The years 1997 and 1998 were a watershed in Japanese music. It was the dizzying peak that marked the point between the relentlessly climbing music sales that preceded and the mostly unbroken decline that followed. It also saw the 21st century begin to take shape, with artists such as Hikaru Utada, Ayumi Hamasaki and Morning Musume bursting onto the scene with their first chart hits.
In the indie and alternative world there was a shift underway too, from the aesthetic-heavy and fashion-conscious art-pop that characterized the Shibuya-kei scene toward rock bands such as Number Girl and Quruli, who took more visible cues from U.S. alternative rock.
Releasing its first single, “Cream Soda,” via Sony’s Epic imprint in 1997, there was always a whiff of something a bit prefab about Supercar when placed next to its indie-nurtured contemporaries. Nevertheless, the sheer, monstrous, overwhelming rocket-punch power of the group’s 1998 debut album “Three Out Change!!” established it as a key band helping to remake and remodel Japanese rock for the new millennium.
The key to “Three Out Change!!” lies in a combination of Koji Nakamura and Miki Furukawa’s sweetly disaffected male-female twin vocal dynamic and the oceanic storm-swells of guitar that blast you into a dazed sort of conviction over the album’s 78-plus minutes. While at the time it was considered more or less a J-pop album, it was obviously heavily indebted to the less experimental, more Britpop-influenced side of shoegaze — for all the layers and effects in which the members drench their guitars, the songwriting is more Ride than My Bloody Valentine.
“Three Out Change!!” also invites comparisons to Oasis, with the chords and guitar licks on “U” in particular sounding like something drawn straight from Noel Gallagher’s playbook, albeit with an additional layer of speaker-ripping Dinosaur Jr.-esque distortion. Supercar was never a band to trade in laddish rock ‘n’ roll swagger though, instead channeling its rock influences through a prism of fading dreams and bleak northern skies.
The album’s impact isn’t purely in the new vocabulary of guitar distortion it helped bring to the Japanese pop universe. What sustains it over the course of its daunting running time is a combination of sonic power and Nakamura’s knack for a pop tune with the bitter-edged romanticism of guitarist Junji Ishiwatari’s lyrics. The way a song as emotionally draining as the yearnful “Automatic Wing” can run straight into the acid-edged pop duet “Lucky,” or the pounding, Jesus & Mary Chain-like “Sea Girl” sidles up against the cynical, nocturnal bubble gum of “Happy Talking” ensures that, for all the dream-like wash of the guitars, the listener is constantly being slapped back toward wakefulness.
Despite the textural variation as the album unfolds, it is nevertheless working to a climax, eventually resolving into the 13-minute “Trip Sky.” A sonic cathedral of slowly swirling guitars, it builds anthemically to the heavens before cutting out suddenly, leaving you breathless and bereft.
Supercar’s future gradually led it in a more electronic direction, a transition documented on the forthcoming re-releases of 1999’s “Jump Up” and 2001’s “Futurama,” but on “Three Out Change!!” the band staked a claim to possibly the most stunning and powerful debut in Japanese rock history.