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“Utakata no Hibi,” a Quodlibet for the 21st Century

| Tuesday, September 29, 2015

UtakataNoHibi_WEBERIN RICE | The Observer

A marching theme for window shoppers. That’s the first image that comes to mind when listening to the plastic drumming that drives forth “Soko kara … ,” the first track off Mariah’s scene-defining “Utakata no Hibi” (1983; reissued this past September), an album born somewhere at the intersection of utopian ecstasy and globalization anxiety. As the dissonant no-wave guitars and blocky arpeggios stomp onto the polished aisle floors of this sonic post-global shopping mall, it’s hard to discern whether the track’s backing vocals are cries of despair or of joy. But the monolithic leads, synthetically rearranging a traditional Japanese tune, make their assertion rather clear: the urban consumer experience is just as mystical a ritual as any age-old tradition.

At the time of its production, this positive mood was somewhat rare. The latter half of the 20th century was, whether or not its inhabitants were consciously aware of it at the time, defined by the different, diverging attitudes that gestated on the eve of the new millennium, quickly approaching as a unavoidable reality. This is obvious simply in noting the flourishing of the futuristic in contemporary arts, from fine to fiction, which thematically expressed, generally speaking, one of two moods: either a hopeful expectation of a world marked by increasing scientific discovery and social progress, or an anxious fear of one where science and nuclear power become the tools of oppression. As the Cold War trod dangerously on and social structures collapsed and rearranged themselves chaotically around the world, it seemed that people increasingly fell on the latter side of this spectrum.

But if there’s anything I feel I understand after listening to “Utakata no Hibi,” it’s that Yasuaki Shimizu, band members and arguably Mariah’s leading creative force, must be a consummate member of the optimist side.

My first experience listening to the saxophonist was on an all but forgotten album-of-sorts, “Music for Commercials” (1987): a collection of 24 jingles, ranging around a minute each, designed to be used in the adverts of companies like Seiko, Honda and Suntory. But these tunes aren’t quite like ordinary jingles: they are plastic yet organic, synthetic yet human. Above all, not only do they subtly assert that these opposing natures can and do exist symbiotically, but they express a mood of optimism towards the consumeristic culture for which they were meant to be ambassadors.

I write about that album because much of the same can be said about “Utakata no Hibi.” Not only do they share a plethora of similarities, but their goals and moods are closely linked. However, where “Commercials” is a collection of love haikus, “Utakata” is a romantic epic. As the album marches through its seven movements, a sense of journeying is plainly discernible: a journey through a Japanese society that at the time was experiencing major changes, transitioning from its role as isolated nation with rich cultural traditions to being thrust forth into a globalizing world as one of the major economic powers. This entrapment between the tight, seemingly conflicting grips of past and present feels mirrored on the album’s second track, “Shisen.”

The song ends somewhat abruptly as the album shoots forward into the cathartic “Hana ga Saitara,” the album’s strongest and most climactic track. An array of elements collide here. In a single track, a playful automated bass interacts with a radio voice, frenzied saxophones attacks the listener on the side, and more traditional Japanese melodies squeezes through a collection of synths, before the entire arrangement collapses into itself in an exhilarating explosion of dissonance.

When the track ends, the band feels reincarnated, reassured that their uncertain future is not a fearful one, but one that hold certain promise.

If “Utakata no Hibi” indeed begins gripped by hands pulling in opposite directions — one looking forward, one looking back — it ends with an epiphany that concludes the album on a hopeful note: an announcement to the world that those seemingly opposing dimensions are not moving apart, but are coming together.


Track: “Hana ga Saitara”

If you like: Brian Eno, David Byrne, Moondog


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