Album Review: CAPSULE – WAVE RUNNER

CAPSULE was formed at the end of 1997 just as Japan’s fever for Shibuya-kei (a short-lived pop music scene strongly influenced by British guitar-pop, bossa nova, space-age pop and jazz) was beginning to die down. In 2001, the duo eventually …
By Sean Mulrine

CAPSULE was formed at the end of 1997 just as Japan’s fever for Shibuya-kei (a short-lived pop music scene strongly influenced by British guitar-pop, bossa nova, space-age pop and jazz) was beginning to die down. In 2001, the duo eventually debuted with High Collar Girl, an album that, while enjoyable, was a little too close for comfort stylistically to Shibuya-kei’s giants Pizzicato Five. They kept this lounge-y style up for a good few years, until 2006’s FRUITS CLiPPER saw them move into a fresh and charming brand of electro-pop. Almost ten years later, a lot has changed: Nakata Yasutaka, CAPSULE’s programmer and leader is now the music producer for household names like futuristic idol trio Perfume and colourful candy-pop icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, among other acts, and CAPSULE continues to shift sounds erratically between albums (the most out-there example being 2013’s CAPS LOCK, an album influenced by cinematic soundtracks that alienated a large number of their pop-loving fans).

WAVE RUNNER is their 2015 offering, and like CAPS LOCK before it, this is another polarising album, although for a completely different reason: where CAPS LOCK was cold, atmospheric and minimal, WAVE RUNNER is an attempt at loud, crowd-oriented all-out EDM that’s being billed as “a next-generation soundscape”. The first promotional single to be revealed from the album, “Feel Again”, showcases what becomes a recurring theme across the ten tracks: beginning with an enjoyable pop melody and a faultless vocal performance from CAPSULE’s unanimously loved vocalist Koshijima Toshiko, it eventually collapses under the weight of a tacky big room breakdown that feels at odds with the rest of the track, as if it was added at the last minute to fill out its runtime. It’s more like listening to an amateurish remix you’d find on someone’s Soundcloud account than a fully-fledged CAPSULE track. Second single “Another World” is more of the same, but the club sounds are more integrated into the track than on “Feel Again”. But for all its slick production, its vocal hook that dares you not to sing along, and general improvements over the previous single, “Another World” still lacks something: It doesn’t evoke any kind of emotion. It’s mechanical and lifeless, as if it was written by a computer program trying to create saleable pop music by extrapolating cold hard data from dance music charts. The music video (below) is similarly empty as far as narrative goes, which speaks volumes as to how completely void of substance the original track is.

The whole album is a more interesting listen, though not by much. Strangely, the introductory track “Wave Runner” is essentially Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest condensed into one minute for people who didn’t have the attention span to sit through it, from near-identical synth arpeggios to backmasked vocal samples. As a finishing touch, the whole thing is underlined by a pounding kick drum that’s loud and persistent enough to kill off any sense of atmosphere it might otherwise have created. “Dreamin’ Boy” begins with a riser whining on top of more thundering club percussion, but this trite introduction actually builds up into something interesting: Nakata’s talent for atmospheric chords and compositions is immediately evident as Toshiko sings striking high notes backed by a shimmering synth. It’s both danceable and seriously listenable… but then, for whatever reason, it all falls apart. Another dance breakdown elbows its way in, with this nasally-sounding bassline playing on a huge and dirty loop. Then, to add insult to injury, a grotesquely ugly stock vocal sample taunts listeners with a call of “Are you ready?” which comes in several bars too late for it to make sense. Various loops and pre-programmed patterns take it in turns, seemingly at random, to take up time and provide dance-floor fodder for an imagined club crowd. This creates an infuriatingly confused structure which is difficult to follow, and these instrumental loops occupy the vast majority of “Dreamin’ Boy” and its five minutes and twenty seconds, so a genuinely interesting composition is thrown away in favour of generic walls of bass that bear such little resemblance to the melody hinted at that they could easily have been implanted in any other track from WAVE RUNNER, or any recent EDM album at all.

“Hero” is another unbelievably frustrating song to listen to, and one which falls into the same confused state as “Dreamin’ Boy”, which it immediately follows. Starting out with a melody and vocal performance I wouldn’t hesitate to call genuinely beautiful pop, it creates an electrifying mood for the precious few seconds it’s allowed to linger around. Then the problems begin: a stock vocal turned robotic under heavy vocoder begins chanting, and the contrast between Toshiko’s human vocals and this cold mechanical voice might actually be interesting… if it weren’t repeating some unintelligible phrase that truly and honestly includes the words “hot girls dancing”, which is so laughably crass and tasteless that “Hero” feels like a cheap joke made at the expense of a good song. From there, more big room loops proceed to kill the mood dead. “Hero”, “Dreamin’ Boy” and “Feel Again” are so unpleasant to listen to because there are parts of them that are actually pleasant, extremely so, but which are smashed into oblivion by these great big unwieldy walls of unrelenting and mindless club noise.

It’s not even that heavily loop-based composition is a weakness of Nakata’s as a composer: “Dancing Planet”, an entirely instrumental track, is one of the album’s few standout moments that’s intriguing in its distinctly un-Japanese sound and acts as a piece of slick, functional dance music that doesn’t rely on all-out aural assault to be enjoyable. It’s that when his approaches to club music and to pop music come together on WAVE RUNNER they simply don’t mix at all, like oil and water.

The vocal mix of “Depth” (a song originally written for and included on the soundtrack to sci-fi film Appleseed Alpha) is also a highlight; with an Eastern-sounding vocal melody and a dark atmosphere, it’s a lot lighter than the rest of the album, with more room to breathe, although it seems strange to say so about something weighted down by recurring heavy blasts of foghorn-like bass. It’s a track that reminds you of how Koshijima Toshiko is CAPSULE’s greatest asset, and also leaves you realising how she spends most of her time on WAVE RUNNER being pushed out of the way by flashy drops. “Unrequited Love” is another track that allows her to shine, and even though it features a lot of that same obnoxious pop-EDM sound palette that the album is based on, it’s used far more sparingly here, and the instrumental loops are mercifully brief. It’s by far the most easily listenable song on WAVE RUNNER, although the poor mastering and crowded mixing mean that everything is drowning everything else out as all the various elements fight each other for space. The fact that Nakata Yasutaka also handles mixing and mastering of all his own music is cited by a number of fans as an example of his talent, but the results are so often brickwalled and noisy with an unnecessary emphasis on the low end. “Unrequited Love” and a lot of his back catalogue could shine brighter had they been sent off for professional mastering.

Following up the most listenable track comes “White As Snow”, which is, naturally, the most completely unlistenable. Somehow managing to be even more confused and free of rational structure than “Dreamin’ Boy”, this is a glorified selection of drops lined up next to each other that also includes, for whatever reason, a vocal part that is used once and then never revisited. It’s obviously intended for live DJ sets, but even the most senselessly drunk of clubgoers could pick up on the jarring and chaotic sense of disconnect that “White As Snow” is. The first that most CAPSULE fans heard of this song was in a promotional megamix for the album (below), where it sounds like it should have been at least three different tracks mixed together (if you’re wondering, it starts at 2:17 and ends at 3:52). It’s a collection of half-finished ideas that have been assembled into one dense, indigestible clump of sound. Far from “white as snow”, it’s grey and utterly lifeless.

“Beyond The Sky” is an instrumental closer that gives us one final glance at Nakata’s compositional talent. It’s bright and melodic with slight hints at 16-bit sounds and at some of his earlier works, but at the same time, its position at the end of the album leaves listeners realising how little there is on WAVE RUNNER in the way of real melody and feeling. The various drops and breakdowns are so devoid of identity that it’s hard to remember which one comes from which track, and they feel as though they’re being used to fill out unfinished songs. These lumbering and grotesque embellishments take away far more than they add, and “Beyond The Sky” is too little, too late to save this sinking ship of an album.

No matter how many times I play it, in the end WAVE RUNNER can’t be called anything other than a bad album. In interviews on CAPS LOCK, sound producer Nakata expressed a desire to break away from the duty of creating music that has to instantly hook listeners and sell, and so he ended up creating a cinematic and intriguing album that encourages repeat listens, acting on his desire as an artist rather than as a typecast brand name. Even though it ended up being a little lifeless, following that up with WAVE RUNNER is not only a reminder of how little of a concrete identity CAPSULE has as a group, it also makes both albums feel extremely dishonest. WAVE RUNNER is the epitome of everything CAPS LOCK tried to break away from, and among all of CAPSULE’s albums, the extreme reliance on current fad sounds means this will sound outdated long before earlier works like FRUITS CLiPPER and L.D.K. Lounge Designers Killer.

“I wanna love you and dance again” is the chorus to “Feel Again”, and it describes exactly how I feel about WAVE RUNNER as a fan of CAPSULE – I can’t bring myself to like it even though I want to. Even for a group that got its start by riding in on a fading trend, this latest offering is shamelessly bad. It takes a lot more than flashy showmanship to create really good music, but that’s all this album is in the end.


from Sugarless GiRL, 2007

WAVE RUNNER was released internationally though iTunes on the 18th of February, 2015.