Review Summary: Candy Mountain: Chromatic Redux
In the fleeting seconds between you casting your eye over this review (much appreciated) and the abrupt and inevitable collapse of your attention span (forgiven in advance), allow me to throw a rogue homonym your way:
chro·mat·ic | krō-ˈma-tik
of, relating to, or giving all the [twelve] [semi]tones of the chromatic scale
characterised by frequent use of accidentals
of or relating to colour or colour phenomena or sensations
Now, you likely won’t come across the second meaning that often unless your work has some kind of optic relation, even though that definition is semantically closer to its classical root (χρῶμα - colour). Not that that makes this particularly interesting: sonic chromatics are for musicians and music nerds, visual chromatics are for artists, opticians and photographers - case closed. Chances are, the dual definition has something to do with the chromatic music representing the full spectrum of commonly used tonality, spectrums tend to have a cognitive link with rainbows, and rainbows represent colour. Or something. Nothing worth chasing your linguistician or token synaesthesiac friend over.
Or so I thought.
Then I heard the first twenty seconds of Anata Dake
, opening track on Hakushi Hasegawa’s new album, and something shifted in my cognition. Four piano chords, each rooted in adjacent semitones (i.e. chromatically) are played over a swing beat as all hell breaks loose around them. This isn’t exactly beyond the scope of what most of us have probably already heard in jazz at some point in our lives, as the song snaps an upbeat, wide-eyed verse full of vibrant chords and Hasegawa’s airy vocals, something about the song’s energy and enthusiasm worked magic on my synapses and synthesised a thought along the lines of oh wow, this chromatic jazz sound is very engaging and approachable and full of colou- hey, wait a second!
. Crazy, right?
Putting this moment of audiovisual revelation aside, Air Ni Ni is brimming with excitement and innovation in a way that shows off the full scope of the chromatic spectrum in every sense. Equal parts jazz, electronic and pop, it is perhaps best described as the sound of one man’s falsetto channelled into serenading a continually exploding popcorn machine at a arcade full of energy drinks and trick mirrors. It’s executed with an aesthetic and intensity generously placed in close proximity to ADHD heaven, but there’s a depth to its structural choices and melodic palette that ensures its technicolour value is saturated as well as shiny. It’s a start-to-finish blast and altogether impressive; if I’m not making myself clear here, this album an absolute treat and should be heard by most everyone. Anyone actively staving off that troublesome collapse of attention span can call it quits here: Air Ni Ni is interesting, creative, fun and (dare I say) good
, and it will continually recapture your interest far better than I could ever hope to. It doesn’t hurt that it’s more accessible than most music on this level of mild waywardness, yet at the same time sufficiently bizarre that you could probably call it ‘art pop’ if this is something that brings you joy. Go ahead, I’m not judging.
While this just about covers the general shape and impression of the album, it doesn’t really do justice to the intricacies of its composition or sequencing. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that it is just as much a rhythm album as a harmony album, and by ‘rhythm album’, I mean this both in the nuanced sense that many of its best hooks are off-kilter and/or intensely syncopated (for a sickeningly catchy case study, see Kaze Yagi
), but more importantly that the some of the percussion here is almost overbearingly intense, particularly on the first few tracks. After the opener has warmed things up, the majority of the following three tracks confronts the listener in a dizzying flurry of skittering, breakneck beats. These tracks are too neatly produced and not quite dissonant enough to be outright abrasive, but they are so
percussively charged as to come most of the way. Although they have some great hooks and a range of melodic ideas, their whiplash dynamics and dizzying onslaught of semiquavers bring them into homogenous territory; the listener has very little pause for breath and will struggle to take much of the tracks in. I would hesitate to criticise this outright, since I believe it is entirely intentional and designed to instil a yearning for a moment of reprieve or, better still, for the album to shift gears, take a step out of full-on popcorn simulator and open up into something more moderately paced that shows off its melodic richness.
If this intention is in fact the case, it pays off. The album does indeed open up, and I would pinpoint the moment it does so at exactly two minutes twenty-four seconds into the fourth track Sabaku de
, at which point the song snaps out of an iteration of its central chord pattern over a borderline breakbeat clattering of snares and plummets into an absolutely gorgeous bridge, kicked off by a round of gracefully modulated 7th chords on electric piano and almost entirely devoid of the clutter and clamour that supercharges the rest of the song. This is perhaps the first time in the course of the album that such a shift has time to land for the presumably disorientated listener, and in doing so it triggers what turns out to be something of an irreversible moment, commencing a expanding spiral into increasingly strange but palatably presented sounds that run throughout the album’s remaining two thirds.
The force of this moment cannot be understated: it resonates through the semi-chilled pop impulse of Kaze Yagi
, the delightfully inelegant stomp of Zui no Party
, the mesmeric head*** of Akuma
, and the psychedelic jazz wonderland of Itsukushii Hibi
, before finally stretching its legs out and comes to a rest on the relatively straightforward (but no less charming) mid-tempo swing of Yama ga Mieru
. While Akuma
is a little less engaging, this run of tracks is fantastically paced and so creatively varied and smartly sequenced that the frenetic density of the early songs suddenly seems far more comprehensive; every track here is equal part fission and fusion, full of bold ideas that occasionally threaten to come apart at the seams but are held together by an unwavering songwriting focus. However, once Yama ga Mieru
has straightened things out, it falls on the aptly named final track Neural
to deliver a come-down. This song closes the album in a percussionless, relatively well-behaved (we don’t talk about the chords used in the bridge at around 2:10) fashion, but can’t help but feel a little disappointing after the momentous adventure of the preceding tracks. I would call this “adrenaline withdrawal” and Mr. Hasegawa would doubtless call it “a good reason to go back to square one and run the whole gauntlet all over again”: apples and oranges. It almost makes the first track’s title (trans. Only You
) seem like a nudge and a wink - “it’s not me, it’s you…and the rest of the album is still here for you” - but this is vague conjecture, and that is quite simply not allowed.
All things considered, Air Ni Ni is a bold album in the friendliest sense of the term. Hakushi Hasegawa is unafraid to overload his audience with the myriad sparky ideas he was clearly brimming over with during the album’s writing process, but he is careful to balance his moments of tension and release such that the listener has a stable platform for engagement. The album’s smart sequencing creates a demand for moments of reprieve in anticipation of the tracks that deliver it, but the whole package is pulled off with an ongoing buzz that sweeps many of its otherwise uncamoflaged blips and liberties under the carpet. Following in the path mapped out by Dots and 3776, it stands as one of one of the more varied pseudopop outings to come out of Japan this year and sets an excellent precedent for Hasegawa’s future work.