Review Summary: Zazen Boys don't tiptoe the line between genius and insanity; they dance on it. In their underwear.
Making a name as a record producer, collaborating with other artists, and getting married would suggest Shutoku Mukai was maturing and entering into a more comfortable place in life. Zazen Boys 4 had its manic moments, but it was a less chaotic affair than the band's third album, and showed an evolution toward a slick, synth-driven style that reached its logical conclusion with his side-project Kimonos. Nearly four years after their last album, nobody really knew what to expect from Mukai or his bandmates when Zazen Boys announced their newest album, Stories.
Fortunately, even fifteen years after Number Girl's wistful debut and his crash into the Japanese indie scene, Shutoku Mukai is as deranged as ever.
The album opens in classic Zazen fashion with “Ghost of a Cyborg,” its manic, shifting rhythms and jagged guitars reminiscent of the group's second album. It's concise, furious, and might as well have been called Everything You Need To Know About Zazen Boys In Three Minutes and Seven Seconds. If you melted together your cool best friend's CD of Entertainment! and your dad's copy of Blow By Blow, it would probably sound something like this, its splintered guitars like post-punk played by an autistic kid over shifting rhythms, Mukai's strange vocal delivery, and sparse synthesizers.
In some sense, Mukai has matured: he screams and howls a lot less than in previous years, and there's not nearly as much pseudo-rapping. But his writing is still completely surreal, the opening track a combination of drunken rambling about dancing in your underwear and shout-outs to his influences, culminating in a baffling, hilarious digression in which Mukai proclaims a government that only makes sense to him: Jerry Garcia as Prime Minister, Miles Davis as Minister of the Interior, John Belucci as chairman of the public safety commission. At this point, it's pretty clear that you aren't listening to a 'normal' band. Zazen Boys live up to labels - they really are alternative, experimental, progressive.
Stories is most focused Zazen album since II, as abrasive and unyielding as unwashed selvage denim; Mukai goes on to opine about potato salad, lightbulbs, and sandpaper while the band supports him with buzzing guitars and madcap drumming. Synths are a much smaller part of the equation this time, never dominating; only the title track sounding much like 4's more ethereal moments. Manic rhythm changes are everywhere on this record: this is music that dares you to try and dance with it. (As a side note, I saw Zazen Boys shortly after the release of Stories, and while I can attest that it is indeed possible to head-bang along with their music, your neck won't appreciate it. Caution is advised.)
This album is so dense and chaotic – especially on tracks like Lightbulb or Sandpaper Zara-Zara, which sound like they could collapse into black holes at any moment – that the longing, melodic moments are all the more striking on tracks like A Morning Of Bursting Sound and the beautiful title track. Despite the music's jagged nature, Mukai actually shows a great deal of self-restraint here: there are no passages of insane shredding or long-form instrumental indulgence as the group has been known to do in the past (such as their sometimes-tedious and unmemorable third album, and live performances.) The songs are all tightly composed and concise, none reaching the five-minute mark; in subtle ways, Mukai has matured by learning how to focus and arrange his creative impulses in short, effective bursts. The jolting Already Midnight and Dark Peddler are less impressive in their own right but work effectively to offer a few moments of breathing space in between the more intense tracks. The art of making a consistent and balanced album is not lost on Mukai. Aside from the (many) silly moments, Mukai's lyrics are interesting as well. Heartbreak is surprisingly transparent, and tracks like Stories and A Morning Of Bursting Sound offer nostalgia in between the haunting, uncomfortable imagery of Dark Peddler or Tengu.
The production work is understated and the record has an uncluttered mix that balances well with the complex songs. Instrumentally, Zazen sound as good – if not better – than ever. Stories is a more guitar-heavy record than 4, Yoshikane Sou and Mukai using weaving, dual lead guitar lines for perhaps the first time on songs like A Morning Of Bursting Sound. Yoshikane has a lot more to do on this album, period, unlike 4 which featured several guitar-less tracks; his Johnny Marr-esque playing on Heartbreak is a particular standout. Bassist Ichiro Yoshida and drummer Matsushta Atsushi sound tighter than ever; the sound of Matsushta's drums seems to improve with each release. Though the band's rhythm section is completely different from their formation almost a decade ago, it's clear by now that Yoshida fits Mukai's musical vision better than the self-indulgent Hidekazu Hinata ever did.
Zazen Boys are more than a quirky indie band; they take influences from funk, R&B, progressive rock, and traditional Japanese music and spin them in a new direction. Although it's easy to accuse Mukai of name-dropping, in many ways this eccentric Japanese man, with his fedora, sunglasses, and stoic expression, really is the spiritual successor to the idiosyncratic music of Zappa and Beefheart. But unlike those experimental rock giants, Zazen Boys are not so abstract nor intimidating; and Stories is an excellent – perhaps even the best – place to start.