WagakkiBand’s ‘Vocalo Zanmai 2’ Cover Album Reflects Evolution of J-Pop Vocaloid Music Scene: Interview

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WagakkiBand is an eight-member hybrid J-pop rock entertainment group that produces songs blending elements from the traditional art of 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 rose to fame for its live performance video covering the song “Senbonzakura,” now a ubiquitous number created by vocaloid music producer Kurousa-P using the vocaloid software Hatsune Miku. The cover dropped on Jan. 31, 2014 and quickly racked up views not only in the group’s native country but also among viewers overseas. 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 logged more than 150 million views.

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Another key element that elevated 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 the Billboard Japan Hot Albums chart, No. 5 on the weekly sales chart, and No. 4 on iTunes’ album ranking. 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 up its presence over the years, including various tie-ins with anime series and commercials, appearances on domestic TV programs and numerous shows outside of Japan.

Frontwoman Yuko Suzuhana shares the meaning of the number 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 number eight (in the Japanese kanji characters). We place a lot of importance on the fact that we’re a band with eight members, so we’ve always discussed the possibility of doing something on our eighth anniversary. Releasing Vocalo Zanmai 2 at some point was another thing we’d always discussed, and since vocaloid music is getting popular again today, we thought it would be the perfect time to do so.”

The band members selected the songs for their latest cover album based on a list of vocaloid tracks from the last couple of years, written up by Machiya (guitar & vocals) and Asa (bass) who are avid listeners of the genre. Two songs that stand out among the covers included in the collection are “Phony,” a track originally released by vocaloid producer Tsumiki on June 5, 2021 that 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 of these songs feature Kafu, the new voice synthesizing software developed by CeVIO Project, and not its predecessors like Hatsune Miku, GUMI, and v flower that use the singing synthesis engine developed by Yamaha. Released on July 7, 2021, Kafu was developed based on the voice of real-life “virtual” singer Kafu (written differently in Japanese), and is characterized by a singing voice closer to that of a real human being than the earlier vocaloid softwares. Many vocaloid producers began incorporating it in 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 — expanded their range of expression, and Kafu became another tool that enhanced their expressive faculties 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 is also in tune with the current vocaloid trends in that there are far fewer songs with Japanese musical influences. The majority of the songs in the group’s debut album were Japanese-inspired in style, but this time there’s only one called “Akahitoha,” a track originally released by Kurousa-P (of “Senbonzakura” fame) in Feb. 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 the mainstream (in the vocaloid genre) at the time (of the band’s debut album), but most of the more recent songs are fast-paced dance music-like rhythm tracks around 2 minutes and 40 seconds in length,” explains Machiya. “So we didn’t feel the need to choose songs with Japanese musical influences 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 doesn’t use her characteristic way of singing — influenced by her background as a 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 not familiar with Japanese-style music.

In the current WagakkiBand, Suzuhana felt more comfortable using different voices for each song and expressing herself more freely without getting too caught up in formalities. “I really felt the need to make an impression at first, so I started off by trying to get people to know me rather than singing the way I like to sing,” she explains. “So on (our debut album), I made sure to include the technique of shigin vocalization in all the songs. But after putting out our original songs and testing out various genres of music, I reached a point where I felt I could express myself freely. Being able to think that way is how I’ve changed as a vocalist.”

The purpose of the band’s major label debut album, Vocalo Zanmai, was to make the existence of the group — with members who exclusively play wagakki, traditional 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 shares. “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 traditionally Japanese style and using fewer notes, the individuality of each sound was made clearer, demonstrating the significance 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 numbers such as 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 isn’t dwelling on the past; they’re looking towards the future.

The rise of the short video sharing platform TikTok among teenagers has also played a major role in the overall trend of more compact songs, and vocaloid tracks about two minutes in length have increased in the past few years. The tracks representing 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,” Suzuhana notes. “J-pop songs in general are becoming shorter like the tracks from other countries, but there’s still that A-melody, B-melody, chorus progression. So we think that audiences abroad will find the developments on the short songs on our new album surprising and enjoyable. 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 of 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 toward the band’s music. With Vocalo Zanmai 2, WagakkiBand is heading into a new phase of its career.

–This article by Mio Komachi first appeared on Billboard Japan

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