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Hoppy Kamiyama + Bill Laswell

A Navel City / No One Is There

(Kanpai; US: 28 Sep 2004; UK: Available as import)

Great-but-weird Japanese export non-shocker!

“Who the heck is Hoppy Kamiyama?” is a question you’re probably asking about now, unless you’re pretty well up on your hippy Japanese experimental-noise-punk-pop producers who were big in the ‘80s. Should this inexplicably not be the case, he’s this well-respected bloke yonder where the sun doth rise, apparently having produced hundreds of records in his two decades of knob twiddling. His musical credo is something along the lines of “Freedom-Love-Originality will liberate music” (honestly), and on this collaboration with Bill “Ludicrously Prolific” Laswell, his credits read: Digital President, Slide Geisha [bet that goes down well at parties], Gram Pot, Ass Hole Box.


Honestly, you think you have it hard. Try concentrating on an hour’s worth of music, repeatedly, whilst taking great care never to try and picture, in any way, just how one might play an Ass Hole Box.


That said, holy Moses on a pogostick, but the album art is terrible. We’re talking a chilling melange of ‘80s New Age-isms: Buddhas, lotuses, the Virgin Mary, flying saucers, and a Day-Glo cityscape do battle as a backdrop, and a monkeyed-around-with photo scan of an American Eagle (no doubt totally, symbolically unrelated to Laswell) surveys the aesthetic carnage surrounding him with a look of distinct unease. It has to be a pastiche, but either way the ray-traced David is an addition of sickly genius.


Thankfully, the music itself is very far from fitting into the so-bad-it’s-brilliant category, despite titles like “Todes Fuge” and “Zarathrustra”. Instead, these seven tracks—shortest four minutes, longest over 16—are pretty much object lessons in making avant-garde music, improv, trio dynamics, and sonic texture studies accessible and enjoyable. And yes, it’s actually a trio, for between Laswell on “Bass & Effects”, wandering, swinging and swaying with casual power, and Kamiyama’s synth-like washes, keyboards, and sample-manipulating instruments (he can’t possibly be playing them with his mouth, right?...right?), percussionist Kiyohiko Semba holds his own with vigor and aplomb (and the mysterious “Electric Drum”).


Let’s follow the 14-minute “The Desert”: Opening with ambient atmospherics, Semba gradually builds up layers of light and intricate ethnic percussion, Laswell weighing in with some prolonged, ominous bass notes. At around three minutes, something akin to a small flute is improvising whilst Semba starts to tighten up his drumming, the kick drum thumping things into line, and Laswell starts moving into a circular, gliding groove, Kamiyama adding weird, rhythmic squelching noises, little splashes of cold acid rain. A minute later and he’s improvising on the keyboard in short disjointed chunks, whilst Semba begins to build up a head of steam via a repetitive but powerful cymbal pulse. Kamiyama’s playing becomes more liquid as whirring noises chirp, then the keyboard and the percussion intertwine in rapid flurries before breaking apart, Semba resuming a stark beat to give Kamiyama’s now elegant playing a lot more space. Laswell, silent all this while, returns to drive the mix forwards, first retaining the initial circular pattern and then breaking it into something fast, snaking and loose in duet improv with Kamiyama as Semba keeps his hi-hats clipping away like regular steam release pistons. At around 11 minutes, all three go in different directions at the same tempo, melodic but freeform and complex until Semba buoys to the top of the mix again with some accelerating, heavier drumming; things peak, then gradually drift apart back into quiet, fading atmospherics and blurred FX.


What Semba and Kamiyama have managed to do is create compositions that always sound focused, with enough leeway for improvisation to give the listener the impression that he’s hearing each piece develop as he listens; an exploration of timbres, rhythms, and sounds that wends its intriguing way unpredictably, without ever becoming monotonous or atonal. Kamiyama’s polished production pulls all three musicians together into one weave of playing wherein each and every sound is clearly defined, the whole easy on the ear but brimming with life and internal tensions. Whether your primary musical interest lies with jazz, dub, electronica, or simply sound, behind the strange name and awful cover lies much to intrigue and delight you, and the trio pull it all off with seemingly effortless panache and intelligence. I just hope your visual imagination isn’t as good as mine.

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