Review Summary: Fishmans take the stage one last time to deliver a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, mesmerizing performance. In the process they produce what is considered by many to be the greatest live album of all time.
The live album is a strange beast. Often admonished by audiophiles, often adored by ‘true fans,’ and often overlooked by the music listening audience as a whole. Which is tragic, because the world is a worse place for so few people having heard Johnny Cash’s “Live At Folsom Prison,” Allman Brothers’ “Live At Fillmore East,” or Fishmans’ “98.12.28 Otokotachi No Wakare” over their standard hits. They are all human, raw, and alive…but what sets Fishman’s Otokotachi No Wakare apart from the others？ Could it be its kalidescopic palate, its immediacy, or its hypnotic effect？ No, what sets it apart is it’s stature: because Otokotachi No Wakare is the greatest live album of all time.
That's right: the greatest live album of all time. While Fishmans isn't an often-listened-to band overall, it is widely accepted as fact among many indie circles (if Rate Your Music is anything to go off of). Allow me to explain – the journey begins with “Oh Slime” and ends somewhere you wouldn't expect, invoking sensations you may not have thought possible. The band’s sing-along introductions and bantering with the audience seems welcoming and jovial despite the language barrier. Gentle, compelling guitar work eases you into the flow, accompanied by infectious chants and gongs to set the atmosphere for the warm, otherworldly journey ahead.
The first great asset of the album you may notice is its mixing. While never as airtight as a studio record, the cathedral-esque vocal reverb and bright, distinct, jangling guitar tones strike the perfect balance between organic lo fi earnestness and bombastic, lush phantasmagoria. Fishmans’ live performance simply shimmers: a cavalcade of dancing lights calling out to you from the evening sky. A statement of fact by the band – the first track following the album’s introductions is the band’s iconic ‘Night Cruising,’ in which precision crafted guitar licks dance in the dark with achingly nostalgic keyboard lines – all tied down by a deep and gooey bass line that enraptures you, beating in place of your heart for a blissful six minutes.
What follows are a number of Fishmans dub standards, including ‘In The Flight’ and ‘Thank You.’ Each more hypnotic and sweeping than the last. The latter is an ecstatic statement of gratitude for a bright and beautiful life – expressed by some of the album’s rare English language lyrics: “Thank you for my life, oh, thank you.” Considering the circumstances, ‘Thank You’ is one of Otokotachi No Wakare’s most emotionally vulnerable moments for front man Shinji Sato. Not just because he is playing his band’s final farewell performance (his bassist, Yuzuru Kashiwabara, was leaving to pursue other interests), but because he was playing the last show of his life: Sato was suffering from a brutal and chronic heart condition.
One that would take his life fewer than three months after this, his final performance.
This is perhaps what elevates the record as a whole. Otokotachi No Wakare is, in fact, a somber soliloquy on the part of Sato and his band, disguised as the most ethereal and life affirming dub, dream pop, and progressive rock that any genre has on offer. A soliloquy caught live, unfiltered, and raw.
In Japanese culture stoicism and craftsmanship are prized more highly than emotional honesty; principles that westerners find regressive and restrictive in day-to-day life. But due to this mindset, Fishmans are only left with one viable option to express these emotions: performance. Such gratitude. Such grief. Such joy. By pouring their hearts and souls into this final musical performance they both experience and express their graceful resignation unto death: death of the band and, tragically, the death of its enigmatic front man, Shinji Sato. Even with death and disbandment eminent, the band’s vulnerable emotional state is never blatant: Sato’s voice quivers, but never cracks. Instead their grief and gratitude are poured into their performance with stunning precision and passion, fulfilling the ultimate goal of both a band and a man to be cut short before their time: a perfect musical performance.
This impulse to create, this drive to express oneself in an emotionally suppressive culture, feeds into the band’s greatest strength: in developing simple syrupy grooves & hooks and patiently, meticulously building an almost mythological bombast around them – developing what should be charming and simplistic into something progressive and sublime, with bright, ecstatic peaks and somber, contemplative valleys. The peaks are more prominent than the valleys, to be sure, but the contrast between the two adds weight to the album as a whole and illustrates the conflict between gratitude and mortality that must have been raging inside the mind of Shinji Sato on that cold December night.
Fishmans aren’t the only ones to take advantage of this contrast: packaging somber melancholy as bright, dreamy, optimistic rock. The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin comes to mind. What sets Fishmans apart is their singular devotion to their live musical performance and the immediacy of the tragedy that lies before them. As the album progresses the instrumentation grows more complex and dramatic. Accordion, Organ, and Violin are gradually added to the mix, ramping up the dramatic arc that is Otokotachi No Wakare while demonstrating the band’s indefatigable playful nature. All of these elements slowly coalesce and build up to the sublime final side of this Double LP: the singer’s, band’s, and album’s final track: Long Season.
A delicate shamisen is the first to penetrate the silence. Then, a patient keyboard line, infectious pulsating bass, and whirling, warping synths seem to reach out to you in a warm embrace. A sense of resignation and passion burns through this live rendition of Fishmans’ 35 minute studio classic; here it is ascended to a 42 minute masterpiece. Long？Yes. But, much like the gradual changing of the seasons, Long Season has room to breathe, and it does so without a single wasted note. This is the passing of the final season for Fishmans; they have no choice but to ensure it sounds nothing short of triumphant.
The way this composition evolves is a thing of genius; each slight shift in the guitar line or keyboard progression is meticulously placed in ways that make your heart skip a beat every time – and your chest will swell with each vocal, string, or brass harmony that penetrates the keyboard’s hypnotic pull. New hooks and harmonies are presented gradually, each more infectious than the last, and, unbeknownst to the audience, are set up as leitmotifs that will be revisited and resolved by the end of the song’s lengthy run time. Eventually Sato breaks out into an uncharacteristic guitar solo – virtuosic and psychedelic to the extreme - a wordless monologue of raw passion. Spoken via amplifier in place of such words that do not exist.
It isn’t just Sato’s show, however. Drummer Kin-Ichi Motegi and keyboardist Hakase-Sun both emerge from the aether to deliver stunning solos of their own. You get the impression that, if not for the band’s dedication to technically uncomplicated Dub & Dream Pop, they could have been the biggest rock band ever to emerge from Japan. They clearly have the talent for it. For the better half of an hour the band pours their passion, their joy, their grief, and their gratitude out towards a speechless audience – always in perfect lock step, never falling out of groove, playing off of one another’s talents on instinct. The composition sways to and fro like cherry blossoms blowing in the wind. Vibrant. Somber. Meditative. All seasons must end and all things must pass; Fishmans knows this. In due time the song, the concert, and the band build to a final, synesthesia-inducing climax. Guitars wail, violins shudder, and keyboards sing as the sun sets on Fishmans in their final hour. And in a flash: