This won’t be a typical CD review, so let’s get this out of the way first – Nuxx’s Sound Ache is a really really good album. Not a great album, because certain songs tend to drag and the group’s debut includes two undeniable air balls in the form of “I Said ‘No'” (sample lyrics: “laziness, corruption, drug addiction, anger, selfism, immorality.” Lead singer ecco goes on to list a plethora of other social woes on the Mega Church speaking agenda) and the too-long snorer “Night Seeing.” In a proper review, these two misfires would warrant an entire paragraph to themselves. But that’s not how this particular write-up is going to go. To sum it up for those just wanting to know whether to buy this album or not – you should.
It wouldn’t matter if Sound Ache came into the world a perfect album or even a mediocre one, because the album’s very existence (and fact it doesn’t outright suck) validates one of the most thrilling musical scenes in Japan right now. Though lacking a snappy, blogable name, I’ll go with “techrock” as that’s the name used for the live series put on by scene figureheads √thumm and Nuxx, featuring young turks like Dambo, EeL and SQUASH. The characteristics of “techrock” are: club-friendly electronics clashing with traditional pop structure, often Auto-tuned vocals and absolute monster hooks designed to be as catchy as possible. Most of the scene seems to originate from the Kansai region…Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Kobe. It’s one of the best under-the-radar movements happening in Japan right now. Sound Ache showcases every reason this burgeoning genre deserves attention in one package.
Though it isn’t the first album to highlight the sound. Last year saw two important releases for the young sound – √thumm released the highly enjoyable Coton, one of the best albums I heard from any part of the world in 2009 and still the best “techrock” album to this point. The other pivotal release was a five-song EP from Osaka trio Bang Bang Balloon that hinted at where the scene could go. Now for the big reveal…Bang Bang Balloon became Nuxx following a name change, and most of that obscure EP’s song appears on Sound Ache in slightly polished forms.
If Coton was the artistic triumph and Bang Bang Balloon the blueprint, Sound Ache functions as techrock’s infomercial. And not just because this album managed to wriggle it’s way next to the Ke$ha display at my nearby Tower Records. You want a constant flow of pure pop pleasure? Album opener “PL<YBUTTON" waits for you, less a song and more one sweeping hook bathing over you. Looking for dance tracks with absolutely triumphant choruses? Look no further than "Runner's High" and "Am I Free?" Call now and get some great slow songs absolutely free of charge.
Techrock's two biggest points of reference are the original techno-pop band Yellow Magic Orchestra and modern day J-Pop juggernauts Perfume. YMG's influence comes out on the electronic-heavy composition side (it should be noted the "rock" aspect of "techrock" isn't really prevalent in the sound, but rather in attitude, more on that later), but it's the touch of dancey pop that keeps groups like Nuxx from sounding like programming homework. The best Perfume tracks foresake complexity in favor of simply piling ear-pleasing noises as high as they can go, emphasis on what the singing sounds like and not what is being said. They are shots of joy worried about nothing else. Nuxx do both these sides of techrock very well – credit goes to production side of ize-mac and Gun-Hiroshi for constructing these songs in so all the electronics never feel like an overload. They also deserve praise for their handling of Sound Ache’s slower tracks, lifted from potential ballad doldrums by the digital flourishes (those intergalactic squiggles on “Ache!” that rising series of blips on “Under Leaves!”) they fit in. They also took Bang Bang Balloon-era holdover “Kaede” and transformed it from a sparse, chilled-out piece of atmosphere into a blooming electronic garden where everything just sprouts at the perfect time, leading to one of the album’s strongest tracks.
Ultimately, though, it’s the pure pop side of things that make Sound Ache so irresistible. If ize-mac and Gun-Hiroshi win points for creating the sounds of Nuxx, lead singer ecco deserves praise for lending the music soul. Her Auto-tuned vocals – Sound Ache also works as evidence for the pro vocal-manipulation camp, as I can’t picture unaltered voices running alongside the music – bounce and surge like dancefloor staples from the 90s…think Alice Deejay or Underworld, where the band presumably takes their name from. Just listen to the chorus of “Runner’s High” or “Am I Free?” Or better yet, listen to every second of the propulsive “Journey To The West,” the album’s best song and right up there with √thumm’s “Magic Love” as a scene defining anthem. Nuxx, and techrock for that matter, is just plain fun and there isn’t anything wrong with that, especially when done so well.
The actual sonic content of Sound Ache explains the “tech” part of techrock clearly, but the “rock” aspect takes some digging to get at and really only exists in the spirit of the music. Think of rock bands, garage rock, rock bands recording music in their garage, desperately trying to sound like the rock outfits on the radio. Or look at a group like The Tough Alliance, two gangly Swedish kids pretending to be international popstars. Or Toro Y Moi, basically recreating cheesy hits of the 80s from his bedroom. What “rock” here really refers to is trying to take popular music and make it your own. Nuxx look at chart darlings like Perfume or MEG and try to become them, they just lack the major label backing and refuse to let that stop them. Can’t hire a renowned producer? Make it yourself. Can’t sing like a diva? Here’s some Auto-tune, now you sound great. Despite the clean pop sound, techrock couldn’t be more DIY and daring. That’s the reason it’s worth your time, and why Sound Ache signals something important.