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.