Review Summary: Painstakingly assembled art-rock from a band on the cusp of greatness.
Japan never really quite 'made' it. You will never hear them talked about in reverent tones. You will never hear them described as 'legends'. You could be forgiven for never having heard of them, even if you're a fan of late 70s/early 80s British New Wave. You may, if you're very
unlucky, own an 80s compilation or two, wherein you'll probably find their song 'Quiet Life'
snuggled up against Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love'
or OMD's 'Enola Gay'
. It's not hugely surprising that a group that sported big hair and exotic make-up in the 70s should be tossed into the New Romantic pit as soon as 1980 came along. Some truly awful early glam songs, some dire crooning revealing them to be a bunch of Roxy wannabes; it would seem that they deserve to be where they are, in the bargain bin with Heaven 17 and ABC.
And yet...oh, it could have all been so different. If only they'd stuck it out. If only they'd resolved their musical differences. If only they could've been shown that they were on
to something, damn it, then there would, I suspect, be a very different view of them today in snooty muso circles. For there was a moment, in 1981, that Japan could be honestly seen for what they were; a talented, innovative, precocious group on the brink of something special.
is an intricate collage of arty soundscapes and exotic instrumentation. There are no trashy glam flourishes, no awkward Bryan Ferry posturing. This is an album with its own voice; with every member confident in their role, and not a sound out of place. With communist China as a loose concept, the album is crammed with polyrhythmic percussion (excellently performed by Steve Jansen) and traditional oriental instruments that invoke influences without falling into the trap of becoming a cheap pastiche. Xylophones and Mick Karn's fretless bass give it all an organic, off-kilter feel, yet Richard Barbieri's electronics twist an icy knife into the arrangements to present a clash of human warmth with desolate technology, reinforcing the Red Army concept and the images of rural peasants struggling to survive amidst the new order. 'The Art of Parties'
opens the album and launches straight into some rollicking, warped percussive effects, but has enough space left to ensure they don't take over, or suppress David Sylvian's wonderfully unique vocals. He has finally found his confidence here, his words flowing gracefully over the top of all the hollow clanks and synth washes of songs like 'Visions Of China'
and 'Cantonese Boy'
. But even when he's absent, as on the gorgeous instrumental 'Canton'
, you don't lose interest; you just get drawn into the strange, fractured sounds even more.
And then there's 'Ghosts'
The first step on the path of David Sylvian's clandestine solo career was taken here. Unlike the other songs on Tin Drum
, the fittingly haunting 'Ghosts'
focuses on the personal. It's a deeply introspective, ethereal song that features Sylvian reflecting on a past love. The sparse arrangement, measured silences and creepy, otherworldly effects all tiptoe around his bruised vocals, "Just when I think I'm winning / When I've broken every door / The ghosts of my life / Blow wilder than before"
. It's an incredibly beautiful and evocative song, blending all the influences on the album together and stands out as Japan's finest moment.
There is little on Tin Drum
to find fault with. Some may find the instrumentation too fractured, some may hate Sylvian's voice, or consider the artsy approach a little pretentious. But the biggest disappointment is that the whole album sounds like the precursor of something truly epic. By the time 'Ghosts'
became their only Top 5 hit, they had already disbanded to pursue solo careers. And yet, Tin Drum
should serve as a forceful argument to put to those who would consign Japan to the hell of talentless nobodies and 80s revival tours. If only they'd beat the drum a little longer, who knows what sounds it would have made?