Sunday, 2 November 2008

[65] Yellow Magic Orchestra - Solid State Survivor

I originally wrote this a few weeks ago as a trial piece for Tiny Mix Tapes. I'm still waiting to hear back from them about it, so I thought in the meantime I'll put it up here.


As with the majority of bands that first played with electronics, it is hard to discuss Yellow Magic Orchestra without reference to Kraftwerk. However, to combat the homogenisation and simplification of the trajectory of modern music, one must try. The Japanese group, hugely successful in their native country and with ripples of influence still felt today, had only minor hits in the Western world during their late 1970s, early 1980s heyday. Unfortunately, they are probably more remembered nowadays as one of the first projects of Academy Award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (the 'Danny Elfman / Oingo Boingo complex'). Nevertheless, they are worth a reappraisal.

YMO's second album, Solid State Survivor, was released in 1979. Even though they would release more ambitious (1981's Technodelic) and well-crafted (1983's Naughty Boys) albums, it is here that their unique, left-field musical manifesto is best expressed. Indeed, despite the presence and implementation of mile-high stacks of synthesizers and other electronic gadgets, YMO's sound is rooted in composition and performance. Whereas their German counterparts were masters of minimalism, YMO layer and weave. The 'robotik' sound of other synth pioneers is tweaked with the inclusion of Sakamoto's classically-trained keyboard runs, Haruomi Hosono's bass stabs and Yukihiro Takahashi's drum embellishments, as well as Oriental instrumentation.

These contradictions are present on the album's most famous tracks. 'Rydeen' is a giddy thrill of synth-pop bliss, with strong melody lines performed like high-register wind instruments. This caffeine-high consonance and carefree momentum is an unmistakable influence on early Japanese video game music. Equally, 'Technopolis', for all its 'Technology TV Show Theme' stylings, is importantly punctuated by a funky bass that rumbles and pops. 'Behind the Mask', a psychologically paranoid 'love song' straight out of a Philip K. Dick short story ('Is it me / Is it you / Behind this mask?'), is almost sabotaged by Sakamoto's use of vocoder, which completely obscures his vocals. The song works, although the lack of a strong conventional vocal hook has given birth to horribly overwrought re-imaginings and covers of the song, the most successful of which being recorded by Eric Clapton during his mid-80s Phil Collins period.

This sense that, at times, YMO are self-sabotaging their easiest bids for pop success is no more evident than on the cover of The Beatles' classic 'Day Tripper'. What is in the first place a proto-hard rock song, a prime candidate for the basic moog-and-arpeggiator makeover, is transformed into an off-kilter mutant. It is almost post-punk in its convulsive rhythms and far ahead of its time in the use of intentional glitching. It could be one of the more prescient tracks on the album. Furthermore, the title track, placed right at the end of side 2, is a straightforward New Wave song, containing the album's only full-bodied vocal performance, from Yukihiro Takahashi. It comes off as a kinetic tribute to Roxy Music, or David Bowie. Here, however, YMO show a mischievousness: the majority of the vocals are drowned out by scratchy, distorted voice samples in favour of, once again, an instrumental chorus hook.

Solid State Survivor
presents all sides to the complexity of the band that created it. YMO are at times synthetic, at times vital; they are frustrating, joyous; willingly accessible, yet defiantly stubborn. In the future, they would craft more one-dimensional, satisfying albums. Technodelic would take the experimental innovation to new depths, just as much as Naughty Boys would feature fully-fledged pop songs, with proper vocal performances from Takahashi to boot. Equally, Sakamoto would find better expression both in his solo compositions and in collaboration with other artists, such as David Sylvian, Alva Noto and Christian Fennesz (in a graceful, atmospheric mode represented here by 'Castalia'). On this album, however, YMO display a smorgasbord-like approach. They move away from Kraftwerk's clinical, futurist kitsch. Instead, they use the synthesizer as a composition aid. The result may not be as iconic as their Germanic contemporaries, but YMO's art shows a great deal more sophistication.

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