a closer listen

Sugai Ken ~ UkabazUmorezU

We had our first taste of UkabazUmorezU with the “Wochikaeri to Uzume” video, an oddly pulsating piece filled with laughter, TV samples, knocks, boings, screams, water, soda, gamelan and a ticking clock, all wrapped in a bubble surrounded by dancing letters.  The circle is not always a circle; at one point it’s a hexagon.  Part of the music goes into hyperdrive while the rest preserves the tempo.  And the track is less than three minutes long.  This provides an indication of the artist’s sound design, as well as the variety in his arsenal.

Where do we go from here, now that we’ve arrived at Uzume?  The name refers to the Shinto goddess of joy and happiness, as well as a protector in Hyperdimension Neptunia, which seems appropriate given the sci-fi/video game nature of the music.  And Sugai Ken is all about these things, specifically the joy of uniting disparate sounds in a multi-dimensional portal.  The album acts as the personification of a Japanese night, populated by characters real and imagined: folklore merging with the modern day, ghosts intermingling with living souls.  Imagine the parade of creatures in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away”; these are their theme songs.  In “Shinobine”, the artist walks around his neighborhood, birds and traffic bearing witness, his watch continuing to tick the beat of the previous track, symbolizing a continuity between worlds.

While the juxtapositions of sounds may be disorienting, there’s nothing frightening here.  This is a forest of curiosities, in which an imp may hide in a tea cup or a fairy in an abandoned drum.  The mixture of organic and electronic represents their mingling.  “Yoo-hoo!” a voice cries in “Okera.”  Who’s messing with the cutlery?  It seems that Sugai Ken is not playing instruments as much as he is playing with his instruments, using them as invitations, in the same way as a Snapple bottle cap may be used to attract dolphins.  That is, until “Doujiri”, when the sound of a harp produces a momentary feeling of calm.  The fact that this calm is soon interrupted by woodwinds and windings is irrelevant; the point is that again the artist has flipped the script.  As he becomes more comfortable with the creatures of the night, so do we.  So in the final track, when they start dancing, we want to dance too.  This may be a video game, but by this time, we’re all animated.  (Richard Allen)