As some of you have gathered, I’m a huge fan of the work of Susumu Hirasawa, both as a solo artist and as the frontman of P-Model, whose combined output is perhaps the most consistently impressive discography I’ve ever come across. Understandably it’s difficult to know where to start with him, but I felt it was appropriate to just go from the beginning, as it’s difficult to just single out one album for this and I plan to do many more along the way. So let’s start here, with the story of how I discovered this group (as I’ve told before – this article is going to repeat a lot of the same points).
I was in Milwaukee to see Polysics, who were the first of four groups on the bill. I hadn’t heard of any of the other three – I believe Say Anything and HelloGoodbye were in there – but none of them sounded a thing like Polysics, and to be honest I didn’t like any of them. Apparently being first on stage means you get to choose the pre-show music, and judging by some of the choices (particularly YMO’s “Cosmic Surfin”) this was clearly the Polysics’ mix. One of the songs was “Art Mania” by P-Model which I hadn’t heard before (in fact, it was the only song on the mix I didn’t know). After the show I wound up chatting with Hiro and asked him, “what was the song after..(whatever it was. I don’t remember)??”. He wrote on a flyer “P-MODEL”, along with “NITER EBB” (sic), another band he wanted me to check out. Luckily the blog Mutant Sounds had just posted the first two P-Model albums. And so it began.
In a Model Room is not exactly a masterpiece, but it was one of those albums that just fit in really well with a lot of what I was big into at the time – there are shades of White Music-era XTC, Devo, and bits of YMO. Polysics obviously took a page from this, quite literally (“The Great Brain”, one of my favorites from their 2007 album Karate House, is in fact a cover from this album). You can see why; the album is manic, unsettling, and a bit off-balance, but it’s a blast. It’s the kind of album that leaves you wanting more; it’s a little over 33 minutes long and gets a lot of things right. It helps that couple songs here are basically perfect (“Art Mania” which may still be the single most famous P-Model track, “Kameari Pop”, which I have on good authority is a favorite of Andy Partridge himself). In other words, it’s easy to get excited about.
One thing that is not all that surprising in retrospect is that P-Model used to be part of a progressive rock group named Mandrake. Mandrake never released an album though two discs of demos did eventually come out; by 1978 they realized they were late to the prog scene and decided to change direction. I’ve always felt like prog and New Wave had some sort of middle ground (sometimes called Zolo) and this album definitely has that. There are plenty of sudden shifts, well-hidden bits of complexity, and alternate time signatures – “Great Brain” shifts between 7/4 and 5/4, using a riff that in Mandrake was part of a 10-minute epic. But the sound is clean and stripped; intentionally thin, with space between the instruments. This emphasizes how odd some of these songs really are; there’s a lot of stop-and-go ping-pong rhythms, call-and-response vocals, and random-fire intensity. Many of the songs have dual rhythms, with a Roland CR-78 on top of an actual drummer, giving them a “dance” rhythm along with a rock-oriented one. Despite their prog-rock background there’s a lot of humor on this album; I don’t think songs like “Sunshine City” or “For Kids” were meant to be taken with a straight face. There are a few lines in English, which are rudimentary and kind of hilarious – “Kameari Pop” has a chorus of “Hey you/this song/is called/Kameari Pop” (and a hollowed-out coda of “echo, echo, echo”). The final line in “Sophisticated” is “Sophisticated, the foreign language song”. It’s half precision and half whimsy – like Pink Flag Wire crossed with Modern Dance Pere Ubu.
Originally, P-Model were part of the first real wave of Japanese technopop, along with Plastics and Hikashu. The Plastics’ keyboard player Masahide Sakuma even produced this album, which may explain why it sounds so much like the first Plastics release; those three bands were often seen together, and if you liked one you would probably like all three. This scene did not exactly last long, however. While Plastics are great, they lasted all of two albums, and they exhausted most of their ideas on the first. Hikashu sort of faded into obscurity; one semi-famous tune (“Pike”, which Polysics also covered) but no real acclaimed records from what I could tell. So who could predict just how far P-Model and Susumu Hirasawa would take this? When exactly did he go off the deep end? Oh sure, the change was gradual – the second P-Model album Landsale was just Model Room II, not quite as good song-for-song but pretty much the same. Things changed quickly though, thanks to a lineup that was constantly in flux. Like The Fall they’ve always had contributing members come in and out, but it was always Hirasawa running the show. Luckily, he never lost his gift of melody; even as his sound got bigger and bigger, there was still a sense of the guy who wrote the songs here.
Hence why I consider In a Model Room to be the ideal debut album. On the surface it’s a lot of fun, just another entry into a list of good, hyperactive New Wave. But with every debut album there is potential – for example the creepy, robo-stomp “Art Blind” which doesn’t quite fit here and makes you wonder exactly what these guys are up to – and Hirasawa just kept on plugging forward, trying new things and finding ways to get better. Even his vocal style, which here was mostly limited to yelps, screaming, semi-off-key warbling, would smooth out. I was bowled over by “Bandiria Travelers” from Hirasawa’s 1991 solo album Virtual Rabbit – not just because the vocal performance is so good, but also because listening to those first few P-Model albums, you really would never know he had it in him. That’s why it’s a whole lot of fun to listen to listen to this guy’s work from the start, despite a rather formidable discography – this is one of like 27 full-length albums of original material that he’s put out (depending on what you count, it could be even more), and every single one is worth hearing. So maybe it’s best to just start from the beginning.