4 out of 5
Label: Avex Trax
Produced by: (unfortunately, I’m having trouble grabbing the kana for the names from anywhere, but it looks like the tracks were recorded by three different people)
To be frank: not all of this pays off in the same way. Wizard is, on the whole, a huge step forward for Vickeblanka in terms of complexity, variation, and lyrics. Within its realm of J-Pop, it’s possible it tries on a few too many hats to satisfy, especially with the sequencing / style incredibly offset by the rock centerpiece of Vicke’s Black Clover anime contribution, Black Rover. At the same time, he perhaps smartly used this opportunity to experiment, stepping into a kind of piano-led arena pop of closer Great Squall, 90s dance floor with 夏の夢 (translated as ‘Summer Dream’) and キロン (Kiron), and a kind of crass, throwback garage rock with Buntline Special. While the combination of all of this stuff ends up sitting oddly against the perfect mini-album’s worth of lead-in tracks prior to Black Rover, translating the lyrics and taking into account how all of this – the writing, the arrangements, the programming – are done by Vicke give it a notable bump of respectability. And digging in, the guy has moved well past love me / love me not pop cooing into what read like (as translated) interesting images and metaphors. Buntline also starts out with eye-rolling lyrics of ‘don’t give a….’ and a word that sounds like shit, matching the brattiness of the co-opted rock style, but the word, written in Japanese, does indeed sound the English word ‘shit,’ but translates differently, suggesting a slightly more layered dual-intentioned track. And I’m almost certainly reading into it too much, but nonetheless: it’s not initially what it sounds like.
The main two singles off the album, Winter Beat and ウララ (Urara) are just goddamned fantastic; set against the quirky title track lead-in, and some evolved ballads, the first approximate half of the disc is so, so good and catchy. Black Rover is a good song, it just very much stands out, burying Vicke’s keys behind a guitar riff, which kicks off the aforementioned stylistic shakeups. It’s nothing too wild, perhaps, as this all exists within a realm of accessible pop-rock, but it’s still offputting initially; the sequencing of Wizard tries to buffer this by closing on a couple of tracks that are more clearly identifiable as the keyboard playing crooner we know and love, but the album can definitely take a couple of spins to warm up to its variations, and, as mentioned, once it’s considered that this is the artist pushing himself and not just following a trendy muse, it becomes much more interesting and rewarding.