“Evolution” is the key word the management for Momoiro Clover Z are using to describe the group’s new album, 5th Dimension. But the sophomore record feels more like a soft-reboot than a sequel to the group’s debut, Battle & Romance. If that record was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, then 5th Dimension is more like The Amazing Spider-Man; a rebranded, lesser version of its former self, that’s lean, mean, “gritty”, “dark”, and “more mature”, hitting all the rights beats and feeling totally familiar, but is somehow missing that one ineffable X-factor.
A big part of that X-factor is Kenichi Maeyamada, also known by stage name Hyadain, songwriter/producer and perhaps someone who can be considered “the godfather” of Momoiro Clover Z. Maeyamada was responsible for forging the group’s sound, back when they were simply known as Momoiro Clover (and had a sixth member), when he produced “Ikuze! Kaito Shojo”, the group’s first release on a major label. The group quickly captured the hearts of both idol fanatics and music geeks alike, thanks to their whimsical, cutesy, girly enthusiasm and charm, along with the schizophrenic, genre-mixing, hyperactive tunes penned by Maeyamada.
It’s probably the lack of Maeyamada tracks on 5th Dimension that makes it feel quite different from its predecessor. In contrast to the 5 tracks on Battle & Romance, his contributions on 5th Dimension are limited to only 2 tracks – the snoozer ballad “Hai To Diamond” tacked on the end, and “Mouretsu Uchuu Kyosoukyoku”, which sounds strangely out of place here. Maeyamada, a frequent Twitter user, received attention from fans a few months ago, when he allegedly posted a tweet about the new Momoiro Clover Z album by mistake. In what appeared to be a direct message for someone, he called the album “tedious and uninteresting”, and it would “probably sell a lot of copies anyway”. The post was quickly deleted and was followed with a tweet about the new Justin Timberlake album, a haphazardly performed cover-up that only fueled the rumor mill even further. Combined with other tweets about how he was no longer receiving calls from team Momoclo, signs point to some sort of conflict between the Momoclo management and Hyadain, which begs to ask: are the days of Maeyamada-penned Momoclo songs over?
Momoiro Clover Z – “Mouretsu Uchuu Kyosoukyoku”
In fact, the album seems to be trying to fade out Momoiro Clover Z’s previous image altogether. Gone are the colorful sentai motifs and tokusatsu quirks, and in are…gimp masks. The color palette that defined each member has mostly disappeared (at least in the marketing) in favor of identical shiny pink outfits. Their faces have been covered up in most of the advertisements and magazine covers as well, perhaps as a statement that the cute faces don’t even matter anymore, or that they have reached a status where fans are so familiar with them that they can be identified without showing their faces (curiously they have kept the sentai aesthetic for their live shows, so perhaps this is more of a brief stunt than an image overhaul).
And then you have the songs. While decrying an idol group for becoming “radio friendly” is in itself a ridiculous claim, the songs have indeed become tighter, more polished, and a bit more “conventional”. “Roudou Sanka”, the first single released after Battle & Romance, seemed to be the turning point. When first released, many established fans lamented the song as a change in direction for the group, some even going as far as to say that the group had “sold out”. The song was a stark contrast from the tracks the group has become known for, but to be fair, that can probably be attributed more to songwriter Ian Parton of The Go! Team fame. In reality the track has been one of the more interesting singles Momoiro Clover Z have released, and the song is one of the highlights on the album.
There are some other great songs on here, like the insanely catchy “Jyokyu Monogatari -Carpe Diem-“, which will have you singing along to chants of “memento mori-mori-mori!” and “que sera-sera-sera!” after about two listens. The second promotional single from the album, “Birth Ø Birth” by Narasaki of Coaltar of the Deepers is an aggressive techno-metal dance track with a great glitchy mid-section, the kind only someone like Narasaki can deliver. But he’s definitely done better in terms of melody, especially the chorus, which is nowhere near as catchy as “Pinky Jones”.
Momoiro Clover Z – “Birth Ø Birth”
It would be a mistake to call 5th Dimension “bad” or “not catchy”. This is idol music after all, so fundamentally the hooks and the craftsmanship behind the songs are going to be there. And make no mistake, this is a Momoiro Clover Z album – hyper, genre-mixing, and fun, fun, fun. So just what is the problem? Ultimately the conversation goes back to Maeyamada, and the contributions he made in shaping the group’s sound and image. The self-aware, almost post-modern and borderline parody tracks like “Z Densetsu” are what made Battle & Romance an interesting listen. The crazy arrangements and the way he makes each member have their own singing style defined Momoiro Clover Z during their rise to stardom. These are all missing from 5th Dimension, and as a fan of Maeyamada’s craziness, makes the album feel a bit incomplete.
But that’s probably the main point of the album. I suppose the big argument 5th Dimension tries to make is that Momoiro Clover Z can still be good without relying on Maeyamada. And who can blame them? Who needs Hyadain to write songs when you can get rock stars (Tomoyasu Hotei), indie darlings (Etsuko Yakushimaru of Sotaiseiriron), and foreign artists (Ian Patron of The Go! Team, and Damian Kulash of OK Go) to make songs instead? Fans certainly don’t seem to have a problem with that, and the group show no signs of slowing down, as they seemingly get bigger and bigger with each new release and live show.
In a television interview last year, Maeyamada commented that people say that Japan’s pop music suffers from “Galápagos syndrome” – meaning that the pop music scene here is isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, with trends that would not really go over in places outside of Japan (in the interview he gives the example of how most popular contemporary Japanese singers can’t really sing, ie: idols). He of course uses this to his advantage, creating interesting compositions within the idol format; in a way, the idol genre is liberating for people like Maeyamada, who may have a hard time getting away with the choices he makes were he working in a different context. That’s why it’s so disappointing when studio musicians and producers, or even established musicians like Hotei and Yakishimaru come into the Momoclo collective, and don’t really add anything new, but are rather conforming to an already established canon: the Momoiro Clover sound, which was mostly pioneered by Maeyamada in the first place.
Idol music at its best allows experimental musical ideas be covertly slipped into the mainstream, pushing things forward without fans even realizing it. At its worst, its unlistenable, middle-of-the-road, trite, dogshit. And while I trust Momoiro Clover Z to be in good enough hands for things to never slide into the latter, it’s a bit disappointing to think that we might never hear something as cool as “Coconuts” or “Mirai Bowl” from the group ever again. As for 5th Dimension, it’s good enough.
But it should have been awesome.
Momoiro Clover – “Mirai Bowl”