Casiopea's debut album review

95 / 100


During the COVID lockdowns, me and the wife got into a habit of playing Scrabble or doing puzzles whilst listening to random albums from YouTube.

I had previously listened quite a bit to some 80s’ cheesy Japanese citypop music, which is why I wasn’t surprised when most of my algorithmic frontpage was mainly that. There was a few channels like Xerf Xpec and Kuma’s Campfire that posted a lot of mixtapes and full albums from artists I’d never hear of before.

That’s where I heard Casiopea the first time. It was a bit cheesy at first but after having a few of their albums in the background while playing Scrabble, I grew into it. Four years later, Casiopea comprises of roughly 90% of the music I listen to. It’s hands down my favourite band.

In an effort to spread the love, I’ll try to write a review of each of their albums. I think it’s only fitting to with their debut album, Casiopea from 1979. If you’ve been on the same side of YouTube as I have, you’ll most likely recognize the iconic album cover with the Lola T290 and March 74S racecars.

About the album

This is Casiopea’s debut album, confusingly also called Casiopea. It was originally released as an LP record in 1979 and later in 1986 as CD as well. Casiopea had already formed back in 1976 and they competed twice in Yamaha’s amateur band contest, EastWest '76 and '77. In 1979 they managed to get signed to Alfa records which ended up being the label they’ve released a majority of their albums on.

Funnily enough, in EastWest '77 one of the judges, Yoshihiro Naruse, would years later end up becoming Casiopea’s main basist.

Originally Casiopea consisted of Issei Noro (guitar), Tetsuo Sakurai (bass), Hidehiko Koike (keys) and Tohru Suzuki (drums) but Koike and Suzuki left the band before the first album and were replaced by Minoru Mukaiya (keys) and Takashi Sasaki (drums) respectively.

This album is also one of the rare albums featuring additional studio band members. In this case, we have brothers Randy and Michael Brecker playing the brass section with David Sanborn.

There’s five main versions of this album. The original 32XA-104 CD and ALR-6017 LP, VRCL-2201/2221 DSD remastered version, 96khz 24bit hi-res FLAC digital version and last year a new alternative mix from 2000 called TOCT-24364, the so-called Millenium edition, was discovered as well.

The source recordings for all versions is the same, but the mixing differs a bit between the albums.


1. Time Limit

Time Limit is the perfect track to get you started on your Casiopea journey. It begins with some simple but groovy drum beats and builds up with some horns until it drops into a jivy bass groove with the brass supporting. We get to enjoy some funky Rhodes solos by Mukaiya.

The guitar tone on Noro’s guitar riffs drows a bit with the faster picking. Mix wise you can hear the age of the album, in both good and bad. Considering that the guitarist Noro is also the band leader, there’s actually very little guitar in the first track.

In the middle section when we get into the second “chorus” we get some solos from the two saxophones and trumpet with the rest of the band offering a driving backing to improvise over. In my opinion the brass stands out a bit too much and I’m really not that keen on saxophones in general, which luckily isn’t a reoccuring instrument in Casiopea’s discography.

Sasaki offers some very interesting synopations with his drum beats and you can hear how technical his playing is with all the little flourishes here and there.

Sakurai’s deep bass tones support the drums beautifully and the riffs are kept interesting throughout the track.

Overall, a great start for the album!

2. Tears Of The Star

Tears Of The Star is a slower track built around some synths and keys playing a forlorn melody. It is followed with some very careful drumming and some steel-stringed acoustic guitar that add some interest.

After this the track returns back to the simple melody from the start with the bass playing the main melody and we have some Rhodes organs in the backing adding little flourishes. This slowly builds into some sad and epic strings as the song crescendoes with some bigger piano chords. After the crescendo we return back to beginning, except on a slightly less somber note.

The song is beautiful and wonderfully moody. Maybe not the easiest Casiopea track to start with but it’ll grown on you after a few listens.

3. Space Road

Space Road is a classic that Casiopea has re-recorded on several of their albums. This might be my favourite song on the whole album as it embodies all the best parts of Casiopea’s later production in such a tight composition.

The whole vibe of the track is very cosmic and otherworldly. The first minute is a build up with faster percussions combined slower drone like keyboard melodies and a moving bass pattern that builds into a beautiful ensemble of sounds when the guitar comes to bind it all together.

The break around 2 minutes just adds intensity to the groove as it attempts to bring it down but then it keeps on going until we reach a short breakdown where Noro gets to bring in an intensive guitar solo. The guitar sound and choice of notes is simply just perfection.

Mukaiya plays some faster keyboard runs that transform into an almost sinister pre-chorus that evolves back into the main section of the song with another great guitar solo that carries through the rest of the song.

Out of every track on this album, I think this is the best song to showcase Sasaki’s technical forté as he plays some incredibly difficult drum patterns that almost make you question your own sense of rhythm. If the rest of the band couldn’t keep up with the technical drums, I’d almost call it overplaying the drums but as such it fits perfectly. Just listen to those hats!

Space Road is simply a beautiful journey from start to finish with some incredibly skilled writing and execution. This might be my first choice as a track to introduce someone to Casiopea.

4. Midnight Rendezvous

Another classic that has been released half a dozen of times. The version of Midnight Rendezvous on this album is still one of my favourites though.

We’re off to a great start with the swinging off-beat drums and bouncing bassline and after a quick build-up Noro introduces his catchy guitar riff that will evoke a very Noir mood. This mood transforms as we reach the chorus and the string section comes in to add some colour to this dark and murky track.

In the mid-section we get a great little blues organ solo from Mukaiya that carries to another great solo by Noro. We return to another beautiful chorus before the song starts looping the verse as it fades into nothingness.

I especially like this album’s version as it’s the only one with the string section in the chorus. Casiopea doesn’t really use strings and in this version the strings elevate the song into a whole new place where the later versions don’t go at all.

5. Far Away

For some reason, this is the least memorable song of the whole album. For a long time I didn’t even remember that it existed.

The riff that’s playing right from the start somehow doesn’t fit the rest of the album perhaps. It has a bit of a RHCP feel to it. The pacing of the song also feels a bit funny and it feels like it doesn’t really know where to go or what the main catch is.

It’s not a bad song by any means, it just kinda stands out from the rest and at the same time, doesn’t stand out at all?

6. Swallow

This song is one of the more fast paced songs with a lot of drive behind it. It starts with some faster paced drums with some insane tom fills and lovely hi-hat work. The guitar plays a catchy slow melody while the bass dances around it with insane precision.

The track never really slows down as the chorus simply builds into a very space invaders type of synth solo while Sakurai hammers that bass of his with way too many strings.

As seems to be tradition, after the keyboard solo, Noro starts his mind bending minute long improvised solo. At 2:58 we also get a fun section where both Noro and Mukaiya plays these runs in perfect sync.

The only respite from this absolutely high energy jam is ironically the drum solo around 3:23 where Sasaki gets to play in absolute silence from the rest of the band.

Swallow is a banger that is filled to the brim with tiny little fills and riffs from every member of the band. Sasaki especially goes absolutely nuts on the drums for the whole duration of the track. For me, this is peak Casiopea.

7. Dream Hill

Dream Hill is one of the slower tracks again. It’s also one of the rare tracks where we have vocals provided by Issei Noro. If you’re not allergic to cheesy early 80s’ Japanese music, you might find this track very bittersweet and beautiful.

It’s a very fitting track before we transition into the last jam on the release.

8. Black Joke

Again, a very iconic Casiopea track. It starts off with a very mysterious arpeggiating guitar that sets the mood perfectly as we transition into a more laidback beat with some funky call-and-response between the guitar and brass sections.

If you’ve heard Casiopea’s Mint Jams album, this track definitely comes very close to the mood and sound of the Mint Jams songs. The whole mood of the track oscillates between mysterious and almost cheery, it keeps you guessing.

Sakurai has some serious bass slaps in this track and I think the moving bassline during the verses sounds absolutely delightful.

This song also hilights how well the band plays together, all the little breaks and flourishes when they all come together just works beautifully.

Towards the end the intro motif repeats into what becomes the ending, a perfect ending for the album.

Final conclusions

Casiopea’s debut album is funny in the sense that it’s not that reflective of where their sound will evolve to over the years but on the other hand, retrospectively you can absolutely see where they came from.

The song writing and performance is simply stellar but the mixing is clearly very dated. I wouldn’t say that it’s bad but it’s also very obviously not a great mix either.

I think as a whole it definitely stands the test of time and it’s also a very approachable album when it comes to fusion jazz music and that makes it an easy starting point to get into Casiopea’s discography. I might be biased, but I do strongly recommend checking the album out. Even if you’re not a fan of jazz, Casiopea is so much more than that!

The album can be found on most streaming platforms these days. Happy listenings!

95 / 100