Yellow Magic Orchestra – Technodelic

“This must be the ugliest piece of bread I’ve ever eaten.”

-YMO

And with that, begins Yellow Magic Orchestra’s fifth—and arguably best—album, Technodelic. As opposed to the object of their disgust in that opening line, the album sparkles and is an absolutely gorgeous set of electronic pop music from a group at the very height of its abilities, and whose intent appears to be to throw a bit of a wrench in their creative process.

As such, it’s a bit of a departure for the trio, dialing up and broadening the sonics while at the same time refining their approach in the studio. The comparisons to Kraftwerk had always been there, and were perhaps justified, but Technodelic put those comparisons to bed permanently by reaching beyond the motorik, blippy aesthetic of previous albums and embracing a sound suite wider in scope, but a method more succinct and precise.

It’s not that some of those previously similar elements didn’t find their way into the album. It is an electronic album, at any rate, in an era whose music in many ways emerged from the shadows cast by Kraftwerk. But there’s just so much more going on here than the minimalist electronic pop so closely associated with Kraftwerk’s back catalog. YMO sounds untethered by their previous touchstones.

The feeling one gets from the album with respect to their output to that point is deliberate, sharp, expansive, and eye-opening. It’s hard to imagine Kraftwerk, for all its brilliance and innovation, constructing something like “Seoul Music,” with its percussive vocal samples, looped melody, and chugging bassline—or the rolling piano and faux trumpets of “Stairs.”

The album notes YMO’s first use of the LMD-649 sampler. Unlike their previous albums, samples really take the forefront here. It gives the album a quality rooted in both realism and sequenced synths. Together with the live drums and Haruomi Hosono’s bass playing, the album feels on one hand more tangible, more present—and on the other, transcendental and difficult to pinpoint.

Synths are still clearly a part of YMO’s bag of tricks, however, but the live instrumentation (or sampling thereof) grounds the album in reality. Many of the songs here contain constant reminders of the real world, whether it’s through bits of sampled chants, stomps, or factory sounds. The lyrics tend to be focused around earthly topics and making sense of what’s in front of us; whether it be an ugly slice of bread (“Pure Jam”), a moth or key in a forest (“Key”), or a foreign culture (“Seoul Music”), time and again the theme that YMO returns to is our perception of the world around us and how realities vary from person to person.

Then there’s the Brian Eno-like “Gradated Grey,” its swooping bits of compressed and phased air and effects interweaving throughout, with what sounds like a processed train whistle acting to guide the song along. It’s the calm before the storm of “Key” kicks in, inundating the listener with a manic beat and sequenced synths underlined by Takahashi’s lilted vocals.

We see the culmination of these themes in the lyrics here: “What do you see? / I see a moth / What kind? / It looks like my lover / Whatcha gonna do? / I wanna chase it.” The speaker here has difficulty identifying what precisely he’s seeing and experiencing (“Somebody please, what’s wrong with me?”). He quickly becomes frightened, unable to both disseminate his reality and escape it using the key he’s found. “I’ve got a feeling something’s happening / It gives me a thrill but it’s also very frightening.”

In a way, what YMO seems to be saying here, is that sometimes it’s best to accept something for what it is. Allowing yourself to assign a value or definition to something based on the perception of the world around you can lead to confusion and frustration. Sometimes it’s best to experience something by letting it ride over you and be what it is. This is music steeped in both the history of traditional music and at play with unconventional and innovative forms. Perhaps the statement here that YMO wants us to leave with is “let it be what it is.” It’s music, and it’s damn good.

Mariah – Utakata No Hibi

The long-running project of saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, this album represents in most listeners’ opinions (and mine) the pinnacle of his craftsmanship and the height of Mariah’s artistic endeavors. Each track here still feels fresh, as though it was recorded yesterday. This has much to do with the team of musicians Shimizu had surrounded himself with.

Originally begun as a hard rock/prog rock outfit, Mariah’s music focused on jazz interludes strung together with prototypical 1980s rock and pop. The music varied quite a bit from the harder rocking “Marginal Love” to the progressive leaning “Black Mariah.” Prior to Utakata, they had released three albums, Mariah, Yen Tricks, and Marginal Love. However, the advancement of originality on Utakata is unparalleled in the band’s history.

Shimizu went back to the drawing board after the lead singer, Satoshi Jimmy Murakami left the band. The approach became more organic––more natural. The band incorporated people they were already hanging out with at the Mariah offices. The artwork was produced by the manga artist and friend of Shimizu’s, Yla Okudaira, who worked out of Mariah’s office.

Another vital addition, according to Shimizu in a recent interview, was the addition of Aki Ikuta as co-producer. Until Utakata No Hibi, Ikuta mainly focused on management and “playing in and coordinating jazz sessions.”

He invited artist and wife of Mariah bassist Morio Watanabe, Seta Evanian, to write Armenian lyrics for various songs on the album. These were sung by her friend and visual artist, Julie Fowell, and as Shimizu recalled in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, “I remember the inspiration that flowed through me when we were collaborating, the feeling of an eternal breeze brushing your cheek.”

The music itself exemplifies this breeziness. It flows effortlessly and from a place of great passion. The incorporation of such seemingly disparate genres as jazz, Armenian, Asian, African, pop, disco, and new wave among others, so fluidly and with so few missteps is a testament to the openness of the recording sessions and the creative process.

“Hana Ga Saitara” bounces along, boosted by electronic burbles, yelps of saxophone, lively bass, and group vocals that at one point are spoken through what sounds like a megaphone. The effect is at once a feeling both recognizable yet completely unique.

The standout piece, “Shinzo No Tobira,” leans heavily on echoed drums, thumping bass, synth-pop keys, and gorgeous, off-kilter vocals by Fowell.

Utakata would sadly be the last record released by Mariah. The band went their separate ways shortly after its release. It’s hard to say where their music would have gone after this album––if it’s even possible to expand on such a sound as was already presented here. Shimizu, for his part, would go on to create numerous fantastic solo records, not in the least Kakashi.

However, regardless of the finality of Mariah, there is so much to mine here that after hundreds of listens, I’m still finding new phrases, new sounds, new images I hadn’t heard before. That is the beauty of this record. And that they accomplished this with such seemingly casualness only adds to its status as a hidden gem of the 1980s.

You can purchase the vinyl reissue at Palto Flats