The internet has made the act of finding music a lot easier, but it is more of a repository than it is a guide or an informant. Unless you’re willing to put in the hours, it is very easy to bypass oodles of very helpful data without even knowing it exists. You can flit through YouTube videos of Ethiopian pop music for hours, but you’re not going to get the vital context that goes with it unless you pursue that information yourself. It is terrifyingly easy to treat the internet as a limitlessly vast, incredibly shallow pond
I mention this because 2014’s フェイクワールドワンダーランド (Fake World Wonderland), an earlier album from きのこ帝国 (Kinoko Teikoku), was a sugary shoegaze rush that seemed like a wonderful peek into modern Japanese shoegaze. But the band have released a new album, 愛のゆくえ, and it suggests that this assumption was inaccurate. Very inaccurate.
The lesson here is that it’s really hard to spot flukes when you don’t have any kind of sense of what the status quo is. And that’s what I fear フェイクワールドワンダーランド was, a fluke. The new album is the kind of middling coffee house dream pop that I don’t bother listening to ever because it’s almost unrelentingly boring, and it let me down like few albums have.
Ah yes, but what if this new one is a fluke? That would be reassuring. Maybe the band just got way into pillow-soft jazz chords on a whim, and followed that thread to its natural conclusion as part of their artistic journey. Stranger things have certainly happened.
And this is still the same Kinoko Teikoku we all know and love, unabashedly.
Sure, “Moon Walk” meanders softly through the dockside fog without ever really reaching a destination, but it jumps in a few puddles on its way (represented here by a stormy, echoey vocal workout near the end of the song).
I hate to criticize a shoegaze band for not relying on, well, shoegaze. One of my major problems with the genre is how every band kind of sounds the same. But the complete excision of shoegaze guitars on this album creates a vacuum that isn’t ever really filled in with anything meaningful. “夏の影” is the kind of spongy reggae sleeper that feels, smells, and tastes like a b-side promoted to a position it is helplessly unqualified for.
Which is not to suggest that this album lied on its resume. If I knew more about the scene, more about the band, maybe I wouldn’t be surprised that this album is what it is. And, just so we’re clear, it is a collection of slow smooth-jazzish dream pop songs with flutes and la la las and shit like that. I mean look at that cover, I should know better. I guess ignorance isn’t always bliss.
At the tail end of 2014, Kinoko Teikoku released Fake World Wonderland. It wasn’t perfect, nor did it really feel vital, but Kinoko Teikoku (that’s Mushroom Kingdom, for all of you non-translator savvy blokes not investing thousands of dollars to learn a language) made a vibrant, colorful record of jacked up pop songs, shaving back the meditative drone of shoegaze for a more succinct coloring book of blaring guitars and soaring hooks. It tickled so many musical funny bones: rock star heroics and punchy fist raisers, shimmering solos and delicious earworms. I didn’t even know Japanese, but I couldn’t help not singing with each high-strung chorus.
Two years and two albums later, Kinoko Teikoku feel… stagnant. The Tokyo shoegazers signed to a major label and are poised for crossover success, breaking into the Oricon Charts and sneaking into Spotify samplers.
In light of this, 愛のゆくえ should sound explosive, the first major leap of a rock band finally “making it.”
Instead, 愛のゆくえ sounds reserved, relative to both the listless shoegaze of their earlier work and the concise fuzz pop of Fake World Wonderland. Kinoko Teikoku trade a lot of the theatrics for a mellow tone, reggae riffs, and dry melody, creating an album that’s underwhelming at times and, even more concerning, dangerously boring at others. “LAST DANCE” trips along a tropical groove and a sighed hook; all of the dynamics that the “shoegaze” title should give them are summed up in a riff that’s hardly present. “MOON DANCE” is even worse, containing what was supposed to be an eruptive climax within five minutes of the same shimmering chords.
Kinoko Teikoku let loose later on, but a few moments of hard-soft theatrics do little to shake how confined the band feels on 愛のゆくえ. It’s why the band’s big label debut sounds so off-putting. 愛のゆくえ comes across as artificial, competently written and performed but uncomfortably molded to a T. Alongside songs like “WHIRLPOOL” and “疾走,” where Kinoko Tekikoku sounded more natural in their approach, 愛のゆくえ feels like an uncomfortable fluke.
All that said, though, 愛のゆくえ still sounds like a competent record, where flashes of the old Kinoko Teikoku bleed through and new ideas pop like shattered light bulbs. The title track sounds robust. The melody on “雨上がり” (“After the Rain Fall”) is heartwarming. There’s a gorgeous Britpop ballad somewhere in “死がふたりをわかつまで” (“Until Death Do Us Apart”). While I might be tempted to call 愛のゆくえ a disappointment, I still finish the record with a warm smile.