Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Symphony of the Earth--One Fewer, and We Might Have the Question -- The Elephant Kashimashi

There are a dozen, or at least a half-dozen, ways to start writing about this. And it's really just two songs. Well. Two songs, two instrumental versions of those songs, and seven live recordings.

The opener that has always entertained me is that this band fell into my lap by chance. I was studying Japanese (which has turned out poorly) in college and was handed a random "Best Of" for Christmas about eight or nine years ago. It was a band no one, including me and the one who gave it to me, my father, had ever heard of in our area. No friends, searching for them online tended to turn up sites in Japanese, if anything. The cover wasn't an awful lot of help, and of course all notes were in Japanese. I was going out to visit friends, though, so I put it on in my car stereo as I drove out, having sampled it briefly at home. They were noisy, boisterous, and rougher than the sounds typically associated with Japanese music in the modern age, especially that theoretical entire genre of "j-pop," which tends to be bouncy and slick more than anything else.

Of course, that compilation started with an album track from 24 years ago, the rather noisy "Fighting Man," simply transliterated into katakana instead of actually translated. Of course, Japanese music of any popular variety is notorious in English-speaking countries for its broken-up nature and habit of using English awkwardly at best, and totally uncomfortably at worst, jammed into the middle of otherwise entirely Japanese lyrics, often seemingly for no good reason. While it does compose the chorus of that song, it makes no other appearances, beyond that refrain of "Baby, fightingu man!"

The album slowly started to grow on me, 宮本 浩次/Hiroji Miyamoto's¹ throat-ripping vocals, the rhythm-heavy, rock-oriented songwriting and the seeming freedom to avoid adhering to any assumed approach to rock music with regard to tempo, energy or any other expectation was a pleasant surprise and gave the band an air of un-pretentiousness.

I started to gather what releases I could acquire on-the-cheap, be they compilations, full albums, or even singles. A (probably bootleg from an adjacent country) DVD soon followed, and eventually my collection began to become absurd. Around 2004, I began to collect them in earnest. Via presents and huge splurges via (tiny!) coupon-driven purchases, I started to gather their albums and singles at the time they were released. I'm not crazy: I didn't start to collect the DVD releases. Those tend to tun upwards of $70 apiece. This isn't to say I haven't got a touch of it: I do spend $50 on limited editions of albums with bonus DVDs attached.

At this point, my collection is...intimidating. It's really kind of a thing to behold, though likely seen as totally absurd by most people--though I can let you judge (briefly, please, I'm writing words here!):
This is why this band is intimidating to write about even beyond many others. I've been putting off The Fall and other prolific bands because of this, but in those cases I'm speaking for at least partial, if not majority, ignorance. However, there are places I can direct people to learn more than I can provide--for instance, covers The Fall in terrifyingly exact detail, and was used as the primary basis for my infamous Microsoft Access database of their releases, used to calculate the most efficient way to obtain a complete collection of Fall material.

There is no such site for for The Elephant Kashimashi, even though their name is at least, fortunately, often listed in Latin letters instead of as エレファントカシマシ as it is for and by most native Japanese speakers. Indeed, if you visit their English Wikipedia entry, you will find text that was written by, well, me. Look into the history of the page and you can see how little has been changed (subtract the bots and vandalism, and there's even less!). You'll see my name with a major clean-up, and a bunch of original research that I really shouldn't have put in there, but has now effectively become canon (!). Interestingly, one of the things I decided of my own accord was the split between the two eras, which the band themselves almost endorse, though they split by each label they have released through, which creates another two divisions, some of which have less obvious stylistic deviations from one another.

What this means, in the end, is that almost every English-based website about them is either a bad translation with no clean-up from a Japanese site, or is copied and pasted from some really terrible nonsense I myself wrote years ago, that no one paid (or pays) enough attention to to correct under Wikipedia's own rules. I'd revert it myself, but there would be nothing left. The amusing part of it all is that I've known my share of Japanophiles over the years, and not a single one has ever heard of this band. Yet, from my first Japanese teachers onward--who were all native to the islands and here to do that--I've never known a single Japanese person who did not know the band immediately. At my last job, someone had to show me ID, and I sheepishly asked him if it was all right to ask a stupid question when I saw he was from Hokkaido: did he, too, know this band? And yes, he did. Without hesitation and with absolute clarity.

So, you see, whatever I tell you is almost everything you have. My grasp and vocabulary when it comes to Japanese are more poor with their age and rust than they might have been once, but they were never any match for Miyamoto's lyrics in the first place. I tried a Google translate for the lyrics to the single this entry is ostensibly about, and gave up, as there was no way I was going to shape those concepts into something as intentional as they clearly are in their native language.

So, with that in mind, bear with me as we look into the 43rd single from one of my favourite bands, 大地のシンフォニー/約束, or Daichi No Shinfonii, which basically translates to "Symphony of the Earth." There's no better place to start, of course, than the song itself. There's a certain traditionalism about music release that remains in Japan--or maybe it's just this band and reflects their position in the local music industry, their longevity, or Miyamoto's obvious affections for rock history. I don't really know why, but they still release singles there, on disc, to this day. They have almost always got instrumental tracks--for karaoke, of course--for both the A- and B-sides, even. Once in a while Elekashi--as they are known, via the rather common habit of nicknaming for pop culture in Japan--even releases a non-album b-side, or even a completely non-album single, though both of these have been unheard of in some years, barring newly orchestral, acoustic, or otherwise re-arranged versions of known songs.

Still, this elderly approach to music not only makes the collecting exciting, it means that they still regularly record promotional videos, meaning I can give you the one for the song in question here:

Since they left EMI and went to Universal in 2008, the more bombastic side of their songwriting--usually driven musically as well as lyrically by Miyamoto, if the credits are any indication, as well as the appearance the band has in concert--has come more to the fore. String sections are now often present and sending songs soaring out over everything, like recent singles 桜の花、舞い上がる道を (Sakura No Hana, Maiagaru Michi Wo--something like, "The Flowers of Sakura, Soaring over the Streets") and 笑顔の未来へ (Egai No Mirai E--something like "Smiling Future"), bolstering all melodies and standard rock-band structures (bass, guitar, drums, vocals, occasionally rhythm guitar) with extra flavour, and an admitted hint of the sort of thing that usually makes people complain about string sections: it's too schmaltzy to be pretension, and sits somewhere between the two.

Daichi No Shinfonii has the feeling and the taste of singles like those, but the only extra instrument underlying their standard set-up is a piano, which does feel more on the "classy" side of keys, but does keep the song from inflating itself too completely, which was refreshing at this point. From what I could see of the reviews on Amazon Japan, I'm not alone in this feeling. Ratings for this single and the associated album seem to be overall higher, and the idea of a refreshing, more intimate sound seems to be shared.

Of course, I mention those two singles (both of which are excellent, despite what it may seem I'm implying!)  and that might seem to imply a unified theme for related songs. It doesn't, of course. There are some far more rocking songs on the album, like the slide-driven opener for the album, "Sky Is Blue," or the middle track おかみさん (Okamisan, "Wife") which has a wonderfully grungy riff underlying it, as well as 高緑 成治Seiji Takamidori's bass not dropping the riff even when /石森 敏行/Toshiyuki Ishimori's guitar lets off on the riff itself. And there's some rather blistering soloing in there--though whether it's Ishimori or Miyamoto is hard to tell. They both have a good, more blues-rock-y feel to their soloing than a flashy, hair-metal-style "show-off" approach (which isn't to say they aren't showing off, but doing so in a different style).

And the b-side, ah, what a wonder! Because it isn't a single, we didn't get an actual video, but Universal did release a brief clip for it, which shows the intense emotion Miyamoto tends to bring to his performances, the complete lack of restraint, and the inexplicably clear voice he continues to wrestle into the same shapes each time he sings a song, new or old, despite almost always having a cigarette hanging out of his mouth outside performances, including on the cover of the single these two songs come from!
The single is on the right, the left is the album the single comes from.

The strength of that b-side was an encouragement that we would be escaping the rather strained sounds of previous albums which, while still extremely good, seemed to be escaping the bounds of the band without quite turning to something bigger. It's a pretty bare arrangement, with with a catchy chorus that bears Miyamoto's trademark cracked falsetto next to his strong, clear notes and his heartfelt mic-"worshipping," that seems to pull him away and below the microphone when he does it, by sheer force of effort and emotion involved.

Seriously: this band is awesome. And, to prove it, I linked above to the popular studio version of 桜の花、舞い上がる道, but I've just found a live, all-acoustic version, which also emphasizes the power and clarity Miyamoto brings to live performance, seeming never to hold back on anything, which is somehow alien in comparison to almost every western act I've ever seen--as if he either has no shame about straining to hit a note, or shame doesn't relate to that kind of thing. There's something just intensely unrestrained and pure about how he performs.

Right, I'm going to let you watch and listen before I just go completely off the rails here.

¹I'm going with the Western convention for Romanized names, as it often smacks of pretentious "I know Japanese culture!" nonsense to invert it. It seems to kind of swing both ways: if you don't know that they normally give family names first, the assumption becomes that the first name is the given name as it is in Western cultures. If I do as I am doing, pedantic enthusiasts of Eastern cultures are likely to try to correct me, but they already know what's going on, so I'm going to err on the side of those who don't. So: in Japanese, I'm going to write (paste, if we're honest) names in the Eastern style with family names first. In the Latin alphabet, you will see given then family name.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...