Never judge a book by its cover. But the hyperactive artwork of this album does tell us much about the music. Both are a kaleidoscopic frenzy, where shards of Japanese tradition embed themselves in a body of global influences. We might expect as much from Kiki Hitomi and Shigeru Ishihara, whose discographies span electronic genres from chiptune to IDM, from breakcore to ambient. Hitomi’s 2016 solo album was a dubbed-out synthpop offering. Working as DJ Scotch Egg, Ishihara’s achievements include the craziest Boiler Room set in existence: four Gameboys, a frying pan, and a mosh pit. Originally a three-piece with percussionist Andrea Belfi, WaqWaq Kingdom released a debut album of psychedelic downtempo. Now a duo, Hitomi and Ishihara bring us a triumphant sophomore album which capitalises on all their earlier work. In both their sound and their image, they’ve been pushing for an aesthetic that is now fully realised – one of hallucinogenic time-travel, zipping between Japan and an alternative spacetime, fuelled by dancehall riddims.
On the album cover, a startled pear runs away from some version of the Jinmenju (or “human-face tree”) depicted by folkloric illustrator Toriyama Sekien. The music of the opening tracks is similarly nimble-footed, leaping from Jamaican sound systems to 8-bit video games. Atop this wild hyperreality of beat-making, cheerily artificial synth melodies compete with snippets of traditional folk sounds. While pears are believed to ward off misfortune, they can’t deter the giant skeleton looming into view. There’s a similar dark turn on “GaGa Qu”, where abstract drones meet Shinto drumming. After a few ominous minutes, spirits intervene with barrages of otherworldly bass. However, the dominant tone of the album is unbridled, eccentric fun. “Circle of Life” channels an organic rainforest dub, while “Doggy Bag” is infectiously cool, plasticized pop.
The manic skeleton bears some familial resemblance to the one Princess Takiyasha summons in the famous woodblock. But this one has a missing third eye, which the two kago carriers steal away in the manner of a wealthy dignitary. Their ensuing track “Third Eye” is an understated interlude, with its four-on-the-floor beat and claustrophobically looped melody. On this track, and across the album, Hitomi casts spells, much like the sorceress in the woodblock. Her bilingual vocals encompass stylish rapping, catchy pop singing, and ethereal incantation. The longest track, “Medicine Man”, commences with acoustic percussion and processed, wordless song. Across almost 11 minutes, Hitomi’s exploratory vocals verge on Björk territory, while the shifting sonic palette builds in intensity. From minimalist rhythmic figures, we move through waves of ambience, and onto an intense plateaux of synth melodies and drum solos. “Doggy Bag” might be compulsive fast food for the ears, but WaqWaq Kingdom also offer a full banquet of sound and emotion on this mind-bending record. (Samuel Rogers)