Denki Groove

Hailing from Tokyo, Denki Groove is one of the most successful electronic acts of Japan's post-YMO era. They have all the hallmarks of 90's electronic music, covering KLF-like stadium techno, Chemical big beats, Orb-style ambient, and Detroit techno, but with a big nod to 70's styles like funk and disco. They are kind of like Ween in that a good portion of their work is tongue-in-cheek or parodic, but they're more talented than most of their peers, and never really trapped themselves in the genre. Like most groups, they have certain themes they return to on every album, but for the most part they don’t repeat their successes or settle on a specific sound, mixing things up on each release.

After doing a little research, it appears that the heart of the group is Takkyu Ishino, who writes most of the material and handles a lot of the vocals. Pierre Taki is more like the soul, as he does a lot of vocal work, directs the videos, and is probably responsible for a lot of the weirder facets of the group, but he doesn't write or play much. Yoshinori Sunahara was also a member for most of the 90's, though his influence is harder to detect. CMJK was also in the group during their early period, but as far as I know he was gone by their second album. Sunahara left around 1998, and they’ve remained as a duo ever since.

I'm able to separate DG into four main periods, so start on whichever one appeals to you. Their first period (1990-1992) was similar to stadium techno or acid house with hip-hop vocals, not really taking itself too seriously. The second (1993-1995) dealt with more longform techno similar to a number of 90's groups, with some pop songs in between. The third period (1996-2000) is arguably the most famous, with a harder, more sarcastic sound that used a lot of bizarre arrangements and vocal experiments. The group took a break in 2001 as popular electronic music started to sputter out, but reformed in 2008 to record a few albums of stripped-down techno that don't really sound like anything else they've done.

662 BPM by DG (1989)
This is technically first release with the Denki Groove name, released before they got signed to a major label. You can hear many of the elements that would show up on Flash Papa - high-speed rapping, big hooks, and surprisingly little downtime, as the group was constantly throwing new elements and samples into the mix, whether they belonged there or not. The sound is close to the JAM/KLF's 1987: What the Fuck is Going On, with cheap drum machines and synthesized slap bass (a late 80's hallmark) alongside a bunch of unauthorized samples. Maybe not as entertaining overall, but they do get credit for writing their own melodies - outside of "Joe" (which transforms halfway through into a psuedo-cover of "The Robots"), most of the samples are awkwardly thrown in and only serve to make the album sound more dense (a worthy cause, given the equipment they were using). As far as the actual tunes, there's a couple that would make the major label debut ("Denki Biribiri", "We Are"), plus "Less Than Zero", a more-or-less fully formed version of "N.O.", which would become a major hit four years later. The other stuff is still memorable ("B-A-S-S"), mostly showcasing the group's skills at writing good hooks. The final track is a drawn out groove with a ton of vocal samples over the top, foreshadowing stuff like "The Homerun Tiger in a Bush" that they'd do many years later. It's worth tracking down if you're a fan of their early material, as they sound really young and aren't quite out of their Zin-Say prankster phase yet, but it won't uncover any valuable "rarities" along the way, and the low rating is a reflection of that - it's probably worth an extra half-star on its own, but its hard to imagine any dedicated DG fan making this a part of their rotation.

Flash Papa (1990)
DG's debut album just may get on your nerves, as it mixes KLF-style electro and acid house with novelty hip hop, and features a lot of screaming. But it's also loads of fun, mostly because they don't really take anything seriously ("Because" is the only thing that's even remotely downtempo, and that one rocks pretty hard). While the bookending tracks focus on high-speed rapping ("We Are", "Denki Biribiri"), a lot of this is hook heavy, with choruses that you'll never get out of your head ("Namagomi Oh 2", "Cafe de Oni", "Bingo!"). Although the production is very good for the year it was released, it does have the same trancey piano, Kraftwerk samples, and drum machines that everyone else was using in the early 90's, so if you're burned out on the whole White Room sound, you may find some elements of this to be too distracting. But the album itself still sounds great, because it's mostly vocal heavy and full of personality, which separates this from contemporary releases by Orbital and 808 State. It's not quite to the level of the Mondays' cover of "Step On", but it has that same immediate bliss-out vibe to it. The high point is "Denki Biribiri", which is one of the most exciting things they've done, though both "Cafe de Oni" and "Bingo!" are catchy and colorful enough to play a dozen times in a row ("Cafe" may actually be the most shamelessly hooky thing they've ever done). Overall this is a cut above your typical comedy/electro/rap album, especially as its nuanced enough to make you believe that they could really make the leap.

UFO (1991)
A lot like the last album, but better. Again, it's mostly upbeat and silly, though there are some prettier tracks and a level of sophistication underneath everything, as the band's sound palette has expanded dramatically. A good example is "B.B.E." which is an acid house stormer that's denser than anything on Flash Papa and has several big hooks. Despite all the dance beats and electronic stuff, this is really just a great pop album with a ton of replay value, especially as their production methods remain a step ahead of the competition ("Mechanical Musume"). The standout track is "All Star Family vs. Family Snake Battle", a gorgeous stargazer with some adorable female vocals and a dreamlike chorus. However, just about everything works, as this is one of those albums where it's hard to tell what the singles are (in a good way). They work really well with Latin rhythms, doing both salsa ("Mud Ebis", which was a single) and reggaeton (Taki's "Cho-U-Cho", which somehow wasn't, even though it's one of the most addictive things they've ever done), and are able to switch things up enough to do a bizarre, jazzy version of YMO's "Cosmic Surfin". There are some more focused hip-hop tracks near the end ("Christmas Night in Tokyo", "Caution to the Ape"), but they dissipate any notion of seriousness at the end with a groovy dub tune ("Mr. Sister") and a karaoke surf-rock parody called "Denki Groove is Bitch!" Overall, there's a big "major label" feel here, as there are different sounds on nearly every track, and it's clear that a lot of time was spent producing and engineering this. It's not the sound that DG is known for, but fans should rush to pick this one up anyway.

Karateka (1992)
What an odd album this is. Here, the group take the fast-paced, rap-heavy style of the first two albums and plaster a bunch of samples everywhere, sometimes with little rhyme or reason. For example, the excellent "Twist of the World" is based heavily on Echo & the Bunnymen's "Cutter", but it also quietly slots in the bass line from "The Magnificent Seven" underneath everything. Not only do they crib half the melody of "Hold Me My Daddy" on "Comfortablism", but they also sample XTC directly three times just for the hell of it (to be fair, one is a radio call-in that was a bonus track on the Dukes album). They even sample their last two records, because why not. Essentially this is an album where some things work and some things don't, but the good outweighs the bad. Three of the first four tracks are incredible - the incredibly cheery, dub-heavy single "Snake Finger", "Twist of the World", and "Comfortablism", which has a resonant Underworld vibe to it. And the closing "DS Massive" scores points for ratcheting up the intensity on "Denki Biribiri" and "B.B.E.", and may be the most energetic thing they would do until "Dareda!" came along. Some other tracks don't quite work - "Demanlynpic" is third-rate hip hop, "Dokashit" sounds like a bad take on Flash Papa's "Because", and "Hi-Score" is rather uninteresting, outside of the bleeping, YMO sampling symphony of blips. All these tracks are in the middle of the album, by the way. Elsewhere, it is mostly good, hook-driven technopop ("Let's Go", "Karateka"), and "March" is anthemic, and actually somewhat gorgeous. Not quite as addictive as the prior two albums, but when it's good, it's really good. Paves the way to Vitamin and beyond.

Flash Papa Menthol (1993)
DG is a group with many personalities, and on this (and the later Drill King Anthology), they'd attempt to entertain as many of those personalities as possible. This is a remix of the entire Flash Papa album, and it's not one of those "add extra beats, repeat a vocal phrase 400 times, and extend it to 8 minutes" efforts – these tracks are re-built from scratch, and in many cases the transformation is pretty dramatic. "Cafe de Oni" gets an intense hardstyle remix, "Raggamon" turns into a ten minute dead ringer for the Orb's "Towers of Dub", "M.O.C." is done as hardcore punk (!), barely resembling the original, and "Because" gets a dramatic, string-laden makeover. What points they lose for coherence are certainly gained in enthusiasm. Overall I don't think it's as good as the original album (which has held up surprisingly well), though I'm sure some fans would disagree. I will say that I’d love to see them try this with some of their other albums, as later remixes were mostly handled by outside producers.

Vitamin (1993)
This is more of a drum n' bass album with some technopop elements, and from here on out DG's sound would be ever-changing. We've heard this sort of thing before in tracks like "CATV", but this is more expansive. The first half of this is mostly safe and enjoyable, while the second half branches out and takes a few detours, as though they're trying to find their footing. For example, "Shinkansen" is ten minutes of trance with a stunning female vocal, and while you can draw some parallels between this and their later work (or Ishino's solo career), they'd never do anything quite like this again. Outside of that (and the moody ambient instrumental "Snow and Dove"), most of this is hook driven, with the required Kraftwerk samples and nods to 70's disco and funk. In fact, "Disco Union" sounds like it's built up from nothing but generic disco samples, but it winds up fairly effective in spite of that. Again, the best tracks are the ones where the different threads of melody interact with each other in neat ways, such as the incredibly upbeat "Hiking", or "Stingray", which resembles late 90's Orb. For the most part this is well produced, though there are a few oversights (the percussion on "Fake Hooligan" sounds like a jangling keyring, which ruins the track). Sometimes it goes into odd territory, such as an acidic, bleep-heavy drum n' bass cover of "Popcorn", or Taki's "Fuji-San", which quotes "Scotland the Brave" and features an awful lot of yelling (get used to it, by the way). But the real highlight is "N.O.", a straightforward pop tune with one of the most pitch-perfect bridges I've ever heard (including a couple of brief keyboard solos, a guitar solo, a neat sample, and a great vocal to top it off), which wound up becoming their first big single. Overall this is a good album and something of a band landmark.

Drill King Anthology (1994)
Similar to the Turtles' Battle of the Bands, Denki Groove re-imagine themselves as seven different groups and compile the results (plus one remix). From what I've read on Nick Kent's site, most of these groups are parodies or covers of old Japanese pop groups, which may explain why I don't understand much of the humor here. The only reference I really get is the song they do as "Pedal Fumiya", a three-fourths cover of Kraftwerk's "Tour de France" (with references to "Autobahn" and "Trans-Europe Express"). "Zinsei" (performed as Masaru Taki) sounds straight out of one of those Japanese karaoke videos, the ones where the words flash along the bottom of the screen while scenes of sunsets on the beach flash by. Of course, Taki's performace is totally over the top. Also notable is "Motetakute", a single-worthy tune which finally sounds like the Denki Groove we know. I like how multi-talented this group is - the relatively low rating (compared to their "straight" albums) is more a reflection on the album's short running time and low replay value, as outside of "Skeleton Joe" and "Motetakute", everything relies on some kind of gimmick. "Riki-Ishi" really is 6 minutes of Taki screaming over disparate piano chords, and who needs to hear that more than once? In fact, Taki is all over the place on this album, and I would guess that most of this was his idea. If nothing else, this is all quite entertaining, though only the hardcore fand need apply.

Dragon (1994)
By this time, DG was interested in doing more or less straight techno, and this is their only record where the humor isn't a focal point in some way. You can split this album into two pieces - the even-numbered tracks have vocals and the odd-numbered ones don't. Not coincidentally, the even-numbered ones are far and away the best, for Denki Groove have always relied heavily on their vocal hooks. They sometimes take a cue from "Hiking" on the last album, singing pop melodies over deep, melodic house music, and those tracks are the ones with the most replay value ("Kame Life", "Noi Noi Noi"). Elsewhere, there's a dubbed out tune that resembles an actual song, one of their best along these lines ("Popo"), and a frantic, almost baroque-sounding tune that sounds like it belongs in a video game ("Oshogatsu"). But the real standout is the album's closing track, "Niji", a deep, resonant groove with a dreamlike vocal and a melodic score of bleeps over the top. The result sounds something like a mashup of Orbital's "Halycon" and Underworld's "Rez", and it's every bit as great as that sounds on paper. It's enough to make up for some sub-standard instrumental stuff - both "Baron Dance" and "Brazilian Cowboy" have multiple sections and try to go into trance territory, but they get lost in the process, and only hint at a big payoff. Both of these are worthwhile in the way they pile so many rhythms on top of each other, but it's clear that this is new territory for the group. It's better when they're just plugging straight ahead like they do on the funky "Chameleon Mania", which is probably the best of the lot. At worst, there's the opener "Mujina", which is long and intentionally droll, presumably just so it can hit you with a huge dynamic shift with a high-energy coda. As anything but an album opener, this would fall on its face, but I dig the overall effect, especially how the mantra "wake up" gets more and more frequent as the track builds. Overall, it's a little uneven, and very much of its time, but half of this ranks among their best material ever, showing some real artistic growth and a bid for longevity. Both the driving "Kame Life" and the odd tribal jam of "Noi Noi Noi" are worth the price of admission alone.

Parking (1995)
The band took 1995 off to work on solo projects, and this box set compiles the results. This includes Ishino and Sunahara's first solo albums, a 30-minute VHS produced by Taki, and a single that includes remixes of "Popo", "Denki Biribiri", and "Noi Noi Noi".

Orange (1996)
This is where DG start to come into their own as technopop deconstructionists, and they'd stick to this sound for the rest of the decade. In addition to the melodic stuff they usually do, there's a lot of focus on short loops and aggressive beats, resulting in tracks like "Killer Pomato" and "Repetition Side Step", which are exercises in layering over short phrases (also, Taki repeatedly runs the former off the rails). But for the most part, this is the same sort of electro-funk/disco they've always done, though there's a bigger measure of skill - "Viva! Asia Marudashi" is similar to "Disco Union" but much more clever and memorable, and "Scorpion" would have fit among the best stuff on Dragon. But there are some new elements that take things to another level of intensity - the final track has some elements of drill n' bass, while the fast-paced yell-fest "Dareda!" is absolutely nuts. It's one of those things that really has to be heard to be believed, and outside of "Niji" it is probably their signature track. There's a lot of Taki on the album, which keeps things unpredictable and chaotic, as there's only one straight-faced tune here - "Smileless Smile", the requisite "Towers of Dub" tribute. On the other end of the spectrum, there's "Popaipopai", which is one of the few DG tracks that Taki composed completely himself. It sounds like something you'd hear in a demented pizza parlour, and is addictive as hell for exactly that reason. It's that oddball, self-aware humor that separates Denki Groove from the pack, not so much "aren't these guys clever?" as it is "what the hell is going on in Japan?".

A (1997)
It's tough to classify an album like this - while it does have a mainstream, almost "big beat" feel, pretty much every track here is its own thing. So while it opens with a low-key, epic-sounding piece of trance ("Wicked Jumper"), there's really no continuity or conclusion, as it immediately jumps to a harsh drum n' bass freakout ("Volcanic Drumbeats") and follows it with an addictive tune that's little more than chiptune noises and goofball vocals, unlike anything they've ever done ("Pocket Cowboy"). Like nearly all their music, there are a lot of humorous parts, but at its core the album is marked by some solid tunes. It's actually fairly similar to Fatboy Slim's You've Come a Long Way, Baby - it's clearly a late-90's effort, and there are a lot of feel-good melodies, bass drops, and repeated vocal sections, though I can't see Fatboy doing something as labored as the vocal track on "Pocket Cowboy", which constantly alternates between five different vocal takes with different singers (or groups thereof). And like that album, it's anchored by a huge single. In this case it's "Shangri-La", which takes Silvetti's "Spring Rain" and turns it into a disco floor-filler, with actual verses, a chorus, layered drum loops, and a bunch of new instruments that you'd be surprised to find out weren't in the original. It feels less like a remix and more like "this is the way the original should have been", and the result was the biggest seller that DG ever had.

The group doesn't really try to replicate that anywhere else, instead alternating between dark, beat-heavy techno ("Garigari Kun", "Volcanic Drumbeats") and lighter, catchier stuff ("CATY Summer"), with a couple of longer tracks that hit both spots. "Parachute" is a long funk workout that builds into a surprisingly good downtempo coda, while "Asunaro Sunshine" is kind of a take on Daft Punk-style French house, albeit one with a pretty distracting vocal (as Taki loudly imitates an opera singer). It really goes overboard (in a good way) about 5 minutes in, when it breaks down and introduces a loud, pounding bass line into the mix, which it repeats on every measure, making it sound like it's coming out of a funk breakdown every 8 seconds or so. Again, that's all part of the Denki Groove "willing to try anything" aestethic, which also hampers the album a bit. On one hand, there are many good individual tracks, but on the other, I'm not sure how any of this fits together, and you may find yourself skipping around a lot (for example, the slow midnight-groove "Smoky Bubbles" might have been a good idea on a different album, but it doesn't really work right after "Shangri-La"). I suppose this was all probably intentional, as DG are no strangers at attempting to show their range. There's really only one track that doesn't work ("Never"), but it is baffling as to why that one was left on the album. In the end it's a little too abrasive and broad to really hit the same highs as Orange, though if you're new to the group, this wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Recycled A (1998)
A remix of the previous album. This is straight remix fare, done entirely by outside producers (usually DG has a hand in their own remixes). I didn't find it very interesting when I listened to it. Strangely, this is the most common disc I've seen of theirs. Both this and the original disc were eventually released together as Double A.

VOXXX (2000)
Yoshinori Sunahara left the band after the last album, leaving things in the hands of Ishino and Taki, both of whom seemed determined to take the group to more far out places than they had ever gone before. By this time, electronic music was starting to reach an impasse, and most of the big early 90's acts were in the process of fizzling out. Listening to this album, it's easy to get the sense that Denki Groove knew the end times were coming, and responded by releasing the craziest, most all-encompassing electronic album they could. And it really is broad - through the album's hour-plus running time, it seems to cover about a dozen genres, with lyrics that constantly flip between German, Japanese, and English. After the intro, the first three tunes are fairly normal - there's an incredibly catchy piece backed by really thick beats ("Eine Kleine Melodie"), a lush techno bliss-out ("Nothing's Gonna Change"), an excellent, subversive disco single ("Flashback Disco"). From there, it jumps off the deep end quick. All I can really say is that's mixed in a strangely aggressive fashion, as Ishino makes sure to never let any drum pattern or loop last too long, and in many cases, "too long" equals about half of a bar. As a result, there's a ton of scratching and mixing, along with what sounds like a malfunctioning sampler. A lot of this stuff can't even really be classified - "Edisonden" sounds like it was probably a straight hip-hop track at some point, but it's so jittery and chopped up that it nearly ventures into the avant-garde. Even weirder is its preceding interlude, "Flashback J-Pop Countdown", which does not even go a single second without getting cut or remixed in some way.

Most of this will probably scare off those unfamiliar with the group (particularly the nearly 9-minute prank "Themes From the Invader", which sounds like early 80's electro-funk with a robot vocaloid), but stick around - there's some truly great electronica in the end. "TKO Tekno Queen" shows what this type of aggressive mixing can do when applied to a house barnstormer, and manages to feel both futuristic and retro at the same time. Then there's the stunning "Reaktion", which mixes up a beautiful, whacked out melody with bird calls, great vocal hooks, and heavy beats (what else?) Finally, there's the pounding funk of "Hello! Mr. Monkey Magic Orchestra", which beats Daft Punk at its own game (and seems to predict the entire Discovery sound). Ultimately, this is deserving of the highest rating not just for the sheer breadth of the thing, but also for how damn enjoyable it is - there hasn't been an electronic album like this before (or since), and even minute-long interludes like "Flashback J-Pop Countdown" strike me as a lot more clever and dense than what most of their contemporaries were doing at the time. Everything here feels so "next level", even in the more humorous spots. I'm not sure where the ultimate electro collection starts, but I'm pretty sure it ends here.

Ilbon 2000 (2000)
If you liked the ridiculously aggressive mix of VOXXX, you'll probably be interested in this live album, which uses many of the same techniques, but tries to do them in real time. The result an entertaining, but it's a mess, as the mix seems to fluctuate throughout the recording, although I do buy it's all one show (apparently it's their performance at the WIRE 00 festival, where they seem to bring it every year). Clearly, there's been a bit of post-production work, which I don't mind, but they don't necessarily clean anything up. There's a lot going on here - the group seems to be very much into sampling their own vocals and trying to sync them up with the music on the fly, which doesn't always work. But the chaos is a big part of what makes this album so good, and you can pick out new things in the mix each time you hear it. The music is cobbled together like a DJ set, continuously inserting pieces from other songs and switching up the beats, and like VOXXX, it doesn't stay in any place for too long. In fact, DG sound like they're bored with their own music, purposely keeping the more structured songs short, instead choosing to jam on more open-ended stuff like "Jumbo Tanishi" and "Killer Pomato". It results in a pretty torrid mix, especially in the last 15 minutes, when they finally bring out some of their older material. Even though using "Niji" as a two-minute interlude rather than the epic show-stopper it could be seems like a waste, I can't help but admire their fervor here, and the hard cut to "Volcanic Drumbeats" is brilliant. Rather than wind things down, there's a point where every song seems faster than the last, and the finale's BPM is so high that it can't even be danced to ("Fuji-San"). They do "Dareda!" and even whip out "Denki Biribiri", both times intentionally destroying their own vocal lines. It's pretty clear this isn't meant as a substitute for their actual albums, as it just aims to capture the essence of each tune, jam for a bit, then move on.

If I have an issue with the album, it's that the sound quality is a little dodgy, and at some points it sounds as though your speakers are blown. However, I'm willing to ignore that because A) this is what most live shows actually do sound like, and B) there's really no subtlety here anyway. Live electronic music is always tricky, but this is about as far away from "two dudes headbanging to their own tunes" as you can get - in fact, this is one of the few that make it sound like there are more people on stage than there actually are. What I like about this is that it avoids the "career retrospective" angle that so many of these live recordings take, instead focusing on a specific sound, and if this is your first Denki Groove album, you'd be left with a lot more questions than answers.

The Last Supper (2001)
This remix project was the last official Denki Groove release for several years. Many of the tracks were remixed by DG themselves, but some other popular Japanese electro artists show up, including Cornelius, CMJK, Kagami, and ex-DG member Sunahara. This is more in line with Flash Papa Menthol than it is Recycled A, as a lot of the music is re-worked from the ground up. For example, CMJK's version of "Cafe de Oni" is remade as a subdued pop idol tune, far away from the playful vibe of the original. "Scorpion 2001" sounds like something from an Ishino solo album, with only a brief nod to the original. And of course, anything Cornelius remixes is going to sound like a Point B-side ("Garigari Kun"). The highlight is a thunderous, electrified version of "B.B.E." that's even more addictive than the original - "Motetakute" is remixed in a similar way and also sounds great. However, most of these originals are hard to top, so the most interesting mixes are the ones that completely change the focus of the tune - "Cafe de Oni" counts, as does a version of "N.O." which essentially takes all the DG elements out and uses a German female pop singer, and it's so effortlessly catchy that it's hard to imagine it not becoming a big hit over there as well. The final track is what sounds like a campfire rendition of "Neu Neu Neu", with a string section and about a dozen vocalists. So it's a disjointed listen, though the group attempted to segue things together somewhat. I'm not sure what someone who isn't familiar with the source material would think of this, as it does cover a lot of ground in only fifty minutes. But it's a good companion album if you're a fan of their original run.

There's a limited edition out there with eight tracks on a second disc, mostly pulling together outside remixes that appeared on more recent singles, plus "Dinosaur Tank", which appeared on the very rare Dragon EP - it's basically ten minutes of hardstyle techno beats, and I suspect none of the DG members outside of Ishino had anything to do with it. As far as I understand, the first five tracks appeared on a rare 12" that was presumably sent mostly to DJs, as they have the long intros and outros that suggest they were intended to be mixed with other tracks. After that, there's a Polysics cover of "N.O." (confusingly, also in German), and a remix of YMO's "Technopolis", which is surprisingly bouncy and would work fine on today's dancefloor. Otherwise, the second disc is not really essential, which is good news since only 5000 copies were pressed.

Singles and Strikes (2004)
A two disc set, with a disc of hits (the Singles) and one of deeper album cuts (the Strikes, I guess). I mention this because a lot of the single edits are quite good, and some of the tracks are mixed much differently than the album versions. Also there are a few otherwise hard to find remixes.

Denki Groove x Scha Dara Parr (2005)
This is a collaboration with Japanese hip hop group Scha Dara Parr, who were also veterans at this point in their career. Essentially this adds up to five MC's and one DJ, and as such the melodies aren't really a focal point, thereby nerfing one of DG's strong suits. Ultimately I think this scans much better if you speak Japanese, as the vocals are always up front, and there's one track with a conversation running through it ("Midnight Connection"). It's hard to tell how seriously they're taking this whole thing (my guess: not very), and much of the middle section is a bit tough to understand, but elsewhere there are some really solid tunes. "Twilight" is pure pop, and it's about as perfect and effortlessly catchy as "N.O." was, even using a jangly acoustic guitar throughout. "Saint Ojisan" is the other single, and it's more typical of the rest of the album - rapid-fire hip hop with a bunch of synth blasts in the background, plus a good chorus to tie it together. Compared to the layered, maximized approach of Denki Groove, most tracks don't have a whole lot going on, as most of the clutter seems to be removed. So it's usually a basic rhythm + a synth line + some samples, but often little else ("Twilight" is a big exception here). This works well when the hooks are good - "Hitsujitachi no Elegy" has a nighttime Oriental feel that gives the track serious legs, and "Love Love Session" is the same type of throwback funk that Ishino's been doing his whole career. But a lot of times the album tries to get by on gimmicky concepts - "Kizaiya Rock n' Roll" is essentially an electrified take on 60's surf-rock, and it's a fun listen, but also the kind of thing that Rip Slyme do better. There's a pastiche of Electric Cafe samples on "Taki vs. Ani", the aforementioned "conversation track", plus a karaoke tune with a female singer who doesn't appear elsewhere, which all distracts from the good stuff like "B.A.P.", which shows how a collaboration like this *should* work. For better or worse, the album is kept short (just over 40 minutes), so it's more a distraction than a comeback. Potentially worth it for the good tracks (particuarly the singles), but casual fans should stay away.

J-POP (2008)
As you'd expect, the first official Denki Groove studio album in eight years sounds nothing like what came before. This is the kind of sound I would have expected after Sunahara's departure, as it's comparatively minimal and focused, not drawing much from outside influences. The style feels retro, but the production is modern, and ultimately it doesn't feel like it belongs to any era. There's a mechanical, static feel to everything, and generally the tracks attempt to get by on building momentum rather than adding too many new elements; there aren't really any unexpected shifts. This really works on rave-ups like "Zoo Desire", which has a wicked synth loop and an odd syncopation between the beats and the vocals. There are a few middling tracks with okay hooks that are pleasant enough ("Ichigo-Musume", "Kanpeki Ni Nakushite"), but they're made up for by two things; one, this is incredibly intricate, so it holds up over many listens, and two, the highlights are really great. "Shonen Young" is the deepest groove they've done in a long time, with a bouncy rhythm and an incredible harmonized vocal hook. It doesn't really go anywhere, but it's got a great feel to it, and around five minutes it feels too short, in a good way. Likewise, the one extended cut, "Super Star", is kind of simple in its execution, but the subtle melody shifts and slowly building intensity is clearly the work of a veteran. Taki's vocal spotlight ("Hanbun Ningen Damono") is also very good, mostly because of how wonky and off-balance the whole thing is, as though the tune is ready to topple over at any time. And "Mononoke Dance" has one of those incredible propulsive grooves that just forces you to move around, even if you're sitting. There are some departures are the final three tracks - "Zizo" is the kind of mellow, dubbed-out stuff the group did in their early days, while both "Szczecin" and "Ringing Bells" are strikingly beautiful (and brief), proving that maybe you can teach an old dog new tricks. Overall, this is probably the smallest library of sounds the group has ever worked with, but Ishino's such a skilled veteran that everything can't help but fall into its right place.

Yellow (2009)
I've heard this is mostly outtakes from J-POP, which might explain why some of the ideas on here seem way underdeveloped. But if you cut this down to EP length, it's actually quite good - the surreal, dreamlike "No. 3" really does loop around in 3/4 time, the single "Sanpunmaru No Uta" is a neat goof-off samba piece, and the last four tracks, including the long instrumentals "Shonen Acid" and "Area Arena", are excellent (the other two, "The Words" and "Fake It!" are catchy and anthemic, though they do sound alike). The middle section is where things take a downturn; while "Confessions of Mole Man" is sluggish and doesn't go anywhere, the similarly paced "Dondake the Giant" at least has an interesting old-school hip-hop feel - it's unclear why "Mole" made the cut at all. Perhaps they just didn't have enough ideas for an album - "Acid House All Night Long" cribs the chant from "N.O.", while "A. Ki. Me. Fu. Ra. I." is basically the vocal hook from "Reaktion", slowed down and built around. They aren't really putting in the effort that they used to, which is unfortunate since top-notch cuts like "Area Arena" and "Fake It!" show that they still have some great melodies left in them. In addition, the production (especially on the vocals) seems to be purposely botched, as there's a compressed mix that lodges most of the music in a strange part of your head. So why still three stars? Well, there's a lot of Taki (which is always a good thing), and even lesser cuts like "Dondake" and "Acid House" can be fun, as they still have a good sense of pacing and don't try to do too much. This is more pop-oriented than J-POP and makes a good companion, but they can do better than this.

20 (2009)
If you found the lack of effort on Yellow a big put-off, you may want to stay away from this album, which was seemingly rushed out to coincide with Denki Groove's 20th anniversary. The first three tracks make it sound as though they're attempting to release the most droll funk record ever, as both "Tarantula" and "Ponkotsu Fantasia" grab minor funk elements and give them almost no backing whatsoever, as though they were trying to parody the idea of a pop song. Luckily, the rest of the album is much better; the electrofunk improves to a ridiculous degree ("Nanmaida?" is a real force), and the parodies get a little funnier ("Exotica", "Dark Red Sofa"). The standout is "Pierre Taki No Taiso 42sai", which is one of the weirdest, most hook-filled tracks they've ever done, syncopating a bunch of simple techno melodies and vocal samples into a clockwork-like whole. Oh, and it's all made to sync up with a truly bizarre video, so make sure you watch that (as it is guaranteed to play in your head every time you hear the track). There are some other great tracks too - "Cat and Isreal" is the same kind of odd and catchy techno that filled J-Pop, while the wonderful closer "Fox" is actually fairly soft and contains some great vocal harmonies. So after you skip the first three tracks, there's a very good EP-size release left over, and if you combined it with the better parts of Yellow, you'd have a pretty great full-length. Fans of the band may want to pick it up anyway, as there's both a bonus disc (which has an excellent mix of "Wicked Jumper") and a DVD, which is truly fascinating (though my lack of Japanese skills dampens my excitement a bit).

Golden Hits - Due to Contract (2011)
Maybe 20+ years in the business has made them a little cynical? I'm not sure if the two skulls on the cover are supposed to signify that Denki Groove is dead. Let's hope not. I mention this release because it's a good way to pick up the single versions of "Mononoke Dance" and "Shonen Young", which are very different from the album versions (especially the latter, which turns into the most perfect pop tune they've done this side of "N.O.") (I know I said that about "Twilight", but that's fair, since it apes a big chunk of that tune). Most of the other tracks are represented as alternate versions or special edits, so a collector is going to want this anyway. Plus, it's funny that a 15-track collection that covers over twenty years is still finding room for goofy one-offs like "Fuji-San" and "Pocket Cowboy".

Human Beings and Animals (2013)
Denki Groove aren't going to pretend that they can bring anything new to the table in 2013, so instead they give us perhaps their most pop-oriented album yet - all nine tunes here rely heavily on vocals, and one is a cover of the Monkees "Steppin' Stone". Essentially this is a modern take on A, even laying down a "Shangri-La" anagram late in the album ("Upside Down"). It takes mammoth hooks and beats you over the head with them - there's a relentlessness similar to Homework-era Daft Punk (which also featured some wicked bass parts), but without the obnoxious side-chaining, thank you very much. Most of these songs are written like singles, with vocals up front, lots of harmonization, crisp beats, and a good sense of build-and-release. In fact, some of them are singles already - a pair of hardlined funk jams ("Missing Beatz" and "Shameful") were released in advance of the album, and a different version of "Upside Down" was one back in 2009. There are a couple of extended cuts - "P", which is big beat DJ fodder with some funny scat vocals, and "Oyster", an epic with a showstopping synth bit. I don't know if it was included to give the album at least one serious track ("Slow Motion" is a bit contemplative as well), but it's certainly the album's standout. The only previous DG tune it really compares to is "Reaktion", which was easily one of Denki Groove's best tracks ever. It may be easy to peg a lot of this as shallow or overly broad, but this is a very good album from front-to-back, and if nothing else I can say I found it a lot more captivating than Daft Punk's release this year. The only tune that feels needlessly extended is "The Big Shirts", and even "P" comes off as a lot of fun instead of annoying (as "Never" was). Credit a lot of this to the overall sound palette, which takes a lot of care to not clutter things too much, instead putting the emphasis on the sequenced bass parts (which are good) and the vocals (which are even better). The songwriting is on about the same level as it was on A, but there's more focus here, and as such it's more inviting on repeat plays. In other words, I don't think it's exactly an album of the year candidate, but it may wind up being the one that I play the most. Not a lot of techno groups these days have the gall to cover the Monkees. Certainly that's something we could use a little more of, don't you think?