Kero Kero Bonito — TOTEP
February 20, 2018
London, UK / Double Denim Records

Back in 2016, I was the kind of person who was quick to eschew the idea of enjoying modern pop music (whatever I thought that even meant) in favour of my beloved alternative rock outfits. So, hearing Kero Kero Bonito’s debut LP Bonito Generation was sort of a redefining moment for me. It’s the album that taught me how to unashamedly enjoy music even if it is “conventional” or “easy to get” or whatever garbage I was on back then.

On their debut LP, Kero Kero Bonito came in with this blend of styles that I never knew that I wanted. Electropop producers Gus Lobban and Jamie Bulled combined their British pop know-how with some J-pop flourishes that were made all the sweeter by the band’s bilingual vocalist Sarah Perry.

While it would be easy to talk just about the way the band fuses genres like Britpop and dancehall and synthpop, what keeps me coming back to KKB is their approach to songwriting. The majority of the tracks on Bonito Generation go into explicit detail about subjects other songwriters would consider mundane: waking up, hearing a song on the radio, graduating from university, talking to your parents. Every single song is just so unwaveringly cheerful and upbeat that it’s impossible to listen to the album and not feel like everything is going to be okay.

As much as I loved the band’s debut, I found it difficult to see how they could maintain this ultra-pop style without it becoming tired or uninteresting. Fast forward to about a week and a half ago, when KKB released a surprise track called “Only Acting”. And boy oh boy, was this a surprise.

The song begins with a flat drum machine beat and some taciturn guitar chords, as Sarah Perry gives an off-key vocal performance. While it’s not unusual for the band to play the role of novitiates, there’s an added awkwardness here that gives the impression of a middle school theatre production (watch the music video for added effect). Shortly after, these electronic beats erupt into this punk rock guitar riff that sounds like it was recorded live in your living room.

As it progresses further, the song devolves into a hopeless void of noise rock, featuring these glitchy, folding electronics and the sounds of distorted screaming. Through it all, Sarah brings this sticky sweet refrain that retains the pop core of the band before it, too, gets lost in the chaos of the snagged instrumental loops. Kero Kero Bonito have essentially invented the cute noise genre on this track, and I’m all for it.

I thought I was only acting
But I felt exactly like it was all for real
I sure didn’t know it hurt so
Bad that no rehearsal could show you how to feel inside
What you gotta hide
Where to put your pride
When to realize you’ve had your time
Find another role
Carry on the show

The prospect of a new Kero Kero project in and of itself is exciting to begin with, let alone pairing that prospect with a killer single that sounds like the band is pushing the pop genre to (and past) its breaking point. So, fast forward again to this week, when the band released this new EP. It’s only four tracks, but all of them continue to experiment with the band’s sound in their own way. In my opinion, all four experiments go swimmingly.

“You Know How It Is” continues this experimentation with a straight-up garage rock cut, complete with low-fi vocals and a shredding guitar interlude. Even the lyrics become more pop punk as Sarah sings about those days when nothing is going your way while everything around you is changing.

Despite the band’s foray into live instrumentation, TOTEP still offers a couple of electronic cuts in the form of the tracks “The One True Path” and “Cinema”. The former of the two introduces the EP with a murky synth bassline and some spectral keys that would sound outright creepy if not for Sarah’s ever-optimistic vocals. Lyrically, this is probably the least literal song KKB have ever written, detailing these footprints in the middle of the woods as a metaphor for people’s search for this metaphorical path that will lead them to some sort of righteous civilisation. Even if this is the most interpretive Kero Kero song so far, the thematics are still grounded with this child-like naïveté that never fails to find the charm in just about anything.

“Cinema” is probably the closest cut here to the band’s older material, since the concept of going to the cinema is about as prosaic as anything you’d hear on Bonito Generation, except it has this airy instrumental that only boasts a couple of soundboard flourishes in the bridge, and Sarah seems to be singing about loneliness and trying to distract yourself for a few hours with basic niceties. Even when dabbling in these depressing song topics, the EP still ends on a somewhat positive note as Sarah muses about going to a nice restaurant.

While the adverts might’ve changed
The popcorn tastes the same
And in the end the day’s always saved
So once the picture stops
I let the hours pass, distracted in the dark

Despite only lasting 11 minutes, TOTEP is a very satisfying taster of whatever Kero Kero Bonito is planning to do next. If anything, this raises more questions than it answers. As nice as it would have been to get a full-length LP instead, I’m still glad that the band chose to test the waters with just a handful of experimental cuts. If TOTEP is just the band dabbling in new sounds, then whatever Kero Kero does next is going to be absolutely phenomenal.

FAVOURITE TRACKS: The One True Path / Only Acting / You Know How It Is / Cinema