Flashback is the eighth album from Fujiya & Miyagi, who are not, contrary to the expectations suggested by their name, a Japanese duo, but rather an English quintet whose stock-in-trade over almost 20 years has been a continuing exploration of the nuances of post-Krautrock possibilities. Their first album, 2002’s Electro Karaoke in the Negative Style, was a strange and beautiful artifact that seemed to explore the relationships between humans and machines in a rather abstract and yet also quite organic fashion. All that while what came to be the trademark dispassionate vocals of David Best would appear and disappear within the interstices of the musical textures they were developing. The pace of this first album was relatively sedate and seemed to draw largely from the more drone-inflected aspects of Krautrock, although “Electro Karaoke” toward the end of that first album began to wander in a general motorik direction previously taken by bands like Stereolab, and subsequent albums would plow this furrow fairly consistently, and with no little success.
Transparent Things (2006) would achieve a particular kind of pristine propulsiveness with songs like “Ankle Injuries” and “Collarbone” (the whole album wasn’t necessarily dedicated to reflections on matters anatomical – these are just two salient examples of the groove they were perfecting) establishing a seductive and slinky groove that was charming and detached at the same time. This combination of engagement and reserve has become a characteristic trait, as particularly evidenced by a song like “Knickerbocker” from their third album, Lightbulbs (2008), which comes on like an android version of “Kokomo” by the Beach Boys (with “Vanilla, strawberry, knickerbocker glory” standing in for Aruba, Jamaica, Key Largo and Montego in a rather hilarious way). Artificial Sweeteners (2014) peddles the same motorik hypnosis, but something more of an attack, and with a much firmer commitment to a pure electronic sound palette.
This slight but significant change of direction is continued and refined on 2017’s self-titled album, which came with a re-commitment to the lyrical self-consciousness that had defined them throughout. Aware of their own dedication to a rather well-defined if not necessarily limiting spectrum, “Extended Dance Music” saw the band going third-person on themselves and referring to “this Fujiya & Miyagi extended dance mix”. With a further wry nod to their modest commercial success (and their lack of concern with it) in the lyric “our early influences have been well documented, regurgitated verbatim from our own electronic press kits – on social media platforms, the general consensus is our popularity has declined since 2006.”
Such self-awareness is a kind of saving grace which deftly preempts the kind of criticism that might suggest the band’s sound could perhaps be an instantiation of the law of diminishing returns. Of course the additional irony in this case is that “Extended Dance Mix” on the self-titled album is followed by what is perhaps the band’s most overtly rock-and-roll gesture, the relatively hyperactive “Outstripping (The Speed of Light),” thereby demonstrating a willful subversion of their mission in the name of refuting the criticism they had only just anticipated. Fujiya & Miyagi are nothing if not very, very smart.
The fact of their enduring commitment to subtlety, indirection, discretion (and a large dose of irony, as “Knickerbocker” ably demonstrates) might mean that they sometimes seem, if not bland, then at least a little undercaffeinated. They may also be victims of the high bar they set themselves with the quality of their early albums as if they had arrived fully formed, already at the top of their game. But Fujiya & Miyagi do not appear to be interested in playing the game unless it is by their own stubborn and erudite set of rules. It is almost as if a peek into their armoire might reveal a set of identical white shirts and black pants, one for each day of the week, such is their commitment to consistency and the uniform of their craft. This is a kind of professionalism that brooks little variation from an enduring commitment to unvarying excellence, albeit that the unvarying part of the equation might sometimes leave one hoping for a little more color and seasoning.
All of which brings us to the present moment, and, a tad paradoxically, to Flashback, itself a rather ironic title which is entirely consistent with the band’s career-long habit of inviting a certain kind of feeling (in this case, the mischievous proffer of a trip down memory lane) and commitment through melody and groove, only to withdraw the offer and retreat once again to the sidelines with a departing lyrical barb to dispel any notion that this might be love that we’re feeling. It’s a fascinating dynamic that might be a little frustrating to people who do not understand the ways in which cats operate, but Fujiya & Miyagi are indeed somewhat feline in their movements, beckoning us with a slinky body swerve and then scratching us with a wicked claw of sarcasm when we try to get too close. Such are the ways of Flashback.
So in the spirit of nostalgia suggested by the album’s title, Flashback begins with the title track that recalls the combined grooves of “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash, “Phenomenon” by LL Cool J, and any jam of your choice by Shriekback. It’s a heady brew for a band that seems not to deal in any kind of intoxication, and this is absolutely typical of the band’s ongoing double movement, as they spike our drinks while themselves remaining stone cold sober. This is the kind of thing that Talking Heads used to do incredibly well, and indeed there’s a little bit of that crosseyed and painless guitar sound jingle-jangling away in the background of “Flashback” to tell you that, yes, they are aware of this fact already.
The yesteryear groove of the album continues with the familiar and yet jarringly unplaceable bass groove of “Personal Space”, yet another ironically titled entry to the band’s catalog. The album continues in this vein more or less from start to finish, establishing and maintaining a hermetically sealed texture and groove that will serve almost any purpose for which you might have a need, from the penthouse to pavement, as it were.
There is after all something slightly bloodless about this sound (such is the way of professional irony), in a little bit of the vein of LCD Soundsystem, to whom Fujiya & Miyagi might be distantly related through the funk vampire side of the family tree, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a thoroughly compelling experience. So while a song like “For Promotional Use Only” might be relentlessly non-committal, it also defies you not to dance to it. Similarly “Dying Swan Act” manages to keep that pesky and addictive bass groove going while somehow ingeniously invoking the heyday of INXS with its lovely rhythm guitar. One cannot help but admire the band’s enduring referentiality which they manage to convert, time after time, into a sound that is unmistakably their own.
While they are often (if not always) sardonic in their lyrical observations about our callow and shallow cultural moment, Fujiya & Miyagi seem mostly to have rather studiously avoided actual political commentary during their career, settling instead for the slightly jaded lexicon of the sideline observer. So it especially startling that the album’s closing track, “Gammon”, sees the band entering the political fray more or less fully and with quite venomous force. The term “gammon” has become part of the lingua franca of British politics in recent times by way of mocking a certain kind of capillaried and outraged English whiteness as it conducts the most bloated of rearguard actions against immigration, all things “European” or “liberal”, and any kind of heterogeneity with regard to the accursed phenomenon of Brexit.
The terms refers, briefly put, to the kind of skin tone that a particularly angry English person (usually male, always white, often flabby, often of a certain age, invariably very angry) can display when they are at peak pique about, for example, foreigners, welfare, or any kind of “political correctness”, in the name of some mythical aboriginal sovereignty. So, the lyrics from “Gammon” launch a two-footed challenge to such cultural myopia (i.e. prejudice) with lines like “you’re shouting in English at Spaniards in Spain” in a way that wouldn’t be at all out of place on a Sleaford Mods album, although the sounds of the respective bands are light years apart. To compound further the withering accuracy of their critique, the song is set to a musical backdrop that recalls a familiar but ultimately unplaceable 1970s instrumental disco groove (along with a blistering Talking Heads guitar callback at the song’s coda). We are sucked inexorably back into the mythical past that the band is both leveraging and skewering at the same time.
This is a rare moment of revelation from an otherwise quite buttoned-up outfit, while it is also a refreshing blossoming of feeling that necessarily ventilates the album. But this closing statement also ingeniously contextualizes the notion of nostalgia originally suggested by the album’s title, since the entirety of the gammon project, such as it is, depends on our suspended disbelief concerning the mists of time and memory. We have to believe in the good old days if we are being persuaded to turn away from modernity and head relentlessly back into the past, and this is the great lie of the cultural politics that “Gammon” (and indeed Flashback as a whole) so smartly critiques. And so while Fujiya & Miyagi have dealt and continue to deal in nuance, subtlety, and reserve, their finest moment here is their most direct and vitriolic statement in quite some time, and it’s a startling experience for the listener.