Convex Level are a rare and precious band in the Japanese underground rock scene, blending a knack for instantly accessible tunes with a restless creative instinct that ensures that for all the ease and familiarity of their hooks, they never play it quite straight.
Formed in Osaka in the mid-‘80s and releasing their first album in 1991, Convex Level emerged against the backdrop of two important musical movements. The first of these is the extreme underground characterised by the likes of Hijokaidan and Hanatarash (later the Boredoms), while the other is the nationwide band boom of more conventionally pop- and rock-influenced bands that was inspired by punk and helped drive the massive expansion in Japan’s live infrastructure. While Convex Level steer clear of the confrontational noise and junk sounds of some of their Osaka contemporaries, and their pop instincts consistently swerve the proto-J-Pop conventions of much of the band boom, holding these two backgrounds in mind is helpful in understanding the kind of tension that runs through the music on Inverse Mapped Tiger Moth.
It’s a tension between the instinct towards accessibility and obliqueness that’s reminiscent of Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices’ maxim about subverting the “creamy” and making things “fucked-up”. There’s none of Pollard’s wilful sloppiness here, and it’s a far less jarring tension, but there’s a similar freewheeling charm in how Convex Level barrel through moments of soaring pop and playful artsiness, refusing to accept them as different. I Am A Clone rocks through four and a half minutes of anthemic indie rock before literally pulling a 180-degree turn and reversing the tape for the last minute. Murder in the Greenhouse starts out like a rather surprising excursion into bar blues, until you notice just how fucked-up the intersection between the rhythm and melody is, never quite sure if it’s on or off the beat.
There’s also an openness about the band’s own inspirations that permeates the album. The opening Spellbound has clear echoes of Nirvana in its melody, although the band take the song in a direction all of their own (there was always way more of The Police to Convex Level’s songwriting than there was grunge). Intentional or not, it sets the tone for an oblique sort of nostalgia for early influences and contemporaries — a sense of old ideas forgotten and rediscovered perhaps echoed in the defiantly krautrock-influenced 23-minute Lost And Found, with the subtitles of its five parts namechecking Irmin Schmidt, Yukio Mishima, Denardo Coleman, Jane Birkin (and someone called Eric, whose identity is open to interpretation). Elsewhere, the title of the closing Bell Is a Shelter Until It Is Rung riffs off Wire’s A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck, but the most striking thing is that amid all these shout-outs to past heroes just how much Convex Level sound like themselves.
After 30 years together as a band, Convex Level are a powerful musical and songwriting force, and on this seventh album they can confidently wear their influences on their sleeves without fear of being subsumed by them.