Artists From Japan #6: An Introduction To Kinoko Teikoku

Who Are Kinoko Teikoku?

Kinoko Teikoku (which roughly translates to Mushroom Empire), are a 4 piece indie rock/shoegaze band formed in 2007, who made their commercial debut in 2012 with the scene defining Whirlpool. An album that displayed their indie-rock styled shoegaze, which often lead into massive, post-rock inspired detours and crescendos. In the five years since, Kinoko Teikoku has undergone drastic changes in style and sound, but at the core, they remain indebted to that dreamy, vaguely melancholy presence . The songwriting is primarily handled by lead singer, and former actress, Chiaki Sato, with strong sonic input from the band as a whole, (A-chan (guitar), Shigeaki Taniguchi (bass), Kon Nishimura (drums)). Often juxtaposing Chiaki’s gentle songwriting against brutal walls of sound, or furious, primal solos.

Kinoko Teikoku have become a sort of starting point for a lot of indie-rock fans in the journey into Japanese music. Their fusion of indie-rock style songwriting with shoegaze sonics into accessible, emotionally resonant pop music is a mixture that western shoegaze has been so desperately missing since Asobi Seksu in the early 2000s.

The Essential Album: Whirlpool or Eureka

Translated Lyrics From Lyrical Nonsense

1. Before Whirlpool (2007-2011)

Like many an indie rock band, Kinoko Teikoku has a wealth of music released before their debut album, most of it being rather difficult to track down. There’s the The First Mini Demo Album (2011), which soley consists of lo-fi/amateurish versions of songs that would all end up on future commercial releases. Beyond it’s curious appeal as the band’s first release, there’s not much to it that wouldn’t be refined and improved upon in the future. It lacked their trademark textured/shoegazey sound in favor of a more lo-fi, conventional indie rock sound. That same year, they would follow up that first demo, with the second, Yoru ga Aketara (2011). It also consisted of songs that would feature on future albums, but with a much higher recording quality. But more importantly, it was their first release that actually sounded like what became the “Kinoko Teikoku sound”. Dreamy and spacious, with those whispered vocals by Chiaki Satō which seemed to overflow with feeling. The guitars were textured, and prone to powerful, feedback laden solos, giving the songs a tangible grit to sit alongside Chiaki’s beautiful voice. Much like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade’s pre-album EPs, it’s a release that shows genius ready to blossom, even if it falls short of that future greatness itself.

(A lot of their songs can be also be found in early versions under Kugatsuhascome, Chiaki’s solo project)

2. Whirlpool (2012)

As far as Kinoko’s western presence is concerned, Whirlpool is the album (technically a mini-album) that continues to put them on the map. It’s an album of front of back alt-rock/shoegaze fusion gems that manage to continually surprise, and astonish throughout its duration. It burst opens with slow burning monoliths “WHIRPOOL” and “Boredom”, which match the gentle whispered vocals of Chiaki against huge My Bloody Valentine inspired walls of noise, and some surprisingly experimental guitar work. Some of the extra guitar lines are so arrhythmic and untuned it evokes the kind of guitar sounds Sonic Youth were utilizing  in their early days. But beyond those aesthetic choices which envelop these songs, at their heart they are drenched in melancholic and personal dissatisfaction.

“The blue sky that I looked up at was too blue,

So much that I even forgot to blink.

The feelings that I’d once killed

Are swirling together, swirling together

The blue sky that I looked up at was too blue,

So much that I even forgot my confusion.

The future that I’d once imagined for myself

Is swirling together, swirling together.”
Lyrics from “Whirlpool”

Whirlpool’s songs are measured and sonically beautiful, but also work just fine as pop numbers; catchy and propulsive. It’s hard to forget these melodies, even years after I discovered it, all of Whirlpool seems to be stuck somewhere in my brain.

(There’s also a reference to legendary Japanese post-hardcore band Number Girl, and previous Artists From Japan entry, with the song “Girl meets NUMBER GIRL”)

Correction: The Japanese title, 渦になる (Uzu ni Naru), actually translates to (roughly) “Becoming A Whirlpool”. 

3. Eureka (2013)

If Whirlpool was Kinoko’s Isn’t Anything, Eureka was their Loveless. The songs had become grander, prominently featuring reverb that sounded a mile long. Chiaki’s vocals were no longer just restrained, and pretty, but have a real depth to them. On tracks like “Streetwalker”, or “Spring and Carnage”, she sounds like she’s about to boil over with frustration, and rides on and off the rhythm, jumping between whispers, and hard forced syllables. It’s a decidedly punk approach that gives it a unique character in modern shoegaze. (I mean just read these lyrics)

“Just how should I kill him?

Spring 2009, on a night of pouring rain,

That’s all I could think about.

Not giving a shit if it’s a total crime,

I dream of running a metal bat through him;

A spring evening dream, in which ill intent is the only truth”
Lyrics from “Spring and Carnage”

(At the very least it proves that Number Girl were one of the band’s biggest influences.)

Tracks like “Parallel World” and “Another World” on the other hand, bring back the kind of warmth we’d come to expect from her vocal performances. The drums are mixed front and center, and give the songs even more pop momentum, despite sonically being even more melancholic, and restrained than anything on Whirlpool. In general the guitars are pulled back a little, with less atonal picking, and more focus on getting that wall-of-sound, reverb-mountain effect. But the results were clearly worth it, because the guitars here feel enveloping. The whole album is a genuine joy, with Kinoko stretching their wings as far as they’ll go, while somehow managing to fit it all together into a package that demands to be listened to as a whole, from front to back.

4. Long Goodbye EP (2013)

Looking back, Long Goodbye’s title was a little more prophetic than I think anyone imagined. It’s important to note, that at this point Kinoko Teikoku were becoming rather successful in Japan. This EP actually broke onto the Oricon charts (essentially their Billboard charts), and their live performances started to become huge, concert hall events for massive standing audiences. They even played a few shows in Vancouver, a sign of their growing, international audience. It’s safe to say that, at the very least, Kinoko were reaching a much larger audience since the release of Eureka. And this EP would be their final release with that Whirlpool/Eureka-era abrasive alt-rock/shoegaze sound. The EP itself sounds about as great as we’d come to expect from Kinoko in that period, with even a little bit of forward development in the form of denser, more frequent vocal harmonies. The tracks are a bit more upbeat and conventional in structure, but it’s a compelling listen, especially “Flower Girl”, which utilizes a sort of funeral dirge rhythm, perhaps intentionally, as Kinoko set to rest their trademark sound.

5. Fake World Wonderland (2014)

When Kinoko returned in 2014 for Fake World Wonderland, they were a changed band, one with completely different sonic goals. For the bulk of these songs they part with the reverby, atonal guitar riffs, and brittle-as-glass whisper vocals that had become synonymous with their name. Instead they hone in on pop rock riffs, softened reverb, and a strong focus on bombastic, catchy choruses, as well as a more sensual full-bodied vocal presence from Chiaki. On some tracks it creates a unique pop-dream pop fusion that’s engaging to listen to, like “You Outside My Window”, and sometimes it just comes across as oddly sarcastic or un-genuine, and kind of boring, like on the intro track, “Tokyo”.

On a few tracks they plunge into classic Kinoko sonics, like on “Therefore There”, which would have fit very snugly on any of their old albums, serving as some sort of proof that this new sonic direction wasn’t made out of lack of creative room in their previous iteration. But for the most part Kinoko were trying to push into new directions here. This is especially prominent on the interlude tracks “Unknown Planet”, “Fake World”, and “24’, two “trip-hop” numbers, and a folk song, which sound like nothing else the band has ever made. They’re all pretty terrible, but the effort was appreciated, and the songs weren’t without a certain fish out of water charm. The album ends with the Pillows-esque “Telepathy/Overdrive”, finishing a rather disappointing experiment with a satisfying after taste, though the album still remains as a period of obvious identity crisis for Kinoko.

6. Cat And Allergy (2015)

Cat and Allergy is where Kinoko fully dived into the shoegaze-pop sound they dabbled with on Fake World Wonderland, without any of the distractions or experiments. It flows from the Radiohead-esque, piano-laden intro track, “Cat and Allergy”, to the vibraphone driven “In The Arms Of A Monster” beautifully, busting the album open with the kind of melancholy and grandness that’d been missing from Fake World Wonderland. And the album featured quite a few of these kind of well produced, and engaging songs, but a good amount were equally likely to just fall into background noise, as if Kinoko were just running the motions. It didn’t reach the highs of Eureka or Whirlpool, but it certainly didn’t reach the lows of the very uneven Fake World Wonderland. But by lacking that experimental mindset, it comes across less like a charming identity crisis, and more like a genuinely half-assed effort. The ballads, like “Cat and Allergy”, and “Drive”, as well as the more explosive numbers like “Before The Cherry Blossoms Bloom”, and “Youthful Anger’ make it an easy recommendation for fans of Kinoko Teikoku, but it’s a release that’s almost impossible to recommend on it’s own merits.

7. 愛のゆくえ (2016)

Kinoko Teikoku’s journey has found them making their way from alt-rock to shoegaze to pop-rock, before finally landing on that pop-leaning dream pop with Cat and Allergy. As a band, they had never really taken a moment to sit still. But, minus the tinges of dub influence, with 愛のゆくえ it feels like they’ve finally settled in to enjoy a moment, if only for a second. Featuring a much more refined version of that occasionally shoegazey and harsh brand of dream-pop, 愛のゆくえ  is incredibly forlorn, and lost-in-the-clouds, with crashing-to-the-ground change ups as guitars often come bursting into the mix. It’s not nearly as experimental sonically, or structurally as their first few albums, but immensely rewarding in its own, more restrained way.

It’s the first of their major label efforts to provide an entirely satisfying experience from front to back, devoid of half-baked experiments, and half-assed throw aways. The time to sit back and refine on a singular sound has apparently done them well, as the album’s short 9 tracks feel honed, and absolutely necessary as a singular unit, managing to capture both Kinoko’s pop sensibility and experimental tendencies together in harmony. Of all their post-Long Goodbye projects, it’s the easiest to recommend, and the only one that makes their transition away from their early sound feel like it has purpose.

Check out the rest of our articles in our ‘Artists From’ series.

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