Review Summary: Rolo Tomassi: Tokyo Drift
Confronting the present can be as daunting as it can exhilarating. Writing on this album, for instance, has been a matter of no little trepidation to me; it has been over three years since my last music review on this site, or elsewhere. This is not without good reason; my leisure writing was forced into hiatus by the demands of my career in investigative journalism, which until recently has sent me to unlovely parts of the world on the trail of stories that often proved too speculative to substantiate as much as my professional dignity would have liked. I cannot reveal details, but these ‘stories’ eventually became so insubstantial that I have turned my speculation back to music out of sheer frustration and now, on my first paid holiday of significant duration in maybe a year and a half, seems as appropriate a time as ever to put some of it into words.
Rolo Tomassi have been the object of my attention for a long while now, well before this most recent album was recorded. There was always something conveniently unlikely about them, something not outright gimmicky but quirky enough to extend its own palatability. Every aspect of their sound and image seemed to have an antithetical counterpart highly disposed to concise conversational renderings. Common examples include the following (all cited from various closed online discussion forums):
“Rolo Tomassi" Yeah, they’re like a UK version of The [über-macho, testosterone-soaked, pornstar-dating-frontman’d] Dillinger Escape Plan apart from they’re a bunch of shy kids who probably spend Christmas with their families and have nightmares about out of date milk”
“ha yeah the vox is like satan cutting diamonds but their frontwoman looks like the easter bunny’s cute french stepsister”
“uh i don’t know, it’s loud but also soft, heavy but also kind of uplifting, weird but sometimes catchy, savage but you can tell they don’t really want to kill anybody with it. you’d probably dig.”
These elements were never outright contradictory per se, but they gave the group a certain creative tension insofar as it was always difficult to pin down what their next move might be, or what inspired them to make it. The roots of their sound seemed to shift continually, and impressively - it was always clear what
they were crafting and (if you were prepared to commit to enough closely listening) how
, but the why
was always a suspicious category to me. It was always clear that the Spence siblings and co. were greatly devoted to music (any interview confirms as much), but I was never satisfied but this answer; it is not untrue, but it is also too vague and unhelpful when applied to the music in question to hold much water. The vast degree of stylistic, rhythmic and melodic fission that occurs within their sound is not just the sound of a band blandly paying tribute to their nondescript love of music, it is the sound of a band determined to challenge and change music. This is at the heart of my interest in Rolo Tomassi - just what do they want to change, and why" What did the styles of yesteryear do to incite such fracture" Perhaps they are just in it for the ride, although I doubt it - adrenaline and novelty are all very well, but they rarely lead to five well-crafted albums. In that case, let the object of our query be as such: what are Rolo Tomassi trying to accomplish in their music, and what do they want from us, as listeners"
The answer is best approached by way of the treacherous breadcrumb trail laid by the band’s influences. Drawing from my anonymous online friend’s comment, one of the most obvious places to start is perhaps The Dillinger Plan. The legendary US group’s use of dissonance and atypical rhythms has attracted all manner of lazy comparisons with Rolo Tomassi, followed closely by with hardcore contemporaries Converge, whose tone and use of dynamics is often reflected in Rolo Tomassi’s work (opportune example: the bridge of Rituals, serrated by Ballou-esque guitar punctuations; inopportune example: Risen, a drab atmospheric piece reminiscent of the various ‘soft’ endeavours undertaken by Converge when they neglected to structure their music properly). This, presumably is a large part of what keyboardist/vocalist James Spence alludes to in his claim that ’the style of music we’ve pursued definitely has a lot of roots in America and American influences’ (1). It is all too tempting to throw in the towel here and pigeonhole Rolo Tomassi as British ambassadors of a 00s American sound, but my intuition screams against this; all of our earlier questions remain unanswered and I cannot help but feel that we are using this easy answer as a means of skirting an unusually well-hidden elephant in the room.
The elephant in question is none other than the nation of Japan. Rolo Tomassi have long underplayed their links with Japan to their home audience, but a recent trip to Tokyo and a few opportune questions to certain promotion companies and zine editors revealed that their history is one of close cultural entwinement, and it quickly became apparent that the band boast a Japanese fanbase far more extensive than in the West (although, perhaps, not as deeply committed to their sound). Now, the band’s motivations for masking this secret popularity remain somewhat opaque, but I would hazard a guess that it has stemmed from a conjunction of growing xenophobia in the British market, mixed comprehension of the exchange rate, and inattentiveness on behalf of their management.
In any case, the band’s 2008 debut, Hysterics, chimed as much with the otaku scene as it did with hardcore, laden with synths right out of retro gaming and stylistic bombast that could compete with the wackiest anime. Hell, the album art could have been an anime still, and its lyrical imagery went hand-in-hand with the grittier side of the medium (any sceptics would do well to give Fofteen, Scabs or Fantasia another listen). It is no coincidence, then, that the a CD copy of the album came as a free extra in the October 2008 issue of manga compilation アフタヌーン.
The band’s links with the Japanese scene run deeper still. Indeed, a 2016 interview (2) revealed Eva Spence’s status as a kawaii icon and the band’s various tours to Japan attest to their popularity there. It is even rumoured that Spence received an exclusive vocal coaching session from avant-pop veteran Haco while on tour in Tokyo that same year, although my source (an occasional collaborator with Haco whom I met by chance in an izakaya) was somewhat difficult to comprehend due to my inebriation at the time, and since we had also been discussing Studio Ghibli, it is possible that he was indicating the similarity between Spence’s hairstyle and that of the character Haku in Spirited Away. My Japanese has since improved marginally.
Furthermore, the glowing praise Rolo Tomassi have garnered over the years from the established UK rag Kerrang should come as no surprise given that publication’s long-standing existence as a subsidiary of Tokyo publishing group Tohan. Their veiled export of contempory Japanese alt-pop culture, it would seem, is one that critics have something of an ulterior motive to transplant into the UK scene, although it is still very much a welcome presence. In any case, thinly masked derivates of the Japanese music scene are hardly strangers to Western success, as Kero Kero Bonito proved with their 2016 debut, presenting cosmopolitan indie-pop with a distinctly J-pop sheen to vast acclaim and swift popularity. Not too dissimilar to how KKB couldn’t resist a nod to their favourite anime, borrowing the chords from the Neon Genesis Evangelion opening for their hit Trampoline, Rolo Tomassi point to Death Note in Whispers Among Us, which apes Maximum the Hormone (who performed the opening and credits themes for the second half of the season), though with none of the latter’s trademark goofiness.
At this point, however, one could quite justly query the degree to which Rolo Tomassi’s intimate ties to Japan have any bearing on this album specifically; Time Will Die… contains none of Hysteric’s chiptune stylings and its production stylings seem more American than ever. Or so it appears…
The most striking place to start is the album’s nomenclature. On the whole, the song titles are uncited within the lyrics and therefore maintain a purely figurative bearing. To this end, the indication of the Land of the Rising Sun on the part of Towards Dawn, Risen and a Flood of Light all stand out immediately, but it is the album title that makes one pause for thought. And so it becomes necessary to pose a question that no reviewer I have come across has been bold enough to address: what does Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It actually mean"
As suggested by the lyrics of Aftermath (“The bones of what’s below will never grow”), the time-will-die section seems to indicate the intangible potential of future time being transmuted into the finite relic of past time. Okay. In that case, we can take love-will-bury-it as a suggestion of Rolo Tomassi’s eagerness to greet that point of transmutation with affection and enthusiasm. In other words, the title welcomes the progress of time and the change that comes with it. A good title that combines an adventurous spirit with sweet intentions, as is reflected throughout the album as it manipulates the properties of (musical) space and (real) time into realms more dynamically and melodically mature than the band’s past work. So far so controversial. But this still doesn’t explain Japan.
The thing is, the title and meaning of the album run deeper. It is not just concerned with welcoming the emergence of the past as the future slips behind it, but moreover with actively venerating the traces of past time as one would a dead companion. Case in point: Alma Mater, the album’s lyrical cornerstone. This song reflects the band’s take on conjunction of temporal change and personal growth as already outlined, together with a good deal of anxiety and trepidation. James Spence screams the album title at the top of his lungs in the first verse, and its significance sits right at home among the song’s wider lyrical cogency. Two facets of the song are not so straightforward, however: its title, which refers to a formative or foundational influence but is not specifically referred to in or suggested the lyrics, and its musical style, which could be situated comfortably on any of the band’s post-Cosmology albums in way that most of Time Will Die…’s tracks simply couldn’t. A holistic reading of the song would therefore suggest that Rolo Tomassi are concerned with cherishing their past by reconstituting it into the work of the present, by which they move into the future and set an evolutionary cycle in motion.
Here the pertinence of the band’s Japanese affinity emerges in full force; their roots and cultural links are of paramount importances because of how they are distorted and recreated here. The melodic allusions to Japanese music are rich throughout the album, with a firm pentatonic focus that shifts between various traditional variants. Perhaps most notable of these is the use of the hirajoshi scale in Rituals and Balancing the Dark, and also Risen, the guitar line for which which essentially takes the yo scale and staples thirds onto each note. Although far from the realm of professional research, a friend of mine recently developed a waveform analysis app that cross-references audio files with a 3000-song database of classic anime themes, in the hope that aspiring composers would purchase it to determine the suitability of their music for future series. This friend ran some of this album through it and found that both Aftermath and Contretemps hit staggeringly high compatibilities (86% and 82%, respectively). This surpasses the band’s former joint highest total of 72% (for Nine and Unromance) and is on par with other anime-esque music from artists such as Grimes and Aijo Cycling.
It’s not all anime-related though; Time Will Die… nods towards Japanese gaming just as much. Towards Dawn, for instance, takes its cues from the kind of ambient themes associated with hub areas, presented almost chord-for-chord as a major-key rendering of the Firelink Shrine theme from the original Dark Souls. Funnily enough, Rolo Tomassi are not the first band to borrow from this atmosphere, or indeed this piece of music, for an ambient introduction; only last year Broken Social Scene opened their album Hug of Thunder in a near-identical manner. In any case, Balancing the Dark shows further affinity with gaming, borrowing chords from an unnamed theme in the 2016 PS4 game I Am Setsuna.
On another note, the thematic focus on death and renewal is also in keeping with Japanese mythology. For instance, the album’s three extended compositions, The Hollow Hour, A Flood of Light and Contretemps, act as signposts for a gradual brightening of tone, undoubtedly in reference to the three points of crossing on the Styx-like Sanzu River, which must be traversed in order to reach the afterlife. These three points vary in unpleasantness and are allocated to individuals depending on the balance of karma they accrued during their lives, which is very much in keeping with the album’s wider nod to formative and foundational influences. Guitarist Chris Cayford and drummer Tom Pitts maintain memberships at the Sheffield/Leeds-based National Institute of Japanese Studies, where Cayford is rumoured to frequent a programme of ancient and cultural studies as part of a PhD in Asian history, so it is unlikely that this association would be lost on the band.
And so, if Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It represents Rolo Tomassi’s crowning achievement to date, the greater part of its success must be pinned on the development of their still-clandestine Japanese roots from aesthetic trappings into thematic bedrock, which now enables the band to reach peaks of songwriting previously accessible only to artists born before 1990 or with a paid membership to the prestigious and secretive Ivory Vault Union of Contemporary Musicians (although the latter is so secretive that for all I know, members of the band may well hold membership…). The doors are very much open to Rolo Tomassi, and I have a feeling that this exposé of their sound will only serve to further their compelling unlikeliness…