Top 20 Releases of 2014: No.5 – Umez – Umez

Umez

CD, 14 Years Records, 2014

With their combination of sweet, disarmingly simplistic pop melodies and frenzied fusillade of musical styles, Umez have been confusing and delighting live audiences in London and Tokyo for a long time now, but with this eponymous debut album, listeners can finally enjoy the disquieting pleasure of trying to figure out just what kind of band they are in the comfort of their own homes.

There have been a number of cases where ostensibly pop acts, primarily within the loose non-genre of idol music, have affected to wrap themselves in the accoutrements of underground music of one sort or another, and the results have tended to be at best interesting, and more often it just didn’t work. It’s not clear why, but it seems to be very difficult to make the transition in the direction from pop to comfortably incorporating underground elements – even when talented, seasoned underground musicians are brought in, as BiS did with Hijokaidan, the elements just didn’t quite mesh – the river of ideas only seems to easily flow one way, and it’s very hard to navigate upstream. Part of it might be that pop is like a Web-optimised JPEG image that, while perfectly suited to its particular place, resists much in the way of modification, losing detail as you zoom in or blow it up. To run with this photography metaphor a bit, what you would really need in this case would be a high resolution RAW file, that might require effort and processing in order to be accessible, but would contain far more data in the image. The broad strokes big picture is in there, but there is also a wealth of other information that can be drawn out or zoomed in on.

Umez are like that high resolution RAW file, in that even when they’re doing the poppiest of pop poppiness, they can also draw on all manner of sounds, from the industrial stomp of Z-Fighters II (the brutal album version, not the cute single version) to the garage-punk of Rainbow to the shoegaze/dreampop of Good Bye My Friend to the drum’n’bass of Lingering Dream, to the Merzbow-ish machine noise of II to the wild rock solos of almost everything. All that is already there inside them and they just need to summon it out of them, rather than painstakingly and awkwardly trying to fill it into a picture that simply doesn’t contain that information, music that just doesn’t have those ideas. It’s a fundamentally easier path for people like Umez to take from where they are into pop than it is to travel in the other direction.

Still, Umez wouldn’t be such a good album and Umez wouldn’t be such a good band if the pop elements of the music weren’t so accomplished. If some moments might sound a little familiar to fans of, say, Supercar or Smashing Pumpkins, those moments exist within a grand tradition of pop thievery. More important are those moments, chord changes, harmonies, melodies scattered throughout the album that sound dreadfully familiar without you being able to pin down exactly why, where, who. Those moments of familiarity combined with the endlessly inventive ways the duo find to present them are what make this album such an unrivalled joy.

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