Saturday, 10 October 2020

Mariah ‎– うたかたの日々/ Utakata No Hibi (1983)

Style: Synth-pop, Avantgarde, Experimental
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Palto Flats, Shan-Shan, Better Days

1.   そこから…Sokokara
2.   視線 Shisen
3.   花が咲いたら Hana Ga Saitara
4.   不自由な鼠 Fujiyu Na Nezumi
5.   空に舞うまぼろし Sora Ni Mau Maboroshi
6.   心臓の扉 Shinzo No Tobira
7.    少年 Shonen

Mastered By – Hiroyuki Hosaka
Producer, Arranged By – Mariah
Bass, Backing Vocals – Morio Watanabe
Drums, Backing Vocals – Hideo Yamakiki
Guitar – Takayuki Hijikata
Keyboards – Masanori Sasaji
Vocals – Julie Fowell, Yasuaki Shimizu
Composed By, Soprano Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, Bass Clarinet, Piano, Keyboards – Yasuaki Shimizu

Throughout its long, slow journey west, Mariah’s Utakata no Hibi has been an album without context. After a dormant period at home among Japan’s vinyl geek underground, the 1983 record began to spread farther in 2008, when the tastemaking Scottish DJ duo Optimo shared a cut online. That song, "Shinzo no Tobira", which they first heard in a Tokyo record store, has since earned a cult following worldwide for the ethereal lines it traces between Asian and Middle Eastern tonalities, folklorish Armenian lyrics, and futuristic Japanese synthpop leads. Its soundscapes are like those once dreamt by Brians Eno and Wilson. But for all the love "Shinzo" and its parent album have found in tiny nightclubs and Internet testimonials, surprisingly little has been asked or answered about its origins. It's almost as though Utakata—now reissued by Palto Flats—has at last arrived on our shores not simply through a crate digger’s time warp, but from some other world altogether.

Or maybe a few of them: As befits an album that owes its broader discovery to a Shinjuku record store called Eurasia, Utakata’s plainspoken lyrics are sung in alternating Armenian and Japanese. In this regard—and most others—the record bears no resemblance to Mariah’s previous five, wherein a revolving door of popular Tokyo session men dabbled in everything from prog rock to jazz funk. By 1983, the project was being led by Yasuaki Shimizu, a relentlessly exploratory musician best known for the saxophone takes on Bach’s Cello Suites he would later record in both Japanese mines and Italian palazzos. His brilliant solo outing from the previous year, Kakashi, is Utakata’s only obvious relative. But that earlier work’s East-meets-West patchwork of genres, moods, and scales feels much more cut and dry than the seamless marvel Shimizu would soon create. Given how difficult it remains to find a fair comparison for any of Utakata’s seven songs, let alone synthesize the picture they form together, it’s an album that has well earned its reputation as an elusive classic.

The long tally of pleasant surprises begins with opener "Sokokara…" ("From Here…"), in which slash-and-burn no wave guitar and a frantically overloaded player piano somehow only add to the springtime optimism suggested by the song’s marching beat, blossoming synths, and Shimizu’s skyward warble. "Hana Ga Saitara" ("Were Flowers to Bloom") is a more eloquent draft of the dubbed out, sax-led post-punk that was then beginning to bubble up in England rock clubs, here powered by brass skronk and proto-techno synths. And "Fujiyu Na Nezumi" takes the British nursery rhyme "Three Blind Mice" and translates it into Japanese, Armenian, and a poetic syntax of spare bass, sustained synths, and simple percussion—indicating not so much the album’s sense of humor as the childlike wonder animating its every move. Mixer and engineer Seigen Ono would later work the boards for artists like John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, and King Crimson, but the way he focuses Shimizu’s playtime ruckus of international instrumentation and production techniques remains the accomplishment of his career.

Utakata’s most impressive feat of synthesis, however, lies in its coupling of East Asian and Middle Eastern sounds. The most explicit instance occurs in early highlight "Shisen" ("A Vision"), which weds gorgeous piano pentatonics and koto court music with Armenian vocalist Julie Fowell’s mesmerizing mantra, "Our eyes as one." When the lone, cavernous drum and piercing sine waves enter, the effect is devastating. The twinning effect is at its subtle best on the famously DJ-friendly "Shinzo no Tobira" ("My Life Is Big") that first got Optimo’s attention, where unforgettable melody walks the fine line it all but invents between its authors’ musical heritages.

In 2015, it remains a rare and enchanting thing to hear a piece of convergence culture this effortless—which, after all, may be one reason Utakata still sounds so otherworldly. Another could be the fact that the album owes its existence to a creative moment in Japanese pop that remains virtually unknown to the English-speaking world. Thanks to '80s electronic pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra’s continued chart success and the glory days of the Japanese economy, the mainstream entered a renaissance of open-mindedness and ludicrous recording budgets, producing an abundance of records that answer Shimizu’s sonic adventures with ones every bit as bold and compelling. Maybe Utakata belongs, then, not to some wondrous alternate history, but a real one we’re just beginning to uncover.
Jakob Dorof / Pitchfork

The Sylvers ‎– The Sylvers II (1973)

Genre: Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Pride, MGM Records, Mr Bongo

01.   We Can Make It If We Try
02.   Through The Love In My Heart
03.   Handle It
04.   I'll Never Let You Go
05.   Cry Of A Dreamer
06.   Stay Away From Me
07.   I Don't Need To Prove Myself
08.   Let It Be Me
09.   Love Me, Love Me Not
10.   I Remember
11.   Yesterday

Strings, Horns Arranged By – David Crawford, Jerry Peters
Producer – Jerry Peters, Keg Johnson

A true funk-soul masterpiece. Sampled by Madlib, Homeboy Sandman, Ghostface Killah, Black Milk, Roc Marciano, 9th Wonder, and more. Beautiful, golden-era soul written by Leon Sylvers III, produced by Jerry Butler and Keg Johnson.

The Sylvers were a family from Los Angeles who were very successful during the 70’s and into the early 80’s, with chart hits – deep into pop-disco territory – including ‘Boogie Fever’, ‘Hot Line’ and ‘High School Dance’. This is the group's second album, from 1973, and is one of their strongest.

Opening with the awesome mid-tempo ‘We Can Make It If We Try’ the record moves through funk, boogie and deep soul moods, finishing on a hazy, acapella version of The Beatles ‘Yesterday’.

Idris Ackamoor ☥ The Pyramids ‎– We All Be Africans (2016)

Genre: Funk / Soul
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: Strut

1.   We Be All Africans
2.   Epiphany
3.   Silent Days
4.   Rhapsody In Berlin
5.   Clarion Call
6.   Traponga
7.   Whispering Tenderness

Horns – Jason Liebert
Electric Bass – Kimathi Asante
Acoustic Bass – Heshima Mark Williams
Drums, Percussion, Vocals – Babatunde Lea
Electric Bass, Vocals – Kimathi Asante
Flute – Bastian Duncker, Claudio Jolowicz
Violin, Zeta Violin, Vocals – Sandra Poindexter
Vocals – Benjamin "Stibbo" Spitzmüller, Bajka,Graciela Alatorre, Lyndsey Cockwell 
Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Keyboards, Vocals – Idris Ackamoor
Gong, Bells, Drums, Shaker, Wood Block, Organ, Percussion, Glockenspiel, Vocals – Max Weissenfeldt

Spiritual jazz has always been a fringe denomination. And it's difficult to pin down for good reason; its name is less to do with the sound of this particular jazz, rather more that it’s jazz with a particular message – religious, political or both. Although more celebrated today, the cosmic messages chanted through Sun Ra's music were previously seen as esoteric, perhaps occultish, with focus mostly being on his mental instability. But now, it's this “spiritual” jazz that Ackamoor draws from the most: Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders are paid reference to in nods across his new album, We Be All Africans.

It’s strange that Ackamoor's name is largely unfamiliar in Western jazz – he studied under the famous jazz pianist Cecil Taylor – though he left America to play across Africa, inspired by Ghana and Ghanian music: Fully respected and admired in Tamale, he played with the Tamalian king's own musicians. In America though, his name would not be as familiar as Taylor's or other musicians who played in bigger jazz bands where a reputation could more easily emerge as a result.

We Be All Africans is an interesting and loaded title. Like Sun Ra, Ackamoor buoys a serious message atop his playful melodies: Humanity originated in Africa, and so Ackamoor believes that this shared heritage unifies humanity; he thinks that divisions between race would be detrimental to the survival of humanity as a whole. His music then may be presented, in an ideal world, as something that can be respectfully appreciated by all. That is, as a joyous, cultural boundary crossing flip-side to racial aggressions and violence.

This album does not dully encapsulate what is familiar to previous jazz and Afropop records and instead is modern in the sense that it looks to more recent music and instrumentation for points of reference. 'Epiphany' unfolds with a slow, creeping electric bass and cool synthesiser phasing, counterbalanced with sharp horn stabs and clattering drum fills before returning back to the gentle introductory sway. Synthesiser might have been found on Herbie Hancock records or Sun Ra, but the phaser sound used here sounds more modern, despite having been recorded in Max Weissenfeldt's analogue studio in Berlin.

If you’re looking for explicit Sun Ra references, you'll find them on 'Silent Days'. This third track features cosmic imagery familiar to the self-proclaimed solar explorer's own records. Even the chanting has the same relaxed lull that Sun Ra's Arkestra sometimes break into on his tracks. But 'Silent Days' is a gentle homage, and doesn't serve to copy for copying’s own sake. And jazz has had a solid history of paying reference to previous musicians, usually mimicking their hooks or motifs: The comical, breathy yelps on 'Rhapsody In Berlin' are like those on Herbie Hancock's 'Watermelon Man', but this helps to accent and maintain the pulse of a track euphoric on the surface, but not without chaos or aggression. It should be aimless sounding, but the cacophony works because of the way in which it is subtly built up: A violin makes a brief solo appearance, jazzy in the sense that the playing is very experimental in terms of timbre. The bow judders and screeches across the strings as if to damage them. When it gets to the stage where 'Rhapsody In Berlin' sounds overly busy, the band quietens somewhat – the trick to creating balance.

This album shows Ackamoor's band, despite having an almost 30-year break, to be very comfortable with one another – in playing together. Unlike with indie bands or in pop music, in jazz it's more common to find people who have played together for years before recording anything. The Pyramids listen to each other with almost as much intensity as the part that they are playing themselves; it requires the ability to hold back and add only a small amount to the overall piece as the musician sees fit at any given time. The musicianship here is self-aware but in a reflective rather than destructively fussy way. For instance, the violinist on this album only features from time to time, but if the violin were more present it would self-indulgently detract from the overall. 'Epiphany' in particular is full of restrained decisiveness, the mood completely under control of the band, and We Be All Africans as a whole has a joyous sentiment – loose and unrestrained by tensions.
Lottie Brazier / The QUIETUS