Review by David Cirone
URBANGARDE knows how to write a hook. Showa 90‘s dark, dystopian view is full of shocking, scary stories pulled from the shadows of Japan’s outwardly perfect society, but in true URBANGARDE style, they’re perfectly balanced by instant pop jams like “Kuchibiru Democracy”, “Shinjuku Mon Amour”, and “Coin Locker Babies”. URBANGARDE has never made a secret of their desire to challenge their audience through thought-provoking entertainment, and should we feel guilty tapping out feet to the cool chorus of “Coin Locker Babies”?
Self-categorized as “trauma techno-pop”, URBANGARDE presents the Showa 90 as evidence of their transformation to to “trauma techno-rock“. Even though they’ve been edgy since the beginning, URBANGARDE’s been drifting ever-so-steadily toward a harder sound (check Geiger Counter Culture and Utsukushii Kuni for the earlier spikes toward this style crossover). “Shinjuku Mon Amour” is a special treat, mixed to capture URBANGARDE’s driving live-show feel, dropping in solos by guitarist Zeze Shin and keyboardist Ohkubo Kei.
Showa 90 gives free-reign to wild man vocalist Temma Matsunaga, always magnetic when he goes full throttle, even on the weird (that’s saying a lot, here) disco groove “Shijin-Gari”. Usually Temma’s in the role of court jester to Yoko Hamasaki’s presiding royal presence, but it’s fascinating to hear him take the whole song solo, playing with an impressively varied delivery.
“Hako-Otoko Ni Kike” opens with a haunted-house-like intro, and Zeze and Ohkubo once again take the wheel with heavy a guitar/synth combo, highlighted by another great Zeze solo. Frightening lyrics about life surround by darkness, knives, garbage, and coffins compound the fearful feeling, and it’s wildly compelling to hear Yoko voice such fierce emotion, every bit a match for Temma’s power.
“Showa 90 Kyujyu-nen Jyuni-gatu” (December in SHOWA year 90) is the epic 9-minute centerpiece, a apocalyptic fable about the death of a girls named Tokyo in the imaginary year of the Japanese calendar that never was. Its impact is so strong that it’s unsettling to hear anything after it: lighter-toned follow-up tracks “Aikon Aika” and the swing/jazz number “Zombie Powder” are delightful, but they feel like coda after such a heavy hitter. (Side note: “Zombie Powder” made me long for the URBANGARDE stage musical I never knew I needed.)
“Heisei-Shibou-Yuugi” (Heisei Death Game) features a rare Yoko-only vocal performance, and it’s equal parts hypnotic, sentimental, and tragic, depicting the lonely fate of Japan’s female youth, doomed to suicidal despair. Yoko’s calm power is on full display, and the added recorded voices of random girl conversations between verses further punctuate the song’s universal story.
Showa 90 is one of my favorite URBANGARDE albums to date and a great snapshot of a band in its prime, unafraid and still hungry to reach listeners with provocative messages and imagery.
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