FLCL Original Soundtrack – Review

Album Title:Addict & King of Pirates
Anime Title:FLCL
Artist:The Pillows, Shinkichi Mitsumune
Catalog Number:KICA-518; KICA-544
Release Type:Soundtrack
Release Date:October 4, 2000; July 25, 2001
Purchase at:Disc 1: CDJapan, Disc 2: CDJapan

Review: Possibly my favorite show of all time, FLCL is something very close to my heart, so, unsurprisingly, I find it difficult to review its soundtrack with the editorial impartiality that it deserves. That said, no praise is ever unwarranted, nor is any OST without its faults, and that is certainly the case here.

Much of the compositional credit for this soundtrack goes to The Pillows, a Japanese alternative rock band. Formed in 1989, The Pillows have proven time and time again that rock music can be deeply affecting and a lot of fun without turning the distortion to 11 or resorting to unintelligible primal screaming. Their songs are marked by careful layering and thoughtful two-guitar interplay that is almost unheard of in contemporary Western rock, showing surprising levels of sophistication without exhibiting the tiresome repetition and lazy songwriting that plague recent rock songs. Unlike those of many English-speaking bands, Sawao Yamanaka’s vocals sound honest and genuine, never angst-ridden or whiny. Those elements, combined with their good-natured, soul-searching lyrical style and overall persona, match the tone of FLCL perfectly.

The Pillows’ representation on these two discs consists of full songs and edits/remixes of selections taken off the albums Little Busters, Runners High, and Happy Bivouac, the final three albums of their so-called “golden age.” Notable immediately is the one song The Pillows specially composed for the show: “Ride on shooting star.” Lasting barely over two-minutes, the song is a blunt explosion of brash energy and punchy riffs that nary stops for a breath. Though it lacks a true guitar solo (a rarity for a non-edited Pillows tune), the song is simplistic and effective without overstaying its welcome. Interesting to note is the liberal use of extended interval chord tones in the melody and the harmony, characteristic of Yamanaka’s songwriting style at the time. There are lots of major sevenths and sharp ninths to be had, and, boy, are they fun to pick out.

“Carnival” has since become a Pillows classic and is regarded as one of their standout hits. The version included here is an edited and shortened version with the vocals removed. Despite featuring tight instrumentals and impressive guitar synchronization, “Carnival” in its edited state just doesn’t work without its vocals. Perhaps it’s due to the generic chord progression, but this edit somehow feels like a demotion to being pleasing background music. Regardless, this song is an example of the long-running Pillows tradition of inserting tidbits of pleasantly surprising sophistication into their compositions. Here, the entire guitar intro is written entirely in parallel fifths. For those who subscribe to the outdated 15th-century “rule” of avoiding parallel fifths, I would respond by quoting composer Samuel R. Hazo: “WELCOME TO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY.” While this sort of harmony can come off as strange or off-putting, The Pillows make the intro sound good, and there’s nothing more to be said in this day and age of music. (See this video for an excellent explanation of why people are taught to avoid parallel fifths.)

Whereas “Carnival” was adversely affected by editing, “Bran-new lovesong” is a case where removing the vocals and tightening up the length worked very well. With the vocals removed, one can really appreciate the thought put into the instrumentals, which are too often overpowered by Sawao’s singing.  The song has a very ethereal, “life goes on” vibe that is signature of the Pillows’ work around this time. Shinichirou Sato’s drumming really shines here, while Yoshiaki Manabe’s lead guitar is artfully restrained and subdued. Much of the mood of the song comes from a very interesting I-III-vi-IV progression that is not often heard in many compositions. This song (edited or not) is among my favorite Pillows tunes, as it explores themes like self-realization, coping with loss, and the ups and downs of everyday life.

While I could explore every intricacy of every Pillows song here, I’ll keep it short and say that every one of their songs on FLCL’s soundtrack holds the standard of excellence they exhibited around this time. From the rockabilly “Crazy Sunshine” to the simply excellent “Funny Bunny” to the iconic “Little Busters” and “Hybrid Rainbow,” there are few misses by them gathered here, especially in an unedited state.

Often overlooked on this soundtrack are Shinkichi Mitsumune’s pieces, which fill in the parts where a guitars n’ drums affair wouldn’t have been appropriate. Ranging from soft acoustic guitar and piano numbers to electronica dance pieces, his efforts here are effective and competent, if a bit generic and derivative.

As much as his contributions worked superbly in context and are in no way incompetent, I can’t shake the feeling that his tracks wallow in genre tropes and aren’t very fun to listen to. “Rever’s Edge” sounds like another Elton John tearjerker that never was, while “Pink” is about 10 notches too far on the mindless techno side of things for my tastes. “Memory of Summer” starts out well but is marred by a baffling similarity to a certain song sung by a tea kettle in Beauty and the Beast. “High Risk” just makes me wonder why they didn’t just use a Pillows song instead, while “Weekend” seems to draw inspiration from the soundtracks of makeup infomercials. Despite all this, the inoffensive, ordinary demeanor of these songs is largely why they were so successful in their implementation in the show. These tracks were meant to unobtrusively set the mood in a way where the licensed band couldn’t, and, for that reason, I can only shrug my shoulders and acknowledge they did what they set out to do, without being anything more.

The biggest demerit to this original soundtrack, though, is that it is not an entirely original soundtrack. As fitting and as fantastic as The Pillows are, the soundtrack’s execution feels like Gainax took the easy way out by not creating a brand-new score for the show; much the same experience can be had by just buying regular Pillows albums, which will obviously contain only full-length tracks. That said, the approach taken to the soundtrack took a lot of guts and remains a unique experience to this day. As a result, the discs achieve a level of re-playability that OSTs rarely do.

Oh, yeah, and I really like The Pillows.

Rating: Excellent


A huge jazz nerd and unabashed fan of alternative rock, I joined Anime Instrumentality in December 2010. I tend to get very passionate when it comes to music and try my best to understand how it works. An enormous fan of The Pillows, among my favorite anime composers include Ko Otani and Yoko Kanno. My tastes in anime vary wildly, but I try to be as thoughtful about my viewing as I am about my listening. I play the saxophone.

9 thoughts on “FLCL Original Soundtrack – Review

  • January 18, 2011 at 12:52 am

    Ohhh…I’ve never heard Bran New Lovesong with covals and I find your note quite accurate. It’s probably one of my three favorite tracks on the disc, one that I tried not to overplay and grow tired of, because I love the internal buzz it creates in my body. I’d always wished the track would be longer, but hearing the snip of the track with vocals reminds me to be careful what I wish for.

  • January 23, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    I actually very much enjoy both versions. Personally, I actually prefer the unedited original as it tells a more complete narrative and has more room to stretch out expressively.

  • January 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Carnival is one of my favorite songs from the Pillows, but agreed that the instrumental version doesn’t quite feel right.

  • February 2, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I own both these albums, but never really gave them a thorough listen. I ended up loving the first album a lot for some reason. Great music to listen to thoroughly and as background music for your daily chores/homework! I always get a kick out of track 12 from the first album. 😉

  • February 3, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    If anyone was wondering, here’s my fav by them: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6_CkWL33RI

    That track #12 is an odd duckling if there ever was one. Listening to the disc and running into that track is like ordering a Big Mac meal and finding out it comes with a spoonful of caviar and truffles.

  • Pingback:Anime Instrumentality Blog | Bakuman ED Single – Bakurock – Review

  • November 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Well, actually, the track you’re talking about is Dmitri Kabalevsky’s “Comedians’ Galop” from his suite “The Comedians”. It’s a symphonic adaptation of a work he apparently composed especially for children.

    I pointed that out because I didn’t see his name in the list above, even if that’s understandable since the composer is not credited in the CD booklet either.
    It seems that it’s a well known piece in Japan though, since it has been mentioned that the very recording from this soundtrack is used at sports events in their schools.
    That would also explain why they didn’t mention the performers: it’s obviously not a recording appositely made for this soundtrack.

  • August 13, 2012 at 5:09 am

    Great review. I’ve been getting into the Pillows music now that I’ve seen FLCL about a decade late, lol. My favorite song from the OST is Hybrid Rainbow. Just like to point out that parallel fifths are only incorrect in the context of polyphonic music. The idea is to maintain the individuality of two or more independent voices. The intro to Carnival is essentially one voice that’s thickened with the addition of the fifth, so it is perfectly acceptable (jazz music does this all the time, it’s called parallelism.) PS It’s really cool that you play jazz saxophone; I’m a jazz guitarist

  • Pingback:The Pillows Performs Ninja Slayer’s Episode 1 Ending Theme

Leave a Reply