Monday, 27 November 2006

CD: YMCK - Family Music

While the likes of DJ Scotch Egg and Germlin use cut and paste 8 bit noises to create their sounds, Japanese chiptune outfit YMCK go one step further, using the old game console sound chips as simple replacement for genuine instruments to create bouncy jazzy pop melodies. It's not a scrambled remix of video game music, but more akin to traditional music that just so happens to use video game-esque equipment to produce the sound. It's what Mario would listen to on his walkman.

What stands out is that they rarely sample the games they reference. The title of their 2004 debut album Family Music of course puts you in the frame of mind of the Famicom (Family Computer - the original Japanese Nintendo Entertainment System). But apart from the odd blip and sound effect (and a quick riff of the Super Mario Bros. theme on SOCOPOGOGO (YMCK Version)), they are pretty much all original compositions. Even Tetrominon ~From Russia with Blocks~ resists the temptation to crack out the classic Game Boy Tetris tune, but at least there's some great lyrics:
From Russia are falling down
to make your brain messed up with mysteries
It's hard to perceive, easy to destroy
like your life itself

The blocks from Russia are falling down
You got to put into a box
gathering and eliminating a piece of Tetrominon
And while that's all well and good, YMCK seemed to forget to make the music in anyway interesting or stimulating.

The tracks are easy to enjoy individually and in small doses as a quirky novelty, but listening to the whole album is a tiresome feat. As you can imagine, there's little variety with the sound and content, and with some tracks stretching beyond the four and a half minute mark, it's hard to be patient enough to keep yourself from skipping onwards. But all that's waiting is another sugary dose of unexciting blip music. The high-pitched hushed vocals from lady band member Midori render every track more or less identical and the tunes would have perhaps benefitted without her listless half-whisper.

It all reinforces the view that video game music is primarily designed to be listened to while playing video games (no, really?) and the only reason certain tracks can be enjoyed at any other time is for nostalgia value. There are a couple of instances where it does gel together (the tiny opening Fanfare and Interlude tracks, plus the closing Your Quest Is Over is pretty), but overall it's somewhat lacking.

Family Music is an album in dire need of some spark and excitement. There is no doubting the technical accomplishment on display, but it all feels like a demonstration of their skills rather than a CD you want to listen to again and again. And while you may level some of these arguments against the likes of Plus-Tech Squeeze Box and the Adaadat noise merchants, I'd rather have a mashed-up joywreck assualt on the ears than this. Not bad every now and again, but it's just too much and not enough at the same time.


> > > YMCK (Official Site - English), Usagi-Chang Records

Sunday, 19 November 2006

CD: Cornelius - Sensuous

Cornelius aka Keigo Oyamada has widely been regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary Japanese music, whose innovative albums have gained something on an international, as well as a domestic, following. So, it is only natural that his first album of new material in five years should require one's avid attention. However, it seems that little progress has been made since 2001's Point.

As I have always preferred Fantasma, his third solo album, it's something of a disappointment that the absurdity and upbeat nonsense that made Fantasma so unique is largely absent. Instead, it is largely another batch of experimental pop incorporating electronic tones, everyday noises and Oyamada's restrained vocals. And while it is true that no-one else makes music in quite the same style, the end result lacks the uniqueness that made Fantasma so damn enjoyable. Nevertheless, it is perhaps unfair to dwell to much on past efforts for comparison, as while this album may not be Cornelius' best, there is still much to gleam from the dozen tunes on offer here.

It seems that Cornelius must love wind and love the sound of tinkling, as windchimes bookend Sensuous. You could probably split the album in two between the more ambient soundscapes (such as Omstart and Like a Rolling Stone) and the guitar-licked beats of Breezin' and Fit Song, yet both kinds have an airy, drifting quality. While it is nice to have something of a running theme, it also makes the tracks all seem to run together, with few that properly stand out and others that can only really be considered filler material. However, the ones that do stand out are certainly worth the effort.

The only track that sees Cornelius properly rocking out is the fast-paced Gum, filled with charging guitars and cymbal crashes as voice samples echo back and forth from all angles. It's as close to Free Fall as one gets this time round, but it's satisfying enough. Upcoming single Beep It is not especially clever but has a neat beat and manages to be pretty funky. The aforementioned Like a Rolling Stone is soothing and dreamy, as is his cover of Ratpack standard Sleep Warm. It's just a shame that his brilliant cover of YMO's exquisite Cue that appeared on the Breezin' single release doesn't appear here.

But perhaps the best track on Sensuous is barely a song at all. At just over a minute and a half long, Toner seems to be Cornelius at his most pure, using piano and electronic blips and sound effects to turn the menial task of printing out a sheet of paper into something more playful . It's like listening to someone remix Microsoft Windows start-up noises, but much better than that sounds.

As a result, Sensuous is something of a frustrating experience, feeling a little soulless and hollow at times, but with just enough flashes of brilliance to leave me sure that Cornelius has plenty more imagination and creativity to offer. I just hope that next time, his talent takes a more refreshing direction. And that we don't have to wait another five years.


> > > Cornelius (Official Site)

Friday, 17 November 2006

CD: Polysics - You-You-You

I am not one for buying singles, particularly considering how expensive they are in Japan, but this latest release from Polysics was an essential purchase, as it came with a DVD featuring four of their tracks from their last live show in the UK at London's 93 Feet East on Monday 1st May 2006. And I was there! Ergo, you can see me and my buddies jumping up and down like big sweaty sillies screaming "KAJA KAJA GOO!". The actual tunes on the single aren't half bad either.

In fact, the title track is perhaps their best air-punching pop-punk techno-laced anthem since Black Out Fall Out, which is high praise indeed. With its infectious synth hook, punchy drumfills and Hiroyuki Hayashi's rooftop calls, it's upbeat stuff. As the chorus breaks, a robot voice sings "You You You" - perhaps in response to Now Is The Time!'s I My Me Mine - and the synth soars, before launching into a winning guitar solo. Hopefully it will become a crowd favourite and a cornerstone of future setlists (I'll be smiling if it pops up when I see them play in Nagoya on December 9th).

The quality doesn't dip too far with the following track, むすんでひらいて (Musunde Hiraite - something about tying up and opening), but this is an all-together different beast. Here, Hayashi's high-pitched squeaks and screeches are matched by a deeper moodier voice, as blips and pops play over grimy guitar. It feels like a trip to the funfair, as it flits between ghost trains, wurlitzers and carousels while stuffing its face with candy floss and marshmallows. It is perhaps a little too bizarre to fit on a future album (even for Polysics), but works perfectly as an individual wacky track.

Finally, there's a remix of Walky Talky by Holger Czukay, former bassist with German 'krautrock' band Can (Wikipedia knows all). It seems like pretty standard stuff at first (a different beat here, a new sample there), but it launches into an uncharacteristic ambient interval. When it comes out the other side, it drags remnants of ethereality with it that smother the rest of the track (pretentious? Moi?). It's an unusual effort and more interesting than your typical end-of-a-single mix, for sure.

Dare I say it, but You-You-You may be better than any of the tracks from Now Is The Time!, and if it is indicative of what is to come from Polysics' next album, then I will buy it the day it is released. Promise!


> > > Polysics (Official Site), Sony Music