Anticipated with bated breath by some and outright dreaded by others, KOTOKO’s fourth solo album was one of those releases that made fans forget what else came out this year through the sheer, overwhelming force of its presence. And, really, what else did come out this year? Nothing that matters quite as much as Epsilon, that much is certain. But is it any good? Read on to find out.
KOTOKO – イプシロンの方舟 (Epsilon no Fune) (2009, Geneon Universal)
2. リアル鬼ごっこ (Real Onigokko)
5. 雨とギター (Ame to Guitar)
6. 限界打破 (Genkai Daha)
7. モネラの絆 (Monera no Kizuna)
8. ハヤテのごとく！ (Hayate no Gotoku!)
13. LITTLE BABY NOTHING (with Kazuya Takase)
As of late, the once-great KOTOKO has been known more for consistently failing to live up to expectations than for entertaining musical output, squandering the limited goodwill earned by her too-few exceptional singles with mediocre-at-best releases like this year’s unfortunate daily-daily Dream. When you add her spotty track record to an unfortunate aversion to going outside her comfort zone that would in better years be anathema to the once-eclectic vocalist, it’s easy to see why fans have been less than pleased with KOTOKO recently. Her fourth solo album, Epsilon no Fune, doesn’t by any means undo all of her wrongs, but it gives one hell of a go at it, and in many ways it’s worth it just to hear KOTOKO try again.
From the beginning of the title track, it’s apparent that Epsilon no Fune is an album preaching to the converted. Epsilon sounds like a 5-year-old KOTOKO song, and those who were listening to KOTOKO 5 years ago will probably find a lot to like in its trance-lite production, while the initiate is more likely to wonder what’s with the complete tonal change during the chorus. And those initiates will probably remain confused throughout the whole album, as the whole experience is a lot heavier on I’ve’s very specific set of clichés than any of their previous releases through Geneon. Naturally, the results are hit-and-miss, as some of I’ve’s clichés make for massively entertaining music, such as the requisite faux-industrial track RI←SU→KU, while others are merely things they did well once and kept sticking with for no obvious reason, like the requisite stillborn Maiko Iuchi track HELLION (a retread of Iuchi’s past successes seduce and Under Superstition that fails to live up to either).
Let’s talk about what works, first. Epsilon’s tracklisting has very few true disappointments, and it’s pretty easy to make it all the way through without getting the urge to press ‘skip’ more than maybe once or twice. Songs like the title track and -∞-DRIVE rank as her best work in years, and while she may be treading water with a lot of the album’s material, her form’s still brilliant enough to make the listener not necessarily care that, say, Genkai Daha might not be exactly spilling over with originality. The producers are doing what they do well, matching KOTOKO’s performance but never overwhelming it, and in the process making the first KOTOKO release since 2007 that counts as a more worthwhile investment than, say, setting your money on fire. Hell, they even managed to make previously-execrable B-side scene not suck as hard the second time ’round – as sure a sign as any that they’re actually capable of learning from their mistakes.
Of course, while the album’s good overall, there are a few flies in the ointment that couldn’t be ignored. Most-publicized of these has been the completely inexplicable Manic Street Preachers cover LITTLE BABY NOTHING, sung as a duet with producer Kazuya Takase in what probably works out to be the biggest “WTF?” moment in I’ve history. It’s with good reason that this one’s received the most attention, too: Takase abuses autotune more than C.G mix at his worst, KOTOKO’s English pronunciation is horrid, the arrangement fails to impress, and the original song sort of sucked to begin with. LITTLE BABY NOTHING basically has nothing going for it, unless you happen to think the novelty value of songs covered badly by Japanese musicians is just too much to resist; in which case, Pun-Colle is the same thing, but about a million times funnier. However, some of the album’s other mistakes are a bit harder to write off. Misguided anime song BLAZE‘s lameness hasn’t been dulled much by time, and the fact that it was put on the album while far-superior recent single snIpe got shafted is unfortunate in no small way. Similarly questionable was the decision to put Hayate no Gotoku! on the album instead of its superior follow-up Shichitenhakki*Shijoushugi, but unlike BLAZE it’s a forgivable substitution as Hayate isn’t actually a bad song.
Overall, Epsilon no Fune is, for a KOTOKO fan, quite a welcome new release. It offers absolutely nothing that her previous albums didn’t, and if you really want to be cynical you could probably note that it doesn’t offer anything that wasn’t on MELLSCOPE or SAVIA either, but for the quality-starved KOTOKO devotee, an album like this might as well be manna from heaven.