Friday, March 12, 2010

East meets West - Japan's 'Tin Drum'

Having spent a bit of time here over the past week or so talking about experimental music in all its different shapes and sizes, I am reminded of how much I’ve neglected the work of David Sylvian on this blog. Other than talking about his beautiful if relatively conventional (relative being the operative word there) Secrets of the Beehive some months ago (see 4th September 2009), he has really not had much of a look in here at all.

It’s a pretty serious omission, really, not just from someone who claims to have a penchant for the strange and daring in music but also simply from someone who claims to enjoy good music, whatever its form.

David Sylvian has done a lot throughout his music career and, while some of his later solo work is really interesting, and certainly well worth the extra bit of effort you might need to put into it to get to understand and appreciate it properly, like his most recent album Manafon or its predecessor Blemish, both kind of art-rocky albums that use improvisation and experimentation to slowly build their fascinating worlds of sound, much of his earlier work, particularly with his band Japan, is every bit as worthy of your time.

There’s little disagreement that Japan’s greatest moment was their last: their final studio album Tin Drum, released in 1981. It uses strange sounds playing in strange tonalities, tunes jumping in strange intervals to strange rhythms, all coloured by the rich and velvety voice of Sylvian himself, to produce a wonderful musical landscape where oriental and Western worlds have been melded into one – exotic, exciting, extraordinary.

The oriental flavours in Tin Drum are created, as you might expect them to be, by drawing on some of those most instantly recognisable aspects of Japanese and Chinese music – the use of the five note pentatonic scale, the leaping melodies, the distinctive instrumentation with its characteristic reliance on tuned percussion.

Listen to the way these elements come together, and how creatively they’re developed and mixed and built upon, in ‘Canton’, for example, or how they’re pulled apart and reassembled to create a whole new sound, the future growing out of the remnants of the past, in ‘Visions of China’.

There’s the slightly tender, slightly haunted, world of ‘Ghosts’, where strange, spacey electronic sounds, still plucked, it seems, from the pentatonic scale, tip-toe along, sending weird and wonderful sparks of sound ricocheting off one another; and there’s the jaunty opener, ‘The Art of Parties’, where dance music is turned into high art, with beats playing off each other in all directions while the melody line, where notes jumps to and from each other at impossible intervals, mixes in and becomes its own layer in the rhythmic hype, just as it does again in the closing ‘Cantonese Boy’.

Tin Drum is a great example of the ways that music can do what politics, diplomacy, and bombs have never been able to do – the bringing together, the melding together, of cultures and identities into something that reflects the individuality of all its elements, while blending them into something that, in itself, is new, exciting and rich. Almost thirty years after its release, Japan’s Tin Drum still sounds new, and still has a lot to say.

My thanks, yet again, to Marty R for the recommendation.

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