Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Tin Drum After 40 Years

Tin Drum (AM8)
Artist: Japan
Produced by: Steve Nye, Japan
Released: November 13, 1981
Tracks (All songs by Sylvian unless noted): 1) The Art of Parties – 4:09; 2) Talking Drum – 3:34; 3) Ghosts – 4:33; 4) Canton (Jansen/Sylvian) – 5:30; 5) Still Life in Mobile Homes – 5:32 6) Visions of China (Jansen/Sylvian) – 3:37; 7) Sons of Pioneers (Karn/Sylvian) – 7:07; 8) Cantonese Boy – 3:44
Players: David Sylvian – vocals, guitar, keyboards & keyboard programming, tapes, cover concept; Mick Karn – fretless bass guitar, African flute, dida; Steve Jansen – drums, acoustic, electronic & keyboard percussion; Richard Barbieri – keyboards & keyboard programming, tapes

If Japan (the island nation) was the burgeoning, futuristic cyberpunk wet dream of the 80's, then China was its opposite: a desolate landscape of grays punctuated by party red, and nearly identically clothed peasants all looking like Isaac Mizrahi. It emerged from the writhing mismanaged chaos and puritanism of Mao's unfettered rule, a place yet to lay the foundation for the swaggering and shameless capitalism we enjoy today. In terms of westerners looking east for inspiration, these two superficially similar nations offered VERY different visions at the time.

Japan (the band) named themselves after the flashy, showy, speedily evolving conglomerate of a nation, and their music followed in unsurprising lockstep throughout their evolution. Indeed the previous album (Gentlemen Take Polaroids) was a very very cyberpunk affair. Tin Drum dispenses with all that, and barrels headlong into the most daringly artsy material the band would ever produce (duh, it was their last album). The learning curve from Polaroids to Tin Drum proved a massive incline, one that no one saw coming and fucked us all up. We went in expecting an LP like Peter Gabriel's third eponymous solo, world music wrapped around easily digestible pop with a moral sensibility. Nope! 1st listen: it was all so easy to write off as ridiculous Orientalist posturing. 2nd Listen: A little extra time and one realized that this was far from drive-by ethnic thievery, but surprisingly studied shit. It's clear that Sylvian et al spent a great deal of time studying Chinese classical music to pick the kinds of musical structures they could bend their weird pop around. Not to mention they went out of their way to utilize authentic Chinese instruments or create synthetic approximations of what they couldn't find. This is extra effort shit from a band that started out making extra trashy glam rock! I wonder what the Chinese would have made of Tin Drum had the country been as open then as it is today. 

How faithful this is to Chinese musical structure, idk (have to do some homework, someday), but Tin Drum is Art Pop as fuck. So many many counterpoint layers of percussion and that endless fretless bass. No doubt Tin Drum is a challenging listen; every track with a strictly measured protocol; indeed this is easily the strangest synth-pop album of all time (you can take your Talk Talk and stick it). So is it good? Well duh, you get a pop album from perhaps the silliest period in pop ever and it has a formal challenge to your ears greater than most Prog bands can dream. I can see Robert Fripp listening to Tin Drum and going "fuck!" This is an awesome puzzle to work with, and I still don't think I have it all down, yet I expect the score could still go up.