In one of rock’s most remarkable examples of bootstrapping, South London’s Japan pulled themselves up from lowly beginnings as a ludicrously overdressed glam-punk-pose band who (badly) emulated the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper to finish, five years later, as one of England’s most sophisticated art-rock outfits, earning the respect of their peers and branching out into such fields as sculpture and photography.
Adolescent Sex introduces Japan in all its guitar-rock misery, playing such Bowie-influenced tripe as “Wish You Were Black” with less style than a sense of urgency. Obscure Alternatives adds more keyboards but still relies on Rob Dean’s buzzing guitars and David Sylvian’s sneery vocals for its sound. (Ill-advised digressions into reggae and funk are strictly dilettante poses.) The songs are fairly unmelodic, the production nondescript. With a quick listen, you might mistake this for a junior-league Stones imitation.
Japan entered the modern world with Quiet Life. The choice of producer John Punter — who had worked with Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry — was significant, as the band’s sights had shifted from gutter-glam to elegant decadence. A cover of the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties” allows Japan — and especially Sylvian, sporting a totally revised singing voice — to show off their new suave reserve, relying on sequencers, Mick Karn’s proto-funk basswork and generally understated aplomb. Around this time, Japan also released a marvelous non-LP single of Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion.”
On the excellent Gentlemen Take Polaroids, Sylvian’s debonair Ferryisms — more shyly quiet than dissipated — are met by Karn’s astonishing fretless bass work, Richard Barbieri’s wide-ranging keyboard work (incorporating Asian and other traditions) and Steve Jansen’s inventive drumming. (Jansen is Sylvian’s brother; their family name is Batt.) The technically exquisite and musically adventurous sound is loaded with atmosphere, yet displays a very light touch. Sylvian’s songs are, however, very hard to hold, as many lack a backbone and waft along with little evident structure.
Tin Drum presents Japan at peak form, playing subtle creations with intricate rhythms and tightly controlled dynamics. Spare but strong drumming (abetted by Karn’s rubbery bass) provides needed propulsion, and the breadth of influences — from Middle Eastern to funk — color the music a number of fascinating shades. Having almost totally escaped pop constraints, Japan’s sound here — except for a few tunes (especially “Ghosts”) that strongly resemble latter-day Roxy Music — is a willowy fabric of interwoven threads.
Assemblage is a collection of songs from the band’s pre-Virgin period, including “Adolescent Sex,” “Quiet Life,” “I Second That Emotion” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” (The cassette version adds remixes, an extra studio track and three otherwise unreleased live recordings. Years later, the same album — expanded by two extra Obscure Alternatives tracks — was issued as A Souvenir from Japan.) In a new effort to interest America, Epic issued Japan, which is actually Tin Drum minus two tracks, plus three from Gentlemen Take Polaroids.
Oil on Canvas is a crystalline live set featuring Ippu-Do guitarist Masami Tsuchiya as an adjunct member. The two records offer a good cross-section of the band’s repertoire, adding some previously unrecorded ambient doodling. When Japan’s long-rumored dissolution finally came to pass, Virgin issued Exorcising Ghosts, a two-record anthology of their later work.
While the band still appeared to be an ongoing proposition, Karn (real name: Anthony Michaelides) recorded Titles, essentially a showcase for his proficient bass stylings and ability to play a multitude of woodwinds and keyboards. Featuring such guests as Jansen, Barbieri and Ricky Wilde (!), it’s all very impressive but rather vague and pointless.
After Japan, Karn did lots of session work, formed the short-lived Dalis Car with Peter Murphy of Bauhaus and then made a second solo album. Dreams of Reason Produce Monsters, a collaboration with Jansen that features Sylvian’s Ferryesque vocals on two songs, is another tastefully appointed, highly accomplished waste of time. Orchestral arrangements and a choir don’t make the slow-moving instrumentals any more involving. Meanwhile, all the textural achievement buries the two exceedingly Japan-ese songs in the sonic wash.
After releasing an album under their own names, Jansen and Barbieri became the Dolphin Brothers; their guest-filled Catch the Fall, and the two EPs drawn from it, follow in Japan’s delicate footsteps, but take a simpler, less distant path and stop to rock out a bit now and again. Between Jansen’s singing (a weak imitation of his former bandmate’s) and the duo’s lackluster songwriting (the pretentious lyrics are a bigger problem than the vague melodies), Catch the Fall is a needless footnote to Japan’s fine career.
After six years of scattered and sporadic collaborations, the four key members of Japan temporarily united to record a one-off album during 1989 and early ’90, releasing it — after almost a year of titular consideration — under the name Rain Tree Crow. With the majority of the LP “written as a result of group improvisations” (a neat trick in eight studios spread across Europe), Rain Tree Crow is split almost evenly between soundscapes and more conventional “songs.” Although employing some outside musicians (including Nelson and guitarist Phil Palmer), the album doesn’t sound drastically different from any of their previous work together, but successfully revives Japan’s late-period neo-tribal rhythms and vaguely Asian feel. Some of the looser instrumentals recall Sylvian’s excesses in that realm, but the lovely “Blackwater” and “Cries and Whispers” inhabit ballad territory, while the oddly urgent neo-fusion of “Blackcrow Hits Shoe Shine City” breaks unfamiliar ground. Perfect for late-night ambience.
Unfairly characterized as a poseur since his earliest days with Japan, Sylvian has continued to improve his credibility and stature. His obtusely alluring music and muse rendered him one of the most distinctive and influential artists of the ’80s. Besides his own work, Sylvian has collaborated extensively with escapees from the rock world (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Holger Czukay, Robert Fripp, Bill Nelson) as well as jazz figures (including horn players Jon Hassell, Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham).
Sylvian’s solo career began shortly before Japan split in ’82, when he released the first of two singles with Sakamoto (the second, 1983’s “Forbidden Colours,” was part of the soundtrack for the dreary Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence) very much in the late-Japan style. With assistance from former bandmates Steve Jansen (Sylvian’s brother; the family name is Batt) and Richard Barbieri, Brilliant Trees expands and refines that approach; contributions from Czukay, Sakamoto and Hassell emphasize Sylvian’s growing immersion in jazz and more esoteric musics, most successfully on “The Ink in the Well” and the less structured second side.
Sylvian then embarked upon a perplexingly complicated multimedia project. He made a Japanese video documentary called Preparations for a Journey (from which a 20-minute short entitled Steel Cathedrals was released) based on an exhibit of his photographs (later assembled into a lavishly-packaged book, Perspectives); the video’s ephemeral (some might say near-comatose) ambient music was issued as a cassette (Alchemy — An Index of Possibilities), extracts of which became an EP (Words with the Shaman). Now that’s maximizing creative effort.
The ambitious double-LP Gone to Earth marks a more substantial departure in technique. Although Jansen and Barbieri participate, Sylvian pursues a sparser, more natural setting, as the strong presence of Fripp, Nelson and Wheeler moves the music further and further out. While some parts are sharply and jarringly defined, others are like Music for Airports in Antarctica. The first disc contains relatively conventional songs, contrasting the jazzy “Taking the Veil” with the languid drift of “Before the Bullfight,” the grating Fripp-onance of the title track with the almost schmaltzy “Silver Moon” and “Laughter & Forgetting” — by far the most conventional “love” songs he’s ever released. The second disc, which consists entirely of lulling, often rhythmless instrumentals, could safely be titled Gone to Sleep.
While pursuing a more jazz-oriented and acoustic-based direction with notable contributions from Sakamoto and Isham, Secrets of the Beehive is significantly more accessible (reaching the VH-1 audience, “Orpheus” became a near hit). Abandoning its predecessor’s spaciness, the simpler format still manages to cover nearly as much territory.
Sylvian’s two albums with Czukay feature other members of Can (as well as Markus Stockhausen) and contain long, lulling instrumentals; they’re not unlike extensions of Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive. The subtitles of the two pieces on Flux + Mutability — “A big, bright, colourful world” and “A new beginning is in the offing” — fairly reflect the music.
Weatherbox is a lavishly packaged five-CD set that contains Brilliant Trees, an expanded Alchemy, Gone to Earth and Secrets of the Beehive, as well as an extensive and carefully detailed booklet.