Since forming in Fukuoka in the early 1990s, one thing Panicsmile have never seemed is comfortable. Contorting punk via twisted no wave, jazz or Beefheartian experimental deviance, taking frequent sharp turns — sometimes driven by member changes, others by founder Hajime Yoshida exploiting the tensions between existing members’ different creative approaches — Panicsmile’s sound has lurched through the past quarter of a century consistently and creatively in an atmosphere of crisis and thrilling urgency.
Their last album, 2014’s Informed Consent, sounded like the result of the band finding its feet with a new lineup after the end of its longest-lasting iteration (featuring guitarist Jason Shalton and drummer Eiko Ishibashi), stripping back to (post-)punk basics and stating to build and contort anew. Since then, the membership has shifted again, with Tomokazu Ninomiya (formerly of Eastern Youth) and Nobumitsu Nakanishi (of indie rockers Iriko) joining Yoshida and drummer Geru Matsuishi in a newly dispersed lineup, with members spread between Tokyo, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Coming into Real Life, it’s tempting to take that dispersed, dislocated nature of the band’s existence as a lens to look at it through, with the band’s disposition towards jittery guitars, off-kilter rhythms and sudden reversals of direction lending themselves to expressions of fragmentation of disunity. Meanwhile, the title combined with the cover’s negative image of a plummeting rollercoaster hints at a reality that’s at least ambiguous and ungrounded, while the decision to close the album with a song called Wonderland suggests that whatever real life the album may be inhabiting is at least one shot through with some ironies.
At the same time, though, Real Life feels strangely comfortable by the band’s own frenzied standards. The disorientating contortions the music goes through are all shapes we’ve seen Panicsmile go through before in one iteration or another, while for all their physical distance, the current lineup are so assured in their craft that it can’t help but come across in the music. All of which leaves the interesting possibility that, despite never really compromising on their dedication to disconnection and disorder, after nearly thirty years being buffeted by forces both social and psychic, Panicsmile might at least be finally getting used to their own demons.