REVIEW: umbrella - Kinematograph

umbrella returns after having dropped Monochrome, a mini-album I saw fit to give the #3 visual-kei album of the year spot to in 2013. So, how has their sound, at times bordering on shoegaze, at other times quite standard visual-kei progressed?
Track List:
1. Lumiere
2. Keihaku na hito
3. Sky Fish
4. Tenohira drop
5. Zouka
6. Witch?
7. Bokutachi ga egaita panorama

I mention shoegaze so much in framing, because since umbrella is slotted to appear at this month’s Japan Shoegazer Festival, the shoegaze linkage is more concrete than ever, particularly given their past work. However, in many ways, Kinematograph is a departure from 2013’s Monochrome, and subsequently, some of the main shoegaze elements the band had, since the ones demonstrated on Monochrome were largely holdovers from their material before that. The departure is mainly good, however, as it largely seems to serve as a means of casting off what didn’t work in Monochrome.
Shoegaze can often seem tacked on to visual-kei in a seeming attempt to garner fans, and truthfully the only two bands that come to mind as having pulled it off particularly well are Plastic Tree (at varying moments in their career) and the short-lived Homosapiens. In truthfulness, this album has a lot more in common with lo-fi, garage-rock than shoegaze, however, it is notable for a level of distortion that isn’t normally in visual-kei. Yet, the album in many ways for me parallels yazzmad, who shed an amount of their originality in pursuit of a refined sound. While umbrella does sound more refined here, even though the guitars are less clear, this album does not retain the brooding, dark atmosphere of something like 五月雨 (Samidare). This being said the vibe they exuded then had seemed somewhat amateurish, and I remember remarking on that in the Video Countdown when the track first appeared. Without having a music video off the album to look at and compare imagery too, it is hard to say whether the band has completely ditched the shoegaze style, but it seems likely, given how direct their performance style following Monochrome’s release was.

While the title track of Monochrome was great, it was a sudden shift into lo-fi and reverb drenched guitars that clashed with the rest of the album. It was as though the song was a concept track, not trying to flow with the album. Those hoping that the band would adopt a style similar to the song “Samidare” or “Monochrome” for the entire album will be disappointed – the band establishes a very clear style on this album and it is decidedly not those two songs’. This being said – I like this album far better than Monochrome, because it addresses one of my chief complaints – it establishes a clear style for umbrella, and maintains a good flow throughout, with established consistency, but varied songs.

One of the key differentiations on this album from shoegaze is how the songs rely on a more typical rock progression, as opposed to the unpredictability of some shoegaze bands. There aren’t really any breaks into walls of noise or sudden drops into quietude before pummeling the listener. The songs establish a fairly normative pace, and even Yui’s voice maintains predictable, good, but predictable, throughout.

The album’s tracks are balanced, with a decent emphasis on having lighter moments in contrast to more standard rock numbers. Particularly notable in balancing is the first track (following the intro track), “Keihaku na hito” which builds up in aggressiveness towards the end, and then fades out on delayed and echoing guitars with impressive falsetto by Yui. If there was any doubt the band has grown, this track largely lays that to rest, as it demonstrates a composition beyond their previous level. This being said, the track established something that pops up throughout the album: somewhat annoying synthesized instruments or keys that don’t mesh too well.

The second track, “Sky Fish”, while again, progressing rather predictably, displays a variation within in it that has been lacking in other umbrella tracks. The band inserts even a decent break midway into the song, before a heavily distorted guitar solo. While the song is perhaps not as powerful as others on the album, it shows off some of the lo-fi bass-playing that made the title track of Monochrome work so well.

Songs after this fall into a similar sounding place, striking balances between “Sky Fish” ‘s more intense moments, and the more mild moments of “Keihaku na hito”. The album never becomes too loud, but certainly also never becomes too soft. It is quite a joy to listen to, however. It is a solid rock album which implements a lot more of the standard rock sound than umbrella had relied on previously, and abandons some of their darker aesthetic, ending in a more homogeneous work than Monochrome, which went between the lo-fi attack of “Monochrome” to the broody, spacy, sudden “LoV”. Only time will tell if the establishment of a more firm unity for umbrella in this album is a representation of actual loss of experimentation and originality; essentially, at this point, it is hard to say whether it is pure refinement (they certainly sound their best now) or also some shedding of past approaches.

umbrella is still relatively underground, and it will be interesting to see how they progress from here. This album seems to make clear the band has embraced a rougher, more distorted sound while still having Yui’s vocals come in crystal clear. There is, of course, an interesting contrast here, given his impressive range and voice with the aggressive guitar sound. What is notable is that neither ever seem to cancel each other out, something that this band has had problems with before. Still, it isn’t the same level of blending the instrumentation and vocals that we saw on tracks like “Samidare”, with Yui crying out, only to be drowned in a wave of guitars.

Kinematograph is certainly umbrella’s best release yet, however, it still demonstrates room to be approved upon. The most cause for concern is that if this was a 12-track album instead of 7-track mini-album (one of those being an intro track), what I would consider flowing well might change into criticism of songs blending together. umbrella, while now demonstrating the ability to make original and varied compositions needs to work on that even more, to establish an LP that goes above and beyond. umbrella fans and the uninitiated should find something to enjoy in this album. This being said, eyes on umbrella for their first LP at this point, and whether or not we have a fix on a truly “umbrella style”. With this mini-album, we see a chunk of umbrella’s experimentation up to this point – the shoegaze and subsequent lo-fi – largely absent. Those who were hoping to see a continuation of that will be somewhat disappointed.

KEY TRACKS:  “Sky Fish”, “Tenohira drop”, “Bokutachi ga egaita panorama"

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Special thanks to Gan-Shin Records for providing us the review material!
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