When I reviewed In a Model Room I had planned for it to be just the first of many articles about key P-Model/Susumu Hirasawa albums. But there are just so many good ones – to start on that path would be like writing a novel. Granted it’s a novel very much worth writing, but as you can see, I get sidetracked easily. So I’m just going to skip to the end. The thing is that Hirasawa is at a strange spot at this point in his career. I’ve had this sense ever since his excellent 2006 album Byakkoya that there is just nothing left for him to prove anymore. It was yet another realization of a sound he’d been chasing since the mid-80’s, something that was epic and incredibly melodic; the full skillset of the Zolo Technopop Goofball porting over to the symphonic world in pretty much the best possible way.
So here is Susumu Hirasawa, voice preserved in amber, just…sorta waiting to get old, his fans wondering if he’ll ever make a wrong step. Now in his early sixties, he is just as ambitious and driven as ever, but there’s just no outward direction for him to take his sound anymore. In the last decade he’s split up his orchestral and technopop sides somewhat, the former with a couple of remake albums and The Secret of the Flowers of Phenomenon, the latter with another Kaku P-Model disc and The Way of Live 2. All of this excellent, of course, but at the end of the day it’s the hybrid of those two which defines modern day Hirasawa so well. The Man Climbing the Hologram brings that sound back, and as such feels like the follow-up to Byakkoya, in scope at least. In fact the very first track “Adios” picks up right where “Parade” left off, with that same sort of demented circus feeling to it. A fun, almost comically busy tune to kick things off before we get down to business. “Avatar Alone” is vintage Hirasawa; frantic strings, distorted drums, massed vocals, and a chorus where he whips out his falsetto, somehow as good as it’s ever been. The density and grandiose scale of it reminds me a bit of “Ashura Clock”, though it’s less blindingly intense; still, it’s amazing to me that at 60 he can seemingly conjure up stuff like this in his sleep.
A lot of this fits within the context of his back catalogue; the same sort of cut-n-paste style of arrangement that he’s been experimenting with since Blue Limbo is all over the place here, sometimes to jarring effect. Most notable along those lines is “The Time Being Proud of its Heterogeneity” (nice translation, there), which is sort of like the aural equivalent of a Salvador Dali painting, with all these unsettling background drones and sudden pitch shifts. Elsewhere you’ve got “Circuit ON Circuit OFF” which mashes up mangled vocals, noise blasts, and guitar bits to the point where it comes off like something the Google Deep Dream algorithm spat out. Which may not be far from the truth, actually – he had been writing Amiga programs that emulated his songwriting style as far back as ’94 (which wound up producing “Forces”), so it would be no surprise if he were up to similar tricks on this album.
Either way, it does seem like there’s a deliberate attempt to make things sound unnatural and strange. “Sally at the Fire”, the most conventionally pretty song here, has a somewhat straightforward guitar line that’s actually comprised of over 30 separate parts; the closer attention you pay to it, the odder it sounds. The album’s full of stuff like that – sudden time signature shifts, or little melodies that sound like they came from a different song. It makes me wonder if this is going to be Hirasawa’s style of composing from here on out – Gipnoza, the 2014 Kaku P-Model disc, also had a lot of this sort of thing going on. Because at its core, he’s still writing the same kinds of songs he always has – that’s both the blessing and the curse of being such a unique composer, you can’t avoid sounding like yourself. But the drive is still there – the way “Qualia Tower” just completely opens up is astounding to me, and the total bombast of the orchestral break in the title track is way beyond what I would have expected. Plus, “Sally at the Fire” and “The Iron Cutting Song” are cool tunes that I don’t think have parallels in his catalogue (just try and get that last one out of your head). That’s Hirasawa for you – always familiar but always strange. But at the end of the day, he never disappoints.