PERFUME: Wake Up And Smell The Perfume

Band: Perfume
Foundation: 2000
Country: Japan
Translation: LordPist
Discography [full lengths]:

 

2006 AD, a lazy Istrice wandered around the Po Valley searching for the meaning of his life (which he hasn't found yet), dreamed like a child of what was happening on the other side of the world, and was completely fascinated by the Japanese pop culture which he had the chance to get small tastes of through videogames and anime. His search, of course, couldn't miss the field that has always suited him best – music. Although the details of his first contact with the three angelic entities known as Perfume got lost in the pages of history, it was certainly a fatal encounter, destined to significantly influence his existence. However, the most important message here is that Perfume managed to leave an indelible mark on the Japanese pop scene (and beyond), creating a sound that would become a major inspiration for countless bands over the following years.

This article doesn't want to be a groundbreaking contribution to the history of J-pop, but at the same time it won't be a simple chronology of events, since you can find that just about anywhere. It is more of a spark, an introduction for those who haven't had the chance or the interest to explore the artistic scene of the Land of the Rising Sun and would like to know more about it. At the same time it will also be a personal recap of my exploration, since it's been eight long years since the striking "Electro World" opened the Pandora's Box in front of me, and my passion, despite the highs and lows, is still intact today.

Kashiyuka desu! A-chan desu! Nocchi desu!
San ni awasete Perfume desu!
Yoroshiko onegaishimasu!

I'm Kashiyuka! I'm A-chan! I'm Nocchi!
The three of us together are Perfume!
Pleased to meet you!

[Famous Perfume presentation at every public appearence]


Foundation-2006: "Complete Best" – Akihabara Electric Town

Hiroshima is a brave city: the unacceptable and not forgotten atomic bomb on August 6 1945 would have destroyed any other place forever, but Japan is a world apart in its ability to proudly stand up again and rebuild itself from scratch. Hiroshima is a perfect example of this, and it is currently an intellectually vibrant green city, designed for young people. Here we can find the ASH (Actors School Hiroshima), attended by waves of girls hoping to have a future in the Japanese showbiz and, more importantly, the starting point of our story. At the ASH, in the year 2000, the eleven year old Nishiwaki Ayaka (A-Chan), Kashino Yuka (Kashiyuka) and Kawashima Yūka (Kawayuka) decide to start a girl band. The name Perfume was easy to pick, since the kanji 香 was part of all three of their names. However, the band was in danger of disappearing too soon, since Kawayuka decided to focus on other projects. It will be her biggest mistake and a blessing in disguise for the other two girls: they didn't give up and found the wonderful Ōmoto Ayano (Nocchi) to recreate the trio.

Their years at the school also featured the birth of a couple of singles – "Omajinai Perori" and "Kareshi Boshūchū" – which had some local success. But the real turning point will come after the girls attained their diplomas in 2003 and decided to move to Tokyo. There they met the musician and producer Nakata Yasutaka, already known for his Capsule project which was really well-received during that period in the electronic scene/Shibuya-kei. It was an elective affinity; Nakata found the opportunity to start a new project exploring sounds that he didn't focus on with Capsule. The sound he designed for the trio didn't lack his signature robot voices and synths, but also featured an exquisite "nerd" taste perfect for the Akihabara district, the center of Tokyo's otaku community. This fortunate cooperation is still going on today and, although Nakata has worked with many other artists in the meantime, Perfume is the only band he wrote for over so many years.

Perfume soon became the undisputable idols of many people around Akiba, where they performed their first shows and produced a notable series of singles through the independent label Bee-Hive. The rapid success brought them to the attention of the main Japanese labels, which soon offered them to produce an actual studio album. Akiba was not enough anymore and Perfume were aiming high. In 2006 they released "Complete Best" under the major Tokuma Japan Communication, a collection of their previous materials plus the brand new hit "Perfect Star, Perfect Style". Preceded by the singles "Linearmotor Girl", "Electro World", and "Computer City", the album ranked 33rd in the national chart.


2006-2008: "GAME" – Change Of Rhythm

Success was just a matter of time and it came pretty quickly. Their production of singles carried on, while "Chocolate Disco" was featured on heavy rotation on national radio channels and "Polyrhythm" was luckily chosen as the soundtrack for a commercial promoting recycling on TV. None of these two tracks made it to the top of the charts, but both of them contributed to the hype around their second release in April 2008. "GAME" topped practically every chart as soon as it came out, and it was the first disc in the "techno" or "electro" area to be ranked first in Japan since Yellow Magic Orchestra, a band which his majesty Sakamoto Ryuichi used to be a part of. A new musical trend began, as everybody started talking about Perfume and their sold-out tour, which will then be featured in their first DVD.

In musical terms, Nakata did a noteworthy job on "GAME": although it was a bit easier and closer to commercial standards compared to their first singles, the album was fully faithful to Perfume's identity. Computer voices are less invasive and the vocals, despite being heavily processed, keep a human and natural tone. The more pointy and "otaku-oriented" aspects were polished, and easy-listening songs like "Chocolate Disco" alternate with other straight-up electronic episodes ("GAME", "Butterfly") and others more adventurous tones such as the aforementioned "Polyrhythm", which featured puzzling beats not exactly designed for the masses. Nevertheless, everything worked perfectly, and the overall sound is catchy and eccentric in the right amount; all the gears are well-oiled and the album was enjoyable and original at the same time; it was also 100% Japanese and therefore incredibly exotic to Western ears. Thus started a new paradigm of Japanese music: technopop.


2008-2009: "⊿" – A Glimpse Beyond The Ocean

Confirmation is always the most complicated passage in an artist's career, especially when fame breaks in so suddenly and with so little time to cope with it. This concept is even more extreme when we deal with a ruthless reality like the Japanese Idol market, where music is more often than not of secondary importance: what really matters is physical appearance, age, and the ever-changing taste of the public. In short, one can go from being a star to nobody in the blink of an eye. Therefore, it was necessary to give them a relevant musical dimension as well, which proved to be a very far-sighted choice in the long run – although I can't say if it actually was part of the plan or it just happened – to distance Perfume from the rest of the market and make them something that goes beyond the mere "Idol" concept.

In their case, Nakata chose American and European productions as a source of inspiration, courageously going back to sounds from the '80s and '90s. The melodies here become calmer and more refined, while the electronic elements show a new approach and frequently becomes a minimal background for the three voices. This experiment was probably a bit premature and was just partly successful: apart from the exquisite and sophisticated "Love The World" (first electro single to top the selling charts in the musical history of Japan) and the spectacular and nostalgic "Dream Fighter" (one of their best songs in my opinion), there are also less memorable episodes where the strong references to Western pop and R&B were at times even hindering the nature of the band. However, their incursions into '80s disco music territories, embodied by the explosive "One Room Disco" and its effective chorus, were more credible, enjoyable, and closer to the trio's spirit and would be engraved on the listener's mind for weeks to come.

"⊿" is the perfect embodiment of Perfume's attempt to find new space for their music out of their comfort zone and out of their country, although the times would prove to be not ripe for this yet; just like Nietzsche's mad man, Nakata arrived there too early. In Japan the reception reflected this to some extent as well: the album made it to the top in the charts as expected, but sold just about half of its predecessor in total; this, however, won't prevent the girls from continuing their journey. The trio becomes more and more popular as their TV appearances multiply, and their live shows around the nation move to the stadiums and became one of their signature features.


2009-2011: "JPN" – Back To The Primitive

Perfume's fourth studio effort, "JPN" (one of the most pertinent titles ever), is a clear and unexpected return to the computerized atmospheres that had gone lost through the years. Straight from the start, "Laser Beam" is a declaration of intent destined to attract all those fans that might have not appreciated the "westernized" approach of the previous album: aimless rhythms, "8-bit" and cheesy sounds could not leave their old fans indifferent. A certain dance music feeling is still there, winking at early Daft Punk; and there were also a couple of "tank-solid" J-Pop songs that would be very good live ("My Color" and "Voice"); we can even get some glimpses of modern minimal house (such as the ending of the marvellous "Nee"). Nevertheless, all this doesn't harm "JPN"'s consistency. The result is a distillate of contemporary technopop perfect in its production, though lacking an actual "major hit".

This album was also released via iTunes for the first time, contributing to the expansion of their fanbase over the world, as "Polyrythm" was also chosen as a part of the soundtrack for the Disney movie "Cars 2". At the same time, after a sold-out at the Tokyo Dome (second all-female band to accomplish this feat after Speed), Perfume started targeting foreign countries for tours, starting from the Mnet Asian Music Awards – a mainly K-Pop oriented festival annually held in Macao. Perfume was not just a Japanese domestic sensation anymore.


2011-2013: "Level 3" – Spending All My Time Loving You

2012 was arguably the most important year in Perfume's history: after having left behind the "Idol" world, the band left Tokuma Japan Communication in March and found their own label, which would distribute their albums through the international major Universal and pursue the dream of bringing their music as far as possible, while keeping the group’s identity intact. The single that followed these events is the splendid "Spring Of Life", a killer song with a decidedly house beat showing their more club-oriented side, and an appetizer for "Level 3" that would be released the following year. Between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, Perfume would host the MTV Japan Music Awards and tour Asia (South Korea, Singapore) and Europe (London, Cologne, Paris), with a guest appearance (with a prize) at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. This expansion is also signaled by a release for the international market entitled "Love The World", which was accompanied by the video for "Fake It", a b-side of the old single "Nee".

"Level 3" was released in October 2013 and was the nth success for Perfume and Nakata who, after having found another phenomenon to work on his more "geeky", hipster, and generally childish things that Japanese fans love (the crazy Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), managed to make the trio from Hiroshima even more futuristic and "posh". This album is totally danceable, with modern and effective beats, and tracks such as "Party Maker" or the opener "Enter The Sphere" which might leave you somewhat puzzled at a first listen. The new sound is really mature and mixed modernity and J-Pop tradition with awareness. However, the destabilizing feeling is gone as soon as the girls' voices take us back to a known dimension; it’s as if we had been taken to a brand new house but we knew its floor map and its furniture.

Critically acclaimed and with a good response from the general public (about 90000 copies sold on day-one), "Level 3" is a work complete in every respect: between "old school" moments ("Magic Of Love", "Clockwork") and "clubbing" hits we get to "Spending All My Time", the absolute queen of the album and a pure musical drug, featuring an irresistible refrain and one of the most effective beats I have ever had heard. Sung in English (which means about a couple of verses), "Spending All My Time" can be interpreted as a way of saying thanks to their numerous foreign fans and the album version is definitely more violent than the cheesier mix chosen for the music video. The legendary tour for this album saw Perfume perform for oceanic crowds at some of the biggest stadiums in Japan, naturally concluding with the Tokyo Dome with a show that would be later featured on an amazing DVD that I personally recommend everybody to see at least once in their lives in order to comprehend the visual impact of their performances.


Today: "Cling Cling" [ep] – Perfume Taking Over The World

I was lucky enough to be in Tokyo a few days before the launch of the summer single "Cling Cling" and enjoy all the commercial fuzz set in motion for its promotion in Shibuya. I still can't figure out how Nakata manages to change everything while keeping the project coherent; once again he took me by surprise with an archaic sound featuring a dramatic upbeat bassline. Needless to say, I can't wait to discover what will be on their next album which, if it follows the usual pattern, should come out in the second half of 2015. In conclusion I just have to add that as I write (autumn 2014) Perfume are on tour and taking their music all over the world, to Europe again and for the first time to the United States.

I can't make predictions and I can't say what the future will hold for them, but something I know for sure: I would never bet against them.

Have no fear, enter the sphere.


Hikari no oku kara aruite kuru no
Me wo korashitara hora sugu saki ni
Enter the Sphere
Enter the Sphere

It's walking this way from deep within the light
If you look carefully you'll see it's right in front of you
Enter the Sphere
Enter the Sphere

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