Consolation: a Tenth Anniversary Retrospective

Well, here we are. Kalafina’s fourth full-length LP, Consolation, is now a decade old. At the time of its release the band was enjoying more success and a higher profile, but you could argue that they had less to prove. Perhaps this is why it feels sonically bigger and fuller, in terms of both the songwriting and the performances from singers and backing musicians alike. When I listen to it now with the benefit of hindsight it goes harder, soars higher and shines brighter. After discounting my sentimental attachment to their debut, this has some of their finest moments.

The cover art and inlay booklet also have quite an influence on how I feel about an album as a whole. I’ve always felt a little self-conscious about this because music isn’t a visual medium, but why would an artist invest so much time and effort into the visual artwork if they didn’t feel it mattered (just look at Pink Floyd!)?

It sort of sets the tone for the music. For example: Seventh Heaven was dark, sumptuous and borderline-fantastical; Red Moon was darker still, but was also striking because of its use of vivid reds and blacks; After Eden in contrast painted a lighter and brighter picture with its frills and pastoral floral backgrounds. Consolation also depicts their elegant image, but does so in a more “painterly” way that’s warmer and more muted with mellow golds and an almost sepia-like glow.

I think this reflects a more mature and confident atmosphere. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it relaxed or comfortable, because even the ballads have an unbroken tension, and they were clearly pushing themselves to grow and improve as artists. Hikari Furu for instance is one of the softest and most serene, but its crescendo is heart-stoppingly intense! They certainly didn’t seem to be content with sitting still.

There was talk in interviews with the band about it being a return to their roots, but as a follow-up album it was also another step forward at the same time. This decision to look back as well as forward makes it a particularly intriguing album to listen to, as well as being released during an interesting period of their career.

There does seem to be an attempt to provide a sense of continuity in the form of a short intro track. This was defined on their debut Seventh Heaven, which was also retained in their final LP Far on the Water. While SH has the simply-titled Overture and FotW started with the more specific yet equally descriptive Into the Water, Consolation’s opener is titled al fine. This reference to music notation terminology suggests to me that the album’s overall theme is that of component parts repeating in a larger whole…or perhaps returning to something that’s already been performed, but interpreting it in a new context.

Maybe this is why it feels to me that Consolation expands on the band’s sound while maintaining their distinctive musical identity; a mixture of new and familiar. The addition of an accordion to the folk-y ballad Hanataba for instance is typical of Yuki Kajiura’s desire to experiment, but the bigger surprise is when it appears again in the high-energy electropop of Signal. Their three previous albums had their fair share of synth-driven tracks, but this was the most unusual combination so far.

There are other surprising moments, too. Obbligato takes its time to get going, but drives itself forward with a powerful rock rhythm. At the point when I’d expect Koichi Korenaga to unleash a blistering guitar solo, he instead performs something more minimalist and restrained, which quickly evaporates into throbbing echoes and blends into the ambient background noises before the final vocal chorus carries the song to its coda. This is in contrast to the title track, which incorporates some of his fiercest and most intricate riffing into a very expansive and operatic piece. That too is in their symphonic rock style, but has more presence and ambition than what fans were used to.

Moonfesta is one of the brightest and most playful moments, but immediately afterwards there’s Door, a song that Kajiura wrote very early in her songwriting career but decided to wait until now to arrange it into a finished song. It certainly feels like an “early” piece, but its simplicity gives the listener a breather – much as Moonfesta does – when surrounded by songs that are more complex, layered and demanding.

Unlike FotW, which contained four songs released as anime tie-in singles that were in the same style, Consolation does – in my opinion at least – incorporate its anisong numbers more comfortably into the rest of the track listing. Manten and Mirai were used in Fate/Zero and Madoka Magica respectively: two very different productions in terms of everything from storyline and themes to visual style. Even so, the existing soundtrack pieces Let the Stars Fall Down and Credens Justitiam were able to be spun into the format of verse-chorus-verse vocal songs that didn’t feel out of place on the same album.

This a very personal thing and therefore very much a “me” problem, but there’s one exception here. Truth be told, I never really liked To the Beginning. Of course, it’s not their only song that sounds like this: Sprinter did the “up-tempo pop-rock tune” thing way back on their first album, and the FictionJunction single Parallel Hearts – another song from around 2009 – sounds very similar as well, right down to the violin riff. When I read other fans voice their disappointment of the band’s later years where their most high-profile songs were also their least varied, I trace it back to To the Beginning. Perhaps it’s unfair of me, because it’s almost as if I’m claiming that this song was somehow responsible for several others that followed it. Were those singles the result of a studio production committee requesting, “we need another one that sounds like *this*.”? Or was To the Beginning simply part of the natural evolution of their sound, and I was just unfortunate in that I couldn’t warm to it?

What was also notable during this period – from a European fan’s point of view, at least – was the increase in their popularity. At a convention in Bonn in 2012, their live show attracted a respectably-sized crowd, but not all of the seats were occupied; at a convention in Paris in 2014, the venue was full with attendees reputedly queueing out the door.

I don’t think there was one “breakthrough” hit song in their back catalogue: Magia and To the Beginning are two of their most well-known singles, but I wouldn’t say that either of them defined their career. Their association with certain anime titles undoubtedly helped: as highly-regarded as The Garden of Sinners may be among its fans, Madoka Magica and the Fate franchises enjoyed a higher profile both in Japan and internationally, and the sizes of those crowds reflected this.

Consolation nevertheless felt like a turning point: it was also released around what later turned out to be the midpoint of the band’s career. They went on to play in larger and more prestigious venues and each album out-performed its predecessor (in Consolation’s case it didn’t chart higher than After Eden did, but it stayed in the Oricon chart for longer), but their recorded output slowed down…at least in terms of albums. After Consolation, they released ten more singles but only one more full-length LP.

I had previously suggested that, at the time of After Eden, their output was so prolific that it may have been unsustainable. We had to wait a bit longer for Consolation, but if my concerns about the band members’ wellbeing were well-founded, it was worth the extra time. That’s not to say that FotW doesn’t have its moments, or that the stand-alone singles during the second half of their activities were all samey and uninspiring (although I must confess that several of them were). It just felt like Consolation was a particularly bold and solid offering, and it occupied a unique space that they never returned to. I suspect that their minds are all occupied with other ventures now, but everyone involved has every right to feel proud of it.

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