It is impossible for me to review Takamachi Walk’s wither. without discussing Jun’ya “ZUN” Ōta. ZUN is the Head of Team Shanghai Alice, an influential independent gaming studio.
By “Head” I mean the only member. Since the mid-1990s, he has independently developed programming, graphics, writing and music for the Touhou Project. Touhou is a series of “bullet hell” shoot ‘em up games, based around young girls blasting their way through waves of demons and other supernatural beings.
Touhou is a cult phenomenon. One of the keys to its success has been ZUN’s position on copyright. Fans are encouraged to engage with his games beyond simply playing them. His intellectual properties are open for sampling, manipulation and distribution.
This brings us to Touhou related “doujin circles.” These collectives are dedicated to producing original content based upon ZUN’s work. If you’re interested in learning more then I heartily recommend this video from YouTuber Gaijin Hunter:
ZUN has suggested that Touhou games could actually be considered music videos. On wither., the Takamachi Walk circle went all in on this concept.
A lot of passion has gone into it. It was a year in the making. The collaborators handling the musical arrangements, lyrics, vocals and artwork were drawn from around the world. This is the spirit of Touhou doujin circles writ large.
Touhou music doesn’t fit neatly into any single genre. Naturally, chiptune formed the basis of the early games. As technology and resources progressed, ZUN was able to diversify. And by extension, so were those who rearrange his music for projects like this.
Broadly, wither. blends elements of post-hardcore, metalcore and electro. Crushing guitars, bass and percussion, married to orchestral arrangements and dynamic synths. The majority of the songs balance beautiful, expressive vocals with guttural screams.
Magical battles between humans and demons provoke a range of emotions. “Everlasting” sets the scene perfectly. A waltzing piano greets us. Orchestral flourishes take the stage, to be joined by industrial effects. It’s a gorgeous ensemble piece.
Then “Phantom Moon” kicks in. Crashing cymbals and hard chords complement perfectly with the softer vocals of singer Nagano and the roars of Noaon. Switching between Japanese and English adds so many layers and textures. This approach is replicated magnificently throughout wither.
There is one word which comes to me whenever I think about wither. That word is “awesome.” “Empty” lives up to this. It features some killer lines such as ‘So I’ll pretend that I’m alright act like I’m fine. I say that I’m okay but that’s just a lie.’ It paints such a great picture, capturing the fury of battle and the conflicting emotions tied into it.
“消えていく望みを/ A Desire to Disappear” closes the distance between the traditional instruments and synths. It’s distinguished by cycling keyboard runs. The melody is simple but astonishingly effective.
“Norowareta Night – Loop” brings trance to the fore without sacrificing wither‘s momentum. Sieudiver’s “Inhuman” wants to fuck you up with its fierce fretwork. But “Blossom Nightfall – Purlieu” stands out amongst the three.
(Apologies for the format. I couldn’t find a direct upload. But you really need to hear this.)
It gives us a welcome change of pace. It’s slower in tempo and (somewhat) softer in tone. As with “Loop,” it reveals the project’s affinity for dance music. It exists somewhere between dubstep and EDM. Certainly the latter, as “Purlieu” features an epic drop.
We’re also able to savour the lyrics more. At times vocalist Sasi‘s lines are beautifully melodic (‘I wish for rest I wish for dreams/I wish I knew reality/Inside this hell of mind I keep on wasting all my time’). At other points, there’s defiant rapping delivered with conviction: ‘I feel the pain that’s left inside/All that’s left for me to do is to/Stand up keep up fuck up their might.’
I adore wither. for two main reasons. Firstly, it introduced me to an entire subculture which I knew nothing about. A vibrant one which celebrates experimentation, diversity, collaboration and community. Secondly, because it is one of the most exciting and powerful records I’ve had the pleasure of writing about for this site.
You can find Takamachi Walk here:
All original music by Team Shanghai Alice/ZUN