If you were living in Japan a few years ago, biggie-sized idol outfit AKB48 seemed inescapable. The group — which started as a pop project consisting of 48 women based out of Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood, but ballooned into a small militia of over 100 performers and numerous sister projects — monopolized the media, seemingly always somewhere on TV or the local convenience store magazine rack. It didn’t matter whether they were featured for their peppy music or various scandals, they were ever-present. This left many people baffled.
Yet in 2017, AKB48 and their numerous adjacent acts are not nearly as dominant as they once were. Sales remain strong but, like most music in Japan, the idol pop scene has fragmented. So while AKB and similar island-sized groups might sell well, they have far less mainstream sway. And it has allowed a lot of more interesting and wonky idol units to get some shine. For those curious about this corner of Japanese pop culture and/or looking for some interesting mutations on the style, here are five recent idol groups to check out.
Maison book girl
Few groups have proven more influential in the recent history of idol music as BiS, an outfit that stood out during peak AKB thanks to a more fractured, hard-rock leaning sound and an attitude that seemed like the punk alternative to the organized and cheery sound of mainstream idols (although they still indulged in all the usual idol pageantry, just with a grittier image). They broke up before achieving truly mainstream success, but they set the template for groups over the last five years, with no shortage of fledgling pop acts borrowing their sound and darker aesthetic. While a lot of it has felt like cheap imitation, Maison book girl jump out because they have a unique style that isn’t simply BiS-lite. The quartet — featuring former BiS member Megumi Koshouji, which helps — creates darty pop songs using a mix of violins, xylophones and immediate percussion that results in a sound palette no other idol (or J-pop star, for that matter) is playing with right now. The recently released 412 EP is a good gateway in, highlighted by the bouncy “Rooms,” above.
The relatively tight budgets of most non-major-label idol groups has resulted in many having to turn to forward-thinking producers to produce their songs, as a way to stand out and save some scratch. CY8ER started life as a Sapporo-based duo called BPM15Q performing appropriately zippy electro-pop. They recently expanded into a larger group but the sound remains the same, primarily thanks to rising electronic artist Yunomi, who carried over to CY8ER. He adds a hyperactive, bass-heavy sound accented by traditional Japanese instruments, making for songs that fall somewhere between Harajuku and Kyoto, always featuring frantic hooks.
Another post-BiS outfit, albeit one managed by the same company as that outfit (and, again, featuring a former BiS member in its ranks). While the unit’s sound is built around building blocks familiar to anyone keeping tabs on “underground idols” — guitar notes coated in feedback, driving percussion, moments of throaty screaming — Gang Parade wisely recognize that this once-subversive approach needs to be shaken up too. They add in synths worthy of darkwave and spoken-word interludes that ramp the drama up significantly (see “Beyond The Mountain” above). Gang Parade hint at the way now-familiar idol sounds might evolve soon … and show that idols can still come up with extremely good names for their groups.
Alright, let’s immediately clarify that the above name has been pronounced by fans as Dots, so don’t stress yourself out trying to spit out the sound of nine periods. The relatively mysterious group doesn’t reveal their identities, and they wear eye masks while performing live. They have been described as “shoegaze idols,” thanks to a nice layer of guitar feedback coating most of their songs and the way said sound covers the singing. This has resulted in solid stabs at dream pop (see above) that hint at a lot of potential from the group. And they’ve got the stunt side of idol down too — this month they released a song titled “Tokyo” that lasts for over 70 minutes. Carve out some time and check it out.