Announced just one month after their debut single dropped, the production schedule for BEYOOOOOND1St broke with J-idol conventions by hewing more closely to the 70s-80s rock system of rolling out a single to promote an impending new album, usually a month or so before its release. In an era where new idol groups are expected to have at least one indie single and several major singles under their belt before a debut album is even considered, this was a bold strategy. When Up Front bet on BEYOOOOONDS, they did so by pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table, and it was smart play, because BEYOOOOOND1St is a J-idol masterwork that ranks with the very best of Hello! Project long-players.
The only track that fails to hit home is the “OOOOOVERTURE” that opens the album, and that’s primarily because the obviously sampled (or modeled) orchestra instruments occupy a kind of aural Uncanny Valley between realistic and ersatz that makes me wish they had opted for one or the other (preferably realistic). Mostly, it just feels a bit cheap and mailed-in. And that’s about it for blemishes. A mere 1:21 that’s easily skipped, and you can move on to the most consistently great Hello! Project long player in a decade, which is saying something considering how good H!P LPs have been since Kobushi Factory closed out 2016 with their stellar Kobushi Sono Ichi.
Track 2 is where the real fun begins. “Atsui” opens with a slow, brooding solo-piano intro (played superbly by group member Honoka Kobayashi) that offers a taste of the chorus before the mood is quickly shocked into hyper-drive by the group shout of “BEYONDSU! Atsui!,” and from there the song is transported solidly into Babymetal territory. Like BM, it’s not the most brutal metal you’ve heard, but it is proper metal underpinned by an infectious idol-pop foundation. The theatrical and humorous sides that BEYOOOOONDS established on their debut single are present throughout “Atsui,” as they are for most of the album. The upbeat mood is continued with the single track “Nippon no D・N・A!” before being restrained by sub-group CHICA#TETSU and the breezy 70s AM-radio gem “Takanawa Gateway Eki ga Dekiru Koro ni wa”. Lush electric piano, disco strings and horns combine with a sophisticated chord progression and melody to give us the very first hint that BEYOOOOONDS is, in fact, a Hello! Project unit.
The still-nameless trio of Miyo Hirai, Honoka Kobayashi and Utano Satoyoshi follow this with the self-deprecating, musical-theater charged “We Need A Name.” This song isn’t a Hirai feature per se, but it is our first glimpse at just how powerful and electric her voice is. Miyo’s soulful delivery over the first four bars of the song’s slow opening is breathtaking, and poor Honoka — who is a decent singer herself — has the dirty job of following her. Several theatrical gear-changes later we arrive at the Bohemian Rhapsody inspired ending, and you’re left smiling at the sheer audacity of the music and the bluntness with which they confront the “name” issue. It’s brilliant.
For the next two songs, BEYOOOOONDS sets about tackling a question I’ve always pondered: how good would Momoiro Clover Z be if they weren’t terrible singers? The answer is: really goddamned good. The first of these, “Sokora no Yatsu to wa Onaji ni Saretakunai,” features the Ame no Mori Kawa Umi sub-unit, and it builds on a foundation of melodic H!P electro-pop with a dash of metal guitar work and just enough Dempa freneticism over the solo and choruses to keep everything lively. This is followed by the six-minute idol-opera “Kinoko Takenoko Daisenki.” The changes in this prog-idol epic are plentiful and stark, moving from rock-opera to more Dempa to neo-traditional Japanese to idol-metal to etheral 6/8 ballad, and (phew!) just when you think it’s done, back to the opening rock-opera motif — which once again channels Queen — to tie everything together and close it out. It’s all very grand, and only possible anymore in the world of Japanese idol-pop. And yes, both of these songs would fit seamlessly on Momoclo’s 5th Dimension.
From there it’s on to the lead track from their single, “Megane no Otoko no Ko,” which is preceded here by a solo piano “serenade” built upon the song’s chorus. It’s beautiful, but is followed by the full skit from the video, which is the only other small issue I have with this album. I get that these skits are central to the themes of the songs they are connected to, but they can be pretty long — a full 1:25 before the actual song begins in this case — and since they are not given separate tracks, you can’t simply hit “next track” on your music player to skip past them. Again, it’s a small thing, but this song has grown on me since it was released, and having to sit through the entire skit while driving is a drag.
Speaking of the single, a common reaction to it (and the album pre-release of “Atsui”) was that BEYOOOOONDS didn’t really feel like an H!P group, and there is something to that. The 3-sub-unit makeup of the group, the fact that auditions were open even to those with previous professional idol experience, and the theatrical focus was unlike anything H!P has done in the past, and it shows in their music. BEYOOOOOND1St highlights a talented idol group as comfortable outside of the H!P cocoon as they are inside of it, and the deft songwriting and smart track order ensures that this stylistic wanderlust never leads them too far astray, nor for too long. For this, they have composer Sho Hoshibe to thank.
Make no mistake, while this is a BEYOOOOONDS album, musically it’s the Hoshibe Show. Since 2015, Hoshibe has been writing some of H!P’s best music, but he had never been tasked with the responsibility of composing nearly a full album until now. Without looking, I don’t think any H!P composer not named Tsunku has ever been trusted with such an important project before. The eleven songs (out of 15) that Hoshibe contributes here showcase a versatile and confident composer at ease in any genre of pop music.
With that in mind, the rest of BEYOOOOOND1St finishes the job of offering the group’s — and Hoshibe’s — Hello! Project bona fides. “Koi no O-Swing” is just what you’d expect from the title, and like much of the album, feels of the musical theater. I love that they went the extra mile by hiring an actual swing band for the instrumental rather than using sampled instruments. This honestly would have made a killer track for Country Girls. If this isn’t enough to reveal the group’s H!P soul, the next song puts a million-lumen spotlight on it.
“Gannen Bungee Jump” is vintage H!P funk that rivals the very best of that lot, and Hoshibe reveals how deeply Hello! Project is ingrained in his musical soul by taking full command of this instant classic: lyrics, music and arrangement. It doesn’t sound like Tsunku or DANCE☆MAN, but the influences of both are undeniable. The unmistakable 16-beat feel; the driving, funky bass; the funky electric piano; the omnipresent congas; the horn arrangement; the Thriller-era Michael Jackson-esque interlude; the strong vocal performances — all work together to form a devastating H!P tour de funk that will shake the asses of their wota for years to come.
“Ren’ai Bugyou” recalls 2005 era H!P with a cute, fun arrangement steeped in melodic J-Eurobeat, while “GIRL ZONE” brings more booty-shaking, bass-driven funk to its verses, and J-idol joy to its chorus. “Toei Oedo Sen no Roppongi Eki de Dakishimete” sports a carefree turn-of-the-century J-pop feel, but it would easily suit any era simply by changing the arrangement to fit. As for “Go Waist,” I was never a fan of this reworking of “Go West,” but it doesn’t feel at all out of place here.
The album closer, “Nobishiro ~Beyond the World~,” starts as a slow-simmering, soulful 6/8 pop-shuffle that explodes into a full gospel stomper after the second chorus. The first time I listened to it, I was disappointed that the chorus was more pop than soul, but after hearing it a few more times I realized that it had to be that way for it to work in the second half’s faster half-time shuffle. And good lord does it work. The chorus punches twice as hard in the full gospel setting, and just when you think the song is ending and you’ve been taken to the limit, there’s a soaring half-step modulation into a final chorus that pushes you over the edge. This is the sort of nostalgically emotional anthem that Hello! Project has excelled at forever, and is becoming a Hoshibe specialty. The level of talent carrying the load makes “Nobishiro” work better than, say, “Kobushi no Hana,” where Kobushi Factory’s talent was not yet quite at the level to fully do that song justice. (Or the very young Berryz Koubou with Tsunku’s “Semi.”) It’s one of those songs that has to be the closer, because it’s so draining that you don’t want to listen to anything for little while after it ends.
BEYOOOOOND1St is an astounding debut album for a truly unique J-idol group, not just within H!P, but J-pop in general. They are brimming with talent and charisma, and with the musical direction of a great young songwriter just now hitting his prime, there is no limit to how good they can be. BEYOOOOONDS is the first group capable of challenging Morning Musume for H!P supremacy, and if they continue to rack up sales as they have with this album and their debut single (30K and 112K respectively), H!P’s flagship had better be prepared for a serious battle. I’m just rooting for a good fight, because regardless of which group comes out on top, the real winners will be H!P fans.