SCANDAL IN THE HOUSE… AGAIN! The Japanese all-female rock band who’ve now been around for 14 years (but somehow don’t look a day over 22) return for their ninth studio album Kiss from the Darkness. I discovered Scandal about 5 years ago and have eagerly followed their progress whilst trying to track down their back catalogue. Their last album, 2018’s Honey, was eminently listenable but didn’t quite hit the spot like its two predecessors Hello World and Yellow. The band released Masterpiece, the first single from the new album back in 2019 and it’s a fantastic heavy rocker that promises great things from the new album, which they’re following up with a second world tour, including a concert at the O² Academy in London, which I’d dearly love to have seen but which distance and expense render impossible.
With its rather odd album cover featuring a small child riding a tricycle through what looks like a bowl of custard with an enormous ceramic model of the human heart on his head, Kiss from the Darkness is a collection of 11 tracks (+ 1 bonus track on the European release), all of which have been written with the involvement of rhythm guitarist Haruna Ono, bass guitarist Tomomi Ogawa, lead guitarist Mami Sasazaki and drummer Rina Suzuki, all of whom lend their vocals to various tracks. And when I say ‘with the involvement of’, I don’t mean in a Western manufactured girl-band sense where you can get a credit for just being in the same room when the song was written; these girls write their own songs, play their own instruments and even have a hand in production.
The album starts with Tonight, a funky pop number to get you in the mood. It’s got a nice strong disco-ish rhythm throughout, which keeps the beat together and an interesting use of auto-tuning, which is something new for Scandal. It’s not used in a ‘can’t hit the note’ way, of course; it’s quite obvious from the rest of their output that all of Scandal are really good singers, but it’s judicially used on a couple of tracks on Kiss from the Darkness as an artistic choice. The second track is Masterpiece, released some time earlier as a single; it’s a big, heavy rocker that you can bang your head to, if you’re that way inclined. Although their songs encompass a variety of styles, Scandal have always excelled at a good strong guitar-based rock number and there are several excellent examples on this album.
Fuzzy has a raw, almost punk sound with some beautiful wailing guitars from Mami and fast drumming from Rina. Scandal experimented a lot with this stripped-back sound on their previous album Honey, but I think this works a lot better than any of those tracks. The next number Saishūheiki, Kimi (direct English translation: You, The Ultimate Weapon) and it’s another heavy rocker, probably even heavier than Masterpiece, and I would say that it has a 70s sound to it, were it not for the reappearance of the auto-tuning. There’s something very Glam Rock about its central riff, so it’s an interesting mix of then and now, which works incredibly well. You can sometimes hear influences of Western rock music in Scandal’s sound, but through an oblique cultural prism that makes recognisable but distant at the same time and always wonderful to listen to.
Tomomi’s distinctive vocals are at the forefront of Laundry Laundry, a track that falls into the same stylistic category as Konya wa Pizza Party from Yellow, though far less frenetic. I love the inclusion of these cute numbers alongside the heavy rock and this really made me smile. NEON TOWN ESCAPE is another solid pop number and is typical of a Scandal album track in the sense that you could happily have slotted this into any of their previous albums and it wouldn’t have sounded out of place. The same can be said of Ceramic Blue, but this isn’t a criticism of the material on this album, merely a comment on the consistent quality of the material on Scandal’s albums. You could listen to a track from their first album Best Scandal alongside something from Kiss from the Darkness and instantly know that it was the same band. Many Western bands change beyond all recognition in a decade, whereas Scandal have concentrated on refining a recognisable sound.
Scandal have always been great at creating a distinctive riff and there’s a great one at the heart of Kinenbi, though they don’t always go in the direction that out clichéd Western ears are expecting to hear. This is another strong pop number that rattles along at a catchy pace and reassures you that there’s no sense of the three quarters point of the album being the home of the weaker tracks, as it so often is with other bands. Mabataki has an interesting 80s sound, complete with synths and drum machine, which only goes to highlight the variety of musical styles on display here – all very different, but always distinctively Scandal. It’s back to heavy rock territory again with A.M.D.J.K., the second single released shortly before the album, with a beautifully complex guitar intro and riff from Mami. They seem to have been really concentrating on the big rock numbers as singles this time round.
The album proper finishes with Tsuki, the only true ballad on the album. Scandal often end an album with a nice gentle number and although it doesn’t quite nail the perfect beauty of Yellow’s Chiisana Honoo, it certainly doesn’t let the side down and ends the album on a lovely soft note. Although it’s not over, because the European release has a bonus track called You Go Girl! As you can imagine from its title, this is a bit of cheeky fun, but unexpectedly it’s a real ear-worm; for all the terrific tracks on the album, you’ll probably find yourself coming away from Kiss from the Darkness humming the melody from You Go Girl! which is quite annoying, but in a way that you really can’t stop smiling about.
As I mentioned earlier, I only discovered Scandal about 5 years ago and I’ve been keeping up with their new releases since that time. Kiss from the Darkness is a great album, a definite step up from Honey in my know-nothing Western opinion and probably the equal of Hello World… though I’ll have to listen to it a few more times before I can say whether I like it as much as Yellow. I’m not an expert in Japanese pop, I’m not even an expert in Scandal, but I know what I like to listen to… and I’ll definitely be listening to this album quite a lot over the weeks to come.