There’s nothing quite like the shoot ’em up phenomenon Touhou. The games themselves are rather impressive, especially if you consider that everything is engineered by one person. From the programming to the art and even the score, all of it is orchestrated by ZUN. This game has spawned its own convention, tons of fan art but what we’re here for is the music, or rather, its remixes.
The Touhou jazz circles are the product of a peculiar set of coincidences. The relatively large popularity of jazz in Japan, otakus’ tendencies to create derivative works and Touhou’s immense fan base. If you ask me, I’d say that up until Touhou 11 most of the music is quite bad standalone, but this turns out to be a good thing. The very generic but catchy tunes are easy to remix. So it was that Touhou music was born. To get a sense of the scale, there’s a lossy torrent floating around of 200GB. The lossless version is 970GB large. I’m delighted to say that a good amount of it is jazz. This wouldn’t happen in any other country, community or with any other series.
In the blinding forest of Touhou music trees, there’s one circle that consistently grabs my attention. My favourite circle by far. Let’s start with an introduction song:
Swing Holic has released seven albums so far. Every first track of a Swing Holic album opens on a busy background, such as a bar waiting for a concert to start. A very nice and fitting introduction for a jazz album. Take the track above. The volume of the chatter slowly increases as you enter the bar. It lures you in with some easy listening. A cheerful piano, the brass playing around in the background. The standing bass is taking it easy. Then the song gains speed. This is where we get serious. The low tones manifest themselves and prepare you for what’s coming. The song goes even faster. A complete turnover in atmosphere. Tension builds up. Fades away for a moment only to pick up again. And then a sudden stop. Welcome to Swing Holic.
The second track in a Swing Holic album is always a vocal by lead singer A~YA (and, for some reason, always the best vocal of the album imo). You could say A~YA’s Engrish is a problem, but after repeated listening it can’t bother me any more. I’m too busy listening to her great singing voice. I don’t completely understand the insistence on English text, but it seems to be common in jazz. It is a bit harder for Japanese to sound jazzy, but other Swing Holic tracks have proven that it is most certainly possible. But as I said, not bothered anymore. One thing I like about Swing Holic is how they dabble in a variety of jazz sub-genres. Since A~YA follows suit, you get to hear her sing in a lot of different styles.
Here’s an example of one such experiment. Here someone’s been playing around on the turntables. Now, I must add that this is an unusual sound coming from Swing Holic. You might be put off by this. But still you must admit it’s an incredibly good track and a showcase for the circle’s variety. I imagine a lot of influence comes from Sound Holic, the mother circle. In the end it’s all jazz to me (jazz is very ill-defined but let’s not go there).
Since Swing Holic is like a spinoff circle of Sound Holic, you can reckon they share a lot of band members and will sometimes cameo for one another. The vocalist SYO is one such cameo. I actually like her voice more than A~YA’s (don’t tell her). It has that rugged jazzy quality, almost like having smoked one too many cigarettes. I wish she would do more with Swing Holic, she’s “only” done five songs so far. I’d love to hear more of her jazzy voice.
All that said about experiments and guest performers, Swing Holic is still a swing band! Sure they’ll branch out quite often, but they don’t forget their roots. The style to their songs have that magical ability to make me stop what I’m doing and swing to the beat. That’s terrible for your productivity. This post amongst other things has suffered from it. It actually takes a lot of self-restraint and discipline to not just post every single track they make because they’re all just so good. I even italicized it so it must be true.
- Kuro-nishishi wrote a nice introduction to Touhou Jazz, so check that out too.
- Compare to the originals, in order: 封印されし神々; さくらさくら ～ Japanize Dream; 渡る者の途絶えた橋; 有頂天変 ～ Wonderful Heaven; ネイティブフェイス
- The “Take Fire” track (VOL06) is such a tease; it opens in 7/8. Original is 業火マントル and switches between 5/4 and 3/4. There’s also a nice Bizen/DDBY remix that does it in 11/8.
- To this date, the only Touhou I’ve beaten is 08 on normal. And this is the easiest Touhou. OTL