Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Quiet Life (1979)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 3.5/5
A transitional album, for sure, but not a bad one – once you get past the first couple of tracks, at least.

I used to think there was nothing worse than a great album opening with a bad track, but of course I was mistaken: there is something worse, and that’s a great album opening with two bad tracks. I really couldn’t blame anyone who switched off and put on some Roxy Music after the first two tracks here; the first one – the title track – is utterly by-the-numbers new romanticism with absolutely no particularly memorable or unusual features, and the second – “Fall in Love With Me” – is set apart only by a brief ambient bridge (predicting things to come) and a kinda weird bassline. I was pretty despondent myself after these two, but I needn’t have worried and neither should you; skip these two and what you’re left with is a pleasingly weird slice of new romantic goodness, even if the band themselves’ll probably deny it. 

The real hero of this piece, for me, is Mick Karn; that guy was always a great bassist, but here he finally ascends to another plane of existence and becomes some sort of insane God, delightedly ripping up the funk rulebook and playing some maddeningly brilliant stuff. My favourite moment of his is probably the intro to “Alien”, where he draws one note out into a second-long peal before collapsing into a dense cluster of little notes, but he’s just as fantastic on the rest of the song – especially the quiet break in the middle, where all the instrumentation restrains itself and Karn transforms his bass into something resembling a textural instrument to fill the space. He’s really good on the cover of “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, too, which is actually one of the album’s highlights: aside from Karn’s bizarrely-structured bassline, we’ve got some lovely guitar textures running through the whole thing, a pleasantly metronomic drumbeat courtesy of Steve Jansen and a really lovely performance from Sylvian. 

Sylvian’s soft, affected crooning on this album is a strange thing – it sounds almost like an exaggerated parody of the average new romantic vocalist, and is accordingly insufferable on the first two songs. Starting from “Despair”, though, he sounds divine, indicating that the problem earlier was that he simply doesn’t fit with the atmosphere of the average new romantic record. The rest of the album, though, spends its time exploring rather more fantastical and less optimistic worlds than, say, The Lexicon Of Love, and Sylvian’s oddly plastic affectations slide as perfectly into the piano noir of “Despair” (which feels like a tonal bridge between Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and Bohren & Der Club Of Gore’s Sunset Mission) as they do into the wondrous, awestruck “Halloween”. That last one has a really nice atmospheric synth riff, and a really nice hook to match – see? I KNEW he’d get better at those! He’s writing good hooks fairly regularly now, and that’s a welcome development for any pop group, even such a bloody weird one as Japan. 

Anyway, as usual there’s two longer songs here. Also as usual, they’re both pretty good: “In Vogue” has these watery atmospheric synths running in the background the whole time and a really long, understated, contemplative guitar solo that manages to completely avoid sounding like masturbation and instead sounds like perfectly natural musical exploration, and “Other Side Of Life” is a ballad that sacrifices deep emotional feeling (which Sylvian, in this mode, is incapable of conveying) for a more otherworldly atmosphere and a lengthy instrumental coda with synths that sound rather like they belong in the Age Of Empires II soundtrack (totally a compliment, by the way). So, what’re we left with? A couple generic, mediocre synthpop songs and then six pieces of excellent experimental pop – which means I can’t give this too high a rating (two out of eight is a pretty significant number, after all, especially when they’re the first fuckin’ things you hear on the album) but can nonetheless recommend it. And for the love of God, never listen to this in an aeroplane, or anywhere else that blocks out the bass frequencies! If there were any justice in the world, Mick Karn would be one of the great white bass heroes, but alas the world chooses instead to idolise such mediocrities as Cliff Burton and Geddy fuckin’ Lee… oh, deary me, am I turning into LimedIBagels? Bah – ignore my bitterness and listen to Japan. The late 70s and early 80s wouldn’t have been quite so fascinating without ’em.
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Author: tomymostalas

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