Review Summary: Sick Japanese post rock jams, plain and simple.
Even though it’s a great tool for getting the hype machine in motion for an up and coming act, “the breath of fresh air” tag is something of a dubious honor. For one, it’s an admittance that the kind of music said act plays has grown stale and tired, and secondly, it instills a certain expectation in the band’s target audience that this
group will be the revolutionary force (inset lame genre tag here) needs. On their sprawling debut Stylus Fantasticus
, Japanese trio sgt. may not quite prove themselves to be such a force, but they certainly prove themselves to be a group with a refreshingly interesting take on the increasingly tired post rock genre. Instead of participating in the laborious techniques of their peers, sgt. attacks with spontaneity and a heavy penchant for improvisation, making Stylus Fantasticus
something of a refreshing oddity. It’s as though sgt. aren’t so much composing epic pieces as they are jamming in a studio and recording it. The results are predictably hit or miss, but when sgt. hits, the unique and memorable sound buoys Stylus Fantasticus
to great heights, even if it can’t quite stay there for the whole fifty-five minutes.
Even though it apparently falls under post rock’s ever-growing umbrella, Stylus Fantasticus
takes a heavy influence from modern prog, giving the record a harder base than its contemporaries. Instead of epic dynamic contrasts and gorgeous repeated phrases, the album instead runs at a more frenzied pace, allowing constant melody and ace rhythm performances to form eight tracks of instrumental chaos. Stylus Fantasticus
runs in a very specific frame: Each song develops a drum and bass theme (courtesy of the excellent Kouji Akashi and Hitoshi Ono), which in turn provides a solid foundation for violinist/pianist Mikiko Narui to build melodies that practically engulf the listener in sgt.’s sound. The opening track “Magnificent Light” serves as a great example of this by incorporating gorgeous piano playing over a jagged guitar base for four minutes of relaxed, carefree jamming. It serves as a fine preclude for the beast that follows, the asymmetrical blazer “The dilemma-game of snatched people.” Unlike the preceding track, “Dilemma-game” utilizes sgt.’s immensely talented rhythm section to run at a furious clip for 6 minutes, officially kicking off Stylus Fantasticus
and introducing the world to sgt.'s definite skill at free-flowing improvisational mayhem.
That mayhem comprises a good chunk of Stylus Fantasticus
, usually with solid results. For example, later on in the record, sgt. strikes a perfect blend of laissez-faire instrumental and song crafting with the stunning “Destroy the Galaxy, Create the Power Plant.” Working through four separate themes, each equally as impressive as the last, “Destroy the Galaxy…” proves the closest thing to outright songwriting sgt. approaches on Stylus Fantasticus
, and it’s great stuff. The first theme is a series of beautiful series of violin phrases over a catchy-as-fuc
k bass line for a good six minutes before sgt. take the song into a mesmerizingly minimalist second movement, a calm-before-the-storm type section which lulls the listener into a sort of stupor. This sets up the song’s third phase, a riotous bridge that threatens to lose control at any moment (and does), before capping it all off with a fourth left turn into a grand conclusion, blasting everything that came before it away. Even at an intimidating sixteen minutes “Destroy the Galaxy…” easily stands out as the best track sgt. offer on Stylus Fantasticus
. It’s pieced together carefully, each movement serving its own purpose to creating a fantastic song as a whole. Though sgt. mostly goes with the flow on Stylus Fantasticus
, the attention to detail that elevates “Destroy the Galaxy” above the rest of the songs makes it clear that sgt. can write a damn great song when they want to, and as the record progresses, the correlation between sgt.’s compositional merit and success becomes more and more evident.
While the carefree improvisations that dominate a good chunk of Stylus Fantasticus
can be refreshing, sgt.’s adherence to formula proves the album’s greatest plague. For example, after a blistering opening two tracks, Stylus
bogs down immensely with a series of seemingly directionless jams that pass almost unnoticed until “Destroy the Galaxy” comes to resuscitate Stylus Fantasticus
. There’s nothing outright wrong
with these tracks, it's just that sgt. do everything so much better at the bookends. For example, the jazzed out rock of “The moon of Remembrance Island” is easily bested by the album’s scorching finale, “Fluctuation of the Nothing,” and every idea explored in the meandering middle is obliterated by the epic “Destroy the Galaxy.” Though none of these tracks irreversibly kill the flow of Stylus Fantasticus
, they serve to show sgt. hasn’t quite yet realized their full potential, giving the record something of a bitter aftertaste; one can feel that the album, despite being solid overall, could be so much better.
In the end, Stylus Fantasticus
might not be the white horse for sgt. to ride in on when it saves post rock, and it certainly doesn’t merit The Silent Ballet’s claim that sgt. is “The Best Japanese Band Ever.” However, it is an invigorating take on a genre quickly running low on vigor. Listening to the asymmetrical chaos of “The dilemma-game of snatched people” is enough to get anyone excited over the sound sgt. has developed, and that improvisational que sera, sera attitude seethes from the majority of Stylus Fantasticus
. Even though that attitude sometimes leads sgt. down roads better left untraveled, the successes far outweigh the “whatever” tracks, and despite its flaws, Stylus Fantasticus
is an impressive and unique entry in a genre short on impressive and unique acts.