Review by: Michael Strait
As if ye needed any more proof that the 80s started in ’78…
Japan may have never associated themselves with the New Romantics, but you can certainly see why they were lumped in with the movement. The New Romantic bands were a twinkle in Steve Strange’s eye in 1978, but Japan bore many of the style’s hallmarks already, and I’m not just referring to the makeup. Basslines borrowed from funk and disco? Check. Spacey, futuristic synths? Check. An effeminate, silken set of lead vocals? Well, OK – not yet. That’d come later. David Sylvian, at this point, sounded as if he’d just eaten a bowl of small round pebbles for breakfast. He doesn’t sound macho, but he certainly does sound rough, and he’s got one volume: loud. It gets a little grating after a while, I guess – would it kill him to stop shouting for one minute? Then again, it’s not as if the music here ever quietens down much either. No ballads here, that’s for sure – just a bunch of blazin’ loud funk-rockers.
The monotony is a bit of a flaw, and it’s not the only one. Sylvian’s not a great hookster, either; most of his hooks on this album are fairly anemic and underwritten, although he manages to pull a couple of them off anyway thanks to sheer vocal charisma. “Lovers On Main Street”‘s hook barely counts as a hook at all – it’s just the titular phrase being near-tunelessly sung once – but the way Sylvian sardonically transforms the word “Street” into “Strrrrrrraaaaaaaaeeeeeeeeeeet” salvages the whole thing. Then there’s “Wish You Were Black”, which has this pre-chorus segment that feels like it’s building up to a hook before suddenly diving away at the last moment, and it sounds cool enough to make up for the fact that, really, it’s the sound of Sylvian himself diving away from having to write a proper hook at all. S’all good, though, and there are a couple of legitimately good hooks here too if you look. “Communist China” has the best, with its steadily building hook culminating in a grandiose guitar riff, and the title track’s hook isn’t bad either (though the little mid-verse mini-hooks in that song are better). Elsewhere, though, the hooks are barely present at all. Is that a problem? Eh, sorta – some more hooks woulda been nice, for sure, but the album’s got enough riffs and basslines to get by.
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but Mick Karn is a really good bassist. He’s not actually at his best on this album, in that he is merely playing really good funk basslines rather than breaking new ground and innovating his own style like he’d do later in Japan’s career, but I’ve no problem with that – all these songs feel super movable and danceable thanks to him. Well, OK, not JUST him – the drumming (courtesy of Steve Jansen) is pretty great too, and there’s always a great guitar riff (presumably contributed by Rob Dean, though possibly also by Sylvian himself sometimes) to complete the groove. Dean’s a pretty good guitarist, but I gotta say most of his solos leave me cold; he gets three big ones here, and two of them – on “Transmission” and “Television” – are fairly boring strings of shredding clichés. The solo he gets on “Suburban Love”, though, is full of enough unexpected twists and tonal experiments to hold my interest the whole way through, and it’s paired with a couple of great synth & electric piano solos. I mean, you could say the entire track is just one big wank-off, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a pretty great wank-off, so who cares?
I’ve got less to say about the rest, though. “Don’t Rain On My Parade” is a cover (you can tell because it’s got a better hook than Sylvian was capable of writing at this time!), and it sounds pretty much like the rest of the stuff here except with some cool, future-computer synth sounds bubbling away underneath; “Performance” is kinda fun, in that it’s basically a straight-up funk song with 90s alt-rock vocals; “Transmission” has a very nice riff and a nice sense of bitterness… y’know, it’s all pretty good, but at the same time none of it strikes me as remotely essential. Still, I shouldn’t complain too hard. It’s good fun, the guitar tone is pretty consistently nice, and none of the songs are bad; the fact that none of them are really all that good isn’t enough to rain on my parade. I gotta say one thing, though: what was it with the late 70s/early 80s and fascism? Sylvian here sing about “Fascist graffiti” on “Performance”, ABC sang about democracy and fascism on “Many Happy Returns”, Heaven 17 had “Fascist Groove Thang”… I mean, I approve of the sentiment, but why then? It’d been a full 30 years since the vanquishing of fascism in Europe and another full 30 until it’d reappear in bulk. Why can’t we have this sort of anti-fascist music now? Lawd knows we need it…