Alongside a slew of electrifying live shows, King Gnu’s dizzying 2017 debut album, Tokyo Rendez-Vous, significantly boosted the Japanese rock quartet’s profile. The heavy-rocking collection buzzed with the youthful bustle of the band’s hometown of Tokyo. Less than two years later, Daiki Tsuneta and company button up their sound—ever so slightly—on King Gnu’s 2019 follow-up, Sympa, a loose concept album that dives into much darker terrain. Through tales of mass depression, political corruption, and even a zombie invasion, the band offers blistering moments of catharsis and plenty of glimmers of hope. As with Tokyo Rendez-Vous, there’s always a sense that the mood could shift at any second. While the band more firmly positions itself within the radio-friendly confines of J-Pop, it still relishes in running amok, through lopsided grooves, searing guitar solos, and erratic rhythms. Sympa is broken up by four sample-based interludes, each string-laden and panic-ridden as zombies threaten to take over. These apocalyptic clips serve as more of a metaphor than a play on horror. “We need help!” a voice shouts over a static-y radio on “Sympa I.” This desperate plea is the album’s central theme. “Open your eyes wide, it could be the start of something new,” Tsuneta seethes on “Slumberland,” a vivid hip-pop jam that urges the people of Tokyo to wake up—and maybe rise up. To do so, though, the strength of the individual is key, and this is where King Gnu puts its focus. While the frenetic groover “Sorrows” soaks in the pain of loneliness and the soulful sing-along “Hitman” stares death in the face, each suggests that a brighter future is still possible. That is until “Prayer X,” a deceptively buoyant pop track that alludes to suicide. It’s King Gnu’s boldest, most direct statement—but it’s by no means its final message. Co-vocalist Satoru Iguchi’s soaring croons on poignant ballad “The hole” speak to vulnerability, self-acceptance, and the enduring power of human connection.

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