Review Summary: Human nature sounds like *warped adjective de choix*
It's not often that it seems necessary to undertake a concerted examination of the intent and motivations of musicians based purely on their music. The tone and attitude of music typically seem so overt that we can instantly imagine what the artist in question was trying to express; the thoughts and feelings behind the music come across as self-explanatory. Sure, there are times when a little lyrical or contextual study adds a lot to a song or album, but this is usually cogent with an impression that can be gained just from listening. While it draws on a great wealth of technical devices, the creative scope of music tends to translate near directly into the response it gets from its listener, whether that response is a particular emotion or sentiment, linked to something physiological (i.e. dancing or intoxication) or simply appreciation of its technical or lyrical craft. Whether they’re listening to Nick Drake, Metallica, The Flaming Lips or Nine Inch Nails, most listeners would find it easy to take a guess the effect the artist in question was hoping to achieve through their music based purely on their own reaction.
As such, it’s rare to find an album that makes you question just what cognitive or intuitive process inspired the artist in question to arrange those
notes in that
order with that
tone. You either feel music or you don’t, and if not, it’s usually viable to compare it to familiar models of songwriting, production and performance and appraise it as a craft. These two processes tend to shape our engagement with new music: subjective reaction first, informed refinement of opinion second. They are so reliable both individually and in conjunction that at a certain point it’s easy to imagine oneself as comfortably equipped to digest whatever sounds come your way.
But then there’s albums like Digitalized Human Nature
that have a way of disintegrating trusty means of analysis and reminding us that this way of processing music is actually pretty limited.
Let’s take it from the top: Otori debuted in 2014 with I Wanna Be Your Noise
an odd but palatable blend of noise rock and post-punk. That album was perfectly named; with its conventional, repetitive rhythm sections, innovative guitar parts and obdurate vocals all pitched at an entertaining level of punkish deadpan, it was certainly noisey but also full of a quirky, almost cute charm that made it deceptively accessible. Whenever the Otori of 2014 did something odd or challenging, they anchored it in very familiar musical framework and the result was always easy to follow.
Good Lord did they go off the deep end here…
While the general demeanour and some of the aesthetic of their debut is still recognisable, Otori embrace a such bewildering range of sounds and tones on Digitalized Human Nature
that they often sound like a different band. Gone are the rigid structures and arrangements of their past work; this album introduces synths and some electronic percussion to the mix and sees the bass and drums taking a much more active role in the arrangement. This new mix is channelled towards ends so strange that they go well past I Wanna Be Your Noise
’s playful quirkiness and end up somewhere off the chart. It’s bewildering and difficult to approach; where previously the vocal hooks were infectious mantras, here they are disorientating accentuations. Where before the guitar served as a familiar vehicle for dissonance, here this task is spread across alien, wet-toned synths that modulate between individual notes and play melodies that no sane person would wish to sing out loud. Where once there were rigid, danceable rhythms, now there are off-kilter loops that the band follow perfectly but are prohibitively syncopated for the easy listener. And do you like whole tones？ You’d better pray you learn to like whole tones by the end of this thing. There isn’t a conventional melody to be found here, aside from a stern string part in the opener (and even that occupies a jarring space best described as abrasively pentatonic).
I’m ambivalent over how much this strangeness improves and detracts from the album. On the one hand, Digitalized Human Nature
is far too confusing to provide the same brand of appealing fun as their past work, but on the other it is delivered with the same deadpan personality in a way that makes its many, many points of accessibility seem like an inviting challenge. One thing very clear to my otherwise thoroughly scrambled intuition here is that while it comes across as wilfully difficult, this is not a hostile album by any stretch of imagination. Tracks like the almost infantile Stop Motion Animation
/ ストップモーション and the synth-dominated mindfuck Chōkenjitsu
/ 超現実 feel less like insular experiments than they do open invitations for the listener to enjoy them.
This sense of challenge is absolutely key to Digitalized Human Nature
. It’s strange and alienating in a way that makes it difficult to gauge exactly what Otori wanted to accomplish with this album or how they hoped people would respond to it; I don’t think my impressions and reflections of the album necessarily correspond to the feelings and attitudes it hoped to inspire (if it even had a definite scope to this effect) and I expect this will be the case for many others. Recognising this was perhaps the most disorienting part of the whole experience; Otori play by their own rules here and there’s very little the listener can do in response other than to go along with the ride with an open mind.
As interesting as this approach is, it makes this a tricky album to appraise; the decision of how best to respond to this music may be relatively straightforward, but gauging how valuable this is as an experience and how well crafted it is are trickier considerations. In my view, the latter is best answered by the confidence and fluency with which Otori pull off their various idiosyncrasies here; Digitalized Human Nature
is a very fluid album and never seems to deviate from the band’s vision in a manner that seems unintentionally awkward. Full marks to the band for pulling this off. As for how rewarding an experience it is…well, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still trying to make my own mind up, but every time I come close to forming a balanced an opinion, the album trips me up, re-intrigues me and opens up some new avenue of consideration; at the end of the day, that’s all that needs to be said.