Fresh Blood: Happy!Mari
In spring 2011 when Stein's Gate aired I remember watching the first episode and not liking it. The animation was washed out, the plot difficult to follow and most importantly the main character was overbearing and obnoxious. I decided not to watch the series based on this first impression. But blogs everywhere kept lauding it as one of the best animes of the season so 12 episodes later I started watching it again and... holy f*ck.. it ended up having a brilliant storyline gripping with tension, fantastic dialogue and filled with some of the most interesting, dynamic characters I can remember. After practically hating the series at first Stein's Gate is now one of my all-time favorite TV series (live action or anime).
Happy!Mari are the Stein's Gate of Japanese bands.
In Dec 2011 I showed up very late to a concert just in time to watch グーミ (goomi) close the show. グーミ was my favorite band at the time and during the uchiage (after-party) グーミ's guitarist Kobata couldn't shut up about how awesome one of the other bands, Happy!Mari, were that night. He called Happy!Mari the future of アングラポップ (underground pop music). At the time I was checking out potential bands for NMFT3 and with Kobata's high priase of Happy!Mari I immediately checked out any footage I could find of them on Youtube. This is what I found:
You have GOT to be kidding me. Slow, boring emo with average musicianship and the most annoying high pitched whiny vocals. Whatever, Kobata... thanks for NOTHING!
For two years I had numerous opportunities to watch Happy!Mari but never did. I even went to a few shows to see other bands where Happy!Mari were coincidentally in the line-up but somehow I always ended up missing their set. In the meantime I actually became friends with Shinmen, Happy!Mari's singer after bumping into him at shows and at Fuji Rock. In fact, Shinmen and Kotaro (デロッピードロッピー 's drummer who curates Kura Fes) were lined up behind me to enter an onsen at Fuji Rock. AWKWARD! So awkward I ended up leaving with Ikuko (Merpeoples) and my friend Lana to go to a different onsen where my junk wouldn't have to be visible to guys I know. lol.
After becoming friends with Shinmen I figured I should give Happy!Mari the benefit of the doubt and actually watch his band perform live. Happy!Mari played a show with Kinoko Teikoku last year at Chiba LOOK, a venue I had never been to and had trouble finding. Of course by the time I finally found Chiba Look, Happy!Mari had just finished playing and soon after Kinoko Teikoku killed it and solidified their position for NMFT5's roster.
In Dec 2012, at a show curated by goomi I finally watched Happy!Mari perform live and... F*CK ME VIOLENTLY WITH A RUSTY CHAINSAW because they were one of the best bands I had seen in a looooong time. I felt really stupid for not making it a priority to see this amazing band two years earlier. Sorry Kobata!!! You were right! These guys ARE the future of underground pop music.
So what's so special about Happy!Mari? Why are they one of the best young bands in Japan today?
They're ferociously original, creative and versatile. Overall the instrumentation, especially the guitarwork, is very simple but the drummer and bassist are top-shelf and all four members as a unit are Zazen Boys tight and play with unrelenting passion and energy.
A lot of the originality and versatility stems from Shinmen's incredible vocal dexterity. I initially found his voice whiny and super-annoying and sometimes he sings off-key but after listening to more songs I discovered he has a huge range of singing styles giving each song depth and wildly different character. His singing maneuvers between many different modes: whisper, float, melt, rap, chat, moan, growl, attack, scream, explode.
The music also has multiple personalities with many songs sounding like they're being played by a completely different band.
Within each song, especially the newer ones, there is lots of variability and unpredictability with unexpected stops/starts, tempo changes and shifts in tone. This is the same level of versatility that makes Akai Koen such a great band and since they're both such young bands, I like to think of Happy!Mari as being a male version of Akai Koen. Shinmen (H!M) and Tsuno Maisa (AK) are definitely two of the most creative young songwriters in Japan today.
Apart from Shinmen's vocals, Takaishi's creative drumming style is another highlight that elevates them from most other bands. In Happy!Mari's songs you barely notice the guitar but the drumming definitely stands out either due to its power or its inventiveness with drumlines that sound original and fresh. Since Happy!Mari aren't a math/prog rock band Takaishi's drumming doesn't have the freeform creativity of toe's Kashikura but Takaishi does as much as possible to give Happy!Mari's structured pop an unpredictable, enjoyable flair.
You really notice how imaginative, confident and crisp his drumming is in this Ustream video (3rd song "Berlin 1989" f*cking RULES!) (note: Takiishi plays in another band called Miracle Afro Public with former guitarist of female grindcore band VAV! and the bassist from deepslauter).
Although Happy!Mari's music can be considered pop it has such quirkiness and volatility and coupled with Shinmen's crazy "takes getting used to" vocals I thought it would be impossible for Happy!Mari's music to have any kind of mainstream appeal. But in fact Space Shower TV (Japan's version of MTV, Muchmusic) has already developed major interest in this band. Each year SSTV holds a prestigious concert called Retsuden. Retsuden showcases 3-4 of what Space Shower TV considers the hottest up & coming Japanese bands. In 2008, group_inou, MASS OF THE FERMENTING DREGS and the Telephones were the line-up (here's a classic clip of group_inou at Retsuden).
This year tricot, WHITE ASH, indigo la End, and グッドモーニングアメリカ represented the line-up. However, SSTV also held a contest for one more band to be the opening act. From more than 1000 applicants, Happy!Mari was chosen for auditions, made the final four and won the battle of the bands Grand Prix for a contract to be the opening act at Retsuden along with funding for a future music video.
Their new bassist, Aoki, is SICK! He also plays in another great band called しゃっく
Damnit! They cut off the song when the 2nd half is where it gets really good. Personally I like this clip better despite the feedback.
So despite the inherent weirdness, underground and seemingly inaccessible nature of Happy!Mari's style of new wave/dream pop/emo/hardcore even Space Shower TV, its viewers, and audience members that were allowed to vote recognize the talent and potential for greatness in this band. To me they're the most interesting and talented young band in Japan and unless something unforeseen and crazy happens they're a sure bet to be on the roster for NMFT 6 in May 2014.