Imagine, for a moment, that you’re going to this hypothetical restaurant called the House of Bacon that is the talk of the town. Everyone raves over how it serves some of the most mouthwateringly scrumptious bacon that you’ll ever taste, prepared in all manners, shapes, and sizes. Now, imagine that you’ve decided to try its delicious fare and step in. But wait! You have to eat a bowl of uncooked tofu before you’re allowed to try any of the bacon. You’re right to be annoyed by this turn of events, but you grimly soldier on, determined to get to the bacon. It’s a trial, but you make it. In the end, the bacon is indeed delicious. And yet, that tofu in the beginning leaves a sour aftertaste. This wasn’t what you had signed up for.
And that describes my experience at AniPiano 2014 in a nutshell.
AniPiano 2014 is a bit of a misnomer in that it should have been called AniPiano 2014 feat. TheIshter and friends. The concert’s main draw was TheIshter, with the addition of other artists including Raj Ramayya, who’s worked with Yoko Kanno on Wolf’s Rain and Cowboy Bebop, voice actress Christine Cabanos and her group, and an alt-rock band called Above Seclusion all playing second fiddle. With all this in tow, the performance would neither be 100% anime music nor 100% piano music, which led to a serviceable, but not enthralling evening.
The concert kicked off with a solo effort by singer and lyricist Raj Ramayya, who started with “Strangers” from Wolf’s Rain. In this live rendition, Ramayya’s performance was mixed: he brought out the balladic air that the original possessed, along with all the desperation, sorrow, and pain that it invoked. However, his vocals didn’t quite rock the emotional foundations the song was built on. Furthermore, his ability to hit the high notes were iffy at best as they strained on more than one occasion. In listening to “Strangers” on the disc, having Yoko Kanno’s instrumentation in the studio to iron out Ramayya’s vocal wrinkles and strengthen the emotional punch the song delivers upon made this live performance as different as night and day.
Next up was the Pokemon theme, sung in a nostalgic tone and coupled with hints of sorrow as Raj sought to give this song a profound narrative. While his effort to put a twist on a well-known theme is laudable, his vocals faltered and the song was left wanting. “Cha-La Head-Cha-La” from Dragon Ball Z also carried Ramayya’s tendency to turn everything into a ballad. While Ramayya rose to the occasion during the verses, his chorus lacked Hironobu Kageyama’s execution and, as a result, lost the hot-blooded feel of the original. Ramayya’s solo section then wrapped up with some audience-directed improv which seemed borne of too much alcohol. The less said about it, the better.
In the course of Ramayya’s performance, the concert felt like, in the word of a friend, “an open mic session” rather than a concert proper. Ramayya made efforts to get the audience involved, but they appeared half-hearted at best and awkward at worst. On the other side, the audience never really bought into it with much fervor. Perhaps that’s why his solo section felt so lethargic and made me look forward to the next act.
But before the next group of artists came on, Raj brought in fellow Cowboy Bebop-ers Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Steven Blum. With McGlynn’s entry, I was hoping for a higher quality effort since I liked what she did in Ace Combat 5 when she sang “Journey Home.” Thankfully, her vocals met those expectations as she delivered a softer, but strong performance of the iconic “Blue” from Cowboy Bebop. In nitpicking it, her drawn out “freeeees” aren’t as rousing as the original, though it admittedly is hard to follow up Mai Yamane’s effort. The remainder of their performance was all Cowboy Bebop material, including stalwarts “Call Me Call Me,” which yielded an interesting harmonization from McGlynn and Ramayya to give the vibe of a country group, and “Ask DNA,” which continued the Western/Country feel to finish things off.
Once Ramayya, McGlynn, and Blum left the stage, the MC tried to engage the audience with some small talk, but based on how she did it, she was in way over her head. Note: if you’re trying to engage a group of anime fans, actually have someone who knows a thing or two about anime. Hearing her struggle to read words like “m…maaa-duu-ka??? mejjika!!!” resulted in my face being temporarily glued to my palms. The MC meant well, certainly, but surely there must have been someone who knows enough about anime to have done a better job.
No matter. The stage was then taken over by voice actress Christine Cabanos and her band, 10 Year. On the whole, the instrumentalists weren’t much to speak of, but the star clearly shined upon Cabanos, who impressed me with her delivery. She comes across as a quieter personality. So while she won’t pack much flair, her singing speaks for her as she exhibits control and exudes emotion in every passage.
All of this was on display in her first anime song, “Fallen Angel” from Panty and Stocking‘s soundtrack. The original talked of much regret and Cabanos was able to stretch the lyrics and channel that lamenting flavor. “Gravity,” from Wolf’s Rain, was a solid, but vanilla affair as she sings it straight. While enjoyable, it wasn’t as impressive as “Fallen Angel” because it’s not all too technically demanding. Finally, she fired off a Japanese song, specifically, YUI’s “Life” from Bleach. I’m one of the few people who never found the original all too enamoring, so I’m pleased to say that Cabanos actually made the song listenable. As she sang, her body language conveyed a sense of fun and her voice was livelier than YUI’s. Although Cabanos doesn’t quite navigate some of the passages in the second half of the song too deftly, she made the experience enjoyable.
But in the end, we were still looking forward to AniPiano proper. So when TheIshter made his appearance, he was greeted by loud cheers, soaked in the audience, and got to work. As he played through the first piece, a medley from Toaru Kagaku no Railgun, there were a few things that struck me. The first was that his playing style was incredibly raw, but in a good way. His passion and energy bubbled up as he attacked the music with gusto. I soon learned that he was a self-taught pianist, without the classical training that many others had, making his ability to bring out the sound from the Steinway all the more impressive. That leads into my second observation: TheIshter clearly patterns his playing off of the master pianist Lang Lang, with all the arpeggaic flourishes and energy included. You’ll find that I’m not a huge fan of Lang Lang, but for all the misgivings I have towards him, he impresses me with his showmanship, especially during the arpeggios where he showcases his deft skills to bring about a mesmerizing experience.
Throughout the performance, TheIshter went about emulating Lang Lang; the Railgun medley started things off with a bang, displaying a ferocity that was fun to watch. Sword Art Online‘s piano arrangement was also similarly loud, with a few lulls to add the variety that would keep it from growing stale. That was followed by “Colors” from Code Geass, which was more fun than the preceding tracks, especially when TheIshter played the part where the singer would let loose with the iconic “Jibuuuun Wooo.”
After “Colors” closed out, TheIshter brought Christine Cabanos back on stage. Together, the two launched into a variegated medley which started off with a piece I didn’t recognize, but then jumped into Spice and Wolf‘s “Tabi no Tochuu,” sung to English lyrics. The longing tones of the original were retained in this rendition and even though it took a bit for me to adjust to the English lyrics, both Cabanos and TheIshter conveyed the original’s sentiments, giving me goosebumps in the process. When Haruhi‘s “God Knows” came around, Cabanos rises to the occasion and performs a decent rendition, belting out the lyrics in a way that lacks Aya Hirano’s fire, but was nevertheless enjoyable. “Lost my Music,” also from Haruhi, proved to be much more mellow as the piece had a more serene delivery that flowed nicely.
If there’s something that TheIshter remarked upon, it’s that he loves the work of J-pop star LiSA. The bit of “Crossing Field” from Sword Art Online certainly gave the concert a LiSA-ish tilt, one that would become more apparent in the Fate/Zero medley. The medley began, appropriately enough with “to the beginning,” which carried the sorrow and suffering characteristic of a Yuki Kajiura composition, but then segued into LiSA’s “oath sign,” which was packed with energy, and was far more palatable in piano form. Then, we went into some Guilty Crown where the only part of the medley I recognized was “My Dearest,” but TheIshter’s piano playing would do ryo proud.
The best piece performed that night was the Angel Beats medley. It started with “Ichiban no Takaramono” (another LiSA-performed piece), but all the energy that came before was set aside. Instead, we started seeing a greater degree of expression from TheIshter in the way he conveyed the loving tenderness inherent in the track. The swelling chorus parts were touched just right and while it’d be nice if he had lingered and drawn out certain notes, the piece came out wonderfully. The transition into “My Soul, Your Beats” wasn’t the cleanest, but the rendition continued with its tenderness, punctuated by moments where the piece needed more development and fewer flourishes to differentiate those verse/chorus sections. All in all, the piece showcased TheIshter’s more emotive side, one that differentiated itself from the rest of his pieces by being more measured and thoughtful.
Still, there’s never anything wrong with ending on a bang and that’s precisely what TheIshter did by launching into a medley of the themes from Attack on Titan. “Guren no Yumiya” plays to TheIshter’s style with a boisterous delivery, before segueing into the grandiosity of “Jiyuu No Tsubasa.”
As TheIshter’s part of the program came to a close, we were treated to an alt-rock band, Above Seclusion. While I didn’t stick around to listen to them too closely, their music didn’t strike me as anything too off and they were able to get a good amount of engagement going with the audience, many of whom had probably never heard of them. Of note was when they managed to get a yo-yo player to come on stage and perform tricks while the band played. That was probably the most mesmerizing aspect of the show even if it was a little out of place.
So when it comes down to it, the AniPiano 2014 performance in Los Angeles was a disappointment because of some of the subpar musicians they brought on stage and the limited amount of playing time TheIshter got. I understand that there were probably some logistics issues that required other musicians to be there so that the concert could even take place at all, so I’ll give them that benefit of the doubt in that department.
Finally, I would also like to chastise the person or organization responsible for marketing this concert. To put it plainly, if you’re unable to sell out an anime concert that is on the weekend of North America’s largest anime convention (85,000+ people attended this year!) and is in the same general area as the convention, then you’ve fucked up. No effort was made to engage Anime Expo attendees and the number of empty seats in the Nokia Theater was absolutely disheartening. TheIshter, if nobody else, deserves a much bigger audience and I hope better efforts are made so that more people could come to see TheIshter’s unbridled energy and passion and see a different side to the world of anime music.