Thursday, 13 March 2008

Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana review

Prior to kalk's release, Ringo was known as a musical icon who flirted with ideas outside of the mould. Her fans treated her albums like a packet of sweets - a selection of confectionary nuggets that offered little more. Her appearance merely mocked and coopted submissive female stereotypes while indulging in their feminine perks, much in the vein of 80s cult avant garde singer 戸川純. Tastemakers in Japan often criticised her as a shameless mainstream ripoff of this aesthetic, capitalising on the neo-eccentric-art-riot-grrl movement of the 90s characterised by performers such as Bjork and updating it for the new millenium. While this perspective was certainly unfair and misguided, Shiina was the first to address such naysayers - much as she usually is the first to everything in the music world.

Come 2003. A seismic ripple shook through the plastic, eminently superficial music scene of Japan. That ripple came in the form of an album entitled kalk. The culprit? 椎名 fucking 林檎.

So what was it all about? What WASN'T it all about? Shiina had perfected music. This is not hyperbole in any sense. Other pop artists, such as Mr Bungle, Cornelius, Frank Zappa, Bjork and John Zorn had already tried to go beyond their station and create music without boundaries, to the predictable bemusement of the clueless masses. But Shiina took it to another level - this album, which is often classed as "art-rock" is in fact the ultimate tribute to the history of music, incorporating ancient Japanese court music (gagaku) alongside lowbrow Okinawan folk songs, min'yo etc. as well as the classical legacy (Baroque fugues, the modernism of Stravinsky, the heart swallowing classics of the romantic composers, the eastern traditionalism of Takemitsu and so on), the sizzling amplified Japanoise of 非常階段, the pseudo-pop chic of 戸川純, the postmodern elegence of the mid 90s Shibuya Kei movement and Pizzicato Five, merciless technically virtuosic thrashings indebted to the great early works of Slayer, phat beats that would make Dre himself blush... and countless more influences pepper the album.

Her Japanese background is interesting to consider - Japan is often seen as a cultural prism, absorbing influences from other countries and inverting them back anew. Bands such as Yellow Magic Orchestra played with Western stereotypes of the East, filtering them through uber-technological electronic arrangements influenced by Kraftwerk and western classical music (it goes without saying that this futuristic perspective came from Japan's repute as the nation of Sony, Mitsubishi etc). Shiina must've known about Yellow Magic Orchestra because they were huge in Nihon, that nation's Duran Duran, and a young Ringo would almost certainly have been captivated by the attractive band members and colourful music which is appealing to a child. 戸川純's band ゲルニカ was also an unequivocally massive influence on Shiina's artistic decisions, with their neo-futurist rhetoric and sound doubtless inspired by Japan's coming to terms with the then relatively young industrial revolution back in the 1920s/30s, long after the Meiji Restoration and westernisation had taken hold. The playfulness of their early sound (primitive synths) had its effect on Ringo as well. Although she would've been 4 or so at the time of that early album's release, it is no surprise that she was aware of it even then and a big fan.

What is particularly interesting about this record are the symmetries. This is a concept that Shiina devised for the album in which the CD has been made to last for exactly 44:44 - a number so perfect it made the Golden Ratio look a shadow of its former self. What's more, the record is one of two halves, each of which are counterparts to one another - Doppelganger, Poltergeist, Yin, Yang, Alpha, Omega, Life, Death, Love, Hate, Rape, Sex, Satan, Christ. There is a line repeated backwards in one half which is heard forwards in the other one - a playful comment on rock's bloated history of myths and a direct reference to Zeppelin's Stairway that is a delight to hear. Finally, the track titles are presented in a professional, formal kanji exclusive to the country's legal practices. The only inconsistency apparent to this infinite and riveting symmetrical bliss would appear to be the title of Stem, which does not have a counterpart on either half of the album and stands alone. This represents Shiina herself, not fitting in with any convention, and also represents a delicious appetite for destruction on her part as she savagely wrecks the beautiful concept upon which her entire masterwork is wrung - the punk attitude rears its fuck-you head once more.

And yet, although this may sound like the charred remains of prog rock, coming back for one last thrash at glory - no. Because, as the Ramones once said, Shiina is a punk, although they spelt it wrong. And her DIY ethic and pragmatic approach to musical blocks (influenced by the compositional ideas of Morton Feldman) silenced any accusations of pomposity while somehow giving more conviction to the elements of symphonic grandeur present in Ringo's sonic tapestry.

Every cut blends into one, every harmony perfectly positioned, all counterpoint obedient to even the most radical aspects of nature (and occasionally even giving them a push, in true Ringo rock 'n roll style, to achieve her desires). It is, without a doubt, the finest Japanese record ever made.

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