Published on 20th May 2020
Japonica’s debut album Into the Kaleidoscope is one that is easy to review, and yet at the same time impossible to review. That is to say, I could review it in the way most album reviews are written, and as I mostly (though not always) write myself, but it could never do justice to the album, nor adequately describe any of the tracks which make up this incredibly beautiful collection of songs.
So who exactly are Japonica? Well let’s just say I know, but you don’t need to. I didn’t need to know, I asked, purely for the purpose of this review as it’s the norm for TPA to give performance credits at the end of a review. Let’s just say that Japonica is a mysterious collective, and leave it at that. The music is all you need, and it’s gorgeous.
As to why I can’t review this album in a traditional sense, you need only to think of that old proverb that a picture paints a thousand words. You can describe, for example, Claude Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant, but you can no more adequately put it into words than to describe an actual sunrise. Each track on Into the Kaleidoscope provides a perfect vignette, brief and evocative, yet defying description. A small Impressionist scene, focussing on one moment. And Impressionism seems to resonate throughout this album. Though never sounding quite like Debussy, that composer’s Impressionist ethos is forever present. Japonica make no mention of Debussy as an inspiration or influence, but I would not be surprised at all if it were so.
It could be, perhaps, the influence of Ryuichi Sakamoto, who Japonica do list – as, after all, Sakamoto has said on more than one occasion that Debussy is his greatest influence. And Sakamoto is not the only modern classical composer that you could compare Japonica to, as I am reminded of Jóhann Jóhannsson and Ólafur Arnalds, but those Icelandic composers were influenced by quite different classical composers while Sakamoto is undeniably Impressionist, as are Japonica. Indeed, if we want to look to Iceland, while I do find much of Japonica’s album reminiscent of Jóhannsson and Arnalds, it is Sigur Rós that really stand out as an influence – and, again are given as such in Japonica’s bio. Both bands manage to very effectively combine classical and ambient elements in their music to great effect – to paint aural pictures beyond description. And the use of bowed guitar in both bands is surely not coincidental.
Sigur Rós once collaborated with Radiohead, and Radiohead are clearly another great influence in Japonica’s music (as they note). I don’t normally like to rely so much on either comparison with other artists or on an artist’s biography – but in the case of Into the Kaleidoscope, I feel it is simply the best way to go about this. I don’t want to describe the songs, or even the overall sound, so much as give you hints as to what it might sound like, leaving this review perhaps as mysterious as the collective who created it. Pretentious? Perhaps, but this is really a journey you need to take yourself, with as little guidance as possible. The album is all about letting go of the information that surrounds us and attempts to sway us one way or another, and returning to nature. Again, making it impossible to review adequately, as I may inevitably sway you and would merely be adding to the information that the album suggests you let go of.
So, let me just add some more artists I am reminded of. These are not given as influences, so I am definitely not suggesting they are, these are merely artists I find myself thinking of at times. The first is possibly not surprising for anyone who knows me. I love David Bowie, and I find quite a few pieces and passages on Into the Kaleidoscope reminiscent of his work (particularly Low and, perhaps less obviously, Outside). From more out of left-field, I offer Jane’s Addiction. That might seem strange, if you’re familiar only with the radio hits, but just listen to the way Up the Beach begins my favourite Jane’s album, Nothing’s Shocking, for one example of where I am coming from.
Overall, I go back to Impressionism. Just as Impressionist painters convey mood and atmosphere with their use of colour, so does Impressionist music. So Into the Kaleidoscope’s colourful artwork seems quite apt. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is as famous for being one of the first Impressionist pieces of music as Debussy is for rejecting being described as an Impressionist. And just as Prélude presents a succession of richly textured vignettes, creating musical images through its use of timbre (or colour, if you will), and a delicate aesthetic carried by its themes and motifs, so too does Japonica’s Into the Kaleidoscope. The music is, as all Impressionist art is, evocative, and beautifully so.
In a way, the physical release of this album could not have come at a better time. As I mentioned somewhere above, this album is all about escaping from the overwhelming barrage of information that surrounds us. For many listeners, this album will provide a welcome solace in these times of uncertainty. A means of escape, and an opportunity to paint our own pictures, based on the imagery that Into the Kaleidoscope provokes. I very much look forward to what is next on the horizon for Japonica, and although it could well be some time away (as is the case for any artist at the moment), seeing them play live will be a must!
Into the Kaleidoscope
November used to be the time for the big guns to release their albums. It was Q4, the big push before Christmas, if a major act was going to issue an album it would be in November, get it into the shops, onto the racks, big publicity drive, big sales, big numbers. At least that’s how it used to be, even for indie artists. At least Coldplay still believe in Q4.
November has a certain atmosphere, once the clocks go back and journeys to and from work are either in half light or darkness. The post-fireworks and pre-Christmas period can bring a certain melancholy mood and I’ve always liked music to reflect that, whether issued that month or just falling into my life at the point. One of those albums to fit that mood this year has been “Into the Kaleidoscope” by Japonica.
I first became aware of Japonica last year when one of their songs was included in the Everything Indie Over 40 weekly new song expo, and I reviewed it favourably. In fact it stood out that week as quite a different sound, far from whatever definition of indie you may have. I was impressed and duly signed up on their mailing list, waiting for occasional messages of an ongoing album project. Finally that album is here (released 22nd November) and it fits the time of year perfectly.
Japonica are the brainchild of Jamie Farnell-Warren, a TV and film music composer, and the album has been developed over four years. There are traces in the music of Sigur Rós, Radiohead and Ryuichi Sakamoto, but the sound itself is quite unique. Songs will build from a simple piano pattern, layers of strings, synthesisers and other instruments are added. Farnell-Warren sings too, a warm intimate voice somewhere near Guy Garvey, the lyrics offer simple images, but add to the aural soundscape beautifully, enhancing the music. Sometimes – as on “Just to protect her” – the music will stall and multitracked harmonies will float across the song, like a choir in a school hall, washed in reverb.
This really isn’t explaining just how lovely the music is, but then how do you review a sunrise? This is an album which sets its mood up and sustains that mood throughout its forty nine minutes. Melodies flow into each other, piano and bass are mostly highlighted, guitars burn in the background, smothered in effects, chord changes swoop in unexpected directions, string arrangements surprise and delight. There are nods to contemporary modern composers like Michael Nyman and Johan Johansson, but this isn’t chin stroking music too clever for its own good. This music is luscious and richly textured, melodically inventive, sometimes heartwrenching, sometimes exhilarating, tension and crescendo, sustain and release.
It feels odd picking individual songs for attention because each song moves the album forward in its own way while maintaining the homogeneous sound of the album. Personal highlights? The tense introduction to “Through the mountains into the lake” perhaps. The delightful Penguin Cafe Orchestra bounce of “Hygge” maybe. The lilting drift of “Abandoned Abbey” which bursts into a drum machine led rave up. “Resferber” seems to channel some early 90s shoegaze into the mix too, which brings the album to a satisfying sense of closure.
Japonica have created their own sound world on their debut album and it’s gorgeous, moody, dramatic and the ideal soundtrack as November moves to December. Dark nights, bright lights, dive into the kaleidoscope, it’s dazzling.
You can purchase “Into the Kaleidoscope” from Japonica here and you can follow them on Twitter here
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rob writes about music and other less important subjects at his blog A Goldfish Called Regret (https://agoldfishcalledregret.wordpress.com) and also creates podcasts for Goldfish Radio (https://m.mixcloud.com/robmorgan589)and hosts the Everything Indie Over 40 album listening parties over at @eio40LPParty
He never achieved his ambition of making a Sarah Record.