WagakkiBand is an eight-member J-pop-rock hybrid entertainment group that produces songs that blend elements of the traditional arts shigin – a form of reciting poetry as a performance – with music performed on Japanese and Western musical instruments. The band dropped a cover album of songs originally created using vocaloid software called Vocalo Zanmai 2 on Aug. 17, the eighth anniversary of the band’s debut.
WagakkiBand became famous for its live performance video covering the song “Senbonzakura”, a now ubiquitous track created by vocaloid music producer Kurousa-P using the vocaloid software Hatsune Miku. The cover fell Jan. 31, 2014 and quickly garnered views not only in the group’s home country but also among viewers abroad. The group’s rendition of “Senbonzakura” using Japanese and Western instruments helped publicize the existence of vocaloid music domestically and the existence of traditional Japanese performing arts abroad. Eight years after its release, the video has received more than 150 million views.
Another key element that increased the group’s popularity was its major-label debut album called Vocalo Zanmai, released in April 2014. The project covered a total of 12 songs, including vocaloid tracks that the band had previously performed live. Vocalo Zanmai reached no. 45 on Billboard Japan Hot Albums chart, No. 5 on the Weekly Sales Chart and No. 4 on the iTunes Albums Chart. Although the band now produces original pop-rock music with traditional Japanese influences, it has always had strong ties to vocaloid music. WagakkiBand has steadily built its presence over the years, including various tie-ins with anime series and commercials, appearances on domestic television programs, and numerous shows outside Japan.
Frontwoman Yuko Suzuhana shares the meaning of the figure of eight and the members’ decision to release a cover album at this time: “The name of our official fan club is ‘Shin Yaeryu’ with the figure of eight (in the Japanese kanji characters). We attach great importance to we’re an eight piece band, so we’ve always discussed the possibility of doing something for our eight year anniversary. Vocalo Zanmai 2 at some point was another thing we had always discussed, and with vocaloid music becoming popular again today, we thought it would be the perfect time to do it.”
The band members chose the songs for their latest covers album based on a list of vocaloid tracks from the past few years, written by Machiya (guitar & vocals) and Asa (bass), who are keen listeners of the genre. Two songs that stand out among the covers included in the compilation are “Phony”, a track originally released by vocaloid producer Tsumiki on June 5, 2021, which currently has over 24 million video views, and “Marshall Maximizer” by Hiiragi Magnetite, a breakout producer whose “Shuuen touhikou” won first place in the rookie category at The VOCALOID Collection 2020 Winter event in Dec. 2020. The original version of “Marshall Maximizer” was released on Aug. 21, 2021.
The original recordings of both these songs feature Kafu, the new voice synthesis software developed by the CeVIO Project, and not its predecessors such as Hatsune Miku, GUMI and v flower, which use the singing synthesis engine developed by Yamaha. Released on July 7, 2021, Kafu was developed based on the voice of the real “virtual” singer Kafu (written differently in Japanese), and is characterized by a singing voice that is closer to a real human voice than the previous vocaloid software. . Many vocaloid producers started incorporating it into their own tracks simultaneously, making Kafu one of the leading voice synthesizers since its release last year.
Since 2019, the trend of vocaloid producers featuring real-life singers on their tracks – Kujira was one of the first to produce hits in this format – has expanded their range of expressions, and Kafu became another tool that improved their expressive abilities without using actual people. In other words, “Phony” and “Marshall Maximizer” are tracks that represent the evolution of the Japanese vocaloid scene.
The selection of songs in WagakkiBand’s latest cover collection also aligns with current vocaloid trends, with far fewer songs with Japanese musical influences. Most of the songs on the group’s debut album were Japanese-inspired in style, but this time there is only one called “Akahitoha,” a track originally released by Kurousa-P (of “Senbonzakura” fame) in February . 2008.
This is because the current trend in vocaloid music is focused on EDM, hip-hop and other western oriented music. “Japanese-style music was mainstream (in the vocaloid genre) at the time (of the band’s debut album), but most of the newer songs are fast dance music-like rhythm tracks of about 2 minutes and 40 seconds in length,” explains Machiya. So we didn’t feel the need to choose songs with Japanese musical influence this time.”
In other words, with tracks originally created using CeVIO AI’s Kafu and songs influenced by Western musical trends, Vocalo Zanmai 2 can be said to be an interesting indicator of where the current vocaloid scene is headed.
Another important point is that Suzuhana does not use her characteristic way of singing – influenced by her background as shigin master — as much as she does on the band’s other songs. Instead, she flexibly changes her voice for each track, making the songs more accessible to teenagers unfamiliar with Japanese-style music.
In the current WagakkiBand, Suzuhana felt more comfortable using different voices for each song and expressing herself more freely without being too trapped by formalities. “I really felt the need to make an impression at first, so I started by trying to get people to know me instead of singing the way I like to sing,” she explains. “So on (our debut album) I made sure to bring the technique shigin vocalization in all the songs. But after releasing our original songs and experimenting with different genres of music, I reached a point where I felt I could express myself freely. Being able to think like that is how I’ve changed as a vocalist.”
The purpose of the band’s major debut album, Vocalo Zanmaiwas to create the existence of the group – with members playing exclusively wagakkitraditional Japanese musical instruments – widely known to the public, so the album naturally focused on Japanese-style music and showcased it as a defining feature.
Wadaiko (Japanese drums) percussionist Kurona notes that the group gradually settled into their current style through the process of producing a few albums. “Around the time of our third album Shikisai, Machiya began to play a central role in drawing up blueprints (for the band’s sound),” he says. “And we became very conscious of creating a single sound with the eight of us. I think the culmination of this process is Vocalo Zanmai 2.”
IN Vocalo Zanmai 2, the sound of each instrument, whether Japanese or Western, is made to stand on its own. By minimizing the traditional Japanese style and using fewer notes, the individuality of each sound was made more apparent, demonstrating the importance of each musician and their instrument. The result is an album that expresses the joy of being a group composed of the eight members of WagakkiBand. Even some throwback tracks like 164’s “ama no jaku” (aka “A Born Coward”) from 2012 and Mikito-P’s “1 2 Fan Club” from 2013 have been reinterpreted into a more contemporary sound. WagakkiBand doesn’t dwell on the past; they look to the future.
The rise of the short video-sharing platform TikTok among teenagers has also played a big role in the overall trend towards more compact songs, and vocaloid tracks of around two minutes have increased in the past few years. The traces represent this trend on Vocalo Zanmai 2 are “Identity” by Kanaria and “Dokuzu” by Nakisono, the latter included as a bonus track on the album’s digital edition.
“It’s not just limited to vocaloid music,” notes Suzuhana. “J-pop songs generally get shorter like the tracks from other countries, but there’s still that A melody, B melody and chorus. So we think audiences overseas will find the development of the short songs on our new album surprising and entertaining. The Japanese flavor is still present in the short songs, so I hope we can convey to people overseas that these are the trendy songs in Japan today.”
While the project is positioned as a sequel to the group’s debut set, the new album reveals a completely different sound and attitude to the band’s music. With Vocalo Zanmai 2WagakkiBand is entering a new phase of its career.
– This article by Mio Komachi first appeared on Billboard Japan