Sunday, 19 October 2008

[53] Yellow Magic Music: Reviewing HASYMO's latest single releases

Yellow Magic Orchestra are one of those groups which have fallen out of public consciousness. Not that they were particularly 'big' in the first place - they were massive in their native Japan, but at best had some minor hits elsewhere. Their legacy lives on as important early influences on most of the electronic music around today. However, this is a little vague, and the person on the street might only recognise them from a subsidiary source: 'Behind the Mask', a track off their second album Solid State Survivor, became a significant radio hit for Eric Clapton (in 1986, during his droll Phil Collins phase); almost 20 years later, Welsh parodic/idiotic hip hop group Goldie Lookin' Chain sampled the song on their track 'Your Mother's Got a Penis'. Yellow Magic Orchestra also suffer from the same fate as Oingo Boingo, in being the first exposure to a subsequently more successful artist in the vein of film music. Boingo bequeathed Danny Elfman, and YMO had Ryuichi Sakamoto, who later wrote award winning scores for such films as The Last Emperor, The Handmaid's Tale and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence.

The band first split in 1983, reformed in 1993 (as Not YMO, or YMO) for the one-off album Technodon (a wonderful piece of early 1990s acid/techno-pop). However, more recently, Haroumi Hosono, Yukihiro Takahashi and Sakamoto have been performing together once more, under the moniker HASYMO ('Human Audio Sponge' was a name first devised whenever they performed live together). The band played at the Tokyo concert for Live Earth, and have played a smattering of other shows. Crucially, however, they have started releasing new material. No news about a fully-fledged album project as of yet, but in the last year fans have been treated to two double A-side singles, 'Rescue / Rydeen 79/07' in 2007 and 'The City of Light / Tokyo Town Pages' in August 2008.


HASYMO - Rescue / Rydeen 79/07 (2007)

HASYMO's first single is comprised of a song from the soundtrack (produced by bassist Haroumi Hosono) to a CGI anime film Appleseed Ex Machina, alongside a re-recorded version of one of their most successful songs, 'Rydeen'. Possibly the most surprising thing about this single is how contemporary the group sound. They were always innovators, and the members have kept working and relevant in the years since their heyday (Sakamoto most notably, with his experimental collaborations with David Sylvian, Alva Noto and Christian Fennesz), but nevertheless, the sound HASYMO achieve in 2007 is vastly different from that of their past projects together.

'Rescue', based around a repeating vocal sample ('Get your mind right, I'm on your side. / Progress or regress, why not go forward?'), is reminiscent of such mid-period Yellow Magic Orchestra tracks as 'Stairs' or 'Pure Jam'. However, the direct links mostly stop there. The intro is based around an infectious skittering drumbeat, undoubtedly informed by the more reflective moments of IDM/Electronica/whatever-you-call-it artists like Aphex Twin or ยต-ziq. Like with the music made by those modern electronic artists, 'Rescue' is based around rhythmic variation and modulation, as opposed to pop song structures.

The most radical aspect of HASYMO's sounds is their shift from the mostly synthesized pastures of their YMO material towards an undoubtedly manipulated, but mostly acoustic instrumentation. This is most noticeable, and impressive, on the re-tooled version of 'Rydeen'. The original, recorded in 1979, was a heady rush of synthesizers; a sugar-rush of multilayered melody that was destined for an interstellar video-game arcade disco. A soundtrack to Galaga, Gradius and other Japanese space-candy before they were even created. 'Rydeen 79/07' is an acoustic cut-up, not unlike the work of The Books. A patchwork of piano, acoustic guitars and xylophones work with textured electronic sounds and synths to create a much more contemplative piece. It is lovely; one of those revelatory re-imaginings which erase the original from memory. This single, initially seeming like a reformation vanity project ('Rydeen 79/07' was born out of an advertisement campaign HASYMO did for a Japanese beer company), is actually a wonderful statement.


HASYMO - 'The City of Light / Tokyo Town Pages' (2008)

In August 2008, HASYMO released another single, this time containing the tracks 'The City of Light' and 'Tokyo Town Pages'. Like their previous release, this is made up of two pieces created and commissioned for different projects. 'The City of Light' is currently the theme tune to News23, a Japanese television news programme, and 'Tokyo Town Pages' is the end credits theme for the forthcoming anthology movie Tokyo!. In yet another turn of the musical screw, this single sees the band members rooting these songs in their primary instruments. Indeed, the intricate programming and sonic textures of the previous single is still present, but both tracks are based around the interplay between the core ensemble of drums, bass and piano. The effect is dazzling; even though Yellow Magic Orchestra always exhibited the musicianship of the members, they never played so closely or as tightly as on these tracks.

'The City of Light' is based around one of the vaguely off-kilter rhythms that YMO have in the past turned into beguiling and catchy songs (such as their cover of 'Day Tripper'); Takahashi's drum performance is finely nuanced, displaying his mastery of restraint and economy. The vocals, again based around spiralling repeated lyrics, this time reflects a more group-based approach. The effect is like a jazzier, more developed version of the plaintive, electronic pop of German group The Notwist.

The second track, 'Tokyo Town Pages', is just as focused on the performance. Hosono's bass rumbles and pops, as it has done throughout the band's history; however, this time he is not the musical red-herring. On this song, an instrumental, the members of HASYMO use their instruments to create a recurring groundwork, with Sakamoto's simple, trance-inducing piano figures leading the charge. They are joined on this track by Christian Fennesz, whose guitar occasionally rises to the surface, never breaking into a tangible melody, but bringing an impressionistic aspect to the piece akin to the work he is renowned for producing. Indeed, 'Tokyo Town Pages' recalls pieces from Fennesz's popular albums, such as Venice or Endless Summer. However, whereas the German producer would use distortion and noise as part of the musical tapestry, HASYMO use these production aspects more sparingly, artfully. It creates an altogether different ambient style, more based around their musicianship. For a band that traded on their powerful, intertwining melody lines, it is interesting to hear them experimenting with their formula this late in the game; especially so, as the result comes off well.


These two releases from HASYMO are heartwarming. Too many projects from once-innovative artists or groups see them revisiting familiar ground in dull or predictable ways. Thankfully, this is not the case here. The group members, now well into middle age, are still approaching their music with care, inspiration and innovation. Releasing singles has afforded them a freedom to focus on the individual pieces, which has paid off, considering the high quality of what is on offer.

The question that nags at the listener is: will they ever release a full-length album? Too many album projects, especially by those experienced journeymen of the music world, are scuppered by expectation and filler. Maybe the full-length, in the age of the download, is once again becoming one kind of a multitude of forms of distribution. For the time being, HASYMO are more than welcome to craft their short, but perfectly-formed art.

- - Commmons, HASYMO's record label, masterminded by Sakamoto. It seeks to find a more progressive, encouraging and inspirational alternative to the label-musician framework. [website mostly in Japanese]

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