jazzy flair and sudden tempo pivots, but the lyrics were existential ponderings tinged with dread. That one became the breakout hit of 2015, and left Gesu poised to be the next big thing in Japanese rock.
Gesu’s new album Daruma Ringo was originally meant to arrive in stores late last year, until Kawatani was reportedly caught drinking with an underaged woman. The group’s third album was locked away for months, before being released relatively quietly. First week sales stood at just over 13,000 units moved; a far cry from the 90,000 plus their previous effort managed.
There is a twinge of sadness listening to Daruma Ringo, which finds Gesu tightening up and adding new elements to their sound. It’s their most focused work to date, cutting off a bit of the excess that weighed down previous efforts while also finding them branching out to include new touches. Odds are Gesu will never approach the whirlwind success 2015 brought them, but they are still pressing on as a group and coming up with intriguing work.
Gesu’s go-to sound remains the dizzying pop that finds piano wrapping around guitar, all muscled on by drummer Hona Ikoka. Opener “Shiawase Ringo” (above) encompasses the band’s approach with its lounge-ready keyboard solos leading into catchy hooks, while the zippy “Darumasan” shows Gesu at their swiftest, down to Kawatani’s speak-sing delivery. It’s intricate pop music constantly capturing the listener off-guard, dropping in a dramatic bridge or bass solo at a moment seemingly not built for it.
But it’s the new touches that make Daruma Ringo intriguing. “Kage Song” (above) slinks ahead on rubbery synthesizer notes, a playful sound that makes the dramatic all-together-now hook all the more affecting. “Gogo No Hifi” pulls a similar trick by adding in squiggly electronic details, adding some unease to an otherwise skippy number. The highlight of the whole collection, though, is “Ikenai Dance Dance Dance,” an eight-minute number borrowing a beat from dance music and letting it mutate into all sorts of shapes over its runtime.
That slow-burner highlights another development for Gesu — emphasis on voices other than Kawatani. He’s still handling the bulk of the singing on Daruma Ringo, and still often sounding beaten down, whether he’s scowling at society on “Kage Song” or detailing the exhaustion one feels living in Tokyo on “bou Tokyo” (life in the capital is so frustrating for the song’s protagonist that Kawatani breaks out into screaming “Tokyo” multiple times, like he’s seeking revenge against it). But whether because they want some different perspectives or for another reason entirely, drummer Ikoka and keyboardist Chan Mari sing more on this album than before, helping to add vocal variety to various songs. And they take up the bulk of “Ikenai Dance Dance Dance,” and are the major reason it is the collection’s standout.
Daruma Ringo isn’t without its flaws, everything after the thrilling “Ikenai Dance Dance Dance” lags a bit, and it is probably two songs too long, but overall it is a step forward for Gesu. Gesu is an outfit where each member’s skills shine brightest; Kawatani’s woe-is-me lyrics work much better against the twisty arrangements of his bandmates here than in the more straightforward Indigo La End. While those same vocals add tension to the players music, whose various other projects sound pleasant but ultimately forgettable. Gesu is just the right balance for all involved, and this album shows they still have plenty of twists ahead of them.
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