Time for something new! Today I’m going to do something I call Artist Analysis, where I share my thoughts on a particular artist’s vocals, music, and anything else I can think of. The topic of this post will be girl group Kalafina.
Kalafina was formed in 2007 by composer Yuki Kajiura to sing the ending themes for the anime Kara no Kyoukai. Their debut single was called Oblivious. Originally, Kalafina consisted of the duo Keiko Kubota and Wakana Ootaki, but in 2008 two additional vocalists joined, Hikaru Masai and Maya Toyashima. While Maya only stayed for their Sprinter/ARIA single, Hikaru has become a permanent member of their line-up. Other anime Kalafina have sung for are Kuroshitsuji, Mahou Shoujo Madoka☆Magica and Fate/Zero. They have released four studio albums to date.
Kalafina has three main vocalists – Hikaru, Keiko and Wakana. While all of them have their flaws, they have many strengths too, which makes listening to their music an aural delicacy!
Hikaru is the weakest member of the trio. Compared to the other two, there are more moments where her vocals need improvement – sometimes she sounds nasal or slightly childish, her head voice is ordinary, and she generally has less control. She also hits her notes poorly in certain songs, for example Haru wa Kogane no Yume no Naka, by sliding up to the notes with a sudden change in dynamics. While all the Kalafina members do this to some extent, Hikaru’s volume changes are greater, making it more obvious and hence more annoying. Also, her singing is not as good live as Wakana or Keiko’s.
But while Hikaru’s technical skills make her the weakest, she does have the most vocal strength. Hikaru can rock. When she sings low and aggressively, like in Magia, her intensity and power is outstanding. And she can also get a rough edge to her voice. I love it. You don’t get too many female J-Pop singers who can do good grit, and that’s one of the reasons I treasure Hikaru.
Being able to channel fierceness into her vocals, dark songs are her forte. But that’s not all she can do. Hikaru has an aptitude for folk pieces, for which she uses a higher tone. Her lighter songs always have a bright, bubbly spark, and you can tell from her vocals that she’s having fun performing them. And she has improved throughout her stay with Kalafina. For example, I’ve been impressed with her control on ballads from their latest album Consolation.
Hikaru harmonises best with Keiko, especially when singing low. In these songs, like Obbligato or Magia, their voices sound similar and blend nicely. While the Hikaru/Wakana combination still sounds good, they don’t sit as well together because their voices contrast more.
Overall, while Hikaru has more technical flaws than the other two, she makes up for it with passion. She’s also Kalafina’s most versatile singer, able to take on various tones and fully utilise her range to suit different types of pieces.
Keiko is the singer with the deep voice, and the one you get most people fanboying and -girling over (yes, that includes me). She takes a lot of the lower lines, and she actually sings the most out of them all – when she’s not singing lead, you can nearly always find Keiko laying down the harmonies.
Keiko’s vocal range is smaller and centred lower than Wakana or Hikaru’s. This doesn’t present much of an issue though, as Kajiura usually just writes low sections for her. You’ll often find Keiko’s lead roles in the verse, where she starts off with a low melody, before handing the lead over to one of the others. Something I’ve noticed is that when Keiko exchanges the lead with Hikaru, the transition flows well and is smooth(ish), because of the similarities in their voices. An example is the verse of Hoshi no Utai.
I can’t find much to complain about with Keiko. It’s refreshing to find a singer who uses a deeper tone among the hordes of squeaky J-Pop vocalists. She harmonises brilliantly with Wakana and Hikaru, her ability to hold long notes is fantastic, she has lovely vibrato, and she’s recently shown off a much-improved head voice in Hikari Furu. Sometimes I find her a tad strong, and when singing live she has less control over her strength and dynamics. But generally, Keiko is a consistently good performer. And I love her ♡.
Out of Kalafina’s three lead vocalists, Wakana is the most technically correct. She has a clean, even tone, which suits a variety of songs. Whether she is delivering a serene ballad or a cheerful folk tune, you can rely on Wakana to hit the notes well. Wakana is also the go-to singer for high parts. While her range doesn’t extend up as much as, say, AKINO or Nana Mizuki, Wakana can easily rattle off extended phrases with consistently mid-to-high notes without sounding strained. She’s also the best live performer, retaining her tone and control, at close-to-studio quality. Finally, another of her skills is holding long notes with a very stable tone.
That’s not to say she’s a flawless singer though. I have two main problems with Wakana, the first of which is her head voice. Now, often it’s good. Listen to Fairytale or Hikari Furu for example, where her head voice is reasonably strong, blends well, and is overall pleasant to listen to. Unfortunately, there are a few songs where her head voice is flimsy, especially in the Red Moon era. In songs like Lacrimosa and Gloria she has a weak, poorly transitioned head voice. In fact, I hardly listen to Gloria specifically because her transition annoys me so much, even though it’s just a little part which has the problem. However on the good side, apart these faults from Red Moon, she often sings in her upper register well.
The second problem is her breathing. This can be split into two sub-issues: the breath itself, and the placement. Regarding the breath itself, Wakana’s breathing is loud. I’m not sure whether she takes her breaths near the microphone or if she’s a bit of a “gulper”, but the sharp noise as she breathes in irks me. The other sub-issue is that sometimes she takes her breaths in odd places. Take Kiichigo no Shigemi ni. In the first verse alone, she takes far more breaths than necessary. The opening line, “kiichigo / no shigemi ni” has a breath taken where the slash is. This interrupts the phrasing of the line, so instead of being smoothly delivered there’s an awkward break in the middle. And it’s not that she’s running out of air, as the second line of that verse (which is the same length) is sung easily in one breath. This seems sloppy from both Wakana and Kajiura, one whom should have picked it up (well, that and all the other mistakes I’ve moaned about). The chorus of Consolation combines these two breathing sins, resulting in an awkward, rushed feel.
While I’ve written most on Wakana’s negatives, they are outweighed by her positives, and I still adore her voice. I love how when Wakana sings, you’re guaranteed to have an excellent vocal performance, and her voice suits Kajiura-style songs fantastically.
Additional Thoughts On Vocals
Apart from the three vocalists I’ve already spoken about, for a short time Kalafina had a fourth vocalist, Maya. She was only featured on their Sprinter/ARIA single. It’s difficult for me to comment on her voice because I haven’t heard her much, however in Sprinter (lyrics here) she’s singing the following lead lines: earlier on from “bokura ni dekiru koto wa tada” to “sekai no hate made” (excluding a short Keiko part in the middle), in the middle at “konna karakuri no kokoro ni mo / afuredasu hodo tsumatteitanda” and “bokura wa / toki wo keri hashiru”, and towards the end from “kimi ni aitai” to “kimi ga itoshii”. I think she’s also the one singing “I’m calling your name” in the background. Judging from these lines, she sounds pretty competent, but I can’t say much apart from that.
Getting back to the main trio, one of Kalafina’s assets is that their vocal differences allow them to handle a range of musical styles. Hikaru’s darker rock voice or lighter pop voice can fit well into different genres, Keiko sounds fine doing pretty much anything and Wakana is especially good with songs that ask for control and precision. The contrast between the voices is another factor which makes their songs interesting,
Finally, as a live act the Kalafina girls do a good job. Their tone isn’t as good as studio quality, which is to be expected. But they still harmonise well, and as live performers I would definitely rate them highly.
Note: Sadly, I haven’t actually been to a Kalafina concert; this is based on watching live videos.
A prominent feature in Kalafina’s music is the extensive use of vocal harmonies. Harmonies make the world go round! Kajiura loves writing multi-part harmonies, and having three vocalists who, range-wise, can cover all areas only makes it easier. Not only that, the way Kalafina sing makes it easier for them to harmonise. They don’t use vibrato much (apart from a short “flutter” at the end of long notes), which means they don’t have to worry about synchronising it with each other. Wakana and Keiko are also great at holding long notes (not that Hikaru’s bad), so they don’t slip off note and clash. And harmonies are not limited to the Kalafina members. For a richer vocal experience, additional parts are sometimes contributed by Yuriko Kaida, Hanae Tomaru and Kajiura herself.
A lot of Kalafina songs have similar instrumentation. They use Kajiura’s favourite combination of instruments, namely electric guitar, bass, drums, piano, violin and vocal backing. In their poppier songs you can also find dance beats and synths, and in their folk pieces there’s acoustic guitar and flute. Less common instruments can be found scattered around their discography. Recently, Kajiura’s been playing around with accordian, which works well in some songs, and not quite so well in others (like Signal). Other instruments include xylophone in Fairytale, a string quartet in Seventh Heaven, bells in Red Moon, brass in Symphonia and sitar in Te to Te to Me to Me. The different instruments make these tracks feel unique and interesting.
Kalafina’s musical style is rather distinctive. This is due to the fact that their composer is Yuki Kajiura, who often garners criticism for all her music sounding similar. Thoughts on this range from mild “they sound reasonably similar but I don’t mind” (like me) to… somewhat harsher views. Now, Kalafina in no way breaks the mould, and Kajiura never really ventures outside her comfort zone. However, what you will find is a bit more variety. While songs like To The Beginning and Haru wa Kogane no Yume no Naka are standard Kajiura compositions, in other tracks she branches out with Middle Eastern influences in Serenato, playful folk in Moonfesta, dark rock in Magia and classical/pop combinations such as in Yami no Uta.
In the end, I enjoy that Kalafina shows more of an experimental side from Yuki Kajiura, with the package completed by an assortment of delightful vocals. However, if you aren’t as fond of her music in the first place or find her repetitive, it’s understandable that you might not find Kalafina too appealing.