Tag Archives: Cornelius

Metafive – Meta (2016)

METAFIVE

Top row, left to right: Keigo Oyamada, Leo Imai, Yukihiro Takahashi
Bottom row, left to right: Towa Tei, Yoshinori Sunahara, Tomohiko Gondo

Who else could put together a band like this? Not only has Yukihiro Takahashi made connections all over Japan, he’s also one of the country’s most influential musicians, having maintained a slighty-ahead-of-the-curve approach for over four decades. Metafive formed in 2014 as a tongue-in-cheek supergroup, a band full of successful technopop musicians who grew up listening to Yellow Magic Orchestra (with the exception of Leo Imai, who was born in the year of Technodelic), playing faithful renditions of songs mostly from Takahashi’s classic 79-82 period. Techno Recital was the group’s first release, a live album featuring many of Takahashi’s best songs from that period both YMO and solo, plus some more recent tunes, alongside covers of Dylan and The Beatles. Like many of Takahashi’s live albums it’s very good and well worth a listen or three, though I questioned why he would put together such an accomplished and talented group just to essentially be his backing band.

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Cornelius – Point (2001)

MI0000355326During the grand finale of Fantasma, there’s a moment where snippets of previous tracks start playing in rapid succession, as though the album’s life is flashing before its eyes. On Point, the first track “Bug (Last Electric Minute)” is comprised of sounds that are on future tracks, sort of a small preview or digest of things you are about to hear. I’m definitely not the first person to notice this but I feel I have to point it out since it says so much about the jump that Cornelius had made from Fantasma to Point. When we last left the guy, he was still part of the duo Flipper’s Guitar, a band that based much of their sound on their record collection, sort of a Japanese take on the Madchester sound. Cornelius’s solo career followed that same path – sunny pop tunes influenced by a laundry list of bands both new and old, where the art was really in the craftsmanship and the odd detours the man would take.

Fantasma, released in 1997, was the culmination of all this; a sort of “history of pop music” album that always seemed to look out for the listener, with big, splashy melodies and something to distract at every turn. Unsurprisingly, this is the album that broke Cornelius through to a new audience. Matador gave it a domestic release, marketing him as a sort of “Japanese Beck”, a label I’m sure everyone disliked equally, but it did help him sell records. After all, both Fantasma and Odelay were albums about looking back, reproducing certain elements from rock history while retaining a modern atmosphere. In the case of Fantasma it was the cut-n-paste nature of so many of the elements; some songs sounded more “live” than others, but much of it felt like a mash-up. If you told someone that it was made up entirely of previously recorded sounds a la Four Tet or DJ Shadow, they would probably believe you. Many pieces of the album sound complete, but they’re arranged in ways that are strange or interesting.

Point refines that approach to another degree, reducing the elements to their individual sounds and then putting them back together. Granted, electronic acts had been doing something like that for decades, transcribing funk riffs and punching them into the computer. But the majority of what you hear on Point are acoustic instruments, with riffs and melodies reconstructed note by note. The second track, “Point of View Point” demonstrates this well; guitar chords in each ear, a stuttered, unnatural drum beat, and vocal lines bouncing around each other. It proceeds by changing the way these elements sync up; layering vocals to make a harmony, moving from the frontbeat to the backbeat, or slowly shifting a tempo. It’s more science experiment than song, but this isn’t really what Cornelius is trying to accomplish with the album either; “Point of View Point” is again, a preview, a way to showcase what exactly he’s working with here. Those who came looking for Fantasma 2 would surely be disappointed; the humor and bounciness of that album were gone, though not entirely forgotten. As you may expect quite a few critics let him have it for that.

But the rest of it is not like that; “Point of View Point” shows just the technique, the rest of the tracks add the genre. Each tune explores different space, be it funk (“Smoke”), house (“Another View Point”), samba (“Bird Watching at Inner Forest”, “Brazil”), or even metal (“I Hate Hate”). I’ve heard this album referred to as an exercise in deconstruction, but to me it’s more about reconstruction; digging in and figuring out what makes all these genres tick. And then once you’ve got that, figuring out what can removed, or more importantly how things can be changed. You get to hear Cornelius make rhythm tracks out of splashing water (“Drop”) or nature (“Bird Watch at Inner Forest”). The cover of “Aquarela Do Brasil” uses a click-track and computer voices (is that AppleSpeak?), but uses traditional instrumentation otherwise, making it something like the exact inverse of the covers that Telex would do.

Typically these kinds of albums get dismissed as being a pastiche or “an exercise in…”, which I think we’ve seen a lot of in the last couple decades. What sets Point apart? For one, it’s clever, with plenty of dots to connect and lyrics that interact with the music. For two, the audio design is incredible, especially if you’re listening on headphones; lots of studio-as-instrument bits, but not in a way that distracts from the actual tunes (save for one particularly obnoxious bit at the end – keep the volume knob handy). For three, a sense of curiosity, and more importantly, artistry. He’s still trying to build something, but in a way that the listener is aware of its composite parts. Every element seems to be placed at a different part of the spectrum, with a sense of distance between instruments; it is very easy to hear what the individual tracks sound like. All of this could be for naught if Cornelius didn’t have this innate sense of how to trigger certain feelings through sound, melody, or timing. He’s always seemed like the kind of guy who had a huge record collection (certainly, he’s left enough hints), but on Point it becomes clear that he’s been dissecting them all along. If he wants something to be pretty, it’s almost unbearably pretty (“Tone Twilight Zone”); if he wants something to be powerful, it’s earth-shattering (the middle section of “Fly”).

Whether or not that’s enjoyable is up to the listener; it’s hard to argue that the album isn’t sterile or somewhat slight, especially when compared to the maximalist free-for-all that was Fantasma. Personally, I think it’s great – this is one of my very favorite albums, one of the few I can call “perfect” with a straight face. Obviously not everyone saw it that way. Certainly there is some sense of alchemy going on here which sits funny with some people. It’s the sort of album that’s very on-the-mark though you may question what exactly he’s trying to accomplish here.

For Cornelius, it was really the endpoint of his artistic evolution. He recently released a remix compilation called Constellations of Music, as he does every few years. It’s quite good, but it’s also a reminder of how little he’s done since Point. He did release a follow-up five years later called Sensuous, but even more clinical and conceptual, to the point where you may wonder where the actual tunes are. It’s the first time in his solo career where he didn’t reinvent himself, and to this day it remains his last studio disc. Not that he’s been inactive; he’s done soundtracks, plenty of remixes, and produced an interesting concept album with Salyu that I may review later. But Cornelius isn’t the sort to make albums just to make them, and in a sense I think Point said everything he wanted to say, just as Fantasma did four years earlier.

Flipper’s Guitar – Doctor Head’s World Tower (1991)

doctorhead

1991 must have been an exciting time to be a budding young musician. Things were still evolving at a rather rapid pace; acid house and electronica were starting to materialize, and grunge, Britpop, and the explosion of great alternative rock were right around the corner. It’s not exactly accurate to call any of this brand new, but if nothing else these were mostly new ways of doing old things. Think of what it would be like to be a teenager in ’91; there were still great albums coming out every week, but you’re in an era that’s both well post-Beatlemania and well pre-internet. Which means that it’s no longer a guarantee that your friends know much of the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, or even Led Zeppelin. Of course, nobody wanted to sound like any of these bands in the 80’s; but music trends are cylical and great music always seems to come around.

flipper1Enter Flipper’s Guitar, a duo out of Tokyo consisting of Keigo Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa. Their debut album, Three Cheers for Our Side! was a highly  enjoyable collection of smiley guitar pop that made them proper stars before they’d really matured; Oyamada and Ozawa were only 21 and 20, respectively (there were three other members at that time too, but they were quickly jettisoned). Three Cheers is now seen as one of the earliest examples of Shibuya-kei (named after a famous shopping district in Tokyo), a genre which can generally be described as “if it sounds good, use it”. Although the album does not contain any direct samples, it is not shy about borrowing from their influences. Songs on that album and its follow-up, Camera Talk, would reference them directly – check out song titles like “The Colour Field”, “Haircut 100”, and “Goodbye, our Pastels Badges”. These albums feel less like artistic statements than they do love letters to their idols. But hey, when you’re 20, this is just what you do.

Whether they were aware of it or not, this sort of thing was happening all over the world. In 1989, the Beastie Boys teamed up with the Dust Brothers to bring us Paul’s Boutique, an album aimed at young people that consisted almost entirely of samples of things that would be found in their parents’ record collections. We got the Stone Roses, which were hyped up as maybe the best band to ever exist, even though they sound as though they came straight from the British Invasion. Happy Mondays had a hit with “Lazyitis”, which borrowed heavily from “Ticket to Ride”. And so on. Bands were not just taking from the past, but they were taking from each other; how many groups in the indie dance scene just lifted each others’ beats wholesale?

Broadly speaking, Japan didn’t really know of any of this. The members of Flipper’s Guitar probably did, but you can’t help but wonder how much their record collections expanded in the time that followed Camera Talk. While their first two albums were clearly indebted to their influences, Doctor Head’s World Tower is full-on reference-rock. It’s as though they got into Primal Scream and MBV and the entire Madchester scene at once, and decided to dedicate their next album to introducing their audience to those sounds. It seems to have worked; an awful lot of Japanese pop music throughout the entire decade takes after this. To those of us who live in English-speaking regions in the year 2014, an album like Doctor Head’s World Tower plays like a fun game of spot-the-reference; to a Japanese kid in 1991, this thing must’ve been mindblowing.

Maybe it goes without saying that this thing is full of samples; a clip from Pet Sounds kicks things off, and along the way we’re treated to everything from Sly & the Family Stone to Buffalo Springfield (and “Good Vibrations”, of course). More than that, what’s really cribbed here is a pastiche of early 90’s production techniques; the acid house drumbeats of Happy Mondays combined with the guitar pop of the Stone Roses and the trippy production of My Bloody Valentine. That last one shows up in several guises; both the woozy, dreamlike “Aquamarine” and the buzzsaw guitars of “Winnie-the-Pooh Mugcup Collection” borrow aspects of them. Still, it’s nothing compared to “The Quizmaster”, which is essentially an alternate universe version of Primal Scream’s “Loaded”, a song that already sounded like an alternate universe “Sympathy for the Devil”. “Quizmaster” fully bridges the gap between those two, slowly building over its seven-and-a-half minutes in much the same way (complete with snippets of movie dialogue!) It carefully toes the line between tribute and plagiarism, and the fact that most of their audience hadn’t yet heard of Primal Scream makes it all the more genius (or nefarious). If it sounds good, why not?

That’s really the philosophy of the entire album; they don’t win any points for originality, but there’s no doubt that this stuff just sounds good. The guitars are jangly and funky, the beats are brisk and danceable, and the voices are pleasant and personality-free. The hooks on this album are the same sort of 3- or 4-chord patterns that have made up the foundation of pop music since 1963. Every one of these nine songs has something to offer; if not for the collage at the end of “The World Tower”, every one of them could have a single.  Despite the length of many of the tracks (9 over 57 minutes; quite a departure from a band that normally comes in around the three-minute mark), things keep rolling; some songs have multiple sections (“Dolphin Song”, “The Quizmaster”, “The World’s Tower”), while others just have lush, slow-burning grooves (“Aquamarine”, “(Spend Bubble Hour in Your) Sleep Machine”).  It doesn’t get boring – the hooks on this are so good that they could almost stand to go longer (“Blue Shining Quick Star”).

Alas, this was about as far as the Flipper’s Guitar sound could go.  The band broke up at the height of their popularity, before either member had turned 26.  Kenji Ozawa continued on with a fairly successful solo career, while Keigo Oyamada became Cornelius, who wound up achieving crossover success in America with 1997’s Fantasma, an album of cut-n-paste reference-hopping that signaled the end of Shibuya-kei just as surely as Flipper’s Guitar signaled the beginning.  But all the seeds were laid on this album, arguably the first great one the genre produced.