Nhhmbase: Ichirin no Hana

Ten years after they burst onto the Tokyo indie scene in a flurry of strange time signatures and unclassifiable alt-rock/pop tunesmithery, Nhhmbase have been engaged in a slow but steady crawl towards mainstream acceptance that Ichirin no Hana seems well placed to continue.

A lot of their songs seem designed particularly to showcase Mamoru’s extraordinary vocal range and it’s the need to build everything around that instrument that has defined the band’s sound, allowing him to ditch at least one entire lineup and replace them with little obvious impact on their style. There is nevertheless a clear sense of evolution, and while Ichirin no Hana, as with its predecessor Mizube no Tsudumi from earlier this year, is very much about the vocals, both songs also suggest the band are moving ever further in pushing them to the fore. At the same time, where in the early days, Mamoru’s vocals varied not only in position in the musical scale, but also in texture and inflection, coming in note-perfect stacatto pinpricks and exuberant bursts of energy, the texture here retains a uniform smooth matt finish. The lingering remnants of post-hardcore that still hung around the edges of their early work have also now been pretty much thoroughly eliminated, leaving the music a technically immaculate exercise in octave-leaping jazz-pop nursing a sentimental, sweet bean paste centre. It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the band’s process of growing up, but as someone who remembers a bloodsoaked Mamoru leaving Akihabara Club Goodman in an ambulance after one of the most thrillingly intense performances I’ve ever seen, it’s hard to escape the sensation that they’ve lost something important in their drive towards professionalism.


Filed under Reviews, Track

11 responses to “Nhhmbase: Ichirin no Hana

  1. If this were a song by one of my musician friends, I’d be tempted to think they were playing meta-games with the music. The texture/style at the beginning and again starting at 2:23 is strict 3- then 4-part counterpoint, with cross-rhythms and deceptive meter, and unprepared modulations that jump to a distant key in an instant (hard to sing–Mamoru has a perfect ear, right on target). Very musically sophisticated, complex stuff, very composer-ly.
    BUT, when the band comes together at 1:21 and 3:44, it goes into a very short, very simple repeating pattern of I-IV-V (tonic-subdominant-dominant chords). This is the simplest, in Western music the most cliche’d musical pattern you can use. We make fun of Country & Western tunes as “three-chord” songs when they go this way (as they so often do).
    It’s a striking contrast in terms of the composer’s choices for the contrasting sections of the song. For someone who can write the contrapuntal and rhythmic stunts of the verse(?) sections, it comes across as very tongue-in-cheek, maybe even musically sarcastic, to drop suddenly into a simple 3-chord round with no complexity of any kind. There’s gotta be a subtext to this…

    • I reckon the subtext is the need to show off because that’s the sort of band they are, colliding with the need to throw a bone to the commercial entities they’re sucking up to.

    • I suppose a big thing as well is that while they must be aware on some level that one sounds weirder than the other, Japanese bands just don’t seem to distinguish between these abstract and ultra-traditional structures in quite the same way. I suppose that could come across as refreshing or something, but it also means they often ruin something potentially quite cool with something horribly cheesy.

  2. An awful lot of the J-Pop I’ve come across gets into rampant style-mixing, including within one song, a style-collage that can come across as jarring if you’re listening for musical style. It’s an interesting inversion of the Western practice: If you want to be a speed-metal band, then there are by god *rules* about what is and isn’t speed metal that you’d better pay attention to–I say that tongue in cheek, because of course artists write whatever they damn well please; it’s the rabid fans that will deconstruct all the violations for us, free of charge. Listening to J-Pop, it may be tempting for my own genre-trained ears to hear style changes as mistakes, but I’d love to see the lyrics translated on this one and check. That deliberate (not to say plodding) note-by-note complex contrapuntal style on the verses does not have a home anywhere in the West outside of classical Art music, so I have kind of an aural double-take reaction to hearing it next to the I-IV-V easy listening jam of the chorus.

  3. In this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5UBzx88q3o
    There is really only a two-chord vamp. Granted, they are two non-standard chords, though easily identifiable as altered IV and V chords, and the guitar lead part gains interest here and there when it departs from the underlying key (an old but still effective jazz player’s trick). The bass player also picks his moments to play isolated notes out of the key, and of course the point of the vamp is to give free rein to improvisations, which are all over the chromatic map melodically. It’s a little odd to see such over-the-top physical stagecraft yielding such weak guitar tone–from the visuals alone I would have been led to predict Townshend-style mayhem aurally as well as visually.
    Ichirin no Hana has nothing remotely like this kind of energy behind it, but of course it clearly wasn’t intended to. If it’s a retreat from the anarchy of the 2007 clip, then it’s a retreat into far more complex musical materials, at least on the verses. nhhhmbase’s potential audience of listeners who, like myself, also keep Gesualdo (16th century) and Machaut (14th) on regular rotation can probably be numbered on one hand, but I do appreciate the musical experimentation, including the jarring style collage elements.

  4. Jim

    …… if I may quote from the above:

    “That deliberate (not to say plodding) note-by-note complex contrapuntal style on the verses does not have a home anywhere in the West outside of classical Art music”

    Beefheart. Especially the “Decals” era — plodding and contrapuntal as all get out, it was the first association I made, and got stronger the more tracks I listened to.

    And if you remove the plodding requirement, Gentle Giant. There’s another band just hanging on the tip of my aural memory (well, it used to have a sharp end, not so sure any more). If I track it down, perhaps while I sleep, I’ll be back ……

    • This track from back with the original (less technical, more fun) lineup showcases the Beefhearty aspects of the band more strongly I think, at least in terms of the greater rawness: http://youtu.be/MZ6VLfrXNSE

    • Just listened to Beefheart’s “Decals” album–there are similarities of orchestration and thus overall sound impression (here and there), but no 3-part independent, composed-through counterpoint. Beefheart uses licks which repeat, standard and non-standard guitar chords in short repeated patterns–the latter are similar to the nhhmbase song from the 2007 link I posted; and lots of chromatic improvisation–also similar to the 2007 nhhmbase approach. nhhmbase’s ‘Ichirin no hana’ uses a carefully composed modulation (at 0:17, 2:39), then the bass introduces an alternative basic rhthmic pulse (0:24, 2:46) that becomes a cross-rhythm motif. Beefheart has a similar instrumental line-up, and likes the chromatic notes, but there’s no 3-part counterpoint being composed there.
      The broader point was not that no one ever did it; by “does not have a home” I refer to the fact that there is no genre for it–although there is one for free jazz, which is reflected in both nhhmbase 2007 and Beefheart.
      The point about ‘Ichirin no hana’ in mixing styles is not that it’s *merely* switching. It’s about this specific relationship *between* the two styles being used, from complex and musically sophisticated, to suddenly the simplest chord pattern in pop.
      Jim, thanks for the Beefheart and Rheostatics citations–much enjoyed listening to them.

  5. Jim

    …. okay, as long as I’m rambling on in my musically uneducated fashion, I’ll also hold that there’s surely not much startling about songs that change styles. The Rheostatics, to take an example, often jumped through two or three genres in a single track, especially at their peak (first Whale Music album / Introducing Happiness).
    Anyhow, it’s very pleasant stuff from Nhhmbase, thanks for the recommendation. I’ll shut up & go to bed now.

    • Jim

      Many thanks for the replies. Not long after I’d written my notes I did have a moment of “wait — did he say through-composed counterpoint?” Because no, as you say, Beefheart puts independent figures against/with each other in intuitive (or counter-intuitive, if you like) relationships, and that is a different thing.
      Interesting that the effect, to this untrained ear, can be so similar.
      I also like the “Ichirin no Hana” video — I can’t read any kanji except numbers and maybe days of the week, but trying to remember & read the hiragana as they flip and flop is very entertaining, a kind of left-brain Tetris. And hearing the ‘ha’ turn into ‘wa’, the ‘ga’ into ‘n(g)a’ and so forth helps drive those points home.
      (designing a Japanese font must be a hell of a job)

  6. @Jim. Exactly. It’s not *too* much of a stretch to hear a Stravinsky method in Beefheart (and many others): work out some really cool short melodic loops/hooks, and then reshuffle and re-layer multiple times. Not that anyone is necessarily copying Stravinsky outright, but the flexible ‘Legos’ style of composition is definitely there. This method also very much lends itself to band-style composition, where people sort of figure out their parts hands-on, and try them out multiple ways in rehearsal and performance.
    Through-composed counterpoint, though, I notice not least because I do a lot of it, and it’s nearly impossible to 1) make in the first place, or 2) get right in performance, without sitting down and physically notating it on paper (or I guess computer screens nowadays). Especially when tricky chromatic modulations are involved, everyone has to be dead-on every time in both the pitch and rhythmic sequence, or it fails outright. With endless rehearsal, this *can* be done by ear, but of course classical musicians prefer to just sight-read it off the page, because that’s a core skill in our field.

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