Japan’s masters of ‘organic techno’ team up with Adrian Sherwood, with results that show their sound can withstand just about anything.
At this point, there have been enough guitar/bass/drums bands that the curious listener could be forgiven for looking at Nisennenmondai’s lineup and assuming the results would be anything like (say) 95% of the power trios out there. Those who have been following the band since 2014’s N know that Masako Takada (guitar), Yuri Zaikawa (bass) and Sayaka Himeno (drums) lock into grooves of such astonishing simplicity and force that it’s almost intimidating.Those who’ve been following along for longer (or have gone back to see what came between Nisennmondai’s inception in 1999 and N) know that they’ve honed their grasps of their particular instruments and their interplay to the point where repetition becomes the point of this music rather than an affectation or a gracenote. The trio’s recent work is an example of a band who is comfortable enough being influenced to outright call early songs things like “This Heat” and “The Pop Group” has now synthesized those influences into something that’s not quite like anything any other power trio has ever done.
There are plenty of live videos out there of Nisennenmondai, so it’s easy to confirm for yourself that, yes, Himeno does pull off those relentless hi hat/cymbal runs, ten and 15 minutes at a time seemingly without pause or variation, just through human will (and practice); and Zaikawa and Takada do manage the high-wire act of playing often just as fast and precisely in and around those drums and of neither upstaging them nor shrinking into their shadow. The result is something that partakes equally of minimalism, no wave, krautrock (especially the most purely refined part of the motorik subgenre), post-rock, even various forms of techno and other electronic music genres, all using one of the most well-worn instrumental setups in modern music. If you just hit play on Nisennenmondai’s recent work without knowing anything about it, you may well assume this is the sound of an exceptionally tuneful industrial setup, or the work of people painstakingly guiding various pieces of software to slight shifts in atmosphere. Both of those are perfectly respectable ways to make music, but there’s something that feels a little extra death-defying in the way these three do so with sticks and wires. Even then, though, it’s as thrilling conceptually as it is viscerally.
That sound is so idiosyncratic and potent that they could keep well within the limits they defined on N and still be worth following, but Nisennenmondai show a distinct lack of desire to rest on any laurels. That album was followed up by N’, which had the band reworking the tracks from N and brought in Shackleton for a couple of remixes that were both very much in keeping with the sensibility of the band’s work but also quite different from it. Now, with #N/A, they’ve brought in another simpatico collaborator in the form of On-U Sound’s Adrian Sherwood. The lauded dub producer is an interesting choice as a partner for the band, because while there are few explicit nods to dub in their past work from concept on down it seems like a fairly obviously good fit. Dub tends to focus on the rhythm and work well with music where there’s a pronounced sense of space (if not creating that sense of space itself if it has to), and as much as Nisennenmondai have spent the last few years winding their sound tighter and tighter, a producer like Sherwood knows how to keep that tension and propulsion while also subtly adding new types of depth and shade to the sound.
On the five numbered tracks that make up the bulk of #N/A (the title intended to indicate precisely the collaboration between trio and producer), he does exactly that, in an interesting restrained way. If you played the first tracks of this album and N back to back to someone who’d never heard Nisennenmondai before they might have trouble putting their finger on what’s really different about them, but after enough listens to get past the initial head-spinning rush of what the band does those differences begin to flesh themselves out. Zaikawa’s bass is still completely capable of driving a track forward (see the brief “#3”, the closest thing on #N/A to an easy entry point for the curious), but on much of this album she tolls away in the background, letting Himeno (as relentless as ever) and Takada (sounding like everything from a piano to a metronome, as well as a guitar) race forward and putting emphasis in just the right places to keep a track like “#1” from plummeting right off the rails.
Sherwood himself keeps his bag of tricks mostly turned to small, subtler effects, easing the band’s work through transitions with a little more colour and flavour than before, but that gives tracks like the abstract static formations of “#2” more room to work with. “#1” and “#5” are the most similar things here to Nisennenmondai’s recent work, but those middle three tracks are a great example of how thrilling it is to hear the trio’s current mastery of their sound brought to wider range of structures. The result is something that’s not quite as monomaniacally focused as N but every bit as distinctive and powerful.
The two “(Live in Dub)” tracks that round out the album, with Nisennenmondai taking on two-thirds of N in concert with Sherwood behind the decks, suggest that if anything the latter could have taken a more obviously active hand in the recorded material here without any damage to the band’s sound. If anything, the way Nisennenmondai just locks into their particular pocket and keeps forging forward as Sherwood strafes the tracks with every bit of echo and reverb he can muster makes for some of the most obviously fun material without ever feeling like anything but Nisennenmondai. For a band that’s spent years working towards such a singular and satisfying sound, it’s a sign of the tremendous strengths of that approach that they can take everything Sherwood can throw at them. They’re also, at this point, a band that keeps finding new ways to make that sound fresh and thrilling again, and it’s exciting to wonder what they might have in mind for us next.