Playlist: One hour of Susumu Hirasawa

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A few months back I was asked to put together an hour-long Susumu Hirasawa mix for a radio show.  Of course I can’t say no to that, as helping others discover Hirasawa’s music is kind of a life goal of mine.  But it’s incredibly difficult to condense the man’s work into just an hour – he’s been active for four decades, he still releases new albums on a yearly basis, and worst of all they’re pretty much all great.  Naturally I drifted towards some kind of “career retrospective” that would track the important points in Hirasawa’s evolution, but that is way too complex a story to tell in only an hour.  Besides, it’s kind of a boring idea.  I guess I could try to put together the best hour or so of music I could, but there is just no way to do that either – hell, I once tried to put together a fake Hirasawa four-disc anthology and still couldn’t get everything I wanted to in.  So instead I framed it this way – if I only had an hour to convince someone to become a fan of this guy, what songs would I play?  Obviously I’d have to showcase his diversity, playing enough different styles in the hopes that a few of them would land.  I wound up sticking to a one-song-per-album rule too, just to help prune it down a bit.  I’m proud of this playlist, but it’s merely a sampler; not necessarily his best work or most famous, but I think it’s a list that represents what Hirasawa is all about.

1. Nice Nice Very Nice (ICE-9, 2005)
I decided to start this off with the most atypical track on the mix – a floaty, seven-minute ambient excursion with a big, soaring guitar line.  Like Prince, Hirasawa isn’t really known as a guitar player, despite being incredibly proficient at it, to the point where he’s one of my favorite guitar players, in addition to everything else.  He plays a Talbo, which has this absolutely incredible sound that doesn’t get showcased a whole lot; normally his guitar solos are noisy and a bit atonal, but on ICE-9 he decided to bring out its more – ah – melodic qualities.  Still sounds like a jet engine taking off to me.

2. Venus (Water in Time and Space, 1989)
This is probably one of the more unique tracks in his catalogue, a Spanish-style acoustic guitar ballad that’s remarkably restrained (for him at least).  Back then I think he didn’t really know what direction he wanted his solo career to take, and as a result his first three solo albums are a bit more diverse, branching off a lot of odd directions that he wouldn’t touch again (see also: “Rocket”).

3. P-Model – Chevron (Big Body, 1993)
Now we get to a more recognizable side of Hirasawa.  Unlike his solo career, which tends to bounce around a lot, P-Model has always consistently a technopop act, albeit one that’s assumed a number of different sounds throughout the years.  P-Model went “on hold” in 1988, reforming in 1992 with a brand new lineup and a laser-sharp focus that went all-in on early 90’s computer technology (fans of vaporwave take note).  Add to this Hirasawa’s evolving songcraft and you get “Chevron”, which has got to be one of the most pitch-perfect technopop songs ever created; catchy and grand, expansive and concise.

4. P-Model – Art Mania (In a Model Room, 1979)
I guess you kinda have to include this one – the leadoff track on P-Model’s leadoff album, and maybe still their most recognizable song.  Early P-Model can be a pure sugar rush; the yips and the nervous tics are all over this one, even when the vocals drop out – check out that jagged synth solo in the center.  A classic that deserves to be on New Wave comps worldwide.

5. Sekai Turbine 2 (Solar Ray, 2001)
While P-Model officially came to an end at the turn of the century, the spirit of the band always lived on in Hirasawa, who frequently needed some outlet for his whackjob Zolo side.  Solar Ray is a neat concept, reimagining songs from his solo career as P-Model circa 1992, but with even more intensity.  Not that “Sekai Turbine”, already one of the most frenzied songs in his catalogue, needed the help.  The whole album is full of stuff like this, but this is the track I want to hear most often, just because of how nuts that sequencer part is.

(For extra fun, watch the video for this on YouTube.  If you want to see Hirasawa talking into a fish.)

6. P-Model – Ashura Clock (Ashura Clock single, 1997)
Which leads to this, P-Model at peak intensity – pure techno madness for the end of the world, with an Earth-shattering massed chorus that shows just how much this group evolved throughout the years.  It’s a lot to take in; the whole song is a whirlwind, something Hirasawa must’ve recognized when he decided to tone down the studio version that wound up on Enola.  But this is the one you want to hear – rarely do you hear an artist go for broke like this.  Easy to see how he got so much soundtrack work.

7. P-Model – Personal Pulse (Another Game, 1983)
And now for something a little calmer, and arguably stranger.  After four albums of catchy, manic technopop, P-Model hit upon a darker and more interesting sound, emphasizing the band’s emphasis on these tricky, yet static rhythms.  “Personal Pulse” has this slinky bass line throughout that they let hang so long that you may even wonder if there’s a song there.  But what they hit upon is so resonant and haunting that it could have easily been double the length.  One of my very favorite early P-Model tracks.

8. The Man From Narcissus Space (Technique of Relief, 1998)
Here’s the one song on here that I absolutely couldn’t cut, because I still get chills every time I listen to it.  As difficult as it would be to just pick ONE song from the guy, if I had to, this would be the one.

9. The Man From Memories (Byakkoya, 2006)
Or is this the peak?  Byakkoya is a great place to start with Hirasawa’s work, given it contains a couple of songs you might have heard (the title track and “Parade”), and the quality is very consistent.  But this is the one that makes me feel like Hirasawa is just on a different level than everyone else, given how intricate and beautiful he’s able to make a song that on another planet could’ve been something totally straightforward and stripped back.

10. Goes on Ghost (Totsu-Gen-Hen-I, 2010)
Another one from a remake album, this time taking P-Model songs and recasting them in the nearly-entirely orchestral style that he’d later record The Secrets of the Flowers of Phenomenon in.  The original (from Another Game) is also great of course, but there’s something to this arrangement that captures the strange ethereality of the song.

11. Ride the Blue Limbo (Blue Limbo, 2003)
Hirasawa has a tendency to construct cut n’ paste-style hooks out of guitars and vocals; even though there is a distinct melody in here, every few notes seem to be pieced together from a different recording.  The effect is striking, especially when placed in the context of an otherwise gorgeous pop song like this, which still sounds futuristic to this day.  I kinda wanted to put “Luuktung or Daii” here but I figured I’ve showcased enough crazy stuff thus far.

12. P-Model – Different not equal Another (Potpurri, 1981)
Alright, one more crazy one, something totally rabid from the early days.  They sure did love those prickly riffs back then.  Probably one of his funniest vocal performances, too.

13. Caravan (Sim City, 1995)
The first time I listened to Sim City it was on a three-hour drive back from Chicago at 4 AM.  Which I’ll never forget, because the music plus my general tiredness made this a very surreal experience, with the music sounding like it was being blasted in from miles and miles out.  Lots of stuff on that album to grab your attention, but none of it makes me smile as much as the big bagpipes here, one of those out-of-nowhere elements that Hirasawa always seems to throw in every album.  As you maybe noticed I’ve been trying to include a lot of his hookier stuff, which makes this a no-brainer.

14. Ringing Bell (Aurora, 1994)
Some songs just strike an odd chord with you – I dunno if it’s that melody or if it’s all the swirling electronic noise, but there’s something about this one that’s just unnerving, in a brink-of-death kind of way.  A great closer to a great album, and I think a fitting end here.

Get it here – If you’ve never heard of him (or you have, but only have a mere 10 albums or whatever), I hope you enjoy!

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