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.

Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Gentlemen Take Polaroids (1980)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 4.5/5
Aww yeah, this is the shiet! New romantic located firmly in the uncanny valley. Proper good stuff.

Rob Dean left after the release of this album, and it’s easy to see why. He’s got about as much presence on this record as Jason Newsted got on …And Justice For All, except that there’s more reason to complain here because Dean is, you know, actually good. I always found his solos a tad hit or miss, but he could turn in some really good ones when called for, and his riffs were pretty uniformly awesome. So, I should be bitter – but I’m not, ‘cos truth is by now Japan just didn’t need the guy anymore. Guitars are nice, but by this point in their career they were getting more artistic mileage out of their synths, and Dean, good as he is, just wasn’t all that compatible with the thoroughly non-rock styles explored on this album. So he is, effectively, out, and replacing him is the great Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra on additional synths. Say – the band were fuggin’ called Japan, how did it take ’em this long to get an actual Japanese person in the band?

His presence is definitely felt, anyway. You can hear bits that are redolent of YMO in a few places, like the burbling generator-synths in the background on the title track and “Methods of Dance”, or the big, atmospheric synth riffs on “Burning Bridges” and “Taking Islands in Africa”. I’m not too big on the latter two, actually – the former is just kind of a mediocre new age song with a fairly bad smooth jazz sax solo (apparently courtesy of Mick Karn – stick to the bass, friendo!) and the latter is about the only thing on the album that really does sound unpleasantly dated. Some of those synth sounds really wouldn’t fly today, even if the riffs they’re playing are totally super catchy. Those (aside from an irritating reappearance by the bad sax on “Methods of Dance”) are the only weak moments on the album, though – the rest of it’s all fucking awesome, and I love it. I love it all so much, in fact, that I’m not sure I can even pick a favourite track outright; instead, I’ll just run through my shortlist.

Fer a start, we have the title track, which is a) the first good Japan album opener since their debut and b) one of the best songs they ever made. It’s got this crazy-ass, woozy bassline from Karn that sets the whole thing at an edge, and a drawn-out, almost druggy hook that sounds like it was sung with an unsettling rictus grin. That’s Sylvian on the whole record, actually – he is a fascinating beast on this album. He’s a gentleman, sure, but he’s a gentleman who sounds like he might bare fangs and sink into your throat if you waltz with him for too long under the moonlight. His croon is so affected and over-the-top that it ends up sounding like a face-mask that doesn’t quite fit right, or a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes in the right way; it’s off, and it’s one of the things that makes the album feel so uncanny. Anyway, the title track is also the only song on the album where Dean actually is noticeably present, albeit barely – he gets a bare, soft chiming riff to play with for the first half, and a few rhythm pinpricks in an instrumental break he’d normally be allowed to fill with a guitar solo. Instead, the band let the synths breathe while Sylvian quietly indulges in some wordless vocal noodling – very pleasant stuff, for sure.

Then there’s “Nightporter”, which has a fair economy of moving parts and is all the more lovely for it. Karn’s not present on this one – it’s just a lovely classical piano waltz from Richard Barbieri (damn – I think this might be the first time I’ve mentioned their keyboardist by name this whole series! How’d I get away with that?) over which Sylvian tenderly and softly croons a love song into the ear of a soon-to-be victim, with some light accompaniment from a couple of strings (or, perhaps, string-imitating synths) and a really well-structured, cathartic hook. It’s utterly gorgeous, divine stuff, and the seven minutes blow by almost too quickly – I could listen to this forever. Say – didn’t progressive rock spend its entire lifespan trying to figure out ways to put classical influences in the pop/rock format? And did Japan just blow ’em all out the water in seven minutes – without even a single showy time signature change? Bloody ‘ell, I think they did! I’ve nothing against prog rock, of course, but it can move aside – synthpop was better.

Anyway, there’s also “Ain’t That Peculiar”, which turns out to be a Marvin Gaye cover. Sylvian sounds positively delighted on this track (uh oh – better start looking for drained bodies!) and the way he draws out the word “PecUUU-lyaaar” is wonderful, as is Karn’s unsteadily climbing bassline. Karn’s best work, though, is probably on “Swing”, where his bassline stumbles and lurches about in an asymmetrical fashion like some blind beast from another plane of existence as Sylvian and Barbieri (and, perhaps, Sakamoto) patiently set about building up to one of the most satisfyingly-structured hooks I think I’ve ever heard. It doesn’t soar or hit catharsis, exactly, but it also doesn’t lose any energy – it sort of goes sideways, peppering these (possibly synthesised) saxophone bursts around Sylvian before sliding out into a full-on jazz sax orgasm for a tantalising few seconds, and then landing seamlessly back in the verse like it was nothing! It’s about the only time the sax actually, properly works on the album, and does it ever work. This song is gorgeous, velvety twilight joy for six and a half minutes; listening to it is like draping myself in an exquisitely-stitched warm blanket in the English winter. I love it deeply.

There’s also “My New Career”, in which Karn’s bass climbs up the walls like a spider or Thom Yorke while synths suck away all the light and Sylvian sadistically, sensuously sings sweet nothings into the dark. “I could never hurt anyone/ Least of all you”, he assures us as he beckons us towards him, and I don’t believe a word of it – but I follow like a lamb. It’s a spiderweb, and Sylvian is the widow sitting patiently in the middle; it’s a dark, alluring, opalescent stone cathedral containing a grinning devil. Man, this album is amazing – couple of not-so-hot tracks, sure, but when the rest is this good what does it matter? Listen to it, I urge ya – just stay in the lit areas! ‘Cos if you give those pale white jaws the chance to close ’round your hot flesh, they ain’t never opening again. New romantic had barely begun, and already Japan were madly deconstructing and reconstructing it into gothic and otherworldly shapes; their appetite for the new and unusual was insatiable, it seems, and that is the truest indicator of artistic excellence I think you’re ever likely to find. Japan were restless and relentless innovators, true carriers of the avant-garde flame within the realm of pop music, and if I had my way they’d all be canonised national treasures by now. 

Well, maybe all except Rob. Poor guy!

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.

Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Obscure Alternatives (1978)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 4/5
Slower, weirder and with deconstructionist ambitions – yeah, this is the Japan I know and love.

“Sylvian has gone on record saying that Obscure Alternatives should have been their debut album.[citation needed]”

Citation or no citation, I’m willing to believe the veracity of this quote I found on Wikipedia. There’s a sense of artistic dissatisfaction permeating this record, made manifest in a stylistic diversity which some might call incoherent and which I will call delightful. The various styles here are all in service of a coherent enough mood that their presence feels natural, and anyway, the lines between post-punk, funk and dub have always been vague enough that the shifts here are scarcely noticeable. So don’t complain – this record is by and large an excellent, ambitious effort that deserves your attention. Don’t listen to anyone (and that includes Allmusic!) who tries to tell you that this is inferior to their debut – it’s better, and it only hints at better things to come.

See, this is where Japan acquire the weirdness that has characterised them in my mind since I first heard Tin Drum. Clearly being dissatisfied with the conventionality of their debut, here Japan sets about deconstructing it, rebuilding it with half the parts in the wrong places and with all sorts of sharp edges left where they shouldn’t be. Take the song “Deviation”, for instance; it’s this weird, jittery-jumpy funk-rock song that sounds kinda like it could be the evil twin of any of the songs off Adolescent Sex, with its sandpapery rhythm guitar strokes and its spiky four-note lead riff. Sylvian’s smooth, silken croon (the style that’d end up becoming his primary method of vocal delivery from their next album onwards) only adds to the general sense that something is off somehow, even if the corny spaceship-taking-off synths at the end kinda spoil the atmosphere. And then there’s the immediately preceding song, the title track, which veers into outright creepy territory with its woozy, drugged-out chorus; a bunch of syrupy, vaguely unnatural-sounding vocals all harmonize in this drawn-out drawl, and I’m checking my drink to see if I’ve accidentally been consuming sizzurp this whole time by mistake. The song goes on for seven hazy minutes, with soft rhythm guitars jangling and crackling in the foreground as Sylvian presides over the whole scene from the shadows like a particularly sexually frustrated Sith lord, and I love pretty much all of it. 

I’m also a big fan of “Love Is Infectious”, a post-punk number that sounds oddly slanted somehow, like some song from their debut viewed through a distorting prism. It’s got an angular, loud riff worthy of Gang of Four and a steady, creeping bassline worthy of Joy Division (though, naturally, better played and more complex than anything Peter Hook could come up with), and a pleasingly skeezy set of lyrics about female masturbation from a way-too-interested Sylvian. There’s also a guitar solo that’s accompanied by a lot of cacophonous rhythm guitar stabbing and drum smashing, the end result being that the solo sounds good even though, for all I know, it may not be – context is everything, after all, and these guys have learned how to apply themselves just right. Just take a look at “…Rhodesia”, which has a formula that for many other bands would spell disaster. I don’t need to tell you just how low the success rate is for white reggae, let alone white rock bands taking brief excursions into reggae in the midst of otherwise fully rockin’ albums, but this song actually works pretty well. That might be because it is, specifically, dub rather than straight-up reggae, and the jump from funk to dub really isn’t such an intimidating one, but truth be told I think it might just be that all the other white rock bands to try their hands at reggae (outside of the post-punk sphere, mind you) were idiots who didn’t understand it; Japan are most assuredly not idiots, and they understand that there’s more to reggae than a repeated rhythm guitar pluck and a positive set of lyrics. What we get this time is, instead, nearly seven minutes of reserved disaffection, with Sylvian drawling out lyrics about Nazis “burning niggers in a cotton field” while a downbeat, celestial atmosphere develops behind him, aided at one point by a fantastically-produced solo from Rob Dean that really does sound like a comet hurtling across the sun’s magnetic field. It’s not the best song on the album, but it’s lovely and welcome. I’ve just been going through a dub phase lately, too – imagine my surprise to discover a dub song on the new wave album I’d been planning to review this week, and imagine my further surprise when it turned out to be good!

In fact, this album is nicely consistent. Of the four remaining tracks, only one – the opener, “Automatic Gun” – is mediocre; it’s a decent enough new wave song with a fairly good (if very conservative) rock n’ roll riff, but it’s not at all memorable and it opens the album on a dull note. But we’ve also got “Sometimes I Feel So Low”, a title to which Sylvian fully commits by agonizingly drawing out every syllable in what sounds worrisomely like real desperation, and “Suburban Berlin”, which is just gorgeous. It’s got this reserved, effortlessly cool electric piano line for a main motif, with some scratchy rhythm guitars half-mimicking it, and there’s this wonderful early instrumental break where the keys fade and the guitars louden into punkish monsters as they take over fully. I mistook it for an instrumental hook at first, but then after a minutes’ more buildup the actual hook arrives and the song beautifully ascends into the realm of grandiosity, complete with string section synths and soaring arrogance from Sylvian. It’s a contender for my favourite track on the album, and it’s certainly the best hook he’s written up to this point. 

Appropriately enough, he doesn’t try to top it – the next and final track is an instrumental called “The Tenant”, and it’s a pretty good tone poem even if it ain’t the best one I ever heard. There are plinky synths, quiet rainy-day pianos, and a really good, contemplative, vaguely metallic guitar solo that sounds a lot like something Wata’d come up with for one of Boris’ more conventional rock songs, particularly in the way it settles on a lengthy one-note drone towards the end. It’s a nice foreshadow of the stuff the band would end up doing later in their career, albeit not as good as some of the highs they’d eventually reach, and I hear tell Sylvian spent a lot of time exploring the sort of ideas covered in this song more fully in his solo career. All that may be true, but let’s not let it lessen this album, which is a great slice of weirdo new wave of the sort I haven’t really heard anywhere else. It’s no wonder Sylvian thought this should have been their debut, considering that their actual debut merely sounded like a pretty good pastiche of Bowie, Roxy and Television. This thing, by contrast, has an identity and suggests a future – a future I’ll be pleased to investigate myself in the coming weeks.

Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Adolescent Sex (1978)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 3.5/5
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…