World music reissue label Wewantsounds release Akiko Yano’s 1982 solo album ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ outside of Japan for the very first time. Co-produced by Ryuichi Sakamoto, the record was notable for featuring the talents of JAPAN band members Mick Karn, Steve Jansen and David Sylvian.
Fusing rock, jazz, avant pop and Japanese folk, Akiko Yano was a successful singer/songwriter in her homeland before touring the world as a keyboardist with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA. Her high pitched vocal style inevitably drew comparisons with Kate Bush but in 1981, her husband’s connections led to a new approach.
With Ryuichi Sakamoto having already collaborated with David Sylvian on ‘Taking Islands In Africa’ from JAPAN’s fourth album ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, he and Yano travelled to the UK. With a strong Yen, recording facilities in London proved to be cheaper than in Tokyo and so it was at Air Studios that they teamed up with the Lewisham combo and their producer / engineer Steve Nye following the completion of ‘Tin Drum’.
Translated as “there must be love”, ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ states its case with the bilingual opening title track of the album, giving a platform for the JAPAN rhythm section both instrumentally and vocally, while not deviating from Akiko Yano’s own distinctive style. The glistening textures of Sakamoto emanating from his beloved Prophet 5 also leave no doubt as to who is producing.
Although ‘Kanashikute Yarikirenai’ adopts a West Coast demeanour, particularly when complimented by JAPAN live guitarist David Rhodes’ solo, it is all offset by Sakamoto’s haunting synth tones. Continuing on a similar highway, ‘What’s Got In Your Eyes’ has more that driving Californian feel to it and translates smoothly thanks to English lyrics provided partly by YMO collaborator Peter Barakan.
‘Oishii Seikatsu’ and ‘Michi De Battari’ come as appealing interludes, the former shaped by a marimba figure and the latter with traditionally Japanese textures although all approximated using electronics.
The best track on ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ is the vibrant and funky ‘Onnatachiyo Otokotachiyo’; it sees Steve Jansen demonstrating why highly regarded session drummers like Gavin Harrison regard him as a key influence in the art of percussive painting without overplaying. Stabs of synthetic brass from Sakamoto, Yano’s own piano work and Mick Karn’s trademark fretless slides combine to make this a superb highlight.
The speedy ‘Aisuru Hito Yo’ is more four-to-the-floor despite the tribal congas from Motoya Hamaguchi, containing the spacey overtures that these days gets referred to as Citypop and laced with the jazzy cosmic surfin’ of early YMO. But this is hardly surprising as the drums are helmed by Yukihiro Takahashi plus there is also much to enjoy with Sakamoto’s technopop work here ranging from blips and rings to pulses and sirens to sweeps and growls.
Written entirely in English by Yano, ‘Sleep On My Baby’ is a slice of quirky fusion pop with the distinctive backing vocals of Mick Karn.
But while Karn was perhaps less fluid trhough much of ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ than he had been with his bass work as part of JAPAN on account Sakamoto directing the exact notes that were required, he provides a bit more of his fretless signature sound here if a bit more sedately and less up front.
The guitar driven ‘Another Wedding Song’ is more of a funk soul art piece rather than a conventional song but Haruomi Hosono joins the party on bass guitar with Takahashi for a YMO reunion on the jazzy pop of ‘Donnatokimo Donnatokimo Donnatokimo’ which evokes the magical sunsets of the Ryukyu Islands with its rootsy Japanese variation on steel guitar from Hiroki Komazawa.
The gorgeous piano lullaby ‘Good Night’, written by the unconnected classical musician Yuji Takahashi with words by Yano and Peter Barakan, saw the Japanese songstress duet with David Sylvian and its interplay will delight any fans of the JAPAN frontman or Sakamoto’s film soundtracks. A fittingly perfect if very short closer, it was subsequently used on a domestic Seiko watches TV commercial.
A number of JAPAN and YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA enthusiasts are likely to be hearing ‘Ai Ga Nakucha Ne’ for the first time as this sixth Akiko Yano solo album was only released in Japan and they will undoubtedly enjoy a number of the tracks due to their instrumental and vocal connections. While Akiko Yano’s music didn’t export in large numbers, she gained a cult following in Europe and her music broke down barriers.
Today female Japanese singers are able to perform to packed theatres in London while the synthwave fraternity has adopted within its wider family, the Citypop that was pioneered by YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA when she was part of their live presentation.
Always prolific and often releasing an album per year, as recently as 2018, she worked with American synth duo REED & CAROLINE on ‘When We’re In Space’ for her collaborations collection ‘Let’s Go Together’ while she has released three more long players since. It may have taken nearly 40 years but the vast catalogue of Akiko Yano is now able to be more widely appreciated.
Ambient electronic music is a much misunderstood genre.
One is not talking about JEAN-MICHEL JARRE or VANGELIS who are far too comparatively lively to be truly considered ambient. And it is not ‘chill out’ that’s being talked about either, which seems to lump in any form of dance music that is under 112 beats per minute.
Modern ambient probably came to prominence with BRIAN ENO. While lying in a hospital room after a car accident in 1975, a friend visited him and put on a LP of harp music. However the volume had been set at an extremely low level and one of the stereo channels had failed. Unable to move to adjust this, Eno had a new way of listening to music forced onto him.
In recalling this story for the sleeve notes of his ‘Discreet Music’ album, Eno said the music now became “part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of rain were parts of the ambience.”
Eno may not have been the inventor of ambient, but he was almost certainly was its midwife. With its lengthy gradual processes and unpredictable changes, ambient can be listened to and yet ignored. Going against the Western tradition of music where vocals, melody and rhythm are essential components, ambient music is designed to accommodate many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular.
One of the other beauties of ambient music is that the pieces are often so progressive that it becomes quite difficult to remember individual sections.
Therefore on repeated plays, the music can still sound fresh and rewarding. It was an approach that fascinated many and while they may not have released whole works, artists such as DAVID BOWIE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, OMD, BLANCMANGE and RADIOHEAD recorded ambient pieces for album tracks or B-sides.
Comments about ambient music being “boring” are missing the point, because at points of the day where the state of near sleep looms, music with no vocals, no rhythms and not too much energetic melody is perfect.
Restricted to one album per moniker or collaborative partnership, here are the twenty long players presented in chronological and then alphabetical order which form The Electronic Legacy of Ambient. Acting as a straightforward introduction to the genre, it refers to many artists whose comparatively mainstream works may already be familiar.
KLAUS SCHULZE Timewind (1974)
A one-time member of TANGERINE DREAM and ASH RA TEMPLE, ‘Timewind’ was Schulze’s first solo album to use a sequencer, evolving as a longer variation on his former band’s ‘Phaedra’. Referencing 19th century composer Richard Wagner, Schulze transposed and manipulated the sequences in real time, providing shimmering and kaleidoscopic washes of electronic sound using equipment such as the EMS Synthi A, ARP 2600, ARP Odyssey, Elka string machine and Farfisa organ.
‘Phaedra’ was the breakthrough record for TANGERINE DREAM which saw them using sequencers for the first time. Featuring the classic line-up of Edgar Froese, Peter Baumann and Chris Franke, the hypnotic noodles of EMS VCS3s and Moogs dominated proceedings while Mellotrons sounding like orchestras trapped inside a transistor radio. Organic lines and flute added to trancey impressionism to produce a fine meditative electronic soundtrack.
The late Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius were CLUSTER. Having released their first long player together in 1969, their fourth album ‘Sowiesoso’ was CLUSTER’s first fully realised exploration into ambient electronics. With gentle melodic phrasing and unimposing rhythmical patterns, the title track was a wonderfully hypnotic adventure that welcomed the listener into the soothing world of the longer player’s remaining aural delights.
ASH RA TEMPLE’s Manuel Göttsching was looking to visit synthesized climes and explored more progressive voxless territory armed with an Eko Rhythm Computer, ARP Odyssey and what was to become his signature keyboard sound, a Farfisa Synthorchestra. An exponent of the more transient solo guitar style of PINK FLOYD’s David Gilmour, this template was particularly evident on New Age Of Earth’, a beautiful treasure trove of an album.
One-time member of GONG, solo artist and an in-house producer at Virgin Records, Steve Hillage had a love of German experimental music and ventured into ambient with long standing partner Miquette Giraudy. Recorded for the Rainbow Dome at the Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit at Olympia, these two lengthy Moog and ARP assisted tracks each had a beautifully spacey quality to induce total relaxation with a colourful sound spectrum.
HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980)
Mostly piano-oriented, its backdrop of shimmering synthesizer and tape loops of voices was conceived in a sound-world that Eno had created via his various instrument treatments. With Budd improvising live, Eno would occasionally add something but his producer tact was to step back if nothing extra was needed. ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ was a lovely work with resonating ivories of the acoustic and electric variety. A second collaboration came with ‘The Pearl’ in 1984.
BRIAN ENO Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)
Recorded as a soundtrack to a documentary film about the Apollo Missions to the moon, one of the inspirations was to react against the uptempo, manner of space travel presented by most TV programmes and news reels of the day with its fast cuts and speeded up images. Eno wanted to convey the feelings of space travel and weightlessness. Although based around Eno’s Yamaha DX7, the album was quite varied instrumentally, featuring his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois.
The debut album from the younger Eno, ‘Voices’ captured a sustained mood of dreamy soundscapes and aural clusters with its beautiful piano template strongly reminiscent of Harold Budd’s work with brother Brian, who was also involved on this record via various electronic treatments although it was actually Daniel Lanois who produced.
By 1986, the former JAPAN front man wanted to get away from singing as reflected by the ‘Gone To Earth’ bonus album of instrumentals. Sylvian found a willing conspirator in CAN’s Holger Czukay who had developed several unconventional compositional techniques using devices such as short wave radios and Dictaphones. Through a series of improvisations, the duo came up with two companion long players that conveyed a sinister yet tranquil quality drifting along in complex spirals.
Unlike the comparatively optimistic air of his work with Eno, Harold Budd’s solo journeys often conveyed a more melancholic density, probably best represented by the haunting immersive atmospheres of ‘The White Arcades’. An elegiac combination of shimmering synthesizers and sporadic piano provided an austere depth that was both ghostly and otherworldly, it was partly inspired by his admiration of COCTEAU TWINS whom he collaborated with on the 1986 4AD album ‘The Moon & The Melodies’.
STEVE JANSEN & RICHARD BARBIERI Other Worlds In A Small Room (1996)
With ‘Other Worlds In A Small Room’, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri created an atmospheric collection of electronic instrumentals that they considered “Ambient in the traditional sense”. Alongside the three new pieces, there was an appendix of four suitably complimentary tracks from their 1984 album ‘Worlds In A Small Room’ had originally been commissioned by JVC to accompany a documentary about the Space Shuttle Challenger and its various missions.
VINCENT CLARKE & MARTYN WARE Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (2000)
‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’ was composed by Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware as part of an Illustrious art installation at The Roundhouse in a circular, white clothed room where the colours referred to in the titles of the six lengthy pieces were “programmed to cross fade imperceptibly to create an infinite variation of hue”. Using binaural 3D mixing techniques, the sleeve notes recommended it was best heard using headphones while stating “This album is intended to promote profound relaxation”.
Trance enthusiasts who loved Ferry Corsten’s blinding remix of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ will have been shocked if they had bought its virtually beatless parent long player. Orbit’s concept of adapting classical works was that he wanted to make a chill-out album that had some good tunes. In that respect, a collection featuring lovely electronic versions of Beethoven’s ‘Triple Concerto’ and John Cage’s ‘In A Landscape’ could not really miss.
Alva Noto is a German experimental artist based in Berlin and ‘Vrioon’ was his first collaborative adventure with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA trailblazer Ryuichi Sakamoto. A beautiful union of piano, synth shimmers and subtle glitch electronics proved to be an unexpectedly soothing and meditative experience that was gloriously minimal over six starkly constructed mood pieces.
Originally released as part of the 2CD version of ‘Hotel’ in 2005, Moby couldn’t find his copy and decided on an expanded re-release. Inspired by the nature of hotels, where humans spend often significant portions of their lives but have all traces of their tenancy removed for the next guests, the ambient companion progressively got quieter and quieter. The emotive ‘Homeward Angel’ and the solemn presence of ‘The Come Down’ were worth the purchase price alone.
ROBIN GUTHRIE & HAROLD BUDD After the Night Falls / Before The Day Breaks (2007)
Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd first collaborated on ‘The Moon & The Melodies’ album along with the other COCTEAU TWINS. ‘After the Night Falls’ and ‘Before the Day Breaks’ were beautiful experiments in duality but it would be unfair to separate these Siamese twins. Serene, relaxing, abstract and distant, Guthrie’s textural guitar and Budd’s signature piano were swathed in drifting synths and treatments that complimented each album’s self-explanatory titles.
JOHN FOXX & HAROLD BUDD Nighthawks / Translucence / Drift Music (2003 – 2011)
A sumptuous trilogy featuring two artists who had both worked with Brian Eno. ‘Nighthawks’ was John Foxx and Harold Budd’s most recent collaboration with the late minimalist composer Ruben Garcia and a soothing tranquil nocturnal work with tinkling ivories melting into the subtle layered soundscape with its Edward Hopper inspired title. Meanwhile, the earlier ‘Translucence’ from 2003 was a close relative and classic Budd, partnered with the more subdued overtures of ‘Drift Music’.
‘London Overgrown’ was John Foxx’s first wholly solo ambient release since the ‘Cathedral Oceans’ trilogy. With the visual narrative of a derelict London where vines and shrubbery are allowed to grow unhindered throughout the city, the conceptual opus was a glorious ethereal synthesizer soundtrack, smothered in a haze of aural sculptures and blurred soundscapes. With ‘The Beautiful Ghost’, as with William Orbit’s take on ‘Opus 132’ from ‘Pieces In A Modern Style’, this was Beethoven reimagined for the 23rd Century.
“I like the effects of calm and dissonance and subtle change” said Steve Jansen; not a remix album as such, the more ambient and orchestral elements of ‘Tender Extinction’ were segued and reinterpreted with new sections to create a suite of instrumentals presented as one beautiful hour long structured ambient record. A gentle blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentation including piano and woodwinds, ‘The Extinct Suite’ exuded a wonderful quality equal to Eno or Budd.
B-MOVIE guitarist and pop tunesmith Paul Statham began his experimental music account with ‘Ephemeral’ and ‘Installation Music 1’. ‘Asylum’ was a more ambitious proposition and featured in an audio visual installation created with painter Jonathan McCree in South London’s Asylum Chapel. The eight compositions together exuded a cinematic, ethereal quality with some darker auras and an eerie sound worthy of the ambient pioneers Statham was influenced by, especially on the gorgeous closer ‘Ascend’.
Although their recorded output covered just five albums over a four year period, JAPAN are one of the most acclaimed bands from the flaboyant and colourful era which many came to know as New Romantic.
JAPAN’s final two studio albums ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ are being reissued as Abbey Road Half-Speed mastered 2LP gatefold vinyl editions with two tracks per side, running at 45RPM to maximise audio quality. Along with the pair’s predecessor ‘Quiet Life’, they formed the Holy Trinity of JAPAN records on which the band’s reputation was based.
The fact that Universal Music have considered there is sufficient demand for such product is an indication of the high regard JAPAN are held. In many social media discussions about bands which people wished they had seen live, JAPAN are invariably one of the acts that get mentioned.
Photo by Fin Costello
As far as their legacy is concerned, if JAPAN had not led the way with their arty aspirational poise, DURAN DURAN would not have had a role model to inspire them to their subsequent success.
Le Bon & Co even used JAPAN’s regular photographer Fin Costello to capture the cover image used on their self-titled debut album.
Thanks to JAPAN’s flamboyant bassist Mick Karn who sadly passed away in January 2011, the sound of the fretless bass became ubiquitous in the mainstream for a number of years. It was a playing style that top session player Pino Palladino ultimately adopted and made his fortune from.
Meanwhile, enigmatic front man David Sylvian was the ultimate pin-up for that flamboyant period, but later progressed to becoming a highly regarded solo artist with a no-compromise approach in parallel to Scott Walker, proving that there is life after pretty boy pop stardom.
Today, drummer Steve Jansen and keyboardist Richard Barbieri continue to release solo albums of a primarily instrumental nature as well as working on collaborative projects, while guitarist Rob Dean is now an ornithologist specialising in Costa Rican birdlife.
Londoners David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean began their career as an aggressive funk laden glam rock outfit with a straggly image not dissimilar to NEW YORK DOLLS.
Looked after by future WHAM! manager Simon Napier-Bell, who had been drawn to the band by Sylvian’s androgynous good looks which he described as “a cross between Mick Jagger and Brigitte Bardot”, the debut JAPAN album ‘Adolescent Sex’ was released in April 1978 by Ariola Hansa, the German label that had steered BONEY M to great success.
While the bizarre mix of rock, funk, glam and electronics achieved little impact in Britain, it was a surprise success with teenage girls in the country of Japan, resulting in the band playing to packed houses at big venues like Tokyo’s Bukodan.
With a reggae element also thrown into the mix, a largely more rock ‘n’ roll flavoured second album ‘Obscure Alternatives’ was released in October 1978; although it too was met with ambivalence, it proved to be a pivotal turning point for the band with the haunting closing instrumental ‘The Tenant’ a sign of things to come.
JAPAN’s continued success in Japan exposed the band members to South East Asian culture and its fascination with modern technology. These experiences were reflected in the recording of ‘Life In Tokyo’ produced by Giorgio Moroder in April 1979, which was arranged at the behest of Ariola Hansa who felt JAPAN should attempt to crack the disco market.
Now acknowledged as the bridge between growly funk-rock JAPAN and the more familiar, mannered and artier version of the group recognised by most today, ‘Life In Tokyo’ was a key interim landmark in their career as a recording that all band members were happy with.
With the more mannered textures of ROXY MUSIC now emanating from their psyche, the electronically assisted template showcased on ‘Life In Tokyo’ was refined for their third album ‘Quiet Life’ released in January 1980.
Produced by John Punter who had worked on ROXY MUSIC’s ‘Country Life’ album, JAPAN found a willing conspirator who truly believed in them.
JAPAN’s look also changed with stylish suits, heavier make-up and shorter coiffured hair for an effeminate demeanour that was similar to the New Romantics who were now frequenting The Blitz Club.
The opening title track’s resonant heart was a Roland System 700 driven by Barbieri’s snappy eight step Oberheim Mini-sequencer. Complimented by Mick Karn’s distinctively fluid fretless bass,and Sylvian’s lyrical conclusion that the band were outsiders in the environment they were born into, it was a sure-fire hit… but not yet as Ariola Hansa didn’t see fit to release ‘Quiet Life’ as a single in the UK at that point!
Also on ‘Quiet Life’, there was also an understated cover of ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, understood to be Andy Warhol’s favourite Lou Reed composition alongside more uptempo art rock numbers like ‘Fall In Love With Me’ and ‘Halloween’. But the revelations of the ‘Quiet Life’ album were the tear-jerking epics ‘In Vogue’ and ‘The Other Side Of Life’ orchestrated by Ann O’Dell which premiered a very different aspect to JAPAN, one with an emotional centre.
Meanwhile, the gently mysterious ‘Despair’ was influenced by Erik Satie with its piano aesthetics. Crooned entirely in French, it no doubt took its lead from ROXY MUSIC’s ‘Song For Europe’. Highly cinematic, it was concluded with a glorious melodic ensemble of strings and choirs from an ARP Solina.
After their shaky start, the change in musical style and the more artful demeanour of ‘Quiet Life’ was pointing JAPAN in the right direction and towards Virgin Records. Again produced by John Punter, ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ saw Richard Barbieri seriously getting into technology with the ARP Omni, Polymoog, Roland Jupiter 4 and Sequential Prophet 5 among the many synths used on the album along with his own Oberheim OBX, Micromoog and Roland System 700.
While wonderful melancholic songs such as the title track and ‘My New Career’ were a natural progression of the muzak which shaped the ‘Quiet Life’ album, the band were beginning to tire of this gentle wall of sound and aspiring to do something more dynamic.
Indeed, the dropping of the more conventional sounding ‘Some Kind Of Fool’ for the more abstract Bowie / Eno influenced electronic mood piece ‘Burning Bridges’ at the last minute was a sign of that dilemma. In the studio, Sylvian in particular as the band’s songwriter was seeking to take more control, leading to disagreements with individual band members as well as Punter with regards production.
With Sylvian now writing songs on keyboards, this artistically left little manoeuvre for Rob Dean’s guitar despite his willingness to become more textural thanks to some Fripp inspired E-bowed embellishments.
Dean was absent from four of the album’s eight tracks; Karn was also missing from two numbers. In their place came guest musicians such as Ryuichi Sakamoto on the exotic ‘Taking Islands In Africa’ and Bowie violinist Simon House who provided a solo to ‘My New Career’, beginning a pattern of collaboration that Sylvian would continue throughout his solo career.
Sylvian was aiming for a sparser sound and this was achieved with the mournful Satie-esque ‘Nightporter’. Featuring just Sylvian and Barbieri with session musicians Barry Guy on string bass and Andrew Cauthery on oboe, it was one of the album’s key tracks and a pointer of things to come for JAPAN’s leader.
Despite the tensions, when all five band members were featuring, they were firing on cylinders. The terrific ‘Swing’ combined Sylvian’s poetic travelogue with Richard Barbieri’s Oriental synth textures. In addition, Rob Dean made a full contribution with some excellent six string work as the rhythm section of Karn and Jansen maintained an amazing bounce over the Compurhythm driven bossa nova.
Meanwhile on the magnificently jagged ‘Methods Of Dance’, the spine-tingling middle section saw Jansen contributing drums, marimba and percussive keyboard embellishments bookended by a sophisticated arrangement layers of distinct keyboard parts, Karn’s sax, bursts of tense ringing guitar from Dean and the cry of a Japanese girl named Cyo.
Photo by Nicola Tyson
But both of these songs were incredibly long and complex, formed of many distinct sections in a manner akin to progressive rock. Now while for anyone prepared to stick out these sub-seven minute tracks which formed half of the album, there would be ultimately be satisfaction and enlightenment, it was not going to prove easy to market such lengthy songs as 220 second edits to national and commercial radio. With Virgin promoting the album as “Music For Adults Only” and perhaps paradoxically with a key front cover for ‘Smash Hits’, it was close but no cigar.
Although ‘Gentleman Take Polaroids’ did not as yet yield a hit single, JAPAN were finally selling out concerts on home turf, notably a show at London’s Lyceum to launch the long player. But cracks were already appearing within the quintet, with Rob Dean leaving after a May 1981 tour supporting ‘The Art Of Parties’ single which he had not actually played on.
However, momentum was building and one party that noticed was JAPAN’s former label Ariola Hansa. In August 1981, they cashed-in with the release of ‘Quiet Life’ as a single which reached No17 in the UK singles charts. As a result, a new younger audience was becoming interested in JAPAN, one that was not only seeking something modern and stylish but with a depth of musicality too.
Photo by Steve Jansen
For JAPAN’s fifth album released in November 1981, the band took the influences of the Far East even further with the Chinese flavoured ‘Tin Drum’. The slimmed down band line-up was reflected in the music. A much more minimal album than any of the band’s previous work, ‘Tin Drum’ had hardly any guitar while the synths used were restricted to an Oberheim OBX, Prophet 5 and occasionally the System 700, with the work split 55:45 between Barbieri and Sylvian. That Stockhausen derived minimalism with its sense of space was taken to its zenith with ‘Ghosts’ and its iconic chilling metallic intro.
Richard Barbieri told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “Not being a technically gifted player, the keys were of less importance to me than the actual controls. What I tried to do was to make more events happen from one note than playing 200 notes. The prime example to that is the intro to ‘Ghosts’ because it’s just one triggered note on the System 700, but I’d programmed in this evolving series of movements with filters, LFOs and pitch frequency oscillation. I’ve never been able to quite get that sound again, but it caused havoc for the engineer because there were lots of peaks and it was quite difficult to record.”
Exquisitely programmed as opposed to relying on effects, JAPAN were aiming for synth derived acoustic colours constructed using ring modulation as well as parallel tuning in fourths and fifths for sounds that possessed a dead echo. Produced by another Roxy cohort Steve Nye, the arrangements were simpler with repeating patterns, tight hand played sequences and clean rhythmic tones.
But it was no less sophisticated with the assortment of timbres within those parts providing the variation and the air of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ looming. The wondrous ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’ in particular saw East meeting West with Oriental vocal aesthetics and cleverly programmed organic synthesized sounds sitting next to state of the art digital technology such the Linn LM1 Drum Computer, all with the prowess of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA.
The lyrical themes of ‘Tin Drum’ flirted with Chinese Communism as Eno had done on ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)’. Sylvian appeared to be taking inspiration from the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao, a point highlighted by the pentatonic polyrhythmic single ‘Visions Of China’ and its less frantic but similarly dida enhanced sister song ‘Cantonese Boy’.
With co-writing credits on ‘Visions Of China’ and the traditional sounding instrumental ‘Canton’, Steve Jansen was playing an increasing role as well, but it was clear that his older brother still maintained overall control.
Jansen told ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK: “That would have been put down to the fact that what I was doing rhythmically played a bigger part than usual in the inspiration and direction of the songs. But in reality I don’t think it was the right way of doing it. I think all JAPAN’s music was methodically arranged by each member and warranted some co-writing credit however small.”
While Mick Karn was becoming slightly more isolated having not played on ‘Ghosts’, he still provided some memorable bass runs and got a co-writing credit for his dominant mantra and harmonics on the percussively brooding seven minute ‘Sons Of Pioneers’.
But on the whole, the songs on ‘Tin Drum’ were shorter and sharper like ‘Talking Drum’, providing a degree of immediacy that had not been present before; the album became the band’s biggest UK success, both commercially and critically.
However, all was not well within the band. Frustrations about publishing and personal differences came to a head with the now well-documented tensions between Sylvian and Karn tearing the band apart as they soldiered on with a British tour.
The individual band members spent 1982 undertaking their own projects while JAPAN was put on hiatus. Despite rumours of a split, JAPAN became chart regulars in 1982, notching up a further six Top 40 singles including a cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘I Second That Emotion. However, the biggest surprise came when ‘Ghosts’ caught the mood of the moment with a Top 5 hit that April as the British Task Force was heading south towards the Falkland Islands.
An extensive Autumn tour of the UK, Europe and South East Asia was arranged by Napier-Bell to capitalise on their wider profile as he sought to buy time to keep his charges creatively together.
Photo by Fin Costello
Although the majority of the dates were sold out, JAPAN called it a day at the height of their powers with a final performance in Nagoya, Japan on 16th December 1982.
Sylvian and Karn continued with solo careers as well as collaborating with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Midge Ure respectively, while Jansen and Barbieri worked with both of their former bandmates, as well together as THE DOLPHIN BROTHERS who released an album ‘Catch The Fall’ in 1987.
That same year, relations had thawed enough between Sylvian and Karn for them to jointly record two songs ‘Buoy’ and ‘When Love Walks In’ for the bassist’s second solo album ‘Dreams Of Reason Produce Monsters’ which was co-produced by Jansen.
So in 1989, the quartet gathered at Studio Miraval in the south of France for what was considered to be a JAPAN reunion in all but name. But that episode in itself was a whole other story…
‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ are each released as Abbey Road Half-Speed Mastered gatefold 2LP 45RPM vinyl sets with download key by Virgin Records / Universal Music on 24th August 2018, both albums will also be available in a 180 gram single LP edition playing at the standard 33RPM
Avant garde trumpeter and composer Jon Hassell is best known for his collaborations with Brian Eno and David Sylvian.
Coining the term “Fourth World” to describe his style as “a unified primitive / futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques”, his contributions can also be heard on recordings with TALKING HEADS, TEARS FOR FEARS and 808 STATE. His ‘Fourth World, Volume 1: Possible Musics’ with Brian Eno from 1980 is now considered a landmark in ambient and world music, combining airy electronic treatments on his trumpet with drones and sombre percussive colours often derived from ancient ghatams.
Meanwhile his two 1984 co-writes ‘Weathered Wall’ and ‘Brilliant Trees’ with David Sylvian placed the Fourth World ethos into a song format, albeit an unconventional one while signalling the former JAPAN front man’s departure from pop and into more experimental climes.
Hassell actually criticised Eno’s subsequent album ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ with David Byrne to Andy Warhol for being too commercial and although it was hardly ‘1989’ by Taylor Swift, it showed the integrity of the man and how still he very much lives for his art at the age of 81.
Very much a sound painter, Hassell’s new album ‘Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)’ introduces his idea of Vertical Listening to “what’s happening NOW” and “letting your inner ears scan up and down the sonic spectrum, asking what kind of ‘shapes’ you’re seeing, then noticing how that picture morphs as the music moves through Time.”
All very thoughtful and with this album, fans of Brian Eno and David Sylvian’s more esoteric work will not be disappointed. Ambient soundscapes proliferate and Hassell’s distinctive signature trumpet sound is very much present on a fair number of the tracks. The steadily rhythmic ‘Al Kongo Udu’ develops on the Fourth World concept from its opening percussive pulses into glitchy 21st Century electronica while being trumpet free. However, it makes its welcome first appearance on the appropriately titled ‘Dreaming’.
The jazz inflected ‘Manga Scene’ also adds some atonal interference and random bleeping for an abstract sound sculpture, but the title track is almost conventional in comparison despite the cut-ups and its almost arbitrary percussive generation. The clattering passages of ‘Pastorale Vassant’ are filled with treated piano and ring modulation while more noise driven, ‘Picnic’ occupies a similar aural playground.
Closing with ‘Slipstream’, the album is bookended with another development of Hassell’s classic Fourth World concept, its overtones eerie but simultaneously escapist.
Like many albums of this type, this won’t be for everyone but for anyone who has ever enjoyed the collaborative aspect of Hassell’s previous work, there are a number of accessible entry points in this artful sonic installation.
Steve Jansen has been very busy of late over the last 12 months with projects involving both music and photography.
In 2015, the one-time drummer of JAPAN published ‘Through A Quiet Window’, a book of his photos taken between 1978-1991 documenting his time with the band and touring with fellow sticksman Yukihiro Takahashi of YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA.
Featuring band mates David Sylvian, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri and Rob Dean, ‘Through A Quiet Window’ is must for JAPAN fans, capturing the band at work in the studio and relaxing in a variety of situations.
Interest in the book has led to exhibitions of Jansen’s photos in Kyoto and Sydney, Nova Scotia with an ambient soundtrack recently prepared to accompany the installation at the latter location. That music will be released as a brand new album ‘Corridor’ with the floating 48 minute title composition appended by ‘Recovery Room’, an 8 minute instrumental fusing percussive electronica with classical elements.
Steve Jansen kindly chatted about the genesis of ‘Corridor’ and ‘Through A Quiet Window’ while also shedding light on the perception of JAPAN as a band at the height of their artistic success.
Your new album ’Corridor’ is aesthetically paired with your previous release ‘The Extinct Suite’, but is maybe more minimal, especially the start?
Visually the artwork is aesthetically paired with ‘The Extinct Suite’ and sonically there are similarities but not so many.
The music of ‘Corridor’ is less structured since many of the tracks on ‘The Extinct Suite’ were instrumental versions of songs from ‘Tender Extinction’ and therefore have more form. ‘Corridor’ leans more towards ambient / minimalist music overall.
Like ‘The Extinct Suite’, ’Corridor’ has been derived from some of your previous work, in this case ‘STER_01’ & ‘STER_02’ and connected with new music?
That’s correct. STER (‘Sounds That Emit Randomly’) was a project folder title of mine containing various sound files that I ended up compiling into two pieces (01 & 02). Some sounds originated from my own piano playing at my home and others were more randomly sourced. It was my intention to create a series of tracks along these lines, however with the photo exhibition project materialising, I thought these pieces might work with new material as an installation piece.
There’s a variety of ethnic acoustic textures that dominate the second third of the piece, how were those achieved?
These were recorded in Sweden on an instrument known as an Akkordzither that Charlie Storm had in his studio in Gothenburg. I played various takes and treated them in different ways to create the ethnic acoustic textures that you hear.
’Corridor’ was specifically constructed for your ‘Through A Quiet Window’ exhibition at The Cape Breton University Art Gallery in Nova Scotia. Like Brian Eno’s ‘Discreet Music’, it is designed for low volumes so recording wise, are you able to explain how is this different from music intended to be played loud in terms of production?
Due to most galleries being acoustically live environments with little or no sound insulation, there needs to be some consideration for the way in which bass frequencies will spin out of control and overly complex music will not perform well.
These concerns need to be considered during the compositional stage as well as the mixing stage.
Also due to the live acoustics of the room, the music would not be good at high volume as the audio will bounce around the walls creating unwanted echo that will end up as a wash of sound with no distinct content or detail. It’s therefore best set at low level volume where the visitor might then experience subtle audio changes that enhance the experience of the room. Of course, it can still be listened to at any personally preferred volume.
The late Mick Karn makes a brief appearance about 30 minutes into ‘Corridor’?
Yes, it was a sample I had of Mick testing his bass sound during an improvised recording. The album consists of simple bass elements such as occasional rumbles and sustained drones and this relates to your previous question.
The ‘Through A Quiet Window’ photo book is a fabulous visual document of your time in JAPAN, and highlights your kinship with Mick in particular?
During that period Mick and I would often go on local excursions to take photographs for some purpose or other. It wasn’t unusual for us to stay up all night as work often went through the night, so it became a way of life even when not in the studio.
The photograph of Mick with the Sleeping Buddha for example was taken along Kensington High Street at dawn when very few people were about, apart from the occasional jogger heading into Holland Park. David and I would also take time out to go do some photographs together, sometimes at the request of Japanese magazines such as Rock Show, otherwise simply to have some new images on file. More candid shots were taken during work and travel times and these are generally my favourite images.
The photos were mostly naturally lit, but also captured how photogenic the members of JAPAN were, even in more candid situations?
Being young does have its advantages and whoever said “the camera never lies” was lying. I think capturing natural light is the most important element in photography because it recalls the mood and ambience in the room and can actually enhance it somewhat too simply by the way that analog film reacts to light differently to our eye.
There’s a great one of Mick and David having corn flakes and burnt toast in Stanhope Gardens; what type of memories and feelings were there when you were sorting through your photos from this period?
The memories are generally happy ones. The 70s was a peculiar decade with a lot of societal changes occurring and by the early 80s, we were in a more comfortable place where opportunities were opening up.
By some change of fortune, we’d become seen as being somewhat at the forefront of whatever youth movement our band was associated with. We pre-empted the ‘New Romantic’ scene which was a nightclub / fashion scene that emerged later, however the press were keen to throw JAPAN in that mix which we found irritating as ‘New Romantic’ sounded so lame. We were not culturally connecting with it at all, not musically nor aesthetically.
Ironically, our first hit ‘Quiet Life’ came at a time when we were in the process of finishing our final album ‘Tin Drum’, two albums after ‘Quiet Life’, so we were fairly out of sync with the music scene of the time, and this had always been the case since we first emerged around the time of punk, playing music that was anything but punk. So when I see images of the band, I can’t help but think we were an anomaly but that this actually suited who we were and went on to define who we were to become artistically.
The photos of Yukihiro Takahashi are much more relaxed and are mostly in colour?
I have both, I think in the book there are also both. When we had the chance, Yukihiro and I would spend time together socially, going fishing (he loves fishing, I was there more for the experience) staying in the countryside, visiting Onsen (hot springs), finding nice places to eat etc so I have quite a few relaxed images of him.
How did you go about selecting the final photos for the book and subsequently the exhibition?
Selecting images for the book was a process of elimination.
I knew which images I wanted to include and then I had to reduce it down to the amount that would comfortably fit within the confines of the book format.
When it came to the exhibition in Kyoto, because it was located on the men’s floor of the ISETAN store, I generally chose images that displayed how the band members styled themselves during those years, interspersed with various others to offer some variety. The images for the exhibitions in Canada were mostly selected by the curator for both galleries, Greg Davies.
You mentioned on your Sleepyard blog that Universal Music had acquired the catalogue of NINE HORSES, the trio comprising of yourself, David Sylvian and Burnt Friedman. What’s possibly happening in terms of reissues, is there any released material still in the can?
There isn’t any unreleased NINE HORSES material and to be honest, I’m not too sure what plans Universal have for it.
NINE HORSES was very much a band project, how did the working methods differ for you personally compared with for example, JAPAN and RAIN TREE CROW?
David and I worked as co-composers along with Burnt which meant that various tracks originated from different members, or from myself and David together.
This was never the case with the previous incarnations you’ve mentioned in your question.
On ‘Wonderful World’, you got to work with Swedish artist Stina Nordenstam?
Yes, Stina was an artist David really wanted to work with so he made the connection. The two of us flew from the US to Stockholm to record with her over two days and things went really well. After this visit, she and I made a connection that spanned over a few years, during which time she never failed to be an engaging and intense personality, both strong and opinionated yet vulnerable and fragile.
‘Serotonin’ is a favourite from ‘Snow Borne Sorrow’, how did that one come together in the studio?
‘Serotonin’ was Burnt’s music upon which we built. During all of the NINE HORSES recording Burnt was never present with David and I, his parts were done by exchanging files virtually.
Photo by Ulf Jansson
EXIT NORTH is an ongoing project of yours, how are things progressing there?
The EXIT NORTH album is complete except for one track which is proving somewhat troublesome. As soon as that’s done, we will send the mixes off for mastering.
I very much enjoy working with Thomas, Charlie and Ulf. I totally respect them and what they’ve created with this work and I hope the feeling’s mutual.
We realise it’s been a long time in the making but we hope that this music, by way of its disassociation with contemporary genres, will stand the test of time as a collection of songs, therefore it’s important to us that we get it right. And because this is a self-funded project and we are four persons each with our own lives and projects to support, this one is subsequently taking a little longer than it would otherwise.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Steve Jansen