Album Review: Capsule - Metro Pulse

The post header image, featuring the text ‘?J Pop Album Review’ and a shot of a vinyl of Capsule’s album ‘Metro Pulse’.

Being a fan of Nakata Yasutaka, and by proxy Capsule, is rough. And it can also be complicated. Because he helms entire projects himself, with two of his most notable, and still very active clients being Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu - the success of these projects and how they are received is very dependent on Nakata’s output. And whilst some YSTK, Perfume and Kyary fans may want to be in denial about the quality of Perfume, Kyary (and also Capsule’s) albums circa 2016; the reality is that it was a dire period. Nakata was not on his shit, and he was dragging the quality of Kyary, Perfume and Capsule’s music down. But we seem to have entered a new age. One where Nakata had finally woken up and smelled the doo-doo roast coffee.

From 2020, there was a shift. Because not only did Nakata’s productions seem to revert back to something closer to the quality of what garnered him his dedicated fanbase in the first place, but he also seemed to be looking back a heck of a lot. Looking back and self referencing is uncharacteristic for Nakata, but makes a lot of sense given the stillness of 2020 brought on by the pandemic. I’m sure many of us spent a lot of time looking back on the past due to the uncertainty of the future. And this stillness and uncertainty sparked something in many who are creatives with huge platforms, because it made them want to try and create a world which was far more colourful and joyous than the one everybody was living in. To generate movement and momentum at a time where nothing was moving. So it’s no wonder that the main narrative of Candy Racer was moving forward. That a narrative of Plasma was detachment from the real world. And that a narrative of Metro Pulse is the need to get away. And the sound of each album was one of vibrancy at the prospect of what is to come, not melancholy and what currently is.

Capsule’s albums have been a little wayward over the past few years. Each album seemed to be moving further away from what Capsule was once seen as, but without moving toward anything in particular. The sounds were getting darker. There was less to latch onto. Capsule was losing its identity a little. But Metro Pulse pulls everything back, to present a Capsule like that of old. Metro Pulse feels like one of the most Capsuley Capsule albums in quite some time, and it’s great in part because of it.

Nakata seemed to be trying to avoid himself at one point in his career, which I think started around 2016, when his works became the most divisive I think they’d ever been. His sound started to shift, and started to feel generic. There were still signature Nakata-isms in his work, but he seemed to lose sense of who he was. The sounds that people loved him for. The sounds that people loved Perfume for. There was a musical identity crisis happening before our eyes and ears. But Nakata has now returned to himself. Metro Pulse feels like the Capsule album we should have gotten years ago - the same way that Plasma feels like the Perfume album we should have gotten years ago.

Whatever Nakata was on during 2020 - 2022, he needs to distil it and bottle it. Because there is a clear sense of him being inspired, and the most creative he has been in quite some time. I wouldn’t say his music is back to the quality of what it was during his heyday. But he is at least aware of the magic his music had during this period, and makes attempts to recapture it.

A screenshot from the music video for “Virtual Freedom”. Featuring a 3D avatar version of Nakata Yasutaka sat at his workstation.
Capsule - Metro Pulse | Warner Music Japan

Metro Pulse features Nakata’s ever controversial album mixes for all of the singles. The changes with the album mixes are far more subtle compared to his album mixes for Perfume over the years. But even so, some of the differences may or may not be to your liking. I personally prefer the single versions of “Hikari no Disco” and “Virtual Freedom” over the album mixes. But the album mixes are by no means bad. I quite like that Nakata tinkered with the songs because he had an opportunity to. This is something I’d like to see more acts do with album releases in Japan; where albums often end up featuring songs which in some cases can be years old. But as has always been the case with Nakata’s album mixes, he doesn’t alway make the best judgement calls. None of the Metro Pulse singles NEEDED to be album mixed. Meanwhile, Plasma is sat over there with no album mixes at all, as though “Saisei” and “Time Warp”, weren’t crying out for some bigger changes. But at least in the case of Metro Pulse, we still have the single versions available. And the album mixes aren’t so bad that you can’t bring yourself to listen to them over the original. None of the changes actually change the songs in the way some of Nakata’s album mixes for Perfume did. Some changes are obvious (the drum fill at the start of “Hikari no Disco”) and some are subtle (the additional synth work on “Virtual Freedom”). But being a fan of Nakata’s productions means having a particular ear for the nuances of his productions and arrangements. So fans in particular you will notice the differences, regardless of how small, and have an opinion on them either way.

From around 2016, Nakata’s song structures seemed to change. He started favouring shorter songs, and verse chorus verse structures became a rarity. This approach works for certain songs, but is a very case-by-case basis type of thing. But in Nakata’s case, it’s an every case type of thing.

Something which Metro Pulse really highlights to me is that Nakata’s songs do not feel as consistently complete as they once did. Most of the songs on Metro Pulse feel like they end prematurely, have no sense of pay off, feature needless repetition, and / or are structured in the wrong order. “Start” is one such example. I adore this song. It’s one of my favourites on the album. But it does not feel whole, and it’s oddly structured. The lengthy post chorus instrumental hitting twice feels like Nakata just trying to pad out the song. This section should have only featured once after the second run of the chorus, and then been followed by a middle 8 and / or a key change. But it featuring twice just feels needlessly repetitious and provides huge sections where we get no vocals. Then for the song to just end? It’s like he couldn’t figure out what else to do with the song.

Nakata also makes no strides when it comes to vocal production. “Give Me a Ride” (another album highlight) is a great song. And the instrumental passages are all great. But it feels so segmented; as though Toshiko is just being dropped into pockets of the song because Nakata didn’t record enough of her vocals to use them more frequently. Either that, or he couldn’t be bothered to write more lyrics. Even simple things like having Toshiko’s layered ooo’s and ahhh’s would have helped give her a constant presence on the song, because she is one of the best things about it. And utilising Toshiko’s vocals during repeated instrumental sections would have added a sense of variety to the song. But as with “Start”, we just get copied and pasted instrumental sections with zero variations, and then the song is over.

Switching up the vocals and arrangements would help songs feel tighter, and as though there is a journey being taken through the song. Beyoncé’s Renaissance may seem like a strange choice of album to bring up here, but it’s a great example of an album which plays with song structure and repetition in cool ways. A song like “Heated” is a great example. It doesn’t have a standard verse chorus verse structure at all. And there is a whole lot of repetition in the song, something which would completely kill the song were it not for some of the production choices which were made. Vocal production. Harmonies are woven throughout the song to help add variety to Beyoncé’s mainline vocals. But the harmonies are never exactly the same, even when the lyrics being sung are. Mixing. We get Beyoncé’s vocals being chopped and self-sampled throughout the song, to add even variety, but also to occasionally pull your ear to something different other than the main vocals. Production. New sounds being introduced and others being dropped so that the song isn’t so monotonous, and your ear is always catching something different. There’s an art to creating repetitious songs, and Nakata knows it, because he’s always made them throughout his career, and they were / still are great. But for some reason, he just isn’t able to deliver these types of songs in quite the same way he did before.

A screenshot from the music video for “Virtual Freedom”. Featuring a 3D avatar version of Toshiko stood in an elevator as it goes up.
Capsule - Metro Pulse | Warner Music Japan

Metro Pulse features good songs, with tight production. But the way in which the songs are arranged sells some of these otherwise brilliant songs short. And Nakata still doesn’t seem to regard vocals with any real importance other than just reciting his lyrics. He never meshes the two in a way where you could never imagine separating them. As much as I feel Toshiko adds to the songs on this album, Metro Pulse could be an instrumental album, and still effectively work, and this shouldn’t be the case. This also presents a bit of an obstacle for Toshiko, because she’s not growing as a result of Nakata just keeping her in this pocket. It’s awesome hearing her on every song, but this is how it should be ANYWAY. And even so, she is still under utilised. It’s nice to hear her singing differently on these songs, but it’s still a far cry from how she sounded on High Collar Girl. It’s really unfortunate, because you can hear how much fun Toshiko is having experimenting with different characters and styles of singing. Toshiko is committed. But Nakata’s like ‘That’s enough for now’ and then we just get instrumental passages in the place of what should have been another verse, bridge or middle 8 with Toshiko on them, doing a whole lot more.

A screenshot from the music video for “Virtual Freedom”. Featuring 3D avatar versions of Nakata Yasutaka and Toshiko, preparing to fight in an arena which looks like the grid from Tron.
Capsule - Metro Pulse | Warner Music Japan

When I first listened to Metro Pulse, I was pleasantly surprised by not only how tight it was, but how well it flowed. And also how well conceptualised it was. The album title really does sell the sound. It’s city pop in 2022, but still very analog. Although in Nakata’s defence, Capsule albums are often quite conceptual in nature.

For the first couple of weeks of its release. I played Metro Pulse a lot. But there’s something about this album that feels fleeting, and it’s not just the short runtime. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing Plasma a fair amount, which is cut from the same cloth. Oddly enough, Plasma also felt a little too fleeting and undercooked, and it really does feel like the sister album to Metro Pulse in a lot of ways - which is why I mention it so much. Maybe it’s because so many other acts are doing these 80s throwbacks at the moment, and many contemporary J-pop acts are also doing city pop. But this album isn’t sticking with me fully, despite me really liking it. And I think it’s because so few songs on this album leave me with a sense of fulfilment. After each song, I’m like ‘Oh, that’s it!?’. Every song on Metro Pulse has a great sound, a great vibe and a killer hook. But so many of them just end. And you’re not left wanting more in the good sense. You’re just left thinking ‘There absolutely should have been more to this song’. And what’s even crazier about this, is that unlike Perfume’s Future Pop, where every song was short, Metro Pulse’s songs all average around 4 minutes. The only exception being “Seaside Dreams”, which is criminally nothing more than an interlude.

Capsule fans who have been concerned over Capsule’s last couple of albums will love Metro Pulse. For all of its shortcomings, Metro Pulse is still a good album and a welcomed return to form. But as has been an issue with Nakata for a good while now; he doesn’t always build on the things that he clearly should. So, whilst I (and I’m sure many of you) have an idea in mind of where Capsule’s next album should go based on Metro Pulse; we will probably end up with something completely different, which does not evolve nor capitalise on the good things we got here. But for what Metro Pulse is and without trying to predict the future, this is a good album which reminds us all of the earlier days of Capsule, and the production talents of Nakata Yasutaka. He doesn’t completely hit the mark each and every time. But you can tell he had fun making this album, which colours it in a really nice way. And there is still a very clear level of care that Nakata took with this album that he didn’t always have for some of the others. And as much looking back as Nakata does on this album, there is still a forward thinkingness to the sounds, with Nakata doing a bunch of things we’ve never really heard him indulge in before. Metro Pulse is also the first Nakata produced album in quite some time where I constantly thought about how much I would like him to produce for other artists; something which hasn’t crossed my mind in a while; due to me attaching Nakata so much to Kyary and Perfume exclusively, and his sound being both a bit of a mess, but not like something which could work for anybody else. But with Metro Pulse; Tommy february6 immediately came to mind. And it wasn’t hard to imagine a whole host of other Japanese pop acts Nakata could produce for, if he was on whatever he was on when he produced Metro Pulse.

Metro Pulse is a much needed look back in order to chart a new course onward and upward. But the fruits of this album will truly show if what Nakata delivers next is able to build on what he’s created here. Because it’s been a while since Nakata produced an album which provided a foundation as solid as Metro Pulse’s.

Verdict: Seaside Dreams (Album Mix)

▪ Hikari no Disco 🔥
▪ Give Me a Ride 🔥
▪ Start 🏆
▪ Virtual Freedom 🔥
▪ Wonderland
▪ Seaside Dreams 🔥
▪ Escape from Reality