Review Summary: Tokyo's spastic experimental rockers return to rhythmically tight compositions while introducing intriguing new elements to their songcraft.
Zazen Boys III, while not a bad album in its own right, drew considerable criticism from some fans due to its reliance on more free-form jamming that wandered from the complicated, precise rhythms that propelled the band's first two albums. Although Shutoku Mukai and his bandmates had always incorporated some elements of jamming, such as in "Kaisen Zenya" from the Boy's debut album, the jams on the band's third full-length didn't display the band at their best. But with their unsurprisingly-titled fourth album, Zazen Boys 4, Mukai offer an explosive return to their strongest assets while innovating in a considerably more effective direction than on their previous release.
The opening track, "Asobi," offers a surprise for the unsuspecting Zazen fan, greeting the listener with dark, spacey synths and nary a guitar in sight. Propelled by Matsu***a's dance-like drum beat and Yoshida's fuzzy, orbital bassline, Mukai fusses in his characteristically obscure manner, but it's his newfound application of keyboards that make the song a success. While previously Mukai seemed content simply to bang out random noises on his synths, Asobi - and the rest of the album - marks a pleasant progression in his musicianship as he uses his keys more efficiently than ever to build atmosphere. It's his delay-laden piano line that makes the track a winner, lending a strong melody beneath the pulsing rhythm and madcap vocal delivery.
While the previous albums' "Friday Night" may have served as an inspiration for Zazen Boys' newfound affection for synths and spacey atmospherics, their shift towards trip-hop and electronica is heavily indebted to Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann. Mukai previously worked with Fridmann in Number Girl; almost all of the band's music since 1999 was recorded at Tarbox Road studios in upstate New York, and Zazen Boys 4 is Mukai's first collaboration with the producer since 2002.
"Honnoji" shows Mukai's continuing affinity for making a distinctive blend of hardcore and funk in the same vein as "Usodarake" and "Himitsu Girl's Top Secret" from previous albums. "Weekend" is perhaps the most off-kilter party song you'll hear all year; Sou Yoshikane's schizophrenic guitar freakouts make up for his absence on the more synth-driven tracks, while Yoshida's slap bass and Matsu***a's characteristically strong beats meld with Mukai's rhythm guitar chops to create a song that sounds like it belongs in an indie film about sex-crazed autistic calculus students. "Taratine" is the only truly weak track, offering seemingly more empty space than song, recalling Zazen Boys III stinkers Pink Heart and Lemon Heart.
But it's the band's final act that features some of the strongest and most divergent songcraft of their career; "The Drifting/I Don't Wanna Be With You" takes last December's mediocre single and turns it on its head through ten minutes of stunning trip-hop and minimalist electronica that never drags for a second and stands as the album's best track without even featuring any guitar. Mukai's vocal preference is clearly for arhythmic rapping and spoken word that seems to be his own demented take on Steve Albini's terse, uneasy vocal delivery. But album closer "Sabaku" offers more fantastically arranged synths to compliment actual singing from Mukai, lending an almost abstract yearning to the track.
Zazen Boys 4 doesn't reach the stunning heights of the band's first two albums but is nonetheless a satisfying chapter for one of Japan's more creative bands. The band remains as unpredictable as ever, and as long as Mukai continues to find new, off-kilter ways to relieve his frustration, Zazen Boys should have a fruitful career for a long time to come.