FEMM – Tokyo Ex Machina

The FEMM story reaches a perfect close…

FEMM have always felt like Avex’s secret weapon; a smart combination of both Japanese and Western music elements that should have scored bigger commercial success across the years since their inception. Tokyo Ex Machina continues that journey, but it also offers up the mannequin duo’s most accomplished collection of work in the process.

FEMM’s third album is a smoother, lusher affair than previous releases. Which isn’t to say that they’ve lost any of their talent for angular, kinetic pop, but the tunes here perhaps showcase the duo playing around with different approaches that both delight and surprise. Yet at the same time, there’s a continuity of sound across all ten tracks that wraps things up nicely. By contrast, previous album Tokyo Girls Anthem (see J-Pop Go review) demonstrated the electronic outfit in a process of transition. There were some fine moments on that album, but it was a slightly fractured affair that served up some often-jarring gear changes.

Instead, Tokyo Ex Machina shows RiRi and LuLa on much firmer, more confident ground. While they continue to serve up their particular flavour of EDM and dance-pop (with a side serving of R&B), it’s a softer more user-friendly affair than their previous outing. As ever, FEMM enlist the help of a variety of collaborators to combine talents on several tracks. This includes Jenna Andrews, who worked on the BTS song ‘Butter’; John Ryan, who has worked with the likes of Maroon 5 and Rita Ora; Doja Cat collaborator Kool Kojak; Danny L Harle, who is a cohort of Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama and Woo Min Lee, who has worked on several songs for K-pop group TWICE.

Opening track ‘We Got Each Other’ is perhaps the closest that FEMM get to pure J-pop. Whipped up in collaboration with Kool Kojack, it’s a pop delight with a summer vibe. Lines such as “Just me and u/Don’t worry got each other” craft an anthem of sorts for RiRi and LuLa. Meanwhile, tracks such as ‘Outta The Clouds’ sees the duo taking a deep dive into R&B that also boasts some K-pop elements. It’s a breezy slice of joy that also shows the pair easing off their usual clipped mannequin vocal delivery.

But for those that prefer a little more of the classic FEMM sound, tracks such as the epic ‘Crystal Ball’ deliver. It’s a cinematic, sprawling affair with FEMM’s treated vocal effects topping things off nicely. The crunchy EDM qualities of ‘Falling For A Lullaby’ also treads on familiar territory, providing some essential energy. Similarly, ‘Do It Again Feat. LIZ’ also feels like old school FEMM (it’s also a tune which boasts Yup’in and FAKY’s Lil’Fang on co-writing duties) with its nods to chiptune and quirky electronic effects.

Arguably, the album’s finest moment is ‘Sugar Rush’, a euphoric song that our previous review summed up as gloriously addictive with its uplifting sweeps and an engaging percussive base. It’s sheer joy from start to finish – and also an example of FEMM’s evolving sound with a slicker, more polished approach. Then there’s the choppy ‘Keep It Cool’ (which was also a single release), another good example of FEMM flexing their R&B chops mashed up with some effective electronic licks.

The album also offers more reflective moments, such as the twilight moods of ‘Dead of Night’. Equally, ‘Tic Toc’, which closes the album out, is a softer affair whose lyrical musings again seem to be referencing the duo directly (“fighting hustling struggling gunning”) and also serving as a goodbye.

As regular FEMM fans will be aware, the mannequin duo have recently decided to call it a day. As much as that’s sad news for fans of contemporary Japanese electronic music, Tokyo Ex Machina is a superb epitaph to go out on.

Tokyo Ex Machina is out now via JPU Records: https://jpurecords.com/products/femm-tokyo-ex-machina

FEMM are performing at Hyper Japan Saturday 22 July 19:30-20:15.
More details: https://hyperjapan.co.uk/festival/performer/femm/

Official website: https://femms.jp/
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