Akatsuki “Ensemble Stars! Album Series Akatsuki” (Review)

Akatsuki bring the beauty of traditional Japanese music to the spotlight through the evocative “Ensemble Stars! Album Series Akatsuki“.

The unit consists of Yuichiro Umehara, Shinnichiro Kamio and Keisuke Kaminaga.

Title: Ensemble Stars! Album Series Akatsuki
Label: Pony Canyon
Release date: 27/06/2018
Genre: Traditional/Rock/Jazz

Tracklist:

01.百花繚乱、紅月夜
02.花燈の恋文
03.斬 -決意ノ刃-
04.薄紅色の約束
05.想ひ出綴り
06.祭夜絵巻
07.剣戟の舞
08.茜路の邂逅(Keito Hasumi solo)
09.Crimson Soul(Kuro Kiryo solo)
10.謳歌絢爛青春華(Souma Kanzaki solo)

Track by track analysis:

01.百花繚乱、紅月夜

Hyakka Ryouran, Kurenai Tsukiyo kicks off this album with an exciting rock tune. Electric guitars and the shamisen share the spotlight for this tune. The song starts off in a traditional note, through the playful shamisen melodies and builds up from there with the help of shakuhachi, a solid bass line and fast paced drums, into an energetic rock tune with the fusion of traditional elements. There’s no shortage of entertainment in this song, especially when we’re presented with exciting solos by both the guitars and the shamisen, as well as an overall upbeat, Japanese summer festival vibe.

On the vocal end, Akatsuki‘s members can hold their own pretty well. Yuichiro Umehara is by far the most consistent and complete singer out of the trio. His performance matched the tone of the song and his vibrato and precision added an extra spice to this song. Keisuke Kaminaga is incredibly reliable, owner of a sweet, vibrato-ed mid-tone and able to tackle this song with ease. The only weakness on this song came from Shinnichiro Kamio‘s performance. In comparison to other performances with this group, his performances paled. He didn’t have the power nor the energy to fit this song and, more than once, his performances almost broke the pacing of the song. Aside from this Hyakka Ryouran, Kurenai Tsukiyo is a solid opening song for this album. 4/5

02.花燈の恋文

There’s a slight change of tone for this song. Instead of loud guitar riffs and a fast paced beat, Hana Akari no Koibumi bets on a quieter sound, to let all the splendor of the shamisen and shakuhachi’s melodies shine. Those two instruments are responsible for adding a delicate yet melancholic tone to this song. However there’s something else to this instrumental, a danceable-edge if you might say so. The addition of a splashy drum beat and a noticeable bass line made the instrumental sound more upbeat. While guitars aren’t necessarily on the spotlight, those still are found in the chorus as well as in the second verse.

Akatsuki are all on the same page for this performance. Everyone fit the tone and pacing of the song, at the same time that their individual parts were, one after the other, catchy and consistent. This is a great collective performance. 5/5

03.斬 -決意ノ刃-

Guitars mark their return to this album through Zan -Ketsui no Yaiba-. However this isn’t a rock song unlike anything we got with the album’s opener. Jazz elements are found throughout the instrumental, be it with the blues-y guitar, the groovy contrabass or just the way the playful way in which the drums are being played. Those elements mixed with the traditional touch of the shamisen and shakuhachi make a unique soundscape that is classy, traditional and, most importantly, unique.

For this song, Akatsuki tapped into their groovy side to deliver an entertaining performance that would fit the playful jazz vibe that the instrumental exudes. Umehara and Kaminaga went all out with their performances, adding another layer of fun and class to this song. Kamio might have not stood out as much as his peers but still delivered a solid performance. The blend of jazz and traditional Japanese music plus the all rounded vocal performances make this song stand out. 5/5

04.薄紅色の約束 

Usubeniiro no Yakusoku mixes the power of rock music with the timeless beauty of traditional Japanese instrumentalization. The bass line is one of the main elements for this song, being a leading force that set the tone and, at the same time, stole the spotlight from all instruments with its groovy melodies. The instrumental counts with fast paced, bass-drum driven drums, electric guitar riffs and licks and, from the traditional side, a blend of chimes, strings, shamisen and shakuhachi that will leave the listener in awe. The instrumental is well put together, some times leaning more towards acid jazz territory (noticeable with the focus put on the bass and melodic guitar riffs) rather than just rock (in its rawness and simplicity). Akatsuki‘s performance is lyrical and dramatic in the verses, and explodes in emotion and energy in the addictive chorus. Their harmonies matched the beauty of traditional music and their emotional performance in the chorus made the song one of the best in this album. 5/5

05.想ひ出綴り

A delicate harp melody sets the tone for this quiet dance track. The instrumental counts with one of the grooviest bass lines in Akatsuki‘s repertoire. It’s impossible to not be affected by its danceable and funky touch to this instrumental. Enriching this instrumental are also snare-y drums, shamisen and shakuhachi. Guitars might not be the main focus for this song, mainly playing in the background to add a deeper, rawer touch to the instrumental, but those still leave their mark in this song, mainly through an exciting solo. The instrumental is addictive, mainly thanks to shamisen’s playful melodies and the groovy bass line that grabs the listener’s attention within its first notes.

This song counts with interesting work on the vocal end. Canons and harmonies are at center stage for this performance. The group showcased great teamwork and consistency. Individually, Kaminaga and Kamio‘s performances seem to lack, at times, some connection with this song. As a whole, Omoide Tsuzuri has an interesting approach to the mix between dance and traditional Japanese music, ending up being an extremely addictive tune with some of the best vocals in this album. 5/5

06.祭夜絵巻

[As previously reviewed] Forget all about electric guitars or even anything jazz related as this song is nothing alike the previous one. The best way to describe this song is most likely: a traditional Japanese song. This is the kind of song that you’d hear on a traditional street festival. The shamisen takes over Matsuri Yoru Emaki, with its melodies being the core to the instrumental. Adding to it are snare-y drums, shakuhachi and a noticeable bass line. But if this instrumental is too “traditional” for your tastes or seems a little bit by the book, don’t worry. There are minimal glitchy synths in the background giving an odd 8-bit touch to the instrumental. For the most part though, it prides itself in being minimalistic and traditional. The vocals are clean but lack the quality we got on the previous track. Umehara stood out once again with the way he tackled his parts. He was adding flourishes everywhere – something that still feels unusual coming from him. All around interesting performance that lacked a bit in the vocal department. 4/5

07.剣戟の舞

[As previously reviewed剣戟の舞 (Kengeki no Mai) is the embodiment of fun and class at the same time, the kind of sound you’d find being played at a Jazz club. Brass, delicate piano melodies, contrabass, hi-hat drums and blues-y guitar riffs are at the core of this mid-tempo instrumental. Everything, from pacing to progression, works incredibly well. Although we’ve mentioned that this is a jazz tune you don’t need to expect a slow-paced take on the genre. This instrumental’s pacing and progression makes the song a bundle of fun. The verses are energetic and the chorus grabs the listener’s attention. If there’s something a jazz song needs is a saxophone. There’s nothing like listen to a dazzling melody while enjoying and absorbing everything from the instrumental. Luckily, this instrumental follows the jazz basics – at least to some extent – and brings the saxophone into play. All of this to say that those saxophone and guitar solos in the outro were pure bliss. On the vocal end we have everyone Akatsuki giving their all for this performance. Kamio and Kaminaga brought to the table control and stunning harmonizations. While the performance as a whole was consistent and entertaining, we need to give credit to whom credit is due, the force to reckon with, Yuichiro UmeharaUmehara taking the lead and having a go at high notes, melodic sections (and delivering those with emotion), adding some vibrato, all this while displaying an astounding control over his vocals impressed us. Fun, rich instrumental with skillful vocal performances on top. The perfect way to kick off this release. 5/5

08.茜路の邂逅

Akatsuki kick off their solo corner with Keito Hasumi‘s solo song, Akaneji no Kaikou. A melancholic piano melody leads the way for this slow paced ballad but it’s actually the shakuhachi that steals the show with its longing, distant melodies in the background. Those melodies have a beauty and grandiosity that took this ballad to a whole other level of emotion. The instrumental counts as well with a simple drum beat, a noticeable bass line, shamisen, koto that help shaping this song into an ethereal experience for the listener.

Vocally, Yuichiro Umehara delivered a haunting performance. He tackled this song with such emotion that, at times, the performance will give you goosebumps. His vibrato and sweet mid-tone almost made it sound like he was lullabying the listener. It’s impressive how Umehara made this technical performance sound so effortless. Stunning work on both ends. Easily the best solo track in this release. 5/5

09.Crimson Soul

Fiery guitar riffs set the tone for this passionate rock tune. Crimson Soul, solo song by Kuro Kiryo, doesn’t spare anything when it comes to impressing the listener. Between raging guitar riffs, loud, double-bass driven drums, a noticeable bass line, a fast paced shamisen and dramatic shakuhachi, this instrumental is electrifying. The instrumental counts with two solos: one courtesy of the high-tension guitars and the other by the shakuhachi, the later being quite unusual, even by Akatsuki‘s standards.

Just like this instrumental, Shinnichiro Kamio‘s performance is filled with energy and power. Not only he held his own pretty well but he also made sure to impress with consistent mid-tones and a solid vibrato. Overall strong performance in one of the most exciting songs in this release. 5/5

10.謳歌絢爛青春華

The album wraps up with Souma Kanzaki‘s Ouka Kenran Seishunka, a song that brings to the table a “matsuri” inspired sound courtesy of the lively blend of shakuhachi and shamisen, mixing it with rock elements, mainly fast paced guitar riffs, snare-y drums and a playful bass line, to create this upbeat tune. Just like the previous song, this one goes by incredibly fast however, when the song ends, I got the feeling that a lot was happening but nothing really struck me as noteworthy. While aware that not all songs need to be highlights to be good, this one just essentially failed to impress. It’s just more of the same and comparing with the other two solo tracks that had slightly different vibes, this one didn’t bring anything new to the table. Keisuke Kaminaga has solid mid-to-low tones however, when tackling higher notes or falsetto, he sounds awkward – it didn’t necessarily ruin his performance but it’s a point that stands out at critical times. All in all, this is an entertaining tune. 4/5

Final rating:

Akatsuki follow their traditional theme by the book. Each song explores the beauty of traditional Japanese music, while playing around with with rock, jazz and dance music. Their songs are evocative and exciting without losing the character and class of traditional music.

When listening to their songs, the listener can’t help but to be taken into beautiful soundscapes, that of delicate sounds, intricate melodies, all with a characteristical musical approach. While it’s understandable that Akatsuki should have exciting songs on their repertoire, it’s songs like Keito Hasumi’s Akaneji no Kaikou that make their music stand out for its beauty. This is the most traditional song – if we may call it that way – found in this release. This is the kind of music that, for some, would make Akatsuki a tedious act but for others, particularly passionate about traditional Japanese music, rave about and thoroughly enjoy a quieter, emotional and haunting set of performances that would actually work better with the trio’s mid-to-low toned vocals.

However, that’s not the group’s direction as it is noticeable with the introduction of fast paced rock tunes such as Hyakka Ryouran, Kurenai TsukiyoUsubeniiro no Yakusoku and Kuro Kiryo’s Crimson Soul, dance music in Omoide Tsuzuri or even their jazz-rock approach with Hana Akari no KoibumiZan -Ketsui no Yaiba- or Kengeki no MaiMatsuri Yoru Emaki and Souma Kanzaki’s Ouka Kenran Seishunka brought to the table, matsuri-inspired songs that, although they are the epitome of traditional Japanese music, are way too overused nowadays, making those far from a highlight or a novelty.

There are some gems in this album that we’d thoroughly recommend: Usubeniiro no YakusokuKengeki no MaiOmoide Tsuzuri and Keito Hasumi’s Akaneji no Kaikou. These were the songs that instantly impressed while listening to this album.

Although far from being a perfect album, Akatsuki‘s first album is filled with entertaining songs with a traditional edge and rich instrumentalization, making it a release worth checking out.

Ensemble Stars! Album Series Akatsuki” is available for purchase at CDJAPAN.

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