Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Tin Drum (1981)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 5/5
Japan embrace China – didn’t expect to read that sentence anytime soon, now did ya?

The idea of a band named after an East Asian country embracing East Asian influences for the title and cover is hardly a far-fetched one. A band called Japan taking influences from China, though? Man, that’s just asking fer trouble. Though one could say, of course, that Japan plundering China is really nothing new – but that’s opening a can o’ worms that could get me into trouble with the Japanese government, and maybe stretching the metaphor too far anyway. Let’s get back to the album! It’s really good – are you surprised?

If I’ve a problem with this album, it’s that most of the songs follow the same basic formula. You’ve got a drunken, woozy, fucked-up bassline, some mostly snare-based weirdo drum patterns, a bunch of riffy synth atmospheres and, coursing through all of it like a mountain stream, you’ve got Sylvian’s clear, glistening voice. But that’s not really a problem, ‘cos this formula is near-guaranteed to result in excellence, and accordingly this album is pretty much perfect. The vaguely gothic darkness of Gentlemen Take Polaroids is mostly gone (even if one of the songs is called “Ghosts”), and the tone that replaces it is much harder to define, but I guess, in a pinch, I’d say the album sounds like it takes place in a white-backdropped world of bizarre right-angled shapes and oddly asymmetric geometries, from which Sylvian observes the world in which we live and attempts to understand our designs.

I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the godlike genius of Mick Karn on previous reviews, so let’s devote a bit of time here to appreciating Steve Jansen. He’s not as good on the drums as Karn is on the bass – who is? – but the strange patterns he traces with his kit & machines are essential components in the construction of this album’s atmosphere. Take “Talking Drum”, for example – the drums don’t talk, as such, but pay attention to those little skittering cymbal taps that subtly fill the spaces between the big snare hits and you might be able to imagine that they are at least whispering, tapping at the edge of one’s consciousness like pattering rain on a corrugated roof. Then there’s “Visions of China”, which has all sorts of hand-drum sounds (mayhaps synthesized, mayhaps not) playing the sort of danceable pattern that many a well-meaning liberal journalist has probably described as “influenced by world music”, and which go very nicely with the very hip-swayingly funky bassline. Dancing to this would be difficult, but not impossible, and if ye don’t feel like getting out of yer chair then there’s plenty enough going on to satisfy the inner workings of yer mind. Yer heart, too – Sylvian’s voice is just pure velvet, all seductive and high-class and sophisticated. If he sounded like a dark parody of the average new romantic vocalist on Gentlemen Take Polaroids, here he just sounds like the logical endpoint of the entire style – he is peak new romantic; there will never be a more new romantic singer than him. If you’ve an aversion to over-enunciated posh vocals, you’ll probably find him absolutely insufferable; myself, I can’t get enough of it. I’d contract Sylvian to sing me to sleep every night if I had the money.

I might contract Barbieri to back him up on piano, too. After all, it’s just him and Sylvian on “Ghosts”, and it’s great! Sylvian’s just being his usual self, of course (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but the best part is hearing Barbieri fully exploring what he can do when freed from the rhythmic confines imposed on him by Karn and Jansen. Of course, the boundaries of those confines were always unusually wide and fluid – this is Japan we’re talking about, after all – but it’s fascinating to hear just how fully Barbieri can fill up a song with nothing but his synths. There’s a placid, reserved atmosphere that conjures an art gallery or tranquil old museum, and the tones are all fulsome and glowy like any good futuristic synthpop tones should be, but it’s also plenty melodic and quietly riffy. In fact, Barbieri might be an underrated riffster in the synthpop world – he’s not obvious about it like Paul Humphreys or Magne Furuholmen, but he’s got a real talent for coming up with catchy, melodic riffs. It’s easy to forget them with so much else going on, but just look, for example, at “Still Life In Mobile Homes” – there’s nary a moment in that song that doesn’t contain some memorable synth bits, and the only reason they’re not more noticeable is because a good portion of them are buried under even more memorable bass riffs and vocal melodies. The whole song is pretty much just pure melodic bliss from beginning to end; come to think of it, the entire album is pretty much pure melodic bliss from beginning to end. 

The catchiest song on the album is probably the closer, “Cantonese Boy”, which is one of the two songs to immediately spring into my head whenever I think of this band (the other one being “Gentlemen Take Polaroids”). It’s got Barbieri’s most noticeable and immediately memorable riff(s), and the vocal melody in the chorus is gently, incisively perfect, like a surgical device designed specifically to painlessly and smoothly stimulate the relaxation and pleasure centres of the brain. There’s also the opener, “The Art Of Parties”, which has some of Barbieri’s most left-field riffs, some of Jansen’s most unusual drum patterns and some of Sylvian’s best tunes – especially in the pre-chorus, when the synths drop to this low, dark hum and he croons out perfectly controlled, placid meditations on futility and entropy. Funnily enough, this is also the first Japan song since Quiet Life to contain really substantial guitarwork – there’s even a solo! Poor Rob Dean must have felt mighty put upon when he heard this. Mind you, even he couldn’t possibly have had any complaints about the instrumental track “Canton”, which is awesome – it’s basically a Chinese folk song played as if it were a synthpop song, and it turns out that traditional Chinese folk-style melodies make great synth riffs. I’m not sure what the traditional Chinese masters would have made of Karn’s jumpy bassline, but as far as I’m concerned it fits just fine.

There ain’t a weak track here at all, in fact. Some might be willing to call “Sons Of Pioneers” a bit boring or repetitive, but to them I say phooey – it’s patient, steady and comforting, and if there’s one man I’d listen to play the same bassline over and over for seven minutes it’s gotta be Mick Karn. As far as I’m concerned, this album is flawless, and it’s as fitting a sign-off from this group as one could ever have hoped. I guess this much raw creative energy could never have stayed in one place for long without finding some way to dilute itself anyway, so I’m not too upset, and I’m certainly glad the band finished on their highest note rather than steadily descending into bullshit like certain other groups I’ve reviewed (ahem). As you might expect, this wasn’t the end of the road for any of the members: David Sylvian went on to a long and apparently very rewarding solo career in which he collaborated with everyone from Robert Fripp to Sachiko M, creating art-pop double albums and cavorting with the avant-garde in a way that presumably alienated a good deal of his old-school fans; Barbieri eventually decided to pollute himself by joining Porcupine Tree in the nineties, taunting us with an ambient solo album every so often just to keep us on our toes; Steve Jansen briefly formed The Dolphin Brothers with Barbieri and has sporadically collaborated with him and with Sylvian ever since, while recording the occasional solo album whenever he can find the time and/or motivation; and Mick Karn, naturally, almost immediately jumped into the world of jazz fusion, perhaps the only genre in the world truly suited to his phenomenal talents on the bass. All four of them briefly reunited in 1991 for a project called Rain Tree Crow. As for Rob Dean, well, he eventually ended up retiring to Costa Rica and became its leading expert in ornithology, and never had to worry about egotistical singers or disloyal bandmates ever again.
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Author: tomymostalas

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