JOSHO’S COLUMN: YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA- Solid State Survivor (1979)

Review by: Josh Price

ymo_solidstatesurvivor

Following the modest success of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s eponymous debut, they went on a small national tour. It was intended to be the end of the Yellow Magic Orchestra project, but then something happened. They were noticed. Noticed by a promoter who had a tasty deal for them. Specifically, worldwide promotion. Naturally, they gobbled that deal right up and decided to become an actual band.

Their first album was remixed and re-released in the US in 1979, and ‘Firecracker’ became a pretty moderate hit over there (it was marketed over there as ‘Computer Games’, which was probably a flub on the distributors’ part). During their 1980 world tour, they even stopped by to play the song on Soul Train! You can find the clip of them performing it plus an interview with a bemused Don Cornelius on YouTube if you’re interested.

Anyway, this album wasn’t released at the time in the West, at least in this format (more on that in a future review), but this was the album that made YMO superstars in Japan.

While their self-titled debut was a juicy concoction of exotica, jazz fusion, disco and synthpop, their sophomore album places an emphasis on upbeat, catchy new wavey synth tunes. Since they were now an actual band, and not a Hosono-led side-project, the recording and writing process for this album was much more democratic, with songwriting duties being equally split between the three.

Ryuichi Sakamoto starts things off with the song ‘Technopolis’. It’s almost entirely instrumental, but you’re also greeted with vocoded vocals courtesy of Sakamoto himself. His vocals consist entirely of him either saying “Tokyo” or spelling out “Technopolis”, but sometimes that’s all ya really need, y’know? It’s a great song and a fantastic opener. That chorus melody just can’t be beat. However, if you listen to their first album and this album back to back, you will notice the difference in production. Whereas their first album sounds very crisp, clear and upfront, you’ll notice that on ‘Technopolis’ that the separate parts aren’t as well-balanced in the mix, and there’s like a weird kinda slapback delay on those synth parts. Additionally, whenever Sakamoto spells out “Technopolis”, each letter gets more and more out-of-sync with the rest of the tune. I don’t think was intentional because in every other version I’ve heard them do, Sakamoto spells out the word perfectly on-sync. Also, what’s up with the drum track taking slightly longer than all the other tracks to fade out? You almost think it’s gonna segue into another track, but then it doesn’t. Still sounds kinda cool, so maybe it was intentional.

That concludes my ‘Technopolis’ nitpicking. Fantastic song otherwise.

Next up we have a song from Hosono called ‘Absolute Ego Dance’. It’s —

Hang on, speaking of absolute ego, fellow Tomymostalas reviewer Jonathan Moss has something to say about this album! Over to Moss!

“This album is really good.”

Hey, Josh again! Thank you for that, Mossy. You took the words right out of my mouth.

So, anyway, ‘Absolute Ego Dance’ has an eccentric, almost exotic-sounding little verse melody that’s countered by a glorious major-key chorus melody. It’s not as hard-hitting as the other big hitters on this album, but like ‘Mad Pierrot’ on the previous album, the more you listen to it the more addictive it becomes. It’s catchy, it’s loopy and so Hosono. Which gets me thinking, there should be a sitcom called That’s So Hosono. Or at least a television movie called that.

The third track on the album was not only the biggest hit on the album, but is also probably the most recognizable YMO track (in Japan anyway). Written by Yukihiro Takahashi, ‘Rydeen’ represents everything great about YMO at this stage of their career. Every melody the song offers is well-written and feels like a hook in its own right, the beat is invigorating and never lets up, and just when you think the song can’t get any better, you get that little laser battle interlude followed by the final triumphant echoes of that final melody. It’s as exciting as it is beautiful. Only nitpick I can come up with is that when they repeat the main melody at 1:45 instead of going back into the bridge, it seems a bit overkill. But hell, a melody like that is worth repeating. I would know, I’ve listened to the song perhaps a hundred times and it’s never gotten old.

We close out side one with another Sakamoto number, ‘Castalia’, which is about as far-removed from the previous three tracks as you could imagine. It’s downtempo, ponderous and lacks a clear hook. But it’s nice! In a way, it’s almost a foreshadowing of what YMO and especially Sakamoto would be doing later in their careers. Those melodies are strangely beautiful and the track is probably the best-sounding production-wise on the album. So, y’know, you probably won’t be listening to it much on its own, but coming in between two of YMO’s hardest-hitting songs, it makes for a nice breather of sorts.

And yes, the opening track on side 2, ‘Behind the Mask’ hits hard, bro. You have that verse with that loopy chord progression and spacey melody and then you have that chorus with Sakamoto’s vocoded vocals and Hosono’s throbbing bass. The melodies are, as you might expect, fantastic. You know who’d agree with me? Quincy Jones. He liked the song so much when he visited Japan in the early 80’s, that he tried to obtain permission for Michael Jackson to sing it on ‘Thriller’. They made a demo for it and everything, and Sakamoto was quite interested in the prospect, but YMO’s management eventually declined for whatever reason. It’s a shame, Sakamoto and co. surely would have made a mean buck, and it would have been cool to know that the best-selling album of all time had a YMO tune on it. But oh well. In a long convoluted series of events, Eric Clapton ended up covering the tune on one of his albums, and it was produced by none other than Phil Collins. It’s probably the best Eric Clapton song.

A lot of people like to shit on YMO’s cover of ‘Day Tripper’, but I love it. I just love the idea of taking this sacred cow of a tune, and completely stretching it until it’s unrecognizable. Quirky vocals, herky-jerky stop-start rhythms, jazzy chord changes and a weird-ass guitar solo. I love it. In fact, I secretly love it more than the original version. Shhhh, this is just between you and me, faithful reader. Don’t tell anyone or we’ll be sure to ban you from this blog! Maybe.

‘Insomnia’ is sort of another breather track that appears before the final track. Written by Hosono, it has a bit of a daunting minor-key melody and foggy atmosphere that perfectly evokes the feeling of insomnia. It’s also the longest track on the album, and honestly you can tell. It feels a tiny bit repetitive, but that said, I love all the different parts. That main melody, the part with those doomy descending synths, Hosono’s vocoded part, it’s all good stuff! I think the fact that I still think the weakest track on the album is fantastic just speaks to how much I love this album.

And then you have the grand finale, the title track, written by Takahashi. It’s one of my favorite YMO songs. Why? To put it simply, it has it all. A breakneck tempo, quirky chord progressions, triumphant synth melodies, and a vocal part from Takahashi that’s just the epitome of cool. His vocals sound great, considering he was a bit of a shaky vocalist at that point in time. And I dunno, the urgent guitar, those creepy distorted samples, the production. Really, I don’t think there’s anything I dislike on this track!

All of these songs add up to make what would end up being not only a huge hit in Japan, but also the best-selling album of 1980 over there, aided by the success of the singles ‘Rydeen’ and ‘Technopolis’. It even started off what was to become known as the ‘technopop craze’ in Japan. Many young bands started up synth bands, existing bands traded in guitars for synths and mainstream pop music became increasingly influenced by electronic pop. Some of it was even produced and written by the YMO guys themselves!

This is one of my favorite albums ever (you can tell because I had to resort to nitpicks for criticism). While the production is a bit weaker than their previous album, the songs are arguably stronger overall. You just can’t beat some of these tracks. If you like catchy electronic music at all, you can’t pass this album by. Listen to it right now. Sell all your Aerosmith records to listen to this if you must. It’ll be worth it!

TRACK PICKS:
– Absolute Ego Dance
– Rydeen
– Behind the Mask
– Day Tripper
– Solid State Survivor

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