#2016 – summary & playlist

(header image (c) Chris Barker)

Not exactly a New Year‘s Eve party playlist, but then again, it didn’t exactly feel like a party year, for all sorts of reason. Rather than celebrate its passing, we breathe a sigh of relief and hope that 2017 at least won’t get much worse…

gettyimages-591717242_custom-2b1934dac188b7266281132abf838e0c4c8aa8fcIt’s not going to surprise anyone reading this blog how I felt about the political developments since January, and frankly there’s little cause for optimism for the near future. But hey, at least we’re still here (well, most of us), and who knows, maybe 2017 will surprise us. At first, let’s see how long that ceasefire in Syria is going to hold…

KingFor me personally, it was a fairly mixed year. Artistically – very successful, considering I wrote and published two full novels which ended the Year of the Dragon saga, and even found the time for a collection of haiku. I hope to keep this pace up going into next year, although I’ll be starting my new novel from scratch – something I hadn’t done in over five years. AN ENTIRELY NEW BOOK! Every time I realize this, I get terrified at the very thought.

KamogawaIn the more mundane part of my life, very little happened. I stayed and worked in London all year, excepting the summer trip to the Hokuriku region of Japan, which was predictably awesome. I changed jobs in the summer, I started listening to comedy podcasts and… that’s about it. This is the first time in a long time that I’ll be spending two consecutive New Year’s Eves in the same place and circumstances. Feels weird!

Haiku2017, though – well, I don’t do New Year resolutions, I do New Year plans, and I have some big plans for this year. Definitely should be more interesting, but for now it’s all secret. I’ll let you know once it all comes to fruition.

wave_250Until then, here’s the playlist. As you’d probably have guessed, it’s a morbid one – a list of all those artists we said goodbye to this year (I include Lemmy, since I’ve learned of his death in the very beginning of 2016). Bowie, Prince and George Michael are the giants that loom large over the list, though as I’ve mentioned before, there are some lesser known names that have made an equally great impact on me – and some others which have been far less noticeable than they deserved in this year’s onslaught.

The passage of time is remorseless, and we are just at the beginning of the age of the dying celebrities. I expect 2017 list will be at least as full of famous names as this year, and 2018, and so on… but 2016 was definitely the first when the mortality of our childhood idols became such an integral part of reality. No matter who else will perish in the future, there will never again be a year like this – the first year of the mass idol death.

Oh well. Here’s to hope, tenacity and Keith Richard’s good health!


5 J-Pop songs I can’t stop humming this week (and neither will you)

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – these past few years have been the best to be fan of Japanese music. Not only is the access something we couldn’t have dreamt of in the past: the music can be obtained through a myriad of ways – YouTube, iTunes, Amazon MP3, Spotify – you can even get a Niconico account these days without living in Japan! – but the quality of the offerings is as high as it was in the best of times. The indie artists are producing a hit after hit, no matter what genre or style you’re after, and they are all great.

In a music culture that’s so focused on neat melody as J-Pop/J-Rock, it’s a given that all the good songs will be perfectly hummable, but sometimes a song comes along that eats its way into your brain and stays there for days, taking over all your vital functions. Recently, I keep stumbling upon dozens of such songs – and here are five that seem to have the strongest hold on my synapses.

5. Gesu no Kiwami Otome – Momoe

“Gesu…” is a new project of Enon Kawatami, lead singer of Indigo La End. His other band is a more mainstream melodic rock production, also with plenty of great songs (truly, the only reason they’re not on this list too is to avoid repetition) – but “Gesu…” is something else. Part jazz, part hip-hop, part crazy bass riffs, and lots of toe-tapping, head-banging funk. “Momoe” is my favourite song of theirs so far, but also one that, sadly, doesn’t have an official video, so here’s some Japanese guy shredding the bass in his basement like a Boss.

4. tofubeats feat. ONOMATOPEDAIJIN – Suisei

Kobe-born Tofubeats (I’ve mentioned him before) is a one-man Japan’s answer to Daft Punk. Like the robot-headed Frenchmen, he uses his autotuned voice as one of the instruments, invites an eclectic mix of talents from all over the music world to assist him, and is generally the king of funk. Not all his songs are hummable – not all are even listenable for long, to be honest – but when he gets things right, he gets things right. “Suisei” is, as far as I can tell, a harrowing tale of trying to be cool young adult in Tokyo… “Cutie” and “Zipper” are fashion magazines read by trendy Shinjuku girls. This is all irrelevant, as the video is shot in Kobe 🙂

If you’re not a fan of autotune, and prefer soft female voice instead, there’s also a version sung by Seira Kariya (the infectiously cheerful girl in the video below).

3. Kana-Boon – Naimononedari

Kana-Boon is, unfortunately, not available on Spotify, and is in general not as popular and well-known as other bands on the list – and, frankly, most of their songs are pretty generic, ska-influenced power-pop, Asian KFG-style; they may be considered a one-hit wonder, but that one hit – and the accompanying brilliant video – is more than enough for the Kana-boon to appear on this list beside their more popular competition.

2. tricot – Last Step

Having opened for the reunited Pixies this year in England, and to rave reviews, tricot are definitely the hottest J-Rock band in years. They are best known for the overwhelming barrage of hard, melodic grunge riffs, math-rock experimentation, jazz-like precision and powerful voice of the lead singer – seriously, there is not a bad song on either of their two records – but in this solo number from their latest album, Ikkyu shows she can give just as haunting performance with nothing but an acoustic guitar and the raging sea behind her.

1. Predawn – Suddenly

If Bob Dylan and Bjork had a baby… well, their sex tape would probably be worth millions. But also, their child would be Miwako Shimizu, better known as Predawn. With a soft, but unwavering, just-accented voice, Predawn would be just another archetypal, folkish, mori “lonely girl with a guitar”, if not for the nigh super-human talent for writing melodies that will stay with you for weeks.


It’s like a tick on your brain.

Random Access Memories – song-by-song review

Random_Access_Memories I first listened to RAM when it leaked on iTunes and Grooveshark last week; back then I could not focus enough to appreciate it. I had found it mostly jarring, except “Giorgio” which was already leaping forth from the headphones like a hurricane of drums.

I waited for Spotify version to give it a full, focused listen to, and the next thing I knew I bought the entire album (in MP3 – I don’t do digital anymore; that’s because I actually buy new records maybe once every two years)

One thing I have to say before going deeper into this. Like Brent diCrescenzo from Time Out Chicago (an obscure place to find a review you agree with, I know) I like to believe that I get the album, because I share similar musical experiences with these guys, albeit I got into the late 70s music a few years later than is socially acceptable. I get what Daft Punk wanted to do here, and I like it, and I agree with it.

I’m not a great Punkhead or Daftkid, or whatever fans of the group like to call themselves. Of previous albums I only really liked Discovery, and not even all of it. But I could always hear their music pedigree was impeccable, and their robotic hearts were in the right place. That a record like Random Access Memories was going to happen was pretty much inevitable, if you listened closely.

Reading reviews so far, one thing is striking: almost every reviewer has a few songs they like, and a few songs they hate, and they are never the same songs. Some might say this proves RAM is an inconsistent record, but to me it’s consistent in its grand idea. The memories may be random, but they are from a very specific place in time and space. The album plays like a radio station set to a 1976 Top Hit station; and the only way to enjoy it whole is to take all of the late 70s in stride, with no qualms or exceptions.

Of course, none of that would matter if the music was mediocre; but it’s anything but. The Steely Dan approach works, if you get the right people in; the Tarantino-esque collage of motifs and themes works, if you get the right sounds in. And Daft Punk does both these things perfectly. The melodies are catchy and instantly-hummable, and the rhythms are addictive. If they are robotic in their precision (as if that was a bad thing), then so where James Brown or Donald Fagen.

1. Give Life Back to Music 4/6

In “Rubber Ring”, Morrissey sings “Don’t forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life”. There is a similar sentiment here, I feel: don’t forget the music of the Golden Era of LP, which gave life to everything we know of as popular music now. This is a manifesto of the album: to honour that age and reinstate it in its proper place.

It plays just like an overture should, mixing and matching everything you’ll hear next: disco rhythms, funky bass, and stadion rock anthem-like guitar crescendo. By the time it ends, you should be prepared for the ride ahead of you.

2. The Game of Love 3/6

This one is a nice ballad, but a bit maudlin in its lounge-like smooth-jazz whine. What saves it are the exquisite keyboard solos by Chris Caswell – and the quality of the main melody, which like all good melodies is deceptively simple at first, until you start humming it.

3. Giorgio by Moroder 6/6

“There was no preconception of what to do.”

Where do I start? Not only the best song of the album, but possibly the best song of the decade. At first listen I was struck by most obvious qualities: the drum fillers, the Trans-Europe Express rhythm, the insane final battle between synths, guitar and drums. But there’s so much else going on, I keep discovering new sounds and mysteries. It’s so complex that describing it feels like posting spoilers. There will be disertations written on how they got that scratch-drum sound to work with the gated reverb so flawlessly. A true test of the quality of your speakers or headphones: can you hear everything that’s going on?

4. Within 6/6

Chilly Gonzales will no doubt experience a great rush in popularity, as people all over the world will keep asking “who’s playing that piano?”

This song has perhaps the best melody on the record, and the vocoder sounds as if somebody melted Chet Baker with his own trumpet. In arrangement, it is almost understated: there’s only enough extraneous sound there to bind everything together.

5. Instant Crush 5/6

Could you tell it’s Casablancas singing if you weren’t told? I’d say it’s one of his best vocal performances in career, even if mangled out of all recognition. This song single-handedly redeems auto-tune of all its many crimes.

Instant Crush thrives on its chorus, and is perhaps the most Discovery-like of this set. Indeed, with slightly different vocals it wouldn’t feel out of place on that record at all.

6. Lose Yourself to Dance 4/6

I didn’t like this one at first; I thought it’s just a repeatable, forgettable piece, like the lesser tracks from Discovery. But that was ignoring the whole idea of the song: it is a sound collage, in the strictest artistic sense of the word; they took the catch-phrases of the disco era: “come on”, “get on the floor” and “get ready” and made good music just from these three bits.

It still doesn’t quite work for me as a track in its own right, but the concept is admirable.

7. Touch 5/6

Apart from the fact he wrote “Rainbow Connection” I knew nothing about Paul Williams before discovering this song; now I know all there is to know, including having watched bits of the Phantom of Paradise, which according to the Daft Punk mythology had set the duo on course to world domination.

The beginning may be the third or fourth best moment on the record; to me it sounds like a Doctor Who villain reading a poem. There is an obvious 70s sci-fi vibe about the song, that gets later picked up in a more dramatic form in Contact: if Daft Punk ever made another space opera score, these two songs would have to be on it.

The jazz band/dixieland instrumental in the middle is just pure bliss, even though it’s incongruously sandwiched between two segments of straight-faced space rock. It forces you to wonder, just what exactly is the story being told here?

8. Get Lucky 3/6

By the time the album went out, everybody heard Get Lucky, and made their opinion. No point in reviewing this one, then; I’ll just add that, as great a single as it may make, it’s far from my favourite tracks on the album. It’s still a good song, even after all the overexposure, but apart from Doin’ it Right it’s one that I’m most likely to skip.

Also, in my head it will forever be sung by a three-headed Peter Serafinowicz.

9. Beyond 4/6

You can’t get a 70s homage without a grand cinematic orchestral sweep, of course. What follows is a song that I can only describe as “very decent”. I like it enough when it comes up on the playlist, but it’s not a song I actively seek out to listen. The reason may be that it’s invoking a vibe I missed out on in my musical education – or it’s simply not matching any of my moods.

10. Motherboard 4/6

Contrary to what some have said about the track, this is no throwaway tune. Motherboard is a thoroughly enjoyable instrumental that always gets me tapping my fingers to the synth flute line; the drumwork leaves nothing to complain about, and the spacey synths complete the Blade Runner-esque imagery. This is Tangerine Dream and Vangelis for the modern era; this is what the Replicants listen to in the chill-out zone.

11. Fragments of Time 6/6

Well, this one is obvious, isn’t it? Daft Punk take their Steely Dan inspiration to its literal  conclusion. It wouldn’t feel at all out of place beside Babylon Sisters or Charlemagne Kid. They play it so straight, and are so pious in their devotion to the original, that Todd Edwards isn’t even subjected to the usual vocoder treatment.

And since there is never enough Steely Dan or Steely Dan-derivatives in the world, this one deserves full marks.

12. Doin’ it Right 2/6

I think my opinion of this song proves how far removed I am from the usual Daft Punk listener. I can only guess Doin’ it Right is what die hard fans expected the whole album to be like; it’s by far the popular favourite in the comments sections of music magazines. Personally, I find it the most meh of the lot, almost to the point of skipping it when I listen through the entire record. If I leave it on it’s out of respect for the general concept: if Daft Punk deemed it right for the song to be there, that means it should be there.

13. Contact 5/6

Almost as good as Giorgio, this space-prog song sounds almost like a “lost track” off of Discovery, only better than any of those due to Omar Hakim’s live drums. I’m a sucker for drums, if you couldn’t tell by now, and when they are so prominent on the mix as here, the song immediately gets my attention. If it doesn’t get the full marks of Giorgio it’s only because it’s too straightforward: there are no surprises here from start to finish, no depth, just plain good old rocking out. This is the 70s rock moments before punk: the end of a golden era, cut off at just the right moment, before we stopped caring about melody and craftsmanship.

So there you have it. Random Access Memories is the Aja of our generation: for good or for bad, this is as good as the music of 2010s gets.

“The Shadow of Black Wings” OST

There is a lot of music in my books, either implied or outright named. I listen to a lot of music when I write, too. If I wasn’t a writer – and had even a smidgen of talent – my next career choice would have been a musician. So it seems natural that there should be an official soundtrack to my books. And here it is, a Spotify playlist to listen to when reading “The Shadow of Black Wings” – just click the logo below:

Unfortunately, making it a Spotify playlist meant I was limited in my choice of music. If I had my way, the soundtrack to “The Shadow…” would have been made mostly of music of Yoko Kanno, Joe Hisaishi and Hajime Mizoguchi. As such, there is less music that I wanted available for the second part of the book. I was even more surprised to see that Spotify doesn’t have two of my favourite soundtracks, Excalibur and Conan the Barbarian (the original one), and very few Kurosawa soundtracks. But needs must, I suppose. I might one day prepare the alternative list if I find a way to post the songs without breaking all sorts of rules.

There are some spoilers here, so the rest is under the cut.

Continue reading ““The Shadow of Black Wings” OST”