2015 in music: Far on the Water

Aaand…now for something new. Released shortly after the CD version (and right around the time of my other most-anticipated album of 2015, but more on that later), I now have the limited vinyl edition of Kalafina’s latest full-length: Far on the Water. Their last two singles had been given the analogue treatment, so I was hopeful that their next LP would be released in the same way…and here it is.

The artwork is the most “minimalist” of their albums so far, but it still looks great in full 12″-sized format with the discs in plastic inner sleeves accompanied by a large lyric sheet. Going on my previous experiences with Japanese vinyl releases (Praparat and Noise by Boris and Level3 by Perfume, for those curious) this is pretty standard, and I can’t fault the quality either. The discs are plain black vinyl with no sign of scratches or warping, and sound excellent on a decent home hi fi setup. Because it’s an album produced in today’s CD-dominated era, the track listing is too long for one vinyl disc so it’s split across two…which gave the ideal opportunity to package it in a gatefold sleeve with more photo artwork inside.

I may as well get my major criticism out of the way now. In theory, all the singles released since their last full-length should be featured on here. Except, they aren’t. Anyone who wants Kimi no Gin no Niwa or Alleluia are going to be as disappointed as I was that they’ll have to buy either the “Red” and “Blue” Best Of compilations (in typical music industry tradition, they are split across both for maximum customer purchase incentive. Thanks for that, Sony) or the singles themselves.

We do however get the other four post-Consolation singles: Heavenly Blue, Believe, Ring Your Bell and One Light. Many fans I’ve spoken to don’t rate the first two very highly, and I feel inclined to agree: they’re just generic-sounding theme songs written for TV shows rather than a stand-alone LP. Of course, anime soundtracks are what the band was founded on, but these two sound rather “ordinary” and similar to one another. The latter two are an improvement though, and despite sharing the “tie-in” vibe they’re considerably more enjoyable.

The inner gatefold artwork (click for full size)

The good news is, the new songs recorded for the album itself are much better. I suspect that the songwriter Yuki Kajiura hasn’t been suffering from writer’s block because these (and, interestingly, the b-sides of their singles) are among the strongest in their back catalogue so far.

By which I mean it works well as a cohesive album. The intro track Into the Water gets the listener into the mood with the Sigur Rós-style fictional language “Kajiura-go” chanting, concluding with an abrupt coda that I assume alludes to the title in evoking the sensation of diving into the drink with a splash.

This is followed by Monochrome, which really grows on you after a listen or two. The brisk percussion and vocal melodies have a Middle-Eastern atmosphere, while the accordion adds a European folk flavour. They’re really doing what they do best here: experimenting and exploring what can be done in terms of unusual “world music” instruments and arrangements when added to the standard rock/pop formula (hey, it worked for Talking Heads).

Another case in point is Usumurasaki, which uses a swaying time signature that I’m pretty sure isn’t standard 4/4, along with a strings section providing a brooding backing harmony to the opera-inspired vocals. Wakana’s singing style is particularly dramatic and “violin-like”, so fits this type of song perfectly.

Another personal highlight is the storming up-tempo Identify, which may not topple the old fan fave Ongaku from live set lists, but will I’m sure sound every bit as blistering in a concert setting as it does on record. Keiko takes the lead vocal duties with Hikaru adding her delightfully expressive brightness in the verses; Koichi Korenaga provides the hard rock guitar with some stadium-sized “one foot on the stage monitor” solos. Fun. ^_^

Perhaps my only other criticism of the album, apart from “why did Believe and Heavenly Blue have to be on here when the vinyl format doesn’t let me skip them?” is that Keiko’s vocal contributions are rather limited, so it doesn’t showcase her full potential. Her unique and resonant contralto adds some extra energy and vitality to Identify but is somewhat downplayed elsewhere on the album.

The discs and lyric sheet (click for full size)

That’s not to say that their brighter and softer songs are lacking. In a similar way to their most recent singles, Gogatsu no Mahou is probably closer to mainstream pop, but it’s undeniably pleasant despite sticking to the standard verse-chorus-verse structure. Sometimes though, less is more: the tender ballad Hokage has just a piano and string quartet as accompaniment, and is no less effective and moving.

Musunde Hiraku is in the brighter vein of Kalafina’s output and is a shining example of how the three vocalists’ efforts harmonise and work together to create something that we don’t often hear in contemporary “non-classical” music. Even so, the harp and acoustic guitar in Sorairo no Isu revisit the classically-inspired folk ballad approach that gives it a delightful timelessness.

The title track follows the band’s own tradition of wrapping things up with something gentle and/or uplifting, and allows you to walk away with a positive impression. At this point the roster of supporting musicians has found a good working dynamic thanks to recording and performing with this and the FictionJunction project, and all three of the vocalists sound better than they’ve ever done.

Unfortunately, two of their recent high-profile songs have been omitted while two others aren’t nearly as interesting and inspiring, which does let it down a little in terms of consistency. They’re still head-and-shoulders above most of their rivals, and it holds enough pleasant surprises to avoid being disappointing. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is to not judge a band purely on their singles.
Track listing

    Into the Water
    五月の魔法 (Gogatsu no Mahou)
    Ring Your Bell
    うすむらさき (Usumurasaki)
    灯影 (Hokage)
    One Light
    むすんでひらく (Musunde Hiraku)
    Heavenly Blue
    空色の椅子 (Sorairo no Isu)
    Far on the Water