If you like your retro 80s synthpop cheap, catchy and sparse, Shallazurutaralli is for you. It’s a musical space a lot of other groups have been before, certainly, but there’s a sincerity, melodic craftsmanship and minimalist purity in these six songs that ensures they claim a small part of that territory for themselves.
The male-female vocal harmonies are neatly handled, subtle enough not to leap out at you, but lending an understated texture to the music, and the arrangements to a lot with just a rhythm machine, a handful of toy synth drones and a few beeps. Z:die Z:die opens and closes with its catchiest pop hitters in Ningen Engine and Kimagure Tentai (Stella), but also tucked away in there is Higashi Nishi Minami Kita, in which synths and vocals engage in a sort of rambling musical conversation, like a sort of solar powered version of Taeko Onuki’s Metropolitan Museum climbing a hill as scudding clouds repeatedly block out its power source.
Z:die Z:die packs a lot of pop nous into 25 minutes, and extracts a disarming amount of sophistication from a limited musical palette. Cheap, cheerfull and thoroughly charming.
One of those unexpected pleasures that you can only get from impulsively purchasing a CD because you liked the jacket, Mmm seems to be a singer-songwriter and participant in various bands and musical projects, but Safe Mode is a decidedly solo work and possessed of the sort of up-close intimacy you’d expect from that.
Sung in a mixture of Japanese and English, the music also refuses to sit obviously in any particular melodic tradition. Rabbit Hole, for instance, has a distinctly postpunkish, alt rock edge that offsets the whimsy that colours tracks like Monotone. Meanwhile, opening track Blue blossoms into a sort of pastoral psychedelia as it progresses, with the gradual introduction of flute and piano, and a rhythm disconcertingly at odds with the melody. A similar, faintly psychedelic breakdown occurs in The Return of Hamunaptra, while additional instruments subtly share space with less easily decipherable sounds on the Donovan-esque I’d Rather Be.
In fact, throughout Safe Mode, ambiguous sounds abound in its ambience, from the rattles and clicks that underscore Long Days with Television to the gentle rustle that might be tape hiss or simply the shifting of the musician’s clothes or duvet covers (this is an album that practically screams, “I was recorded in a bedroom!” at you). This low-key but nonetheless ever-present ambient sound only adds to the warm, organic feel that contrasts with the computer-derived title and artwork, reconceiving the “safe mode” as a psychological state, shut off from the screaming noise that tries to intrude on your peace.
Stepping out from behind the drumkit of one of the most celebrated and distinctive Japanese underground bands of the past fifteen years brings with it plenty of baggage and no small amount of expectation, but at the same time no particular agreement on what exactly that expectation is for. After the breakup of the magnificent avant-garage duo Afrirampo, Pika kept herself busy through participating in numerous other people’s projects, including a stint with Acid Mothers Temple and multiple one-off collaborations, all the while quietly developing her own material as a singer-songwriter. On Ryu no Sumika many of those collaborators return the favour, with eighteen different musicians adding their stamp to this record, ensuring that while Pika’s own songwriting and quite affecting vocals run through the album, there is also a broad palette of creative influences colouring the sound and arrangements.
The eight-and-a-half-minute title track is a writhing, serpentine psychedelic track that slowly uncoils through Hiromichi Sakamoto’s cello into a laser-guided streak of lo-fi spacerock before exploding in a clatter of drums. In its melancholy and brooding portent it’s also a slightly misleading introduction to the album, which quickly switches gears to the breezy, steel drum-tinged folk-pop of Mermaid, albeit while retaining a propensity to diverge into kosmische sound collages at a moment’s notice.Ryu no Sumika (video edit)
Of course quirky, whimsical, acoustic folk-pop has never been in particularly short supply in Japan, so how Pika distinguishes herself on this album will a long way toward revealing what she means beyond the good will she carries with her from her old band. The first and most obvious thing she does is stretch nearly everything out to around the seven-minute mark, which might set off warning flags. Perhaps thanks in part to a well-chosen series of collaborations, these arrangements generally make a good account of themselves though, filling out the often sparse melodies with sonic texture and as the album progresses weaving in threads of darkness. Reason is gifted an expansive, flowing jazz-edged rhythm by drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and pianist Eiko Ishibashi, while Sen, a duet with Nanao Tavito, is a standout moment towards the album’s close, with a menacing hiss of feedback and ambient atmospherics building up into a wall of noise as the song edges toward its climax, and the overlapping vocal collage of Nagi no Tsuki ~ Akaine ~ (featuring Pika’s former Afrirampo bandmate Mayumi “Oni” Saeki) is notable as the album’s one unambiguously avant-garde moment.
As songs like Utau Hito, Onnanoko Yura Yura and the anthemic closing Shiawase no Kashi provides ample testimony, Pika can write an effective 70s-style folk-pop tune in a festival singalong sort of way, but it’s the moments of darkness that exist in the cracks that are where Ryu no Sumika gains a particular, peculiar character of its own.