The sixth, and most likely final, entry in the I’ve Girls Compilation series finds the I’ve Special Unit and current production lineup all present, showing the most complete representation of the I’ve Sound group available on one disc. But how is it, musically? Read on to find out!
Various – I’ve Girls Compilation vol. 6: Collective (2005, Visual Art’s)
1. 島みやえい子 (Eiko Shimamiya) – Automaton
2. KOTOKO – Abyss
3. 川田まみ (Mami Kawada) – IMMORAL
4. 詩月カオリ (Kaori Utatsuki) – Do you know the magic?
5. MOMO – philosophy
6. KOTOKO – We Survive
7. MELL – Permit
8. KOTOKO – Lupe
9. SHIHO – Kiss the Future
10. MELL – Egen
11. Imaginary affair
12. 川田まみ – eclipse
13. KOTOKO – Trust You’re Truth ～明日を守る約束～ (Ashita o Mamoru Yakusoku)
14. KOTOKO – Collective
Prior to starting I’ve, Kazuya Takase was your typical DJ, thanklessly providing music for compilations put out by Dancemania and other similar institutions, doing music commercially when he got the chance and working club nights as a part-time job. Takase’s early works never made much of a splash in the then-overcrowded world of Eurobeat dance music, and his early compositions under aliases like WORM WORLD or F.T.K. have a tendency to blend in with the mess of similar music that was being made at the time; even his contribution (the unmemorable “IF YOU WERE HERE”) to the soundtrack of venerable rhythm-game juggernaut Dance Dance Revolution’s “2nd Mix” edition could just as easily have been made by Naoki Maeda, Junko Karashima or any number of his contemporaries. Music from this period remains interesting when examining the evolution of Takase as an artist, but due to its derivative nature it retains very little value when deprived of context.
Takase’s instincts as a businessman and aspirations for greater things, however, were present even before he started cranking out the Dancemania tunes for a week’s pay. Putting out vinyl and the occasional CD in appropriately limited editions on his own personal record label, the somewhat unfortunately-spelled “FUCTORY RECORDS” (the fascination with unfortunate misuses of the English language that eventually led to the sentence-destroying “I’ve” was also there from the beginning), he had a system in place that transitioned pleasingly into what would become the I’ve Sound brand. And, perhaps because he was fed up with the lack of creative control associated with genre-specific compilation releases or perhaps just feeling the time was right for FUCTORY RECORDS to prove itself as more than just a vanity label with a typically anemic release catalogue, Takase started up the “I’ve Sound” group in 1998, a self-contained unit that would handle background music and vocal theme production for the ‘visual novels’ that had been growing steadily in popularity as the hot trend of the time.
Up until I’ve, the majority of music in eroge was done in-house, with writers and programmers pulling double (or more) duty working on sound as well as other aspects of the game, and vocal themes for the games usually sung by the main voice actress. Because of this, Takase’s brand, which made its official debut in 1999 with the ZERO eroge “Hakidame -trASH-” (吐溜), had caught the attention of the prominent visual novel production company Visual Art’s, and after taking I’ve under their wing the company had given Takase enough work to release a compilation album (the first of the I’ve Girls Compilation series, “regret”) before the end of their first year in business. The exposure also landed Takase a spot arranging the theme songs for the now-classic visual novel Kanon, the first release from fledgling Visual Art’s sublabel Key that’s been so ridiculously popular it’s been made into a TV anime twice.
As time progressed, I’ve grew into more than just Takase’s pet project, and a roster of producers and vocalists began to solidify. Now-familiar names like Tomoyuki Nakazawa or C.G mix started to appear in liner notes and on song credits, and the vocal lineup became less arbitrary with each passing year. The scope of operations expanded as well, with production no longer limited to work for often-trashy pornographic software, but rather including vocal themes and BGM for anime. Vocalists KOTOKO and Mami Kawada sung the opening and ending themes, respectively, for the Bandai Visual anime Please (Onegai in the Japanese release) Teacher in 2002, and in 2004 the group signed to anime production company Geneon’s record label.
Moving a large part of their focus from production for the visual novels (or ‘eroge’ as it’s more convenient to refer to them as) to anime, I’ve signing to Geneon was a massively significant move, but when the sixth I’ve Girls Compilation album rolled around in 2005 there were still a good deal of eroge songs to draw from for its tracklisting.
In analyzing Collective, an important consideration is that of its context. The album’s release preceded I’ve’s historic group performance at the Nippon Budokan, in which they became first eroge-related act to hold a show there, by less than a month, and also came shortly after the release of KOTOKO’s second full-length album, Eiko Shimamiya’s first and a number of maxi-singles for I’ve’s star vocalists KOTOKO and Mami Kawada. The group’s modus operandi had noticeably shifted from a purely eroge-focused ideology to one more in tune with the less extreme world of anime music, and even though Collective is drawn entirely from eroge, it’s hard not to detect a sense of commercialism to the music that was comparatively lacking with contrast to earlier compilation efforts.
Yet, tempting as it may be to write such changes off as ‘selling out’, the commercial approach works in many ways to Collective’s advantage. With the exception of an uncharacteristically lo-fi misfire with SHIHO’s “Kiss the Future” (a track that was some 4 years old by the time Collective was released), the songs maintain a higher level of complexity than the collective had previously been known for: the bare-bones beats of the Dancemania era were gone for good, and in their place we get a number of layered compositions like few that had came before. Sophistication became the new word of the day for Takase’s merry band, and it pays off beautifully.
Eiko Shimamiya, a vocal teacher directly responsible for bringing three of her star pupils into the Love Planet five fold (MELL being the only vocalist in the group not trained by Eiko), proves an apt choice for opening the sixth (and final?) I’ve Girls Compilation. Her rockish “Automaton” marked the start of a new direction for the traditionally more reserved singer, power chords on electric guitars driving what was undoubtedly the heaviest song Eiko had sung at that point. Looking back on the song with today’s perspective, it’s not hard to see Automaton as a prototype of sorts for her much-lauded Higurashi themes: and, while Automaton might seem light even when compared to certain other songs on the album, the guitars were a pretty radical departure from the piano and synth strings that had been Shimamiya’s bread and butter in her previous 5 years with I’ve. She wasn’t the only I’ve girl to deviate from the norm on Collective, but definitely did so in the most immediately striking manner.
Directly following up Eiko in the tracklisting comes the unstoppable force of nature that is KOTOKO: and, as with Shimamiya, she’s picked up a few new tricks since OUT FLOW. “Abyss” finds the Takase/KOTOKO duo bringing in some of the hard-trance magic that made KOTOKO’s Geneon Records debut Re-sublimity so memorable, boasting one of the loudest synth loops in I’ve history and an 808 drumbeat as dancefloor-ready as anything in the I’ve back catalogue. The song’s breathy vocals were another new for KOTOKO, sounding more slinky and seductive than hyperactively cute for once. Some of her other contributions to the compilation falter, such as the warmed-over melodrama of “Imaginary affair”, which sounds for all the world like an even-lamer retread of Disintegration low-point “I can’t get over your best smile”, or the good-but-not-great C.G mix cut “We Survive” (which is one of only two songs on the compilation from C.G mix, as his material from this period was mostly being saved up for SHORT CIRCUIT II), but a couple missteps aren’t enough to ruin an otherwise-perfect dance routine.
Unsurprisingly, it was KOTOKO that was given the title track for Collective, and her industrial-flavoured rocker for the title track does not disappoint. Sounding for all the world like a hi-fi update of one of her songs as Outer, KOTOKO’s Collective is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the album, and the meanest song in the compilation series both for the music and its gruesome lyrical content. The return to her grimy punk persona, albeit under a different name than when she recorded early-career greats like Synthetic Organism, marks yet another way in which Collective shows I’ve coming full-circle: not only is “the gang” all here far as producers and vocalists go, but old styles intermingle with the new ones almost flawlessly.
…However, the operative word in that sentence is ‘almost‘. Standing out amongst the tracklisting and marking an uncharacteristically jarring transition between songs is SHIHO’s ancient relic of a song “Kiss the Future”, aforementioned as being the oldest track on the compilation and a horribly awkward example of just the kind of music I’ve was past making when Collective’s tracklisting was compiled. Composed by Takase yet given a needlessly cheesy and strangely lo-fi arrangement by C.G mix, the fact that the song functioned more or less as the farewell to talented vocalist SHIHO makes it a bit of a sentimental disappointment in addition to a more basic musical one: as bad as the other songs might get, none quite match up to Kiss the Future’s special flavour of awful.
Speaking of awful, future non-favourite producer Maiko Iuchi makes her compilation debut with Collective, albeit working under the name “Miu Uetsu” rather than her present moniker (which one, if either, is her real name is currently unknown). Neither her typically-garish Kaori Utatsuki denpa-lite track “Do you know the magic?” nor her attempt at emulating C.G mix’s mech-show groove with “Egen” manages to impress, and just like a horrible reversal of the case with Automaton, one can see the prototype for Virgin’s high! quite clearly in Egen.
Making up for Egen, however, is MELL’s other contribution to Collective. “Permit” finds her striking an unusual but somehow appropriate alt-country stance that somehow works to be one of the best songs on the album. Sung entirely in only somewhat-garbled English, “Permit” is both the only song on the album without I’ve’s traditional electronics and the only country ballad in the entire I’ve Sound repertoire. Big and emotional while avoiding Celine Dion comparisons (albeit somewhat narrowly), it’s a welcome change of pace both for MELL and the album, and a possible indicator that I’ve songs need more fingerpicked guitar solos. Takeshi Ozaki, take heed.
Future heavyweight Mami Kawada fails to make too much of an impression with her twin songs on the album: “eclipse” is pleasant enough, but early-album low point IMMORAL finds arranger/composer Tomoyuki Nakazawa stuck in an uncomfortably generic rut; while many of Collective’s best songs show the groundwork for the best of I’ve’s latter-day work being laid, IMMORAL is a more obvious predecessor to the uninteresting songs Maiko Iuchi seems to be all too skilled at pumping out whenever a new eroge comes along. Saying the song is bad might be a bit unduly harsh, but there’s no denying that when compared with the rest of Collective it’s more than a bit of a letdown.
Similarly uninspiring is “philosophy”, the wonderfully talented MOMO’s disappointingly restrained swan song. Her previous compilation efforts were characterized by an energy and intensity that few of the other girls seemed willing or able to deliver, while philosophy chooses largely to go against type and play it safe. Much like the rest of the album’s misfires (save for Egen) it’s still serviceable, but that’s more because MOMO never really had a bad song in her than due to any merit of the composition. Previous compilations managed to produce some wonderfully compelling ballads, but it was a sign of the times that Collective’s biggest failures come almost exclusively when things get slowed down.
The I’ve Girls Compilation albums, while on the surface being simple collections of eroge music, really function best as an evolving portrait of Kazuya Takase as an artist: through their 6 volumes, one can track the man’s progress from late-wave Eurobeat DJ working the musical equivalent of a 9-to-5 to arguably the most influential producer in all of eroge music. And, as collaborators enter the scene, it’s not hard to see Takase’s influence working its way through them either. The ‘denpa’ style first introduced by Tomoyuki Nakazawa with 恋愛CHU！ (Ren’ai CHU!)’s famous opening theme had obvious roots in Takase’s early work, to use a popular example, and the old adage about judging a man by the company he keeps holds exceptionally true when looking over the I’ve compilation albums. No matter how many people might end up joining the fold, I’ve is Takase, and Takase is I’ve. The questionable choices (bringing Geneon stooge Maiko Iuchi into I’ve, for one), the brilliant ones (bringing Eiko Shimamiya’s students KOTOKO, Kaori Utatsuki and Mami Kawada on board), the choices nobody will ever understand (producing the COWPOKES album), as long as they’re a part of I’ve, they’re a part of him.
With this in mind, the Takase as of Collective is not too much unlike a successful businessman who’s just hired a number of his closest friends. While some of them (Iuchi, C.G mix) don’t perform all that well, you can tell that it’s a tightly-knit collective, and there’s a sense of closure to it as well: that the title track ending the album recalls ideas of what the material Takase was recording with his Judas Priest cover band might have sounded like, bringing things back to even before his DJing days, shows that he knows he’s come full circle. We know now who he is, so thus the compilation series ends.