I usually put a disclaimer here, but I’m very pleased to be able to say that I’m able to do this review with eyes wide open and without any pre-existing bias or anything. Just big thanks to the person who helped me acquire this album; I literally couldn’t have done it without your help.
On to the review!
Petit pas! has been an enigma to me for a long time: Pretty much ever since I started to get into underground and indie idols, they were always around the fringes, showing up in photos and getting mentions from live shows, but never did I have the slightest idea what they were about.
All I really had was their profile at J-pop Idols, which says: They’ve been together since 2013 (or forever, in idol terms) and their name, “small steps” in French, refers to their approach, to slowly develop into “the most kawaii idols in Tokyo.”
All righty. That probably describes half of all of the idols in existence. And I let that cloud my perception, assuming as I did that they were probably doing some kind of alt-kawaii thing, like You’ll Melt More! in skirts or something.
So when they started to pre-release tracks from Refrain a few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised that this stuff didn’t just rock, but some of it rocked hard. Their weekly Monday releases became a real pleasure, getting some into music that they’d already released or at least performed live (so some folks had insights into what they were all about) and eventually getting into completely new territory.
So what’s the verdict?
Even right now, I’m genuinely split on that. On the one hand, this is a very impressive total product; on the other, upon more reflection, it has weaknesses that I don’t know how to deal with.
For instance, petit pas! loves them some anthems. Like, a lot. And as a person who loves Bad Religion, I love anthems, too. How many need to be on one record, though? And is having a plethora of anthems really a weakness if those anthems are good?
Another example: There’s a song on here (see below) that I think will ultimately stand up as an absolute standard of idolcore; it’s in the same vicinity as “IDOL is DEAD” and “Toxic” and (little teaser here) “No. 18.” The problem is that there’s another song almost identical to it on the same album; isn’t that a detriment?
But don’t let these gripes dissuade you from thinking that this is a good-to-great album; it is. In fact, fully 2/3 of it would wind up on your “I Am Going to Rock out Now” playlist if you liked rock music written after 2000, at all.
Things kick of with “Re START” and just barrel ahead for the entire first half of the album. “Re START itself is the first anthem, really setting a tone, a rocker that flirts with some metal percussion and puts power synths to good use, then uses a sing-along chorus to rouse the spirits. “BORDER” is big song, too, possibly my personal favorite because of my weakness for piano in rock songs, but this time it’s raw emotions and a lead guitar made to be played from atop a pillar on an elaborate arena set, plus little gems of punk callbacks and double-kicks. Another in this vein is “Cheer,” an aptly named pop punk number loaded with en-heavy-ing flourishes.
The sound transitions a little with “Rebopipo,” which, title aside, reminds me a lot of BiSH’s “Pira Piro” with its frenzy of jazzy keys and jangly guitars and frenetic pace that tosses in a clubcore bridge because why not. “Jump!!” is a big ol’ mish-mash, too. You wouldn’t be wrong to call it idolcore, because how else do you try to describe a track that lives on a super-catchy hook wrapped around what you could be forgiven for thinking is grindcore? It’s a lot of fun.
“MAGIC,” though, is just immense. I don’t recall liking it so much in earlier passes, but it really stood out in this case. It’s angry, chunky and crunchy and distorted like something a joint fan of Bring Me the Horizon and PassCode would like, with a poppy chorus and bridge that meld into a by-god-brutal breakdown before the hook takes us home. There might be an entire Heartbleed on this review just for the inclusion of this song.
Every one of those songs in the front half of the record, and things unfortunately start to get repetitive through the middle. “Prologue” may as well be the discarded early version of “BORDER” it’s so similar; “YOZORA” would be a nice change-of-pace rock ballad on many groups’ albums, but here “okay, great, a good rock song with a catchy hook” just starts to get old. “宴” got the same response from me, as did “雨,” though the latter may win the Catchiest Chorus Award for the whole ensemble.
Fortunately, the back 1/3 of the album recovers nicely. “ナツコイ” is, yes, an anthem, but its ska influence and all-chorus vocals make me think of a boozy sing-along in a crappy beach town bar (in New Jersey, of course), which by definition means that this is a fantastic summertime song. And if you’re over 30, it may remind you of Less Than Jake, which at first annoyed me because I fucking hate Less Than Jake, but that’s okay; good taste dying around 2001 isn’t petit pas! fault.
“Answer” is the closer, a nice little skate punk number that our friends in THE SPUNKY could easily have in their repertoire, but I’m giving the crown in this case to the title track, “Refrain,” which is just the tiniest bit weird to me because I never, ever side with radio-friendly, super-accessible songs. Hear me out, though: It has a lot of pop punk to it, yes, which fits right along with the rest of the album, but the vocal here is something else; who’s singing lead here (and in a lot of other places)? Her voice has the vodka-soaked duskiness of the new face at The Velvet Lounge, the one who works the same martini for hours while providing vocal accompaniment for the bad piano battle between jilted divorcees who both think they have a chance but really don’t because she might not be wearing a ring tonight, but she’s very devoted to her husband despite his workaholic lifestyle and this is the one real thrill she gets in life. Why doesn’t he notice her pain? Anyway, I really like this song.
So. Clarity. It is a two-fer of an album, even in additional retrospect, because that we’ve-kind-of-run-out-of-ideas middle of the record pulls the power away from the bookends, both of which are quite nice. I don’t think, though, that there are any bad songs on here, only less good ones, though I almost wish for something subpar enough to make the top of the heap actually stand out a little bit more from the rest.
Like, am I actually complaining about an album that’s consistently good across the board? In my defense, yes, and because there’s too much of the same move on repeat. I feel like you lose points when you have two songs so alike that I need to make sure that my player didn’t screw up, or when I feel like I have your formula nailed down the second time I’m listening to your body of work.
And though I only want to grade things against themselves, I do have to be aware of other reviews’ scores just for my own standards’ consistency’s sake (apostrophes!). BiSH and Babymetal and Necronomidol got four Heartbleeds; Deathrabbits got 3.5; Necroma got 4.5 on their second pass. In terms of how I try to evaluate these things, where does this fit?
I think right about here.
Added to the Ultimate Homicidol Playlist: Nothing, because they haven’t released a music video yet. But should they do so, whoa nelly.