Review Summary: The shape of pop to come?
While 2019 hasn’t exactly been lacking in subversion and surprise, I don’t think anything I've heard this year has landed as squarely in the what the fuck did I just hear
pile as 3776’s latest, Saijiki. There’s no time to waste on introductions here, as the audacity of its premise speaks for itself: this is a 73-minute art pop monolith that dissects more or less the full spectrum of pop over a single piece of music. The first few seconds lay out out a spoken word track consisting of vocalist Chiyono Ide counting off an entire year's worth of days
, played over the course of the whole album and overlaid with more contortions of tones and styles than you’ll have the time or patience to keep track of. Some of it sounds like the work of an insane genius rerouting impossible oppositions into a new, unlikely synergy, some of it sounds like a bored child making a dysfunctional sound collage to distract themselves from parental neglect; more often than not, both impressions are concurrent. Terming this glitch pop
doesn’t come close to summarising the level of turbulence that flow both within and between tracks. Some will find this album completely unlistenable, others will be intrigued by its wealth of creative ideas, and still others will possibly consider it the Holy Grail of contemporary pop. The individual loops on show here are without fail straightforward and digestible, but the rate at which the album phases them in and out and plays multiple layers (especially vocal tracks) off against each other carries such a deep-running sense of structural instability that the way the it sustains itself across such an intimidating runtime is nothing short of breathtaking.
This is all the more impressive for the fact that 3776 is essentially the two-handed project of Chiyono and producer/arranger Akira Ishida, but such gargantuan undertakings from groups of small personnel are hardly without precedent. Just as Kashiwa Daisuke’s landmark track Stella
astounded listeners in how it sustained a diverse sequence of ideas across a staggeringly cohesive 35-minute runtime, Saijiki feels like an impossible triumph that staves off casual listeners just as much as it rewards focus and attention. Despite being split into individual tracks, it is clearly meant to be heard as a single piece as the divisions between tracks are fairly trite compared to the continuity that runs throughout its span (the album might as well have mixed into a single track, named after its central vocal loop, and left at that). This invokes comparisons with Fishmans’ legendary effort Long Season, which was performed as an album-long song but broken down into movements for ease of access. However, whereas Fishmans orientated their piece around a small handful of cyclical motifs, 3776 opt for a gradual overload of loops that are introduced, played almost to the point of burnout and then abandoned, never to be repeated. Some of these ideas are naturally more engaging than the others: the run of tracks seven through nine stands out as a particularly enjoyable sequence, cover Judy and Mary-esque rockabilly, synthed-up showtune swagger and glitchy R&B respectively. However, the rate at which loops are expanded, exchanged and developed is roughly as engaging at any given point as at any other.
Beyond its formal elements, Saijiki feels very much like a statement album, a recycling belt of endless reinvention undercut by the most asinine current of repetition in its core loop, as though to turn the principle of pop songwriting inside out and showcase it in its most inverted form. As such, its central genius can perhaps be traced to the way it begs the question how is this supposed to be experienced?
without ever straying from an aesthetic and melodic palette that feels entirely and appropriately pop. It seems to trade off the sugary appeal of pop’s trademark instant gratification for something far trickier to pin down. Whether this lands it as an obsessive deconstruction of the genre or an intrepid rewriting of its blueprint (or both) is somewhat up in the air, but it also opens the door on the core issue here: Saijiki is easy to appreciate as a novelty experiment or as an immersive sensory overload, but neither of these are particularly well disposed to listener satisfaction beyond the course of its playtime. It’s as though the lingering concept
of the album, along with jumbled recollection of its scope and adventurousness, stands in for traditional replay value.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but it’s also a shame that some of the incredibly catchy sections here are given little chance to shine in and of themselves, beyond their scope within the album’s wider arc. Many parts of Saijiki are momentarily engaging and highly enjoyable, but are swiftly churned up in the album’s unassailable resolve to reinvent itself, which leads to a growing sense that its greatest qualities are not specifically musical. Rather, it’s manner in which the vocabulary of pop becomes a vehicle for the project’s ingenuity and technical vision that steals the show; this is an album that triumphs in its craft and genre subversion but very rarely allows itself to succeed on purely musical terms. 3776 is executed incredibly proficiently on these terms, but they will likely remain a significant drawback for many listeners all the same. Not to skirt over the (literal) oceans of difference between the two projects, but consider how 100 gecs deconstructed pop aesthetics this year in an equally unhinged manner by accentuating genre tropes typically linked to ease of consumption to an uncomfortably intense level. 3776 deserve a lot of credit for pushing in the opposite direction, but Saijiki’s dubious replay value is still a little questionable.
In any case, Saijiki feels like an intelligent and worthwhile undertaking in a climate more widely fixated on challenging and subverting pop convention. It’s particularly satisfying to see something like this come from a group on the edge of the Japanese idol scene; idol, for those unfamiliar, is essentially a hybrid medium that affords every image-, aesthetic-, dance- and personality-based epimusical quality that exists within familiar pop parity of importance, all framed within its specific set of norms and conventions; it dissolves the boundaries between pop culture and pop music, if you will. It’s not as though the contemporary scene has had a shortage of projects that rub against the boundaries of style and convention (Maison Book Girl, . . . . . . . . . and Oomori Seiko’s ZOC group all stand out for their respective quirks), but it’s still particularly satisfying to see an idol project tear up the rulebook this thoroughly. Kudos to Akira and Chiyono; Saijiki is a preposterous undertaking that would never have seemed like a worthwhile or even necessarily feasible idea if she hadn’t shot for it, and you can take it or leave it on those terms. Part of me never wants to hear this album again; part of me doesn’t want to listen to anything else.