Arashi “The Digitalian” (J Storm)
Credit where credit is due — long-running boy band Arashi have zero reason to ever try out a new musical backdrop. It therefore comes as a surprise that the group’s 13th original studio album, “The Digitalian,” finds it trying out a more electro-pop sound: one track sounds like baby’s first EDM drop, while Auto-tune is drizzled generously over vocals on other tracks.
The album’s tepid embrace of electronic trends makes it far better than last year’s staggering snoozefest, “Love,” but “The Digitalian” still ends up being a bit unremarkable with those few good sonic ideas hanging around.
What sabotages Arashi — and most top-tier J-pop in general — is a lack of urgency. The five-piece already has a legion of fans who will scoop up anything bearing its name — they could release eight seconds of white noise, like Taylor Swift’s team did accidentally last month, and still bank on a No. 1 debut on the Oricon charts (Swift ended up topping the Canadian iTunes chart). There’s nothing at stake for Arashi, so any flirtations with dance-music trends on “The Digitalian” are simply new accessories placed on the same outfit.
Album opener “Zero-G” starts with an intriguing, airy chorus, but soon settles into a generic Arashi pop song. “Bittersweet” features a flurry of chopped-up vocals at first, but similarly settles into the mid-tempo hop the group always does. So it goes for EDM (“Imaging Crazy,” “Trap”), disco (“Disco Star”) and cheesy electro-pop (“Take Off!!!!!” featuring one of the album’s four disposable rap sections). The highlight on “The Digitalian” is “Asterisk,” the one moment where Arashi gets fully submersed in digital sounds. It’s a driving number that never slows down, all the while slathering on layers of Auto-tune that make the group’s vocals actually sound different for a change.
Despite these digital forays, a large chunk of “The Digitalian” remains focused on Arashi’s well-worn approach to pop, a style and sound that has been going on for almost 15 years. There are strings, claps and a Christmas song, too. Save for a lack of ballads (a brilliant decision), at least half of this album sounds like Arashi, while the other half is Arashi wearing an Apple Watch and thinking: “The future!”
Arashi isn’t facing a decline in sales and “The Digitalian” is different enough to delight fans without alienating them. For those outside the fan base, well, we can only keep our fingers crossed for eight seconds of white noise. (Patrick St. Michel)