Album Review: Superfly - Zero

Album Review: Superfly - Zero | Random J Pop

Zero is Superfly’s 6th studio album, which came 5 years after her 2015 album White, which was a very clear reference visually to a new beginning for front woman Shiho Ochi. Shiho still seemed to be in the process of trying to find her own identity ever since her fellow band member handed in his letter of resignation, leaving her solely as Superfly, and Zero seems to be where she’s landed with it. And pretty firmly so.

Shiho is part of what is becoming an ever growing group of women in Japanese music who have long taken charge of their careers, but are rarely ever given credit for it. For Superfly’s albums Force and White, there was a part of me which wondered if Shiho was still holding onto the relic of being a duo, because sonically nothing really changed in the music. And whilst women have pretty much been running J-Pop for decades, with Shiho being in the J-Rock space, I’m sure that she and Warner Music felt there was some benefit in some still believing that Superfly is a group with a man (or men) in it. But with Zero it seems as though Shiho is ready to let all of that go and really step up to the mantle. She IS Superfly. With that, she can do whatever she likes, and that’s exactly what she does with Zero.

For those who are worried that Zero will be unfamiliar to the Superfly you knew and loved from the days of the self-titled debut, Box Emotions and Mind Travel, you needn’t worry. Zero is less funky and less hippy than those albums, but the DNA of Superfly is still in these songs, because so much of that was what Shiho brought to the table. But Zero puts new things on the table. It doesn’t chart territory which Superfly hasn’t charted before, but this time around it feels as though Shiho is on the Great Sea on her Wind Waker boat like ‘Fuck the map’. She’s going where the wind takes her.

Zero splits pretty cleanly down the middle. The first half of the album is pretty much what you would expect from a Superfly album. It’s loud and it’s fun. But the second half of the album is where things shift into pop, pop rock and pop ballad territory, and I feel the second half of the album is what is going to divide fans. Something that Superfly fans may object to with the second half of Zero, is that the sounds and vibes they’ve identified with Superfly over the years aren’t as prominent within it. Some may even go as far as to say they feel Superfly has sold out - which would be unfortunate, because the songs in the second half of the album are good. But I could see where those who feel this are coming from because it does feel like a shift

As much as I like the songs in the latter half of the album, I almost forgot that I was listening to Superfly songs. During “Koori ni Tojikomete” I had to double check and make sure my shit hadn’t shuffled to Angela Aki, because not only does the whole song sound like it’s on an Angela Aki tip, but Shiho genuinely sounds JUST like her at points. Then you have a song like “Lily no Inori” which gives strong Ayaka vibes. And then “Bloom”, which is your standard J-pop power ballad fare. These moments don’t really sell Superfly’s uniqueness and distinctive qualities in the same way as the first half of the album, but I feel it may be the part of the album that will sell those who weren’t latching onto the first 5 or so songs. The familiarity of the sounds in the second half of Zero are now a part of the lexicon of J-Pop, and the softer nature of the songs in this half of the album feels akin to other female artists in the genre that some may already be fans of, such as the aforementioned Angela Aki amd Ayaka and the likes of Sayuri Sugawara. I personally feel the second half of the album is the strongest part of the album, because separate from whatever Shiho was going for with it, the songs in this half of the album are just stronger than those in the first. I’m personally okay with a song here and there drifting into Angela Aki or Ayaka territory, because I adore both those bitches. Angela Aki seems to have given up on music completely. So if Superfly wants to fill that void, then bitch... *gestures* Fill it like a hole.

Despite the divide which does occur from track 7 onward, and how much I keep referring to it, the album does still feel whole and flows nicely from top to bottom; despite 3 of the singles being released over the course of 2018 and 2019. And starting the album off with “Ambitious” was a stroke of genius, as not only does it set the tone for the album as a whole, but there’s is this perfect circle moment which occurs when the album closes with “Gifts”, causing the album to close as it started. A loop. Like a zero. Clever. But the one thing which unifies the two sides of the album is of course the Superfly herself and that big ass voice of hers. No matter what Shiho sings, she just sounds great, and every song on this album is arranged in a way where it showcases her voice without it ever being overbearing. It’d be easy for Shiho to just blast every single song, but she knows her voice. It’s also part of what makes the second half of the album so strong, because Shiho switches into a whole other gear vocally. Where-as the first half shows Shiho’s fire and the songs are structured in a way to allow listeners to revel in that, the second half of Zero shows Shiho’s softness; but Shiho gives us levels on each song. She’s brilliant with her dynamics and being able to go from a 2 to 10 and then back to a 2 without it feeling strange or like big notes and then whispers and croons are just popping up out of nowhere. “Bloom” is a great example of this. Shiho runs through the song like water. This is supplemented by the arrangements and the composition of the songs, which are all arranged to really showcase Shiho’s voice and frame it in the best possible way. For me personally, Shiho’s voice shines in the second half of Zero, because she sounds more fluid and is able to play with her voice more on the mid-tempo and slower songs, then the high energy songs which require her to come in at a high level and maintain that from start to finish. She sounds great every time, and again, the arrangements work wonders. But the songs are just less interesting to listen to, because you don’t feel like you’re being taken on as much of a journey as everything from track 7 onwards. There is nothing between tracks 1 to 6 which feel as transcendent as "Lily no Inori" and "Bloom". And I don’t know what on Earth Shiho been doing over the years, but her voice manages to have better clarity now than it did before.

Album Review: Superfly - Zero | Random J Pop

The divide in Zero album highlights a new direction for Superfly, which tracks given the album title. Zero. Shiho trying to return to a previous state of self or just clean the slate. The theme of returning to oneself, starting anew or returning to familiar cycles hoping for a different outcome in the face of unwanted changes has been a common theme for many in 2020 given the pandemic; but it’s been one which has been quite prevalent in J-Pop specifically since 2019, which could be because of the end of the Heisei era and the beginning of Reiwa. Songs such as Perfume’s “Saisei” are about hitting reset. Hikaru Utada’s “Time” is about going back. Zero appears to be a form of cleanse for Shiho. Allowing herself to shed the expectations of whatever people thought Superfly was and relieving herself of that burden, whilst also honouring and acknowledging the legacy she helped build. Even the album cover itself could be a nod to this, with it being Superfly’s first album to feature Shiho with her hair at the shortest it’s ever been, and a setting which could be a reference to Superfly’s breakout album Mind Travel, which also featured Shiho on an open road.

Everything about Zero feels like her emancipating herself from everything that she felt was confining her. Over the course of her career Shiho has had to transition from being known as a group and as part of a duo, to being THE Superfly itself, and deal with increasing popularity with each album and everything that comes with that. To us, nothing had really changed, because Shiho was always the face of Superfly. And whilst Shiho has been Superfly for years now, Zero feels like the first album where she’s truly embraced it and realised her own power and agency. She seems far less concerned with the legacy of Superfly and more interested in forging a new future for Superfly on her own terms, and it really comes through in the creative choices that she’s made on this album.

Zero broadens the scope of Superfly’s sound, whilst placing Shiho’s femininity far more centre on songs that we’ve gotten before. Not to say that femininity has to be tied to a particular set of sounds, but there is definitely an awareness that Shiho has on this album in regards to her womanhood - in a similar way to how Ringo Sheena and Hikaru Utada did. Ringo and Hikaru cared less about how they were perceived than most. But when they truly stopped caring, there was a newfound confidence which emerged not just in terms of how they freely presented themselves physically, but musically too. And that same energy is present here on Zero. It’s also interesting that all 3 ladies seemed to gravitate towards the inclusion of jazz in their music at this turning point in each of their lives and careers. Hikaru Utada on Fantome, Ringo Sheena on Heisei Fuuzoku and Shiho on Zero with the song “Fall”.

Zero may not be as loud, as boisterous or as ‘cool’ as some of Superfly’s earlier albums, but the one thing it has in spades is heart. The opening song “Ambitious” does a great job of setting the tone for the album. This song is so fucking joyous, that no matter how depressed your ass is, you can’t help but feel a flicker of light once that chorus kicks in. It’s a beautiful song with an equally beautiful music video, in which Shiho emerges looking like a lesbian priestess. This song was the theme of the TBS J-drama Watashi, Teiji de Kaerimasu, but it really shoulda doubled as Japan’s Pride anthem. “Ambitious” does a great job of balancing the power and delicacy of Shiho’s voice, which this album plays on more than any of Superfly’s albums that I can think of.

Zero isn’t this drastic departure from what Superfly has been known for, but it is a little different. And it should be allowed to be. A lot can happen in 5 years. But Zero feels like more than just a commentary on those 5 years. It’s a beautiful culmination and a reflection of Shiho’s life and career to date. It’s an album which is less about Superfly’s past and present and more about Shiho and how she sees her future, which is what makes it special, new, and an ideal album for times when we're feeling a little unsure of our own futures and need a much needed jolt of reassurance and hope.


■ Ambitious 🔥
■ Gemstone
■ Kakusei
■ Lily no Inori 🏆
■ Koori ni Tojikomete 🔥
■ Bloom 🔥
■ Sunday
■ Gifts