Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Ghosts of My Life

Japan formed in 1974 when David Sylvian (David Alan Batt) was just 16 and listening to Roxy's Stranded; Brother, Steve Jansen, was 15. Heavily inspired by Bowie and Bolan, the band's greatest influence was obviously Roxy Music. With a similar vocal range and nasal vibrato, David Sylvian was often compared (and often negatively) to Bryan Ferry, though the similar vocal styles are surface level at worst. Sylvian wouldn't argue the influence of Ferry, but the copycat press that Japan received was unwarranted. The first two albums, and even to a degree Quiet Life, have a more proto-punk tinge than a true Roxy influence, if anything sounding like "Virginia Plain" Roxy sans Eno. With Gentlemen Take Polaroids any hint of a Roxy influence was diminished.


Having hardly given the first two albums a tumble, Quiet Life (AM6 - 1979) came as a great surprise. It was the first LP on which the band created its own distinctive aesthetic of atmospheric, ambient pop. "Quiet Life," "In Vogue" and "Fall in Love With Me" are the album's signature tunes, moody electronic pop, while "Alien" is superb atmospherics painted on an eerie electronic canvas. "All Tomorrow's Parties" is an exceptional cover of the Velvet's original, while the album's other cover, "I Second that Emotion" (only originally available on the B side of the "Quiet Life" 45), is less distinctive, while still effective. Sylvian was but 19 upon its release.

Gentlemen Take Polaroids (AM8 - 1980) was the LP that most encapsulated what Japan was about. It oozes plastic cool; modern, clinical sophistication at the dawn of the digital age (although the synths were mostly, if not entirely, analogue). In fact, the synths are one of the factors that make this a stand-out LP. Rarely are keyboards used as effectively - thanks to Richard Barberi's wizardry, they effortlessly alternate from icy New Wave to warm, gooey analogue lusciousness - which happens to fit perfectly with the fluid purring of Mick Karn's fretless bass, and Sylvian's austere vocals. The most affecting track on the album is the mystical and desolately romantic piano ballad "Nightporter;" eerie as all hell. This was a breakthrough album and its influence can still be noted.


When artists idolize their predecessors, they take on the nuances of the original. One doesn't readily recognize the influence of Robert Johnson on Clapton or Keith Richards; similarly there isn't much in the way of Beatles or Beach Boys in Billy Corgan's Smashing Pumpkins (Corgan’s professed heroes), but the influence is there. When a young artist like David Sylvian takes on the persona of Bryan Ferry, one cannot fault the press for saying so disparagingly, and yet Ferry was merely a catalyst for Sylvian. He metamorphosed from funk at 14, elevated synthpop to synth sophistication during his 20s, and evolved from avant-garde wordsmith-songstylist in the 90s to whatever he is with the release of There is a Light That Enters Houses With No Other House in Sight (which, if you are so inclined, you can check out here - link corrected from original post).