Wataru Abe: Phenomena

Fryadlus: Pocket Fantasy

These full-lengths by Yoshihiro Furuya (aka Fryadlus) and Wataru Abe have a few things in common: both appear on the SPEKK sub-label Kaico, are the creations of Tokyo-based musicians, and were mastered with crystal clarity by Chihei Hatakeyama. On musical grounds, however, Pocket Fantasy and Phenomena couldn't be more different, with the first a radiant collection of electronic pop songs and the second an un compromising foray into abstract digital techno-funk. Even a simple comparison of their cover designs hints at the differences between them.

Beguiling is perhaps the best word to describe Fryadlus's debut album Pocket Fantasy, whose thirteen songs Furuya created entirely himself using keyboards, guitars, field recordings, horns, percussion, and electronics. He does a remarkably convincing job of simulating a full ensemble, despite having (presumably) assembled the tracks layer by layer with multi-tracking. Representative of the album's style, “Bell” is as joyous and jubilant as a Scottish dance, while “Hanabi” threads handclaps, hyperactive keyboard tinkles, synthesizer textures, and robust percussion patterns into a blazing, five-minute set-piece that's alternately uplifting and wistful.

Exuberant and melodically rich, the songs exude an irrepressible joy so strong it would seem capable of winning over even the grumpiest curmudgeon. Furuya packs an immense amount of detail into his mini-wonderlands, many of them buoyed by brightly dancing piano melodies and generally emphasizing natural sounds (despite the inclusion of electronic beats). There are a few cases where the material seems on the verge of combusting when a song squeezes so many elements into its arrangement (e.g., “Yudachi”) but Furuya generally refrains from letting things get too much out of control. If there's one thing the hour-long album could have used more of, it's the contrast a few downtempo and quieter songs (like the relatively restrained closer “Good Night”) would have brought to it. That caveat aside, it's hard to resist the music's affirmative spirit. Often uptempo and high-spirited, the material radiates so much warmth, joy, and innocence, one concludes he mustn't have a cynical bone in his body.

Even before putting Phenomena on, a scan of its track titles—“Polynomial, type C,” “Cosine Function,” and the like—provides a hint of the musical content on offer: abstract glitch-funk, ice cold in temperature and surgically precise in execution. Though Wataru Abe is credited with a number of pop ambient and folk band albums under other aliases (murr*murr, Ruibyat, Papa Joe), the fifty-minute Phenomena, his first solo album under his real name, is dramatically unlike any of those prior releases. Bringing a Berkelee College of Music background and expertise in Max/MSP sound programming to the project, Abe stokes a furious fire in blistering swarms such as “Cosine Function,” “Friction,” and “Infinite Border,” with the intensity letting up only once (specifically during the closing “Suspended Particulates,” a texturally rich co-production with Hiroshi Sembon).

Anyone desiring a reference point need look no further than Raster-Noton, as the album's eight, amelodic tracks play very much like Abe's riff on that label's clinical glitch-funk style. Hyperactively pulsating beats hammer alongside high-pitched tones, writhing machine noises, and digital smears in relentless, rhythm-focused pieces that invite comparison to Carsten Nicolai's Alva Noto output. That the album material isn't sui generis isn't grounds for dismissal, however, and listeners who can't get enough of Raster-Noton's cerebral sound would do well to track Phenomena down.

January 2014