[25 May 2006]
Magical Power Mako? With that kind of band name, what’s the first thing that springs to your mind?
If you’re like me –- or any slightly geeky American music fan –- you assume that it must be a slightly geeky indie rock band, probably somewhat inspired by Final Fantasy. And that’s exactly what I was expecting when I ordered it for review. So imagine my (unpleasant) surprise when I discovered I had, in fact, received a completely Japanese psychedelic folk-rock album.
So that’s my full disclaimer. It’s also my roundabout way of informing you, dear reader, that I don’t know shit when it comes to background for this album. From what little I can gather from my own research, Magical Power Mako is a trio with a reputation as something like the Yo-Yo Ma of experimental Japanese rock, and this album is a legendary touchstone of the scene, released during the ‘70s. Given that I have no prior knowledge or appreciation of Japanese psychedelia -– and there’s no possible way to fake it –- I’m simply going to write this review purely from the perspective of an unknowing pop music critic.
Fortunately, that doesn’t immediately doom Super Record. Even with its experimental, completely unconventional nature, the album still boils down to something inherently listenable and enjoyable. The sound starts from a template of basic Japanese folk, and then proceeds to wildly pilfer from every Asian influence one can imagine—there are Indian sitars, Turkish mandolins, and a distinctly Silk Road-ish sound (showcased most prominently on the song “Silk Road”). Add danceable rock rhythms, layer on a heavy dose of swirling psychedelic effects, and Super Record produces a lush, dense, relentlessly creative sound.
Like all good experimental rock albums, each track is designed to be appreciated at an intellectual level, evoking its own particular mental landscape. The range of sound is breathtaking: the group begins with the hard bass trance of “Andromeda”, but easily swings to a bleak, Kid A-esque “Tundra”, pastoral rhythms on “Woman in South Island”, and a martial beat on “Majorica Resistance Song”. What’s even better is the off-kilter creativity of the whole thing: its Asian motifs present an especially refreshing break from the same chord progressions that Western rock has milked to death.
But while the sounds explored never fail to be cerebrally fascinating, they’re not always as effective as actual, standalone songs. The consequence of such creative exploration is a tendency to meander: guitar lines play themselves off into nowhere, the melody occasionally breaks down, and one ridiculously annoying psychedelic sequence (“Song 3”) is repeated far too many times. Songs like “Andromeda” and “Majorica Resistance Song” could have been blissful slices of experimental pop, if properly condensed; unfortunately, their unwillingness to end begins to test a listener’s tolerance.
When the songs do find proper focus, though, the results are richly rewarding. “Silk Road” and “Woman in South Island” have the power to transport you to their respective places, and “Sound, Mother Earth” sweeps with grandeur on a guttural, gurgling guitar. But what really leaves the greatest impact is “Pink Butch”; its hypnotic refrain is psychedelia at its best, entrancing, warm, and unsettling all at once.
So—legendary? I can see how such an album might have blazed a path in the early days of Japanese rock. Even thirty years later, it stands as a strong example of experimental rock; with a little more focus and condensation, it could have been a classic example of intellectually rewarding pop music as well.