Acoustic Sounds





Label: Warner Music Japan

Produced By: METAFIVE

Engineered By: Tohru Takayama, Masahiko Sato, and Junya Nakabayashi

Mixed By: Tohru Takayama and Yoshinori Sunahara

Mastered By: Yoshinori Sunahara

By: Malachi Lui

February 27th, 2023



METAFIVE’s Last Stand

The Japanese supergroup’s second album 'METAATEM' is unfortunately inconsistent

It’s been over a month since drummer and pop songwriter extraordinaire Yukihiro Takahashi passed away at age 70, though acknowledging it still feels weird. It wasn’t unexpected—he was treated for brain tumors, and related pneumonia caught him in the end—but for 50 years, Takahashi never really slowed down and always seemed focus on what was next. Between his solo material, his work in Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sketch Show, other gigs like the Sadistic Mika Band, or side projects like The Beatniks, Takahashi hardly rested on his laurels, nor did he come across as gasping for relevance. While not as experimental as some of his peers, Takahashi’s undying passion for pop songcraft led to a vast, consistent catalog. Critter Jams wrote a better fan eulogy than I could, so I highly recommend reading that.

Yukihiro Takahashi’s biggest late career highlight was the supergroup METAFIVE. Originally the backing band for his 2014 tour, METAFIVE soon became a proper group with the all-star lineup of Cornelius [Keigo Oyamada], producer and onetime Denki Groove member Yoshinori Sunahara, producer Towa Tei (formerly of Deee-Lite), singer-songwriter Leo Imai (probably best known for the record he did with Shutoku Mukai as Kimonos), and multi-instrumentalist Tomohiko Gondo (whose old band, anonymass, once released a full YMO covers record). Takahashi’s presence as host of proceedings glued together their 2016 debut album META, which sounds like synthpop’s preceding four decades all stacked atop each other. Stylistically diverse and stuffed with catchy hooks, the glossy META combined Oyamada’s funky guitar, Imai’s new wave stylings, Towa’s beat-driven electronics, Sunahara’s atmosphere and polish, Gondo’s flourishes, and Takahashi’s leadership and influence over the other, slightly younger musicians. The members all shared the space rather equally, culminating in a somewhat messy but thoroughly fun album with high replay value.

METAFIVE’s second album, METAATEM, is a different affair. The first METAFIVE project since 2017’s listenable but unimpressive leftovers EP METAHALF, METAATEM is comparatively dull and its path to final release complicated. Unfortunately, it ended up being Takahashi’s last album—at least the last released in his lifetime, though I’d be surprised if he still had any major unreleased or unfinished material laying around. (Site moves left my already-written review of METAATEM’s digital release unpublished, so this seemed like a fair time to expand upon and finally publish it.)

After a scandal over Oyamada’s past behavior (mid-1990s admissions/boasts about bullying) resurfaced, Warner Music cancelled METAATEM two weeks before its scheduled August 2021 release. With two singles out and physical copies already manufactured, Warner waited for the issue to blow over and finally properly released it in September 2022. (Fans who “attended” a ticketed livestream in fall 2021 got CD and vinyl copies, which before the general release were exorbitantly priced on auction sites.)

Even with that aside, METAATEM lacks META’s strengths. While META was fun and balanced between the members’ contributions, METAATEM heavily focuses on Leo Imai, a singer who almost always sounds tense. The first record’s variety has turned into a consistent palette of bombastic synth- and guitar-based electropop, the maximalist production now used to hide emptier songwriting. Imai’s solo catalog proves that most of his songs descend into wallpaper, but he’s the primary singer and songwriter on most of this second METAFIVE album. Takahashi’s health issues left him mostly absent; his precise drumming is always nice to hear though save for one song that he sings entirely, his voice only pops up occasionally. Cornelius’ guitar touches make Imai’s droning tolerable, though he too only has one major vocal contribution on his spectacular “Environmental,” a softer, more atmospheric track that’s easily the album’s best.

Leo Imai isn’t worth hating, but his performances provoke strong, generally negative feelings. He always sounds unnecessarily aggressive, almost invasive to the listener’s personal space. The songs on METAATEM—mostly sung in English, and Imai seems fluent in English—aren’t really about anything, but typically center around him resisting oppression from some vague power that he’s really bitter about. “I don’t wanna be a digit in your steel mill/I feel crushed by the spinning of the big wheel,” he says on opener “Full Metallisch” before growling “I’m gonna make you eat your metal.” Is this about some record label boss? An ex? Whatever it is, Imai is unloading it on the listener. Even when he should be having fun, he clearly isn’t; lines like “I’m just saying, that’s what she said!” or “I’m the product, she’s the producer!” on the groovy but plodding “Wife” still sound defensive. On “The Haunted” and the penultimate “Communicator,” Imai strains to project his words with the full power of his voice, his tone coming across as possibly desperate or frustrated. His attempts to sound dramatic end up being repulsive, like he’s breaking the fourth wall and yelling directly at the listener. This makes METAATEM a less than ideal listening experience, though Imai’s vocals work mostly well on “Full Metallisch” and “The Paramedics,” which both slowly build up and sound comfortable in their instrumental busyness.

Despite the few highlights, METAATEM feels empty once you get past the kitchen-sink production. Sonically, much of it sounds about 15 years outdated (probably Imai’s fault), and the overstuffed instrumentation doesn’t cohere nearly as well as it did on META. METAATEM ends with the Takahashi-fronted “See You Again,” an easygoing, Beatlesque tune that’s bittersweet considering the circumstances. By the time you get there, though, you’re exhausted from Imai being right in your face for nearly an hour. Yukihiro Takahashi probably didn’t plan for this to be his last record; it’s not the best way to go out, but it could’ve been worse. The remnants of METAFIVE—Imai, Yoshinori Sunahara, and Imai’s touring musicians Kenichi Shirane and Seiichi Nagai—now tour and release music as TESTSET. Their debut EP released last summer isn’t too promising, as Imai's songs are utterly boring and Sunahara’s production isn’t particularly interesting anymore.

Sunahara mastered METAATEM, which like almost everything else he masters is LOUD, bright, and super compressed. The digital file, mastered at levels that are about as loud as you can go before having to soft clip, is a fatiguing listen especially since the overstuffed mix is mostly concentrated into the squashed center. The 2LP vinyl was obviously cut from this same master, but is a bit smoother and more listenable with excellent black backgrounds and vivid side information. Cutting lacquers from ultra-compressed digital masters usually yields mediocre results, but that’s not a big problem here since there’s plenty of groove space on the relatively short sides. The “turquoise clear” (it’s more of a translucent aqua color) heavyweight vinyl pressed seemingly at Toyokasei is flat and quiet, and it comes in a luxurious tip-on gatefold jacket with silver mirrored paper pasted inside. There’s also a lyrics and credits insert conveniently in English and Japanese. If you like this record or collect these artists’ work overall, I’d say the package is worth the ¥4500 price or slightly above that. You could also get a CD version with a bonus Blu-ray of a 2016 concert (the Blu-ray has a 96kHz/24bit audio track, probably also squashed by Sunahara), though if you like METAATEM, the vinyl is easily the best way to hear the core album.

Music Specifications

Catalog No: WPJL-10136/7

Pressing Plant: Toyokasei

Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 180 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Source: Digital Master

Presentation: Multi LP


  • 2023-02-28 04:35:51 PM

    Paul wrote:

    I love your reviews and insights. I would be interested in seeing some reviews where the music and sound are rated 9 or 10 out of 10. Paul

    • 2023-02-28 05:17:01 PM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      got a review rated 9/10 for both music and sound set to go up soon...