Tokyo experimental soul band WONK’s latest album EYES is the group’s most creative endeavor yet. The hefty 22-song album tells a narrative about the modern phenomenon of online “filter-bubbles” and “echo chambers.” In a world where SNS and the online realm is such a huge part of our lives, these “filter-bubbles” and “echo chambers” are worrying phenomena, when sites and search engines personalize our online experiences to the point that we only encounter information and opinions that reflect and reinforce our own beliefs, ultimately shutting out alternative perspectives.
For WONK, this concern has been on the members’ minds for a while. The concept for EYES was born while the band created the EP Moon Dance, which includes five songs also featured in EYES. The art book for the special edition features CG images for each song and the book has an augmented reality function, which offers a futuristic experience to reinforce the album’s dystopian theme.
“For this album, the story came first,” recalls Hikaru Arata, WONK’s drummer and frontman. “We didn’t intend to make such a long album in the first place but when we wrote the story and songs for it, the album turned out to be this big. We split the story into pieces and assigned songs to each part.”
However, the band was not entirely sure about releasing the album in 2020. “I thought the sales wouldn’t be doing well,” Arata continues, laughing. “The way of listening to music has changed [these days]; the majority of people enjoy listening to music song-by-song because of streaming services, not as a whole album. We really wanted to express this concept as an album though, leaving business strategies such as marketing aside. We focused on how to deliver the story and the message.”
Though the band completed EYES amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing didn’t hinder the recording process too much. “There were a few things we had to work on individually due to the pandemic, but we don’t usually make songs by getting together and jamming anyway,” Arata explains. “Usually, one of us puts song ideas into data, then the rest of us add some arrangements to it and shape it into a song. Then our bassist Kan Inoue and I record drum and bass, which, for this album, was one of the few processes we actually did together.”
“I was reminded of when we released two albums at the same time, Castor and Pollux, in 2017,” keyboardist Ayatake Ezaki says. “Towards the end of the album production, it was really tough to finish two at the same time as we had a lot of songs to work on. It was a situation where, if someone falls, we all fall. But we managed to get through it as a band. I felt the same way this time but I am proud of the album.”
Inspired by Netflix’s renowned sci-fi series “Black Mirror” and “Love, Death & Robots,” EYES centers on a man who leaves a dystopian Earth and escapes to the moon. There, he meets a moon creature whose life differs greatly from the “filter-bubble” world of Earth. The being shows him a vision of acceptance and diversity. Filled with renewed hope, the man feels it’s his mission to return to Earth and share this message with the rest of civilization. This section of the narrative is reflected in the song “HEROISM,” whose official music video is animated by Hokkaido-based CG artist nagafujiriku.
However, upon returning to Earth, the protagonist realizes that no one is willing to change their mind, except for one young boy who reminds him of the moon creature. This instills in the protagonist a hope that things will be better in the new generation. Each song on the album blends and weaves between genres, featuring various sound effects to build a futuristic feel.
“If,” one of the songs in the climax of the story and WONK’s first-ever rock-esque tune, describes the main character’s inner battle — whether he should go back to Earth to tell people what he saw on the moon or not — which leads into the album’s crowning track, “HEROISM.”
WONK‘s fourth album reaps years of experimentation, and it’s no surprise that EYES is one of their most thorough albums yet. The band has been busy collaborating with a whole host of unexpected artists in recent months way beyond the limits of their own, original genre. Earlier in the year, WONK collaborated with Katori Shingo, a former member of one of Japan’s most renowned boy bands SMAP, and released the song “Metropolis.”
In May, WONK released a YouTube video covering American neo-soul band’s Phony PPL’s song “Why iii Love The Moon.” The band also joined fellow creative collective Millennium Parade, founded by King Gnu’s Tsuneta Daiki, to create the opening song “Fly With me” for the latest version of “Ghost in the Shell SAC_2045,” which was released on Netflix on April 23.
“After collaborating with Katori Shingo, I saw our fans interacting with the fans of SMAP on social media talking about music,” Ezaki says. “It is such a great thing to see those people positively engaging with each other, which is one of our aims to break the boundaries and bring the diversity into one’s musical preference. We also got a lot of new listeners from King Gnu’s fanbase who tend to follow J-rock. All of this is definitely more than what we expected to happen. It’s interesting to see the audience’s reaction through what we have done.”
“Experimental soul band” explains WONK’s ambitions well. “Experimental soul is about music that influenced us when WONK started out,” Inoue says. “The elements of our favorite music are spreading across our songs as a hook for our fans to find out about the music we like.”
“We see ourselves as a cultural hub to connect one music genre to another,” Arata highlights. “Some of our fans might be happy with what they can get from Japan’s domestic music scene but we are on a mission to widen their variety of music.”
Although WONK’s EYES tour had to be postponed until next year, the band is already looking at the next phase. “For this tour, we were going to direct stage lighting by ourselves,” Arata says. “Techno pop unit Perfume’s synchronized performance with lighting is well known, but we wanted to develop that idea into the band’s organic style like coding lighting data into the songs so we can control the lighting on stage.“
“Also, after this album, we are planning to collaborate with artists from other countries. We just dropped an album so working with different artists for each song and releasing new songs as singles not as an album. But we are currently working on a 3D/CG live performance, in which the audience can join from home. It is not an alternative plan for what we were supposed to do but it makes sense for us to do it after releasing EYES,” Arata says. “I think it’s an understandable thing to do in this age and it will be interesting to do live shows in the same vibe as the albums.”
Check out WONK’s last gig live review: WONK & TENDRE
Photo credit: Kohei Watanabe (UN.inc)
WONK 4th Album EYES (EPISTROPH/Caroline International) available at here.