Yellow Magic Orchestra
s you can clearly see, J-Pop Will Eat Itself is back. Francis Henville (the original author), however, is not. That would be where I come in.
Like my predecessor, I turned to the confectionary tunes of the East (not to mention their films), after growing bored with what most English-speaking musicians had to offer. As far as I can tell, I also more or less share Henville’s objective: shining a small spotlight onto the J-Pop scene, with hopes of acquainting the unacquainted.
When I listen to music from late 70s to mid 80s electro-pop trio Yellow Magic Orchestra, I find myself daydreaming of how I would imagine Japan to be during that time period. Underground malls, subways, men in brown business suits, and women in day-glo makeup. Students ducking into arcades for a few rounds of Pac Man on their way home from school. Fluorescent sushi joints with synthetic pop songs emitting from the speakers. You get the idea.
Yellow Magic Orchestra (known as YMO to the savvy—and the indolent) was formed in 1978, by Haruomi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi, and the uber-glam keyboard auteur Ryuichi Sakamoto. Being one of the first bands to use primarily electronic devices, and having no real lead singer, YMO conquered by boasting intricately addictive beats that one couldn’t help but head-bob to. They made the kind of novel-at-first-listen music that any guy (or girl) with a keyboard could presumably create (but keep in mind, this was new hat at the time). They were just weird enough to inspire more listens. On the third or fourth play, you’d start to notice the ingenious layering of sound—delightfully cheesy, and in a strange way, sublime—that made them their name. The band even has the all-too-uncommon distinction of enjoying marginal overseas success. Drop by your local record shop, and chances are you’ll find a slew of YMO albums in the “Techno/Electronica” section.
Since all of YMO’s albums are, essentially, grab-bags of varied styles—I couldn’t decide on one to review. Instead, I’ll give you what I think to be their five best songs. Maybe this will be a helpful guide to YMO virgins looking to dip their toes into these uncharted waters. Maybe I‘ll be in an extreme minority with fans who think these songs are YMO‘s weakest efforts. Who knows? That’s the fun part.
“Stairs” (from Technodelic)
Beginning with crunchy sounds akin to a metal gate opening and water flooding in, “Stairs” is a sly overload of paranoid percussion. The lyrics (sung in English) repeat themselves in pace with the beat: “The stairs go on forever / Crowds of people in confusion / People going up stairs / People going down stairs.” About halfway through, a jazzy piano riff enters—but melts back into the nightmarish-stairs-melody before you have a chance to get comfortable with it. While Technodelic isn’t their best album, by any stretch, this track is a pleasantly disorienting four minutes—which sees the band being slightly harsher, and more raw, than usual.
“Lotus Love” (from Naughty Boys)
The vocals on “Lotus Love” are delivered with such earnestness that it feels like a real love song. While not a ballad, nor a self-serious serenade—it’s still bizarre enough that it shouldn’t be as moving as it is. It may be the only YMO song that I can’t laugh at. That being said, it’s entirely in Japanese, so they could be talking about chapstick for all I know.
“Camouflage” (from BGM)
Here’s another one of the band’s more sinister tracks. With a synth that almost sounds brassy, perfectly timed drum sequences, and sporadic lyrics—“Camouflage” could be the theme song for a Super Mario Bros. villain. Or even the soundtrack music for one of the underground/sewer pipe levels. Either way, it’s the type of song that highlights one of the group’s more endearing qualities: their unrepentant and delightful geekiness.
“Insomnia” (from Solid State Survivor)
Appropriately dreamy and hypnotic, “Insomnia” steadily unravels itself through calculated, dwindling rhythms that continuously bleed into one another. Then, just before you get bored, the boys throw in a glorious, droning techno moan around the halfway mark. Solid State Survivor is often regarded as the height of YMO’s digital, melodic mastery—and it’s easy to see why. “Insomnia” is one of the disc’s many highlights. Second only to…
“Technopolis” (from Solid State Survivor)
A rather assertive, yet friendly enough “TOK-I-O, TOK-I-O” from a computer-generated voice is how we’re first greeted in “Technopolis.” What follows is an insanely sugary, glitteringly gaudy classic that fulfills the J-Pop stereotype—in a very lovable way. If there was one song to represent Yellow Magic Orchestra, and what they stand for, this would be it. In fact, if this happily sheltered, reality-shunning, YMO-loving Canadian had her way: Tokyo would make “Technopolis” its official anthem. Wait, do cities have anthems?
By: Teresa Nieman
Published on: 2006-04-27