Album Review: 3776 – Love Letter

It’s never a good idea to begin publishing end-of-year lists before the year is actually out; inevitably, you’ll end up overlooking something fantastic, hidden away in the back end of December from the light of the recognition it deserves. But …
By Sean Mulrine

It’s never a good idea to begin publishing end-of-year lists before the year is actually out; inevitably, you’ll end up overlooking something fantastic, hidden away in the back end of December from the light of the recognition it deserves.
But now that 2014 is over, it can now be said with confidence that the latest effort by 3776 (pronounced “Minanaro”, a name taken from the height of Mount Fuji in metres) released inconspicuously on the 29th of December, is one of the strongest releases to come from Asia in the year 2014.

Of course, anyone who’s followed the music scene in Japan will know by now, whether they like it or not, about the rise of female idol groups, specifically those releasing quality music on a regular basis. Acts like You’ll Melt More! (whose discography includes homages to Neu!, ESG and Suicide), Bellring Girls Heart, BiS Kaidan (a real and fantastic combination of idol music and harsh noise) and consistently create waves in the subculture scenes for the interesting, theatrical and unpredictable music they put out. Ricky Wilson, producer of the occult-themed idol unit NECRONOMIDOL, described the appeal of the current idol world in an interview with The Japan Times as follows:

“Saying ‘I like idols’ is the new anarchy patch. It means living on the fringe. Once upon a time punk shows offered variance. You knew the concert that night would be different than the one last week, but the scene’s grown stagnant. It’s always the same crowd, the same performance, and that’s not fun. So people migrated to idols.”

Surprisingly, however, it wasn’t these “alternative idols” that inspired 3776’s manager and music producer, Ishida Akira. The spark that led to him forming TEAM MII, the predecessor to 3776 with a planned lifespan of one year, was seeing one of the regular theatre performances by AKB48, Japan’s most well-known (for better or for worse) idol act whose music is hit-or-miss at best. And yet, in the one year they were active, TEAM MII’s repertoire tapped into genres such as dub, dream pop, shoegaze and post-punk, leaving them with a cult reputation.

3776 run with that reputation and take it to even higher heights. Led by the thirteen-year-old Ide Chiyono, the group (currently a trio) have just put out Love Letter, a triumphant blend of pop music, alternative rock, post-punk, jazz, and experimentation which blends together seamlessly, creating something that’s satisfying to listen to on several levels. It’s a release by their so-called “Season #3” formation, meaning Chiyono performs solo, while the previous CD, Jokyoku (Overture), was a Season #2 single with all the members together. The mini-album begins with “Ondan Shitsujun Yama Girl” (A Girl From the Warm and Humid Mountains), a fast-paced number punctuated by bright and noisy flashes of electric guitar, the motion kept constant and flowing by frantic drumming. Chiyono (known to fans as “Chii-chan”) has a natural energy that allows her to keep up with the high tempo easily, although the inclusion of breathing samples that punctuate the instrumental suggest it’s a little exhausting.

The track flows into “Digital Native”, another extremely high-speed song where the electronic bassline can’t seem to sit still for a second, and the use of effects on Chii-chan’s voice in the bridge turns out to be surprisingly charming. Again, the slightly abrasive, choppy guitar sounds contribute to giving the songs a really well-balanced texture that’s enormously appealing to listen to and is a fixture of a great deal of Ishida’s productions. Another direct transition takes the listener into the third track, “Dareka no Mono Desu” (You Belong To Somebody Else), which is where the experimentation on the album begins to really become apparent. There are all sorts of rhythmic shifts and polyrhythms that occur all across this track with its slightly spacey rock-and-roll atmosphere, rhythmic conflicts sparking off between seperate backing vocals, and the mixing decisions turn this into a deeply immersive listening experience. Chiyono’s backing vocals really contribute to the atmosphere and provide a memorable highlight, and one can’t help but feel like she has a considerable talent to be able to keep in time (singing and dancing, no less) with songs like this one.

Jazz influences abound on the fourth track, “A∩B” (“A to B no Sekishuugou”, The Intersection of A and B) , with its swung rhythm, its bassline and its guitar playing taking the most notable influence from the genre. The vocal delivery is done both through spoken-word and singing, which allows Chiyono’s charisma to shine, and it becomes particularly chaotic, in a positive sense, when she begins counting in several different rhythms at once. The three-beat, seven-beat, and six-beat polyrhythm this creates is a clear and clever nod to the group’s name. “As long as we’re living in the same generation, we can dance, so come on and let’s dance together!”

The first four songs on the album are strong enough in their own right, but on Love Letter they serve as a prelude to the title track, which is like absolutely nothing else in its scope and scale. “Jikuu Love Letter ~After Daifunka no Sekai no Kimi he~” (Space-Time Love Letter: To You, In The World After The Great Eruption) is a 21-minute track that begins with ambient noises and a monologue placing Chiyono (and the listener along with her) in the world of a recurring dream, an empty prehistoric world where she’s waiting alone for something, for someone. From there, an orchestral melody announces the beginning of the music, heralded by an atmospheric synth riff and dance percussion, soon joined by a strings arrangement, and then a koto, then followed by the textural addition of the post-punk-style guitar strumming. What’s particularly notable about this section is that there are melodic references to “Yurumeter”, a song by 3776’s ancestors TEAM MII, subtly tying into the theme of past and future. The percussion brings to mind something like Talking HeadsRemain in Light, but the combination of Japanese traditional instrumentation, Western post-punk and electronica creates a completely unique sound world.

The next movement of the track first begins with a brief interlude, Chiyono singing to herself in her bedroom, sounding small and lonely, hinting at the sounds of what’s to come. She’s cut off by the return of the gradually darkening guitar track, accompanied by an enormous polyrhythmic bassline which comes twinned with bursts of noise. Wind is heard howling somewhere in the distance, and the additions of ambient sounds create the imagery of a bleak, wide space. A key shift, the bassline gathers insistence and noise, and suddenly the title’s Great Eruption begins, a huge explosion of shoegazer guitars against which the heroine sounds tiny, frail and lost in a storm, but she bravely continues against the onslaught of sound and brings it back to its original progression.

After the Great Eruption, the sound shifts to a new world, a different time, and here it’s a loungey pop track backed by electric pianos and synthesizers, using the same koto riff from the first part and placing it into a whole new context. This continues from the chorus of previous track “A∩B”, using the same lyrics and melody: “As long as we’re living in the same generation, we can dance, so come on, let’s dance together…” The contrast in sound and mood gives the track a definite sense of two halves, of “from” and “to”, meaning that the progressions aren’t just for showing off, instead contributing the thematic sense of the song. This half fades away in noise and the main guitar line is briefly hinted at once more for a moment, but the song fades away to the same sounds of breathing as used in track one, “Ondan Shitsujun Yama Girl”, bringing the album full-circle as it ends.

Included on Love Letter are the instrumental versions of all the tracks, allowing the listener to appreciate the extremely calculated work that went into its creation. The instrumental of “Jikuu Love Letter”, here in a condensed, five-minute radio edit (consisting of the build-up, the Eruption, and its fading away), is particularly listenable on its own, bringing to mind the works of groups like Boris and My Bloody Valentine, and it’s certainly a highlight aside from the main five tracks.

Love Letter is a rare and brilliant example of a pop album where every track is skillfully connected to each other in some way and through this, it encourages multiple and thorough listens. In a secret eleventh track, Chiyono explains a few examples of how the number “3776” has been hidden on every song, often in multiple ways: the “Jikuu Love Letter” bassline sounds in a pattern of three pulses, then seven, seven again, and six, there’s an obvious example in the backing vocals counting on “A∩B”, the rhythms of “Dareka no Mono Desu” spell it out in more than one way, and it’s also hinted at in the synth line of “Digital Native” at the chorus, which showcases the extremely high level of thought that went into all the tracks.

More than just a collection of catchy melodies, every beat on Love Letter has been carefully planned, and after hearing the secret track, you’ll want to replay it again immediately. Not only is this the best idol album of 2014, it’s one of the greatest releases ever to come out of the current idol boom.

3776’s “Love Letter” was released on the 28th of December through Natural Make Records.