Monday, November 4, 2013

リフレイン (Refrain) - Arashi Song Review

I'm still waiting for my copy of LOVE to arrive in the mail, so instead of drumming my fingers on my desk and rewatching old episodes of VS Arashi, I've decided to write a little review of one my all-time favorite Arashi ballads: リフレイン, or "Refrain" in English. It's a track from their 2010 album 僕の見ている風景 (Boku no Miteiru Fuukei), so I've been listening to track for over three years now, and call me sappy, but it still hasn't lost its appeal. This will be a quick one, so please forgive and feel free to point out any errors in my listening. 

In one word, melancholy.

This song is a 5-minute dose of throbbing, unrelenting, heartache. Arashi's voices are tender, dynamic, and chock-full of an artistic affectedness that wasn't present in their simpler ballads like Sirius or Koe. Add a tinkling of revolving piano cadences, a continuous backdrop of harmonious strings, and just the very basic level of rhythmic support, and you've got yourself this gorgeous musical tapestry of sorrow and regret.

It all starts with the dainty piano phrases, cycling through the same few notes with just a slight pause in every second bar, like there's some hesitance, some indefinite force pulling the music back from the straight outpouring of emotion that you so crave it to do. The piano is layered with a subtle staggered synth effect that is just present enough so that you can feel a slight echo effect at the end of every musical phrase. It also dims the higher-pitched piano notes and bristles full of dynamic tension. At the second repetition of the piano motif, enter some clappy percussion that just languidly accentuates the piano; we slide through a couple of bars, buoyed by some very emotional strings, and bliiiing! The solo piano tinkle here is just ethereal.

Skip a beat, and who should greet us but a taut Ohno singing in slow moving phrases with just a little hint of breathiness in between words. It's not a particularly sexy Ohno, but that's more just due to the fragmented nature of the musical phrases than to the singing itself. Before we can really be bothered by it, though, Aiba swoops in with Sho on harmonies and we get a fluid lingering melody. Sho has a couple of solo lines before Aiba and Jun sweep us back into the lingering melody, which crescendoes and rises in pitch until Ohno's voice effortlessly takes up the final surge to sail us into the chorus. The instrumentation throughout Verse 1 is all pretty much the same stuff we heard in the intro, but with the subtle addition of an acoustic guitar plucked every now and then. The strings appear after Ohno's beginning verse and are a constant backdrop, with a deep-chested viola/cello (can't really tell) solo line really milking the emotional intensity of string sounds.

Sparkly synth noises, cymbal build-up... aaand we're in the chorus! Ano hi no bokutachi wa...Arashi's holding their chests and singing with their eyes closed in overwrought emotion at this point. I love the small emphasis on "hi" and the repetition of the melody in the next line because this melody is just. so. heartbreaking. The minor wind-down kimi no yokogao zutto gives only small tension-release as everything builds up again in Mitsumeta mama kisetsu wa, and you know Arashi's tears are brimming their eyelashes with that wa. And then, comes the part I absolutely adore: soft and subdued Sakuraiba with an answering call to the chorus on the wind-down. I'm referring to the "me wo tojireba..." line that is so incredibly sad and sexy at the same time! The little Sakuraiba answering calls during the choruses are definitely one of my favorite things about this song. Listen for the "kagayaku yo" lines later in the chorus, too. I'm a big fan of Aiba's velvety singing voice, and I love hearing his voice in the pensive answering lines (which it's just perfect for!). It's like a regretful sigh, like Arashi's smoothing themselves out after that intense chorus, and I just cannot be unmoved by it, even after all these years.

The chorus is hardly faded away when Sho picks up with the second verse, and he sounds surprisingly decent (though perhaps a little less natural than Ohno or Aiba) in a tender ballad voice. A very slick bu-doom-doom-doom movement happens on the drums (I see in my mind's eye Arashi doing a sleek about-face and then...). Aiba steps forward with Nino (?) on harmonies and eargasms us some more with his lullaby-like voice before moving aside to make way for MatsuJun (who is definitely backed by harmonizing Nino). They're both singing their hearts out here. I don't usually notice the Matsumiya vocal combo too much, since it's not very common, but this time, I did, because you can really hear Nino distinctly and the daintiness of his voice is like an exquisite shadow around Jun's deeper and more penetrating voice. Now I want to hear some more Matsumiya in the future! There's a lot of potential in there.

The bridge is dominated by our main man Ohno, who starts it off solo but then gets various harmonic backings as the bridge progresses. We also get one more Sakuraiba answering call (hikaru yo), which makes me tingle a bit inside. For the first (and only time?) in this song, we have a Nino solo, as he ends the bridge, and if there's anything I like, it's a powerful high combo in the form of Ohmiya switching dominances in a single musical paragraph. And here I like how fluid the transition is between them switching, as the harmonics really tie them together. Both the vocals and instrumentals are decidedly more agitated here, with staccato synth strings accenting every beat and smooth orchestral strings steadily rising in tension in the backdrop.  Not to mention that both Ohno and Nino sound absolutely heartbroken as they sing this (especially on Nino's lingering "kawatte yuku"). Naisu buriji, guys! There's a bit of an instrumental solo after this, and then we move on into another round of the gorgeous chorus.

We're approaching the ending now. We have Ohno-dominated harmonies singing the "Ano hi no bokutachi wa" and the Aiba-dominated harmonies giving the answering calls, which are just repetitions here. I think Aiba could have been made a little softer here for a better trailing off effect, but what they have works too, as we have the back-and-forth go on for two lines before the running instrumentals take over. Arashi lays the final angsty "Ano hi no bokutachi wa~~" on top of the recurring piano motif that we will now forever have associated with sorrowful brooding, and the motif continues until it reaches a sparkly dissolution. We end on a sustained woodwind note (funny, but I never noticed any woodwinds until this moment, haha!) that eventually fades out solo. This is where, in my mind's eye, I see the stage turning monochrome and the last sliver of light being gradually dimmed until everything goes dark.

Phew! Every once in a while, Arashi will shed their sunny image and release a ballad that is just soul-shocking. This is one of them. I'd also recommend 明日の記憶 (Ashita no Kioku) as another power ballad that is worth many many repeat listenings. Your Eyes is yet another one (though I have to admit that on first listen, I really didn't like anything except the chorus). Go check them out! Nothing like heart-shattering, slightly emo Arashi to help you through a lonely day, trust me.

Happy November, everyone! Hope you celebrated Arashi's CD Debut date (Nov. 3) in style, and if you forgot, well, there's still Riida's birthday on Nov. 26 to look forward to!


  1. And you know what? Try reading the lyrics while thinking about Sakumoto... this could be their theme song practically ;-; (Someone else pointed it out to me a long time ago and I haven't been able to get the idea out of my head since).

    1. Haha oh the ideas you keep giving me!
      The angsty nostalgia in this song does suit Sakumoto ><
      Ah, they're getting on so well in 2014 so far though! Here's to hoping for a cheerier Sakumoto theme song! ^^