In an update to her personal blog three days ago, vocalist aco of spoon+ gave us some important news: the unit’s debut album is officially set to drop as of summer 2011.

Am I ecstatic? Of course. I’ve had my eye on them since their formation nearly a year ago and I’ve been waiting for their first CD release all that time. It’s impossible, though, for me to ignore the bittersweet feeling that comes with finally getting it.

What reason do I have to be so emotionally caught up in this whole issue? Well, if you were scoping out the indie Japanese electronica scene for new acts between the years of 2009 and 2010, you’ll probably remember the name amU. Formed by two long-time friends of over a decade, aco and meru, their name stood for “aco + meru + U” and were a so-called “dolly-pop” idol unit inspired by the works of Nakata Yasutaka and the style of anime-influenced singers like Momoi Haruko. Known for portraying a girly, “selfish” image in their lyrics and live performances, they debuted in the girls’ hometown of Osaka in 2008.

I’ll try to keep my bias to a minimum here, but if you ask me, amU did not get the recognition they should’ve been getting by those outside of Japan. More often than not, they were scoffed at and ridiculed by people who didn’t really know what they were about. Idols, right? All the same! Honestly, it’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. For me, amU set themselves apart from the pack early on with the sheer involvement they took in their own image, even if music was something they left for their producers to handle. With their self-written lyrics, personally choreographed dances, perfect fashion sense alongside entirely handmade costumes, and sometimes sweet, sometimes scary artistic direction (their love of things that toed the line between cute and creepy might’ve been my favorite aspect of their image), something about them felt much more remarkable than two girls singing robotic techno-pop in the strange, uncertain times left in the wake of Perfume‘s ascension to bigger and better things. Lesser groups would’ve been driven by producers or managers looking to mold a couple of aspiring performers for fame, but amU was driven by two girls who knew themselves and their artistic identities better than anyone else. I couldn’t have loved them more for it if I tried, and in ways like those, they are still the standard that I find myself holding other would-be idols up to.

Unfortunately, things got in the way. Like… a lot of things. On the lower end of the scale, for instance, some copies of the girls’ debut album prism were found to be misprinted. To this day, a notice on their official blog reads, “For those whose copies contain misprints, we’ll be giving out the regular edition CD at the live houses we perform in, so please feel free to call out to the members or the staff!” I can really only imagine the embarrassment that had to have entailed there.

That, however, wasn’t the worst of what they’d face.

It came as a shock to fans when, on February 28th, 2010, an abrupt, apologetic entry was made by staff to announce amU’s withdrawal from a live event they’d been scheduled to appear at that night. “Due to the members’ poor health,” read the notice, “they will not be able to perform.” It was unclear who was sick and how or why they were. While the fans’ reactions were largely supportive, one was unsympathetic and protested the staff’s decision, writing, “Whether they’re in poor health or something came up, couldn’t you have notified us of it beforehand? Don’t you think this is a little too cruel?”

Even so, the staff issued no response to any comments left on the entry, positive or negative. The following day, however, it came time for the girl herself to break the silence at last.

This is aco of amU

With barely a trace of the quirky, carefree aco from before, she wrote:

To everyone who was looking forward to amU’s performance yesterday
To everyone who was waiting for the Ustream broadcast of it
To Club Vijon and to everyone performing with us
I’m so, so sorry
I’m really sorry
I’m sorry
I’m sorry

Her physical condition had been unstable ever since the beginning of the year. She’d already been cutting back on performances in an effort to combat it, but it made little difference. Finally, the very day before amU was scheduled to perform, aco was given strict doctor’s orders against appearing and it’d been impossible to warn everyone of the cancelation ahead of time. amU would be pausing their live activities for the next three months in the hopes of a complete recovery. “Even after today,” the post concluded, “I hope you’ll continue to love amU with unchanging eyes.”

A long month of no updates went by. I imagine people simply contented themselves to wait, hoping aco was managing to recover as quickly as possible. Then, on the very last day of March, we got the answer we’d been waiting for in an entry written by both aco and meru — the thing is, it was just a little different from the one we’d been expecting.

Well, there was good news…

We truly apologize for worrying so many people.
aco is in good health now.

…and there was bad news.

It’s sudden, but amU, as well as amU Planet, will temporarily cease activity.
We’re still unsure of how long this period will be.
It could be many months, or it could be many years.

It was not a break-up, they stated. They stressed that aco’s health was not the issue, but merely creative differences between amU and the team as a whole. At the time, I wasn’t quite willing to believe it, and I wonder even now how long they could’ve gone on if aco’s health problems hadn’t given them the right timing to quit. Still, the possibility of future solo activities for the girls was brought up, and I clung to it for dear life. As is often the case with idols of any caliber, I’d gotten attached to these two, and I couldn’t bring myself to let them go. I wanted to see them persevere like they always had before.

A little less than two months later, that wish came part of the way true. With the loud, attention-grabbing title of “spooooooooooon+!!!!!!!!!!!” (I can’t even begin to imagine what I must have thought it meant at the time), aco made her return to the amU blog and revealed her new unit to its readers, a project she’d been planning since spring or earlier. She’d be working with the sound producer jigoku — a mysterious entity who appears in shadows at all times, speaks in a seemingly artificial baritone, and whose name means “hell” — and her former amU collaborator guchico, the shy “image creator” who would be handling everything from photography and PV direction to VJ duties. They’d all set up blogs, and instantly, I was rushing to aco’s to find out more.

Described as a “music, visual and dance performance” unit, the spoon+ manifesto is a thing of illusions and fairytales, unsurprising for aco’s distinctively imaginative style. “A girl sings and dances from within a huge screen without knowing whether her surroundings are a dream or reality. There lies a mysterious world no one knows — the wonder world,” it explains. “What they create is a horizon between the everyday and a different world — the wonder line.” Cryptically, it ends:

Let’s begin the continuation of the story.

A wonderline is drawn.

Now, the girl will become a real girl.

Undoubtedly, it’s a reference to YUKI‘s song of the same name. The inspiration of many a young female artist in Japan, I can see her influence in everything aco does, from her voice to her appearance. This is, of course, not to say that there’s nothing different or interesting about her own style. Her favorite artists, who range from capsule to QYPTHONE, combine to give her the perfect point-of-view with which to approach her own music.

It should be said, too, that the music I’m referring to is completely hers. Whereas the young producers hoshini;negaiwo and Codi were the main force behind amU’s works, spoon+ is where aco’s gotten creative in her own right, composing every single song and merely enlisting producers from shoes of MISSILE CHEWBACCA to Marginal Rec’s DJ USYN to bring her vision to life. Both are easily recognizable names if you know the industry: shoes, perhaps most notable for the numerous remixes he contributed to RAM RIDER‘s singles, has also worked under the name of Valou in his more experimental pieces for artists like MEG. Fans of Perfume will know DJ USYN from the many unofficial remixes he’s done of the group, but he has a hidden talent in arranging that far outweighs anything he could bring to another artist’s songs.

By far my personal favorite of anything spoon+ has released thus far, the shoes-produced “Chameleon” is an absolutely triumphant debut from aco that brings to mind Utada Hikaru‘s “Passion” and MEG’s works with Dave Liang more than it does yet another generic, sugary idol effort. The song’s PV, too, is the best I’ve seen from an indie act in a long time. While aco seems to be the type of artist who’s never met a concept she didn’t like, this one about a human chameleon who blends in everywhere but fits in nowhere is a really, really good concept. The styling, which was done by aco herself (is it odd that I recognize items from her own wardrobe in here?), is pitch-perfect. I love the yellow scene especially, but the muddy mess of colors in the last scene definitely gets a lot of points for how well it was pulled off.

If there’s anything I dislike about the song, it’s how over-manipulated her vocals are, but the live performances take care of that. Though meru always outshone aco vocally, it’s funny how what was mediocre in the idol-pop scene becomes somehow charming and interesting for a more avant-garde venture like this one. Concerning the other songs, DJ USYN’s “MOVIE STAR” feels a little more of the same in that it’s something amU could’ve easily sung, but the way aco owns the stage in her performance of it gives it life and manages to turn it into something exciting. “←Left Right→” — another excellent production courtesy of shoes — is also one of my favorites with its fun English monologue and random spinning interludes that I kind of envy (I want to get paid to spin around too!). On top of those two, jigoku’s “break up rain” is a mellow little tune with a steady, precise beat and high-pitched vocals that I surprisingly adore.

So, with all of these songs in the spoon+ catalogue already, which of them will be making it to the album? Right now, it’s a little hard to say. Even the album’s title has yet to be decided, and currently, more tracks are being recorded in preparation for its release. According to the staff, they plan to include “everyone’s favorite songs,” so there’s nothing to do but hope yours are among that list! Either way, spoon+ appears as if they’ll be one of this year’s most promising debuts, and I’m more than ready for them to unleash their music on the as-of-yet unsuspecting world and find the success amU was never able to.

…until then, I’m going to go look for this fierce lady and keep an eye out for her own (inevitable?) solo debut. I’ve got the meru prayer circle going if anyone wants to join me!