Lost 80s Japanese synthpop treasure rediscovered and remastered
“From the moment I first heard ‘Mars’ by Tomo Akikawabaya, I felt he was a mysterious, far away and unreachable entity. I’m not sure why, perhaps it was something about the depth and darkness of his music… I ended up searching for him for many years without any luck, so it was a true surprise when he finally surfaced.”
Those are the words of Veronica Vasicka, electro-archaeologist and charismatic head of Brooklyn’s Minimal Wave label, whose long search for the pioneering, elusive master of dark Japanese synthpop has resulted in this compelling double LP, which brings together 1984’s ‘The Castle’ and the following year’s ‘Anju’.
Close to giving up her hunt, Vasicka contacted synth-waver Nao Katafuchi, a Tokyo ex-pat living in New York who still had close links with his native city’s music scene. And, it turns out, with Akikawabaya. Katafuchi put the two in touch, and they began a dialogue. Ironically, during the discussions that resulted in this double album idea being agreed, it transpired that Akikawabaya has long been a fan of Minimal Wave, closely following its scrupulously well-judged output. “Just goes to show…” someone probably said.
Minimal Wave devotees will no doubt be anticipating this release with wasabi keenness, such is the profile it’s been given by their arbiter queen. They’ll discover a collection of darkly alluring little gems here, all deftly remastered with crystal clarity and sounding both of their time and out of it.
Opening with ceremonial, temple-like atmospherics before giving way to glorious ‘Blade Runner’-esque swathes of keyboards, ‘Rebirth’ has plenty going on to lure in the curious ear. As the track progresses, there’s a downtempo cinematic portent that also recalls Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack work for David Lynch. Running at well over 10 minutes, it’s a brave one to start things off with.
‘Mars’, the track which first hooked Vasicka, is more accessibly pop-toned, propelled by the high-pitched drum machine cracks of a Boss DR-55, apparently borrowed from Salon Music’s Zin Yoshida, who was recording in the same studio. Just so you know. But what strikes most are Akikawabaya’s vocals. Sung in heavily-accented English, they’re fascinatingly reminiscent of David Sylvian, even down to the affected vibrato edges and mildly pained expressiveness. Standout ‘Dizziness’ sounds like one of those unlikely one-hit-wonders you can’t quite place, so catchy is its major/minor key chorus hook, snappy uptempo syncopation and jaunty, nostalgia-tinged Roland synth stabs.
No mere synthpop auteur though, Akikawabaya shows a master’s touch both as a keyboard player and producer throughout, sustaining genuine depth and variety over the whole piece. The reason, no doubt, for Vasicka’s dogged pursuit of this obscure character. There’s a cerebral, introspective quality to songs like ‘Diamond’ and ‘Sleeping Sickness’ that cleverly places a spacious, dystopian ambience into pop contexts that could otherwise sound clumsy in the hands of lesser musicians. ‘The Invitation Of The Dead’ is truly quite the find.