There can be something truly magical about the marriage of moving pictures and music. I’m not talking about music videos per se, though we can all probably recall plenty of examples of music videos that succeed on a higher level than advertisement. No, there’s a large group of musicians who think very deeply about the pairing of images with their music, whether that’s presented in the context of a live performance, or in video form as a more permanent statement. Artists like the Books and Takagi Masakatsu come to mind. The former, with their found sound/found video collages, irreverently mix playful visual tricks (anagrams, fast-spooling white letters on a black background) with odd, personal snippets of video that somehow bring out the emotion of the music perfectly. And Takagi Masakatsu (relevant for more than one reason, we’ll see), an incredibly precocious Japanese artist, finds a symmetrical beauty in minimal electronica and minimal, repetitive digital imagery. It makes complete sense that Cornelius, who has an almost obsessional devotion to the creation of programmatic electronic atmosphere, would find a place among them. The Japanese musician responsible for 1997’s remarkable Fantasma has ventured into video art before — Five Point One, a companion piece to Point, combined hypnotic videos with a 5.1 surround mix of the album tracks in order.
Which is basically what Sensurround does as well. As hinted above, this isn’t really a collection of music videos. They are too abstract, and too tightly interwoven with the album’s larger thematic concerns. The most obvious visual motif is the red-blue-black-yellow color scheme. Taken from the album artwork itself, which resembles dripping paint, the color scheme recurs either as a major point of focus in a few videos (the opening track, “Sensuous”, is floating slow-motion splashes of digital paint) and subtly here and there throughout the compilation (in one track, a girl holds colored balloons, seen here and there across a narrow bridge). The abstract nature of the videos gives them a sort of mesmerizing power. Though not terribly much happens, the marriage of the images with Cornelius’ always confluent soundscapes are very easy to get lost in.
For those who caught Cornelius on his 2007-2008 world tour promoting his latest album, the videos on Sensurround may be familiar — from the tour promo featured on the DVD, seems they made an appearance during those shows. But Sensurround succeeds because it’s more than just a souvenir. Furthermore, this handsome set includes a CD of b-sides, some of which were released earlier this year on the Gum EP, and including remixes/reworkings from Prefuse 73, Petra Haden, and the Books. It’s sensible marketing: if you like Cornelius, you’ll probably like those other artists; if you like those other artists, you’ll probably like Cornelius.
Keigo Oyamada, now almost 40, has mellowed considerably since the eclectic, thrown-together experimentation of his early career. His music is softer and more melodic, and his vision of this music features children and even babies. Even more upbeat material like “Fit Song” and “Like a Rolling Stone” is full of plastic toys and innocent fun. His cover of Dean Martin’s “Sleep Warm”, poignant and determinedly straight, gives the impression of Oyamada singing to his own child (though the artist has denied this). And throughout, Oyamada proves himself a more literal and straightforward interpreter of the meanings in his music than you might expect. The most abstract visual representation of Sensuous’ music comes, in fact, courtesy of Takagi Masakatsu. His rendering of “Toner” is weird and colourful, resisting easy visual tropes with sudden changes to style and texture. It’s large-stroke digital impressionism over a transient white background.
The music CD, B-Sides, which accompanies Sensurround, is occasionally interesting but never feels substantial enough to approach a proper album. Haden’s two a capella versions of “Music”, one in English and one in Japanese, are smooth, jazzy, and sultry, but don’t match the original for atmosphere. Meanwhile, the Books and Prefuse 73 basically do what they do, leaving Cornelius’ music largely by the wayside (the songs end up compelling and fresh in the context of the source material, but they’re hardly major excursions for either band). “Turn Turn”, though, is an unexpected highlight. Over hip-hop pulses, a chorus (surprisingly in English) explodes with the long-held melody of a Hot Chip song. Oh, and if you can sit through it, there’s 33 minutes of just bells clanging that ends the album. Not quite sure what to do with that.
Cornelius is more of a rock star in the live setting, relying on guitars and traditional rock bravado to lend his music a buoyant urgency. It’s clear from the direction of most of his recorded material over the past seven or eight years, though, that’s going to translate neither to his studio albums or his video art. The best of Sensurround has a very different impact. Its soothing, enveloping harmonies are a comforting presence (and very Japanese, too). If you haven’t experienced Sensuous, they provide fascinating visual interpretations for what can be wholly captivating electronic pop music. If you already love the album, the videos will likely imbue a new layer of heady enjoyment.