Top row, left to right: Keigo Oyamada, Leo Imai, Yukihiro Takahashi
Bottom row, left to right: Towa Tei, Yoshinori Sunahara, Tomohiko Gondo
Who else could put together a band like this? Not only has Yukihiro Takahashi made connections all over Japan, he’s also one of the country’s most influential musicians, having maintained a slighty-ahead-of-the-curve approach for over four decades. Metafive formed in 2014 as a tongue-in-cheek supergroup, a band full of successful technopop musicians who grew up listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra (with the exception of Leo Imai, who was born in the year of Technodelic), playing faithful renditions of songs mostly from Takahashi’s classic 79-82 period. Techno Recital was the group’s first release, a live album featuring many of Takahashi’s best songs from that period both YMO and solo, plus some more recent tunes, alongside covers of Dylan and The Beatles. Like many of Takahashi’s live albums it’s very good and well worth a listen or three, though I questioned why he would put together such an accomplished and talented group just to essentially be his backing band.
There was some hope though – Recital begins with an intricate, brand new instrumental track, and Cornelius released an original Metafive composition called “Split Spirit” on a soundtrack album. Which, by the way, was incredible. Then, a few months ago came the news I’d been waiting for – they’d completed an album full of new material, to be released in January. Which leaves just one glaring question: what the hell was this going to sound like? Often a supergroup tends to have pieces fit in naturally – like the drummer from Band X and the singer from Band Y along with the guitar player from Band Z. Metafive on the other hand is full of guys who have extensive careers as solo artists, producers, DJs, and programmers, none of whom you’d picture as playing any instrument in particular. Not only that, but Takahashi, Towa Tei, Sunahara, and Cornelius have all taken hard left turns in their careers, and Leo Imai’s albums tend to be fairly eclectic.
With that in mind, check out the album’s opener, “Don’t Move”:
Okay…lots to unpack here. First of all, Leo Imai is the frontman, for this song at least. Which is a good move, since Imai has a better voice and is more electrifying. The song is all over the place; it’s Cornelius-style stutter-funk with several techno elements (there’s a YMO reference buried in there if you’re listening close), with Imai flipping between Davids Bowie and Byrne, dropping a Zappa reference, then channeling James Brown for no reason at all. Plus, you’ve got funk guitar, trumpet, a drum solo, beats and skip and skitter around, and lots of synthesizers. It resembles a loose funk jam in structure but every single element is tightly controlled, right down to the vocal inflections. It reminds me a bit of Dolby’s “Hyperactive!”, but it’s even more cuckoo than that. Every member of the group gets to contribute in some way.
Luckily, the rest of the album follows suit. While Takahashi was running the show in the group’s early days, now there isn’t really any dominant personality in the group. In fact the songwriting is split about as evenly as possible, with each of the six members in charge of two of the album’s 12 songs. If you’re familiar with their solo material, you might be able to figure out who it is on each individual song (and if you can’t, the answer sheet is located here). You might notice some similarities here and there – “Luv U Tokio” reminds me of “Luv Pandemic” (a song from Towa Tei’s 2015 album that featured Takahashi), “Disaster Baby” is clearly Imai, and YT’s two songs (“Anodyne” and “Threads”) have his stamp all over them. And of course, “Radio” is a remake of a Towa Tei single (also featuring YT), while “Split Spirit” was originally from one of Cornelius’s Ghost in the Shell soundtracks.
Despite that, Metafive do have their own sound; you don’t ever feel like you’re listening to someone’s solo album, mostly because the arrangements here are so dense. That’s just a consequence of having so many remixers in their ranks; every bit of white space is filled with something, even on the more low-key songs (“Anodyne”, “Whiteout”). Since this is (technically) a debut album, you can tell that they are trying hard to impress here, or at least get some radio play. A lot of the songs are upbeat and written like potential singles; even the stranger stuff like “Albore” and “W.G.S.F.” are full of hooks. That’s not to say this is Just Another Pop Album – there are so many ideas on here that just kinda burst out, it’s like “too many cooks” as a design philosophy. Plus there’s the YMO connection that’s fused into many of these tunes, always a good thing of course – check “Maisie’s Avenue”, which sometimes sounds like an update of “Expected Way” off Naughty Boys, or “Albore” which has a bit of “Pure Jam” in it. Plus there are some elements of Takahashi’s more recent bands such as Sketch Show (with Hosono and sometimes Cornelius) and Pupa (with Gondo). So even though YT cedes the spotlight on a lot of this album, his footprints are all over the place, especially when you factor in how much of the YMO spirit lives on within everyone else in the group.
Anyway, to get straight to the point: Meta is the best album any of these guys have been involved with in a long time, with the members of the band generally getting the best out of each other. It’s livelier than Takahashi’s albums, hookier than Imai’s, and contains less filler than Towa’s. Most importantly, it doesn’t feel like a throwback – sure, there’s always one eye on the past, but as a whole the album sounds very modern. Despite how jam packed these songs are it still feels like there are many avenues left to explore, and with six capable songwriters in the band it wouldn’t be surprising if they finished another album quickly. Let’s hope this is just a beginning.