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Concert Review: IA and Wagakki Band @ AX 2015

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Photo by Kaori Suzuki (official)

IA

Having been told that the entire projection took an year’s worth of preparation by the producer herself, it should not have been surprising that the show began an entire hour later than scheduled. Something as complex as a Vocaloid hologram is likely difficult to set up and prepare for public performance, even though this is not the first time a Vocaloid has shown up at Anime Expo, and it is using a later (though not latest) generation of the Vocaloid software than Hatsune Miku. When IA’s figure, gyrating and swinging to the synthesized beat, rose onto the piece of transparent glass that is her medium, the crowd finally went wild, glowsticks aloft. There was much pent-up energy that needed release.

IA sounds smoother and more “natural” (i.e., more like a human voice) than her more well-known sister Hatsune Miku. Based on samples of the voice of anisong singer Lia, there are moments during the performance where, if you close your eyes, you can believe it’s a human being singing the song rather than a voice synthesizer–that is the difference between version 2 and 3 of the software. (This is quite different from Miku, who sounds like a robot, which is part of her charm.) It helps that a few of the songs are catchy in the inimitable J-pop way of most Vocaloid music, and for those who are into going full otaku with the glowstick motions, the songs are easy enough to follow along. Nevertheless on some songs the synthesized nature of her voice becomes apparent, especially during the “stage banter” parts where long awkward pauses give away the fact that everything was preset. The appeal of this sort of performance is going to be inherently limited so long as uncanny valley moments like this still exist.

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Photo by Kaori Suzuki (official)

The choreography of the projection and the human dancers that often surrounded her was reasonably well-rehearsed, though occasionally awkward. The animations themselves were well-captured, however, and it’s easy to see how it would have taken a year to record, animate, and render the dance moves.

IA does not have the fame or cachet of Hatsune Miku, who is the face of the Vocaloid phenomenon, but her more natural sound points toward an interesting possible direction for this sort of singer: there may come a day when a Vocaloid will be almost indistinguishable from a live human voice. Whither, then, the future of pop music? Perhaps the tireless moe robot overlords are coming to a future stage near you.

 

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Photo by Lily Huang (Sh1zuka)

Wagakki Band

On the surface, Wagakki Band could not be a more diametrically opposite act than IA. Wagakki Band, for one, was a live band, with all their musicians playing real, even oversized, instruments. Many of those instruments are the ancient ones of Japanese traditional music: taiko drum, koto, shamisen, shakuhachi flute.

Yet, there is also the drums, guitars, and bass of modern heavy metal too, and it becomes apparent that Wagakki Band–despite its name which means “traditional Japanese instrument band”–is a thoroughly modern concoction, a cultural and technological collision as profound as that of a robot animated singer. It would be accurate, in fact, to say that Wagakki Band is more a hard rock/metal band with traditional Japanese flourishes, as Beni Ninagawa thrums on the shamisen like a hard rock guitar player with a pick and, during a thrilling drum solo between drummer Wasabi and taiko player Kurona, they bang out a talking drum duet as hard and fast as the great rock drummers of yore. (I was reminded of a heavier version of Chester Thompson and Phil Collins’ drum duets during Genesis’ latter prog days, but that may be a bit obscure for many readers.)

The thing is: this works. If you are a fan of hard rock music, the powerful, shigin-tinged vocals of Yuko Suzuhana belting out the theme from Samurai Warriors will excite as much as any female rocker. Crunchy riffs from Machiya rock as hard as anywhere else–occasionally sounding like John Petrucci of Dream Theater (whose music played, appropriately, over the PA during the intermission between IA and Wagakki Band). The melodies are much more traditional if you listen hard, but somehow lend themselves to rock much more than one thinks–and much more than the comparatively limp studio recordings suggest. This is a band best appreciated live, by far. They may not dance quite like IA, even though they do sometimes sing Vocaloid songs in their inimitable style, but they certainly know how to rock out, on the usual instruments as well as the wagakki instruments they are named after.

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Photo by Lily Huang (Sh1zuka)

The Wagakki Band set, for this relatively unfamiliar newcomer to their music, was consistently exciting and full of energy and rock goodness, with only an occasional moment where the loudness appeared to peak out the PA and cause some clipping. This is normal for a lot of rock shows, however, and convention concerts in particular, where live instrumentation is not as common. It was not enough to flag the energy of the crowd madly waving the same, somewhat faded glowsticks from the IA set. Their encores were well deserved, even if it was a repeat of the song from the start: a reminder that this is a still relatively new band just beginning to find its stage all over the world.

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Photo by Lily Huang (Sh1zuka)