Every end means a new beginning!
Hello and welcome back to yet another installment of the J-Music Exchange/Rate segment! In case you’ve never seen one of these posts: this is a fun series I’ve been doing with my good friend/fellow Japanese music fan Leap250 where we pick out a music album from our respective libraries, exchange and listen to them, and later review each one on our own blogs. We’ve been doing this for nearly three straight years now and it really is a way for both of us to expand our tastes and discover new stuff within the Japanese music space. And hopefully it can help you find something new to listen to as well!
And as always, Leap and I base our album choices on a specific theme each month. It was Leap’s turn for February, and because this month is known for relationships and connections, he thought it’d be interesting if we took on the more ‘resilient’ side of said traditions. That said, we picked albums from artists who pursued a solo career after being involved with a band/group. It’s always tough to break away from the people you’ve been with for a long period of time, especially when it comes to being in a musical group. But changes in personality, creative aspirations or other complications are always inevitable, and sometimes moving on can be for the best. So that’s pretty much what this month’s theme is about.
So with that, here are our choices: Leap went ahead and gave me CHIAKI SATO’s 2019 release PLANET, while I tossed over the most recent album from ex-Ringo Musume member JONAGOLD titled WEEKEND.
CHIAKI SATO (佐藤千亜妃, Sato Chiaki) is a Japanese musician, solo artist and former actress from Iwate, Japan. She initially pursued acting, and was featured in a number of TV dramas and movies. But on top of her acting career, she formed the band known as Kinoko Teikoku in 2007, alongside a group of college classmates. In 2012, the band would make their major debut with the release of their mini-album, Uzu ni Naru, and Sato would continue her success with Kinoko Teikoku until 2019, when they decided to end their twelve-year journey as a beloved shoegaze/dream-pop/alt-rock band.
Sato Chiaki would continue pursuing music, as she actually began doing solo work as early as 2012. It wouldn’t be until 2018-2019 when Sato really focused in on her solo career, as she released her first full-length album in November 2019, titled PLANET. Since then, CHIAKI SATO has released one album, two EPs and a handful of singles.
CHIAKI SATO – PLANET
- Sorakara Ochiru Hoshi no Youni / 空から落ちる星のように
- You Make Me Happy
- Daikirai / 大キライ
- Summer Gate
- Lovin’ You
- Men / 面
- Kiss wo Suru / キスをする
Leap’s Thoughts on PLANET
In the wake of Kinoko Teikoku’s hiatus, followed by the subsequent solo artist debut of vocalist Sato Chiaki, one of if not the biggest question that needed to be answered with regard to her music was what kind of sound she was going to come out with. This of course came after a period of time when the aforementioned band, prior to the halt of their musical activities, had started to experiment with styles different from the Shoegaze style that they’re arguably best known for. With that in mind, and based on how her debut album “Planet” sounds here, I personally would like to think that most of the creative drive behind Kinoko Teikoku actually stemmed from Sato herself. That is to say, this album too feels very experimental in its approach with the myriad of different music styles that you have in it. Like, you have a guitar heavy Pop/Rock song in STAR as your opener, but then you’re getting an Electro Pop song in FAKE/romance right after. Towards the middle of the song you have a purely Acoustic song in lak, which is then followed by a Chill Pop song in Summer Gate. All these different sounds and yet it all just… works.
I think a lot of that is mostly attributable to Sato Chiaki whose voice is able to suit seemingly whatever’s thrown at it in terms of genres. As a fan of Kinoko Teikoku myself I wouldn’t have been able to imagine hearing Sato sing to all these kinds of songs prior to this album, and I think Planet really does a good job of reintroducing her as more than just a frontwoman for a Shoegaze band.
Al’s Thoughts on PLANET
1 ► a (massive) change in scenery
Allow me to first say that CHIAKI SATO is no stranger to the J-Music Exchange/Rate segment (at least on my side). In fact, this is the third time she’s been featured on here, with the first two instances involving albums from her former band Kinoko Teikoku (Uzu ni Naru, which I reviewed in 2018; Neko to Allergy, 2021).
That said, after two encounters with Sato Chiaki, I guess I can consider myself somewhat familiar with who she is as a vocalist and musician. And I think that’s why this album/review in particular is a very intriguing one, since this is essentially the first time I’m hearing her outside of her previous work with Kinoko Teikoku. I genuinely had no idea whether or not Sato maintained the overall style and vibe she had with her former band in her own ventures as an artist, so going into this, I was pretty much clueless.
That’s sort of the main approach I took when listening to this album: how similar and/or different is her music on PLANET compared to her past work within a band, and if it’s something that is enjoyable to listen to (I guess the second inquiry isn’t necessarily needed, given the person we’re talking about, but it’s all a part of doing a review, alright? :P). I know I already kinda did this when I talked about Neko to Allergy back in 2021, but since this is a completely new venture that Sato Chiaki has gone on, I felt like this was an appropriate way to talk about this album.
And from the few times I’ve gone through PLANET, I would say that I noticed a significant amount of differences between Sato Chiaki-then and Sato Chiaki-now.
In fact, as a very amateur listener/fan of Sato’s work, I would say that this album is very much a big step away from what a lot of people are used to when it comes to her and the type of music she’s been connected to. Unlike the heavily mysterious-sounding and echo-y Shoegaze we heard in Kinoko Teikoku’s debut EP Uzu ni Naru, the combination of intense and mellow sounds in eureka, and even the more mainstream-focused rock in releases like Neko to Allergy and Time Lapse… it seems like Sato Chiaki decided to go towards a brighter and more experimental ‘pop’ route when it came to creating PLANET.
The keyword here is ‘experimental’, because this album is just a fascinating mixture of various genres and stylistic expressions I’ve never really seen from someone like her. You get to hear it right from the jump with songs like “FAKE/romance” showing off an electronic theme, thanks to the dance-like beat and vocal filters. There’s a joyful tune full of lively piano playing, cheery acoustic guitar strumming and blaring trumpets, appropriately titled “You Make Me Happy”. Hell, she even made a gorgeous BALLAD in “Sorakara Ochiru Hoshi no Youni”, which features a beautiful showing of Sato’s vocals and your usual instrument combos of emotional-sounding violins and pianos. To say that this is a ‘big step away’ from what a lot of Kinoko fans are used to… after writing that line a few minutes ago, it already feels like such an understatement.
But don’t get me wrong: I am not implying that this drastic change in style from Sato Chiaki is in any way a bad thing. I really enjoyed a lot of the songs on this album, both as a person who was curious about the musical transition she managed to take on, as well as a general music fan. Hearing the funk and R&B styles in “Lovin’ You” was sick, the low-key vibes in “Summer Gate” made it one of my favorites out of this album, and I was just absolutely taken back when I first heard “You Make Me Happy”. I also thought that her vocals translated pretty well to her solo music, as you still get to hear how fantastic of a singer she is. But I do feel like this type of variety also gave her the chance to express her voice in other ways, such as singing in a higher pitch or with more energy than what was heard in Kinoko Teikoku’s discography.
2 ► the music industry and the inevitability of adaptation
In an interview Sato did with entertainment news site SPICE, she said that displaying this kind of ‘variety’ was essentially her intention all along. Ever since the disbanding of Kinoko Teikoku, she saw this fresh start of a solo career as a good opportunity to experiment and try new things, which included collaborating with different artists like JYOCHO’s Nakagawa Daijiro and the punk-rock band 04 Limited Sazabys. She also took song/album composition into consideration, as she now realized that shorter songs that can easily grab your attention with catchy parts/choruses are ideal in today’s music scene.
While that last fact IS true (the ‘whoa-oh-oh’ part in “FAKE/romance”, as well as the choruses in “You Make Me Happy” have gotten stuck in my head lately), I found it interesting how this type of mentality and thinking when it comes to writing music and trying to get your stuff to be heard by as many people as possible, is somewhat comparable to what Kinoko Teikoku did in the later part of their time as a band. As Leap mentioned in his tribute post to the band, Kinoko essentially changed up the distinctive indie Shoegaze sound they were known for, in exchange for one that was more in line with what was popular at the time (which did turn out to be beneficial, as Leap explained how they ended up being featured on Oricon’s top charts more often than before). Sato Chiaki seemed to do something similar, as she herself said in that SPICE interview that she actually researched what made popular songs, well, popular and applied her findings to many of the compositions shown on PLANET.
While both instances can be seen as a sign of ‘selling out’, I don’t think that’s really the case here. Sure, Kinoko (and Sato, to an extent) deviating from their Shoegaze sound probably isn’t the most ideal way to do things, especially since a lot of fans from the band’s earlier days got turned off by their sudden change in style/genre. But with how competitive the music industry is, not only in Japan but all over the world, adaptation is needed and maybe even inevitable if you want to make a name for yourself.
Even then, Sato said that what she created for PLANET is the type of music that she enjoys herself, and additionally felt that this was the first time she got the proper opportunity to express certain genres she’s been interested in such as a ballad or a fashionable R&B song. So… I think it’s great that Sato’s creating stuff that she’s genuinely into.
From what I’ve seen as an outside observer, the music industry is tough. It’s competitive. It’s unforgiving. No matter how much sugar you wanna coat it with, that is the harsh reality. So like I said, adapting to and with a rapidly changing music environment is essential for most artists. And I think CHIAKI SATO does a great job doing that with PLANET.
I genuinely believe, after listening to this album, that she has a pretty decent grasp of the type of music that’s popular nowadays and the specific things that hit. And while doing so, you can still tell that this is a ‘Sato Chiaki’ creation, whether it’s from her familiar vocals or expressing a genre in a unique way. That said, I feel like this album definitely has the ability to appeal to both the general Japanese music audience, as well as longtime fans of Sato’s previous work.
Aaaand that’s all I got for today!
I know this post was kinda long, not gonna lie. But I do hope you thought it was interesting. Hearing Sato Chiaki’s music outside of the stuff I was already familiar with was a great experience, and I’m glad she’s still killing it! You should also go listen to her recent release, TIME LEAP, which… I’m sure a certain someone was ecstatic to hear the title of that EP 😛
Speaking of Leap, you should go check out his review for this month! I got him to talk about JONAGOLD’s latest/first album, titled WEEKEND, so click here to read his thoughts!
Thanks for reading!! 😀