I skipped the disclaimer because what’s the point? Literally, who doesn’t admit to at least liking PassCode? Their music is fun, energetic and often heavy as hell; on the human side, they’re a bunch of lovable weirdos who nonetheless see the melding of idol and rock as a chance to transcend both. That’s awesome.
Since their real launching off just two years ago, PassCode has been on a rapid rise to the top of the alt-idol heap; if you’re holding an event for the off-kilter and they aren’t in the conversation to headline, you’re doing it wrong. Along the way, their blend of “normal” idol with digital hardcore is a trendsetter; other groups have taken the electronic approach and run with it, with mixed results.
Back at the source, PassCode followed up their big 2014 debut, All Is Vanity, with a 2015 littered with just two singles but an absolute face-kicking TIF debut and their first national one-man tour (oh, and facing down a really big change in membership). Looking back, the whole scenario feels like a gun being very slowly cocked: They were building energy for a rifle shot.
When VIRTUAL was finally released late last month, then, it was a moment of truth — was PassCode for real? Had they hit the mark?
VIRTUAL is a schizoid piece of work, the product of an idol project that definitely has feet in several worlds at once and is making a play for more broad-based popular appeal.
There is nothing wrong with this; in fact, in both new and re-released tracks, PassCode makes no attempt to shy away from the utter sonic mayhem that made them a force to be reckoned with, so the fans of that aspect of theirs have nothing to complain about. At the same time, though, while the album as a whole stays roughly true to the formula that was established with All Is Vanity, there are very clear attempts to work within current trends and even score with some more mainstream music.
Given that, the album does have an odd structure. It’s front-loaded with what were probably calculated to be the biggest crowd-pleasers and pivots around the interplay between one of PassCode’s most delicate songs with one of their most ferocious before treating some of their best material almost as back-album filler and closing with relatively uncharted territory in a pair of soft ballads.
That structure seems to be making direct reference to PassCode at a virtual (ha) crossroads; they’re idols, and they’re in an obvious rock space, and they live among and between scenes. Rather than pick one path, however, they’re pretty boldly saying that they’re quite happy to straddle those lines and you can either come along for the bumpy ride or move on to safer vehicles.
To speak to the opening half, a sort of laying bare of PassCode as a concept, the album opens with “MOON PHASE,” which is one of two completely new songs that feel like PassCode songs. This one is a violently melodic rocker that recalls some of their other tracks but has a distinct stamp of its own, right down to Yuna’s harsh vocals sounding almost like an audition for a black metal project. “AXIS,” which debuted with a music video several months ago, follows up with a mellower exploration of the same formula, this being one of the safer, more crowd-pleasing expositions of what PassCode does best, only to kick right into one of their better all-time numbers, “Never Sleep Again,” re-released almost untouched from the original master class in clubcore.
Things shift abruptly from there into “Dream Maker” (ドリームメーカー), which I’m fairly certain is PassCode’s first real foray into denpacore. It’s a jarring experience, them at some of their most “true” idol, like “Kiss Bouqet” on amphetamines, and part of what I referred to in working with current trends; denpa style is hot, and to not at least try to work with it would be like Babymetal skipping out of “KARATE” when metalcore is in a dominant position (that is, now). What I don’t think, though, is that the song completely works here; I’d have preferred it as a B-side as a test run.
Almost predictably, then, things shift to “NINJA BOMBER,” which is another song that hits all the right PassCode notes at about a half-turn down on the intensity dial. In this case, the move works; it may be missing some teeth, but it’s still a nice song with a fun video, which is another big part of PassCode’s appeal.
The middle pivot for the album is seriously jarring. First up is “from here,” which, like “NINJA BOMBER” and “AXIS,” was released as a music video well in advance of the album’s release. Despite originally being somewhat put off by the song’s simple poppy sweetness (the piano competing with some crunchy guitars in the bridge notwithstanding), I found myself liking it in this context, sort of the cool-down match on a wrestling card because it’s immediately followed by the gob-stomping crusher “SIGNAL,” which will please old fans with its intense digital hardcore and maybe help convert others to the true faith*.
Everything to this point on the album makes its own degree of sense one way or another, but there are misses in the back half. “Nextage” and “Now I Know,” PassCode’s first two singles, are both re-recorded here with the current lineup and updated mixes, and they both reminded me of the “if it ain’t broke” adage; they’re both far from bad, and it’s not like they were going to be improved, so why include them except as (good, granted, but still) filler?
“Selfish Girl” stands out as a winner, a return to the “Let the Revelry Begin” side of PassCode that’s content to just be a rocking little pop punk song (with an actual guitar solo instead of a breakdown!); the final two songs, on the other hand, are a pretty big swerve. “Don’t leave me alone” is in the same vein as “Orange,” if you’re familiar, in that it’s a true ballad, only “Orange” is the superior song right up until “Don’t leave”‘s final chorus, where things get pretty big pretty fast thanks to that Daughtry-esque dad rock guitar finally building to the crescendo it spent three minutes teasing; the closer, “You made my day,” I honestly don’t understand, as it’s a whopping 1:17 worth of a piano ballad that, likely emotional impact aside, just really betrays the overall energy of the album and PassCode in general.
In the end, if you’re familiar with PassCode’s work to date, you’ll feel comfortable amid VIRTUAL‘s sudden shifts in tone and intensity. If you’re approaching this from a rock standpoint, you probably won’t be disappointed, as this might be the kind of album that you’d expect idol+rock to produce; if you’re coming at it as an idol fan, or even just a general fan of pop music, you’ll probably enjoy the things that the rock side finds incongruous.
Most of the album works; some of it works very well, playing with the same themes that are at the core of PassCode’s identity. Where it doesn’t work, you can mostly at least understand what they were trying to do, even if either the execution or the delivery was a little faulty. I don’t think it’s destined to go down as a classic of the style, so to speak, but it probably does deliver on the promise that PassCode’s displayed and give them a chance to take another big step forward.
That sounds like a tepid endorsement, but the fact remains that you earn more latitude in how you miss when you also hit a lot of home runs, and VIRTUAL flat-out mashes when it does really make contact.
Added to the Ultimate Homicidol Playlist:
“Now I Know” and “Never Sleep Again” were both previously added to the Playlist