Envy are a fierce Japanese hardcore band fronted by a singer whose intense, rasping delivery is a prime example of the human voice pushed to its limits. So it’s a surprise that the first track on their new album, Recitation, is a subdued number featuring tender piano chords and reversed guitar sounds all carried on a wash of feedback. Clearly, Envy have a sentimental side.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising. Envy are signed to Mogwai‘s Glasgow-based Rock Action label and have a lot in common with Mogwai’s sound. Amid the intensity of the crunching riffs, there are long, meditative sections with sparing single notes plucked on the guitar and shimmering waves of delay and feedback. Were it not for the overlying Japanese spoken-word vocals, many of the tracks on this album could be early Mogwai songs.
There’s also a strong resemblance to Texan post-rock group Explosions in the Sky. Passages build up gradually, with heavily effected guitars and urgent drum rolls. The phrases are occasionally nagging in their simplicity, as if constructed to tug on the heart strings in the most adolescent fashion while the audience gazes at their shoes, or dreamily to the sky. Like many post-rock groups, the band rely on the loud-quiet aesthetic for most of their best tunes.
This description risks making the music sound cheesy, which it’s not. Envy happily manage to avoid excessive sentimentality, despite leaning toward it on their softer passages. That said, it’s tempting to suspect the lyrics and spoken words are rather syrupy, judging by song titles such as A Breath Clad In Happiness, and Dreams Coming To An End. But if you don’t speak Japanese, the effect of the male and female spoken-word passages is rather picturesque – cinematic even. This is particularly true on the album closer, Your Hand.
The different sides to Envy’s sound are not confined to separate tracks. On the life-affirming Last Hours Of Eternity, the listener is teased with nearly five minutes of soft ambience, followed by spoken word, before the band finally kicks in with a wall of distortion and Tetsuya Fukagawa’s trademark scream.
It is Fukugawa’s vocals that tend to characterise Envy’s sound. These vocals, though, have also earned the band the epithet “screamo” (an amalgamation of scream and emo). Deep and throaty rather than wailing, Fukugawa’s voice is a powerful, cloying assault that’s both painful and exuberant. It’s intended to express great emotion and it does, even though the lyrics are lost on non-Japanese speakers.
The screamed vocals are not to everyone’s tastes, but Envy are in essence a punk band and have never aspired to mainstream appeal. Despite the instrumental passages and moments of sentimental beauty, they come from a proud hardcore tradition. Straining at its limits, Fukagawa’s voice distorts rather like the band’s guitars do when overdriven. Envy’s ethic is about wrenching moments of profound beauty from instruments pushed to their extremes, and this includes the vocals.
Envy released their first album on Rock Action in 2003 but the band have been active since 1992. Recitation is not a departure for them – it reflects a sound they’ve developed over three previous albums on Rock Action and numerous prior releases in Japan. But it is a polished sound, one the band does very well. The musicianship is solid and the mixture of high-energy vocal performance with the instrumental post-rock passages is uplifting and at times enthralling.