I had an itch to write about this record after a wave of nostalgia hit me listening to it for the first time in a while. In a lot of ways, STEP is responsible for being one of my gateways into electronic club music, as well as one of Japan’s era defining electropop albums.
Only Perfume and the legendary Yellow Magic Orchestra had Oricon top 10 success with electronic pop releases prior to STEP’s entry into the charts that summer, and MEG’s peak in the mainstream also helped further propel producer Nakata Yasutaka into universal acclaim and notoriety.
It’s been a decade since STEP’s release, so where does it stand in the current electronic renaissance Japan is having? Let’s find out.
MEG’s fifth album begins with her lead single of the era, the fairly straightforward “MAGIC”, an upbeat and spunky cut with a lot of personality. The verses are a bit of a lull, but I find that they work in conjunction with the song’s spacey prechoruses that shoot us into one of MEG’s discog-defining choruses. There are also la la la’s in childish fashion, but they are carried by a total earworm worthy melody so I usually just end up singing along to them. If it were still on Youtube, i’d link to the fantastic dance shot music video, a choreography piece performed by MEG’s signature ‘persons-in-cartoonish-catsuits’ that really makes the song memorable! I spent a while learning that dance, and it definitely made the song grow on me.
KITTENISH is our second offering, and if its intro didn’t clue you in, this is where the kiddy gloves come off. There’s a sense of urgency to this song, and it suits the lyrical material quite well. I mean, this song is basically about a sour relationship witnessed through the perspective of the house cat. Points for pure creativity here, and truly in character for MEG, a documented cat lover. KITTENISH manages to sound desperate, longing, and absolutely killer within its 5 minutes and never manages to get boring. Every melody in the song is intense, and Nakata’s production shines through the instrumental passages and especially on the intro and outro segments. I often can’t get that twinkling out of my head after listening to this.
I have a bit of an immense love and adoration for MAKE LOVE, as it was the first MEG song I ever heard on a fan made japanese techno mixtape a very long time ago, which served as my motivation to seek her out. Now, a 7 minute club banger is par for the course on any Nakata-produced record, but MAKE LOVE stands out from the rest in a multitude of ways. Sexually suggestive lyrics, a massive bed of percussion and synths that are as hypnotizing as they are repetitive combine to make one of the hardest cuts on the album. It doesn’t end there, as there’s a fucking KEY CHANGE at the 5:15 mark that raises the hype even more. I didn’t think a song at this bpm could manage to be so intense, but 2008 Nakata was clearly capable of working some major miracles.
(Also, Manabu just really loves key changes. Instant kudos for pulling them off successfully.)
PRISM BOY dials the energy back a bit and sits somewhere between a club anthem (this direction further explored on its extended mix on the tail end of the regular edition tracklist) and a midtempo electro ballad, and its lyrics seem to continue from where MAKE LOVE’s simple demands for sex left off. This is a love song at its core, wrapped in retro synth progressions and carried by MEG’s longing vocal delivery.
HEART is our halfway point track, and the most saccharine cut on STEP. The second single from the era is another pristine pop production with an iconic video and equally iconic chorus. Nakata and MEG both really excel at landing the hooks on this record, and HEART’s signature ‘tokidoki tokimeki communication’ never fails to get me dancing. I really love how the arrangement winds down at the beginning of the second verse then ramps back up, it’s one of the finest moments on the album. If you enjoyed HEART and want a dancier, club appropriate version, pick up the ‘PARTY MIX’ on the single release.
The second of the harder, for-the-floor styled club cuts on STEP is SUPERSONIC, and it’s almost like whiplash after HEART’s dose of bubblegum electropop. This song wastes no time, initiating an immense build up sequence with gritty, gnarly synths and MEG chanting her way to the drop. The hi-hats are crisp, the bass is pumping and MEG almost seems to tease us with the delivery of the ‘come on boy, i’m waiting’ verse. This is nearly 7 and a half minutes of pure electronic ecstasy, you won’t forget it.
SEARCHLIGHT is a funkier song that stands out in the sea of club pop oriented cuts that make up this record, with a pristine bassline, interesting instrumental bits and a divine piano giving the arrangement additional depth. It really brings out the post chorus section that has MEG crooning with tons of melodyne/autotune backing. At first, I wasn’t a fan of this (it’s usually reserved for Nakata’s other muses Perfume, especially in this timeframe), but i’ve grown to appreciate it. An amazing outro also makes this song stand out, again thanks to the fantastic piano arrangement.
STEP comes to the end of its standard tracklisting with the ballad NATALIE, a heartfelt ode to days gone by, and one of my all time favorite MEG tracks. Her vocals are the showcase here, and while she’s not one of the more traditionally talented vocalists, she more than proves her range here. Continuing off of SEARCHLIGHT, Nakata’s skills at writing piano pieces come into play on this song as well, the arrangement is breathtaking and would sound spectacular in a live setting (like with an actual pianist, not the backing track like MEG’s premium live party DVD lol).
The limited edition of STEP ends here, but the regular CD only version contains 2 bonus tracks, a remix of KITTENISH by Nakata and Nishiken, and the extended mix of PRISM BOY. These are both solid remixes and should not be missed.
10 years on, I think STEP still stands the test of time, and remains a solid and modern take on electronic dance music. It was a genre defining release then, and although the Japanese electronic scene has changed its direction, what with the advent of future bass, moombahton and big room EDM, this album can still easily be considered one of the trailblazers for the sound that was to come in the next few years, what I call the big J-tek boom. Give it a listen, and check out the rest of MEG’s fantastic discography while you’re at it.
- MAGIC ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- KITTENISH ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- MAKE LOVE ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- PRISM BOY ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- HEART ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- SUPERSONIC ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- SEARCHLIGHT ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
- NATALIE ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Must-Listen : KITTENISH, SUPERSONIC, MAKE LOVE, NATALIE
These are the most substantial and unique offerings on the album.
Skip : MAGIC
Even though I love this song, those more averse to super poppy stuff might not appreciate it as much as I do. HEART is a better, more accessible option.