Monday, May 1, 2017

Aspects of Japanese Modern Musical Culture That I Find Appealing and Unappealing

In my last post, which was a review of Strawberry Illuminati's Hilton Fountains album, I discussed the aspects of the album that I found appealing and unappealing.  I thought it might be a good idea to create a kind of expandable list of things that I find appealing and unappealing with regards to modern Japanese visual and musical culture, as I feel that the country has a lot of unique aspects that often go unexplored.  I'll probably continually update this post in the future or do new posts about new elements as they come up, but for now, here's a few aspects of Japanese artistic culture in modern times that I either find appealing or unappealing.


Musical Chromaticism
This is a very important aspect for me, as it defines a lot of Japanese music that I listen to.  This has a bit more to do with music theory than any actual or specific timbral or visual stimuli.  I think that this love for chromaticism is very reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi's compositions and the Japanese minimalist movement as a whole.  Lots of Japanese songs use either secondary dominants or passing tones to give them a very chromatic and satisfying flavor.  Some great examples of this would be in Joe Hisaishi's work, the Storytellers theme in Getsu Fuuma Den, the ending theme of Arkista's Ring, and many, many other Japanese songs.

Bossa Nova
This is also an aspect that I find to be very appealing.  Bossa Nova was a very popular genre of music in Japan during the 60s and 70s.  Honestly, some of my favorite songs are Japanese Bossa Nova tunes.  This popular influence can be noted in many Nintendo works, such as the wii music, Animal Crossing, and many other non-nintendo-exclusive works.

References to Traditional Japanese Visual Styles
I think that pre-western Japanese imagery is very distinctive and interesting, and I like references to such imagery in modern culture.  Images such as temples and other elements of traditional Japanese imagery and color rules are very appealing to me.  A lot of the imagery from LSD dream emulator definitely feels this way, along with, of course, Getsu Fuuma Den.


Tr-606 Use
While its cousins, the tb-303 and tr-909 became staples of American techno music in the 90s, the tr-606 remained popular only in japan.  Due to its cheapness, ease of use, and relative availability in japan, the 606 was used by many techno and electronic producers throughout the 90s and early 2000s.  This manifested itself in very many experimental electronic albums and songs, branding the 606 a very well-known auditory image in modern Japanese musical culture.  I simply don't like the way it sounds, however.  Notable example are the Katamari Damacy soundtrack and literally almost very piece of Japanese experimental techno music.

High Attack, Acoustic Triangle Waves
To be honest, the reason that I don't like these is simply because they give me the creeps.  The two most notable examples in my mind are the snow world the in Yume Nikki and the rainy day theme from Animal Crossing.  These two pieces strike me as very eery and without much feeling, so maybe my dislike for this particular sound is associative given the fact that I usually like the sound of triangle waves.

Studio Ghibli Mimicry
This is another aspect that I don't really like about a lot of Japanese culture.  While I don't think that this is a huge issue, I don't really like it when other productions either, try to create something similar to the imager of Studio Ghibli films, or try to offer something in its place that doesn't have the same grasp on imagery.  I think that Breath of the Wild represents the Former and Makoto Shinkai's films the latter.  I feel like the main aspect of Studio Ghibli's imagery is its intensive attention to detail, which I think clashes with the vastness and focus on variety in the new Zelda game.

Strawberry Illuminati- Hilton Fountains Review

The album that I'll review today is Hilton Fountains by Strawberry Illuminati.  While I don't find all aspects of this album particularly appealing, I suppose that that's part of the interesting thing about vaporwave as a genre of music.  It's not all supposed to be appealing.  The genre takes the unappealing aspects of music, specifically corporate music from the 80s and 90s and further expounds upon the visual and auditory qualities that come with such stimuli.  I hesitate to use the word aesthetic to attribute any part of this music to, as it may sound rather contrived, but as a whole, the genre of music certainly has many fundamental aspects that define it and boundaries which it often works within while sometimes breaking.  Anyway, now that that short introduction is over, here's the actual review of the music.

1.  Fountain Shimmers
This is a rather creepy introduction.  I can hear pretty faintly in the background some sad almost classical piano music.  However, overlain over it is a kind of ambient drone.  This gives off a kind of eery effect.  The piano music is very sad sounding and nostalgic, while the ambient drone sounds familiar, perhaps reminiscent of some Aphex Twin ambient track or something.

2.  Spotlights
This is a sort of sad vaporwave song.  It's very downtempo kind of and just sounds like a sad wandering song.  It's not incredibly appealing to me, but I do think that it does a great job of setting up a very specific atmosphere.

3.  Walk
This song probably has the most interesting chord changes.  It has a very cool bassline and interesting synth kind of keyboard parts in the background.  It's songs like this that make me wish that I better understood the instruments used in songs like this.  The background keyboards sound so interesting and fluid.  However, unlike the DX-7 electric pianos, they don't have a huge famous context with which to identify.  In the end, it's just another forgotten sound relevant to only a few select corporate mall tunes.  The vibe melody on this seems kind of out of place, but I think that brings out the strange and misplaced nature of this whole album.

4.  Touch
This song feels a bit cinematic to be a vaporwave song.  It consists of one looped sample of a piano, a choir sound, and a few drum sounds, ending with a short melody of a clarinet or saxophone or some other instrument.  This seems more like it would be a video game theme or something that would play during a cutscene than actual muzak.  However, I also think that this is part of the appeal of this and of vaporwave in general.  It's an outsider perspective of a trend which never manifested itself in any kind of community during its prime of societal use.

5.  Moonlight Rendezvous
This one of the shortest songs on the album.  It sounds very dark though, somewhat like something that would be heard exclusively at night.  While a lot of songs- not specifically on this album- give off the image, to me, of streetlights, this song is most reminiscent of the absence of such light.

6.  Cold
This one is very interesting to be honest.  More so than lobby or hotel music, this one has a very fitness club kind of feel.  I think that this associative connection is mainly because of wii sports.  The sine wave bleeps and bloops combined with muzak elements, tr-606 drum beats, and DX-7 pianos give off a particularly Japanese fitness club vibe.

7.  Haze
This track probably gives off the most classical vaporwave sound of any of the tracks on the album.  It's dissonant horn melody that loops and winds over lush, forbidding strings, almost gives off an atmosphere similar to something from Blade Runner.  I think this is one of the most atmospheric pieces on the album and definitely one of my favorites.

8.  Silk Sheets
This song also sounds a bit like wii music.  It definitely has a very building kind of crescendo to it that sounds very nice.  It's honestly one of the more uplifting pieces of vaporwave that I've heard.  While I feel that many of the vaporwave songs that I hear have an almost apocalyptic foreboding nature to them, this one seems rather hopeful.

9.  Romance and Love Flowers
This songs starts off with a very cool sounding electric piano sound.  After that, piano and drum parts get introduced.  I think that these are pretty defining features of the album as a whole.  This songs is atmospheric and has a rather nice feel to it.

Overall, I like this album a good amount.  While there are definitely aspects of it that I really enjoy, it's not something that I find very appealing, which is no fault of the album.  It's simply a subjective matter.  The overall image this album has is a cross somewhere between traditional mall music and Nintendo wii sports music.  Overall, I think that this album, while it might not appeal me personally, definitely accomplishes its goals and is probably one of the most well-put together pieces of vaporwave I've ever heard.  I'm glad this album exists.zfvao

Prog Rock and Chiptune Music

I had originally planned to write a review, along with some interesting facts, about Aphex Twin's piano works.  However, due to my lack of ability to find any new or interesting information aside from a few facts already known to most hardcore fans, I embark now on my next big project, which has to do with a few connections I've noticed within the realm of video game music.

Prog Rock and Chiptune Music

As a child, I often grew up listening to music by Disasterpeace, who did the music, at the time, for the Glyos System Series games and other media, but is most widely known now for his work on Fez, It Follows, and Hyper Light Drifter.  However, when I listened to him in middle school, none of these had been released yet, so I was confined to his earlier works.  Many of his early works have a very prog rock-ish feel, as is the case in Atebite and the Warring Nations and in The Chronicles of Jammage the Jam Mage.  Actually, those two albums are welded together in a broader philharmonic universe the Richard Vreeland created that I believe also has connections into another of his albums, Neutralite the Hero.  The second person that I believe is relevant to this discussion is Tim Follin, a much earlier video game composer.  Follin was not incredibly well known during the heyday of his compositional output, mainly due to his working on games the either were very obscure or never attained much popularity at the time of their release.  However, Follin has recently received a fairly large cult following of people who listen to his old game soundtracks religiously.

The thing that I find most interesting about these two composers is the close correlation with prog rock in their chiptune music.  In Tim Follin's case, probably the best example is the title theme that he wrote for the NES game Solstice.  While this starts off as a very normal song, it quickly gets very crazy and prog rock-ish.  Actually, the music on this game is incredibly extraordinary for the NES.  It's crazy arpeggios following the beginning of the song must have been incredibly taxing both for Follin to compose on the NES and for the NES itself to run.  The overall complexity of the song and its huge length must have also been particularly challenging.

The huge similarity that I see between Follin and Vreeland is in their musical upbringing.  Both of them admit to having been very big fans of prog rock as they grew up, with Vreeland and Follin each citing numerous prog bands as incredibly instrumental in their musical upbringing.  This definitely contributed the prog rock kind of sound in their music, I think that the other element that factors into the use of such a sound would be genre.

In the case of each artist, their most prog rock-esque tunes were used on mainly fantasy albums.  I think that this is an incredibly important factor to consider.  The main reason for this, in my opinion, would be associative elements drawn from the composer to the project worked on.  There is a very associative correlation between progressive rock and fantasy, with many prog bands having huge inspiration in stories such as Lord Of the Rings and other manifestos or high fantasy imagery, story, and world building.  With this conclusion having been reached, it's interesting to look at the role that a composer plays in changing the overall tone of a work of art, specifically video games, due to his or her own preconceptions and notions about what the game should sound like.

One example of this that I think almost directly contradicts Follin and Vreelands' observations about the fantasy games and projects they worked on would be the soundtrack for the NES game, Wizards and Warriors, specifically the Music Intro.  While Follin and Vreeland each saw the fantasy elements of the projects they worked on as having to do musically with prog rock, the composer for Wizards and Warriors took the medieval theme of his game as having more to do with classical music, creating a work that is more reminiscent of Bach's fugues than any piece of rock music.

Overall, I've come to the conclusion that there are two main factors that will factor into how the soundtrack for something, specifically for a video game, will sound.  There is the factor of how the composer was brought up musically, along with the factor of associative trends that they apply to that game.  In a way, these factors are nearly inseparable, as the upbringing of that composer will determine the way that they see the world and thus, so too the musical aspects of the projects they work on.  It's almost beautiful to look at these things and how seemingly random factors can play such a hugely important and vital role into the formulation of labored-over and beautiful works of art.