November 7, 2016

World's End Girlfriend: Seven Idiots (2010)

Seven Idiots is an instrumental rock/pop album by solo artist World's End Girlfriend, aka Japanese musician and composer Katsuhiko Maeda. Released in 2010 it fast became one of the more acclaimed albums of its year among enthusiasts for the avant-garde and Japanese popular music.

Maeda composes music with a huge variety of elements and instruments, ranging from orchestral-style pieces to rough electric rock to electronica and even 8-bit style bleeps and bops. It's a deliberately messy sound, creating a sort of loose, out of control sound that is both distinctive and oddly addictive. Listeners seeking bubbly Japanese pop will probably be disappointed, but anyone with an ear for the esoteric will find a huge amount to enjoy here.

"The Divine Comedy Reverse" is an exceptional example of the album's style, and a great opening track. It features a classical-style composition mixed with rough distortion and strange electronic sounds. It's a brief introductory number, running just one minute and twenty seconds, but as a sort of entre-acte piece it works incredibly well.

"Les Enfants du Paradis" combines light acoustic guitars with distorted electric guitars and breaks-style drumbeats. It feels like a wonderful mixture of order and chaos: the central melodies are beautiful, but the arrangements around it seem to constantly threaten the entire song's collapse into noise.

"Teen Age Ziggy" is much more straight-forward combination of electronica and rock music, which actually is a little to its detriment. It's an enjoyable enough song, but after the complexity of the previous track it can't help but seem a little disappointing.

"Decalogue Minus 8" actually starts off sounding a little like the theme to American sitcom Seinfeld. While other elements are quickly layered in, including some unexpected jazzy saxophone, it never quite gels together into a cohesive and enjoyable song. It's the album's first disappointment, although it its credit it does pick up considerably around the two-minute mark. By its final minutes it almost sounds a bit like the theme to Zorba the Greek.

"Ulysses Gazer" is a fast-paced rock track with a nice violin-based melody. That's balanced off sounds of electric guitars and harps, which creates a wonderfully varied sound. What really makes the sound work, however, is its driving pace. There's a lot of energy here that really pulls the album back up after the disappointment of "Decalogue Minus 8".

"Helter Skelter Cha-Cha-Cha" is probably the album's most experimental track so far, comprising abrupt cuts back and forth from one sound element to another and backed by a simple electric guitar melody. It is not really something to dance along to, but does have a certain strange energy to it.

"Galaxy Kid 666" is another really strong track, combining an orchestral sound with breaks rhythms and early 1980s-style synthesizers. It is one of the album's highlights: a messy, discordant sound that somehow transcends its disparate elements and becomes far more than the sum of its parts.

At the eighth track, Seven Idiots hits its central epic: a three-part 22-minute long number titled "Bohemian Purgatory". The longer running time basically allows Maeda to step back from the frantic chaos of the earlier tracks and assemble something much more organic and considered. That said, the tone and genre of the music does seem to keep constantly shifting. Part 1 feels deeply emotional, and utilises its regular changes in instruments to create a slow-building rise in emotion and intensity. Part 2 is a lot more focused and energetic, and pushes along for a prolonged, hugely enjoyable stretch, until collapsing in upon itself at around the six-minute mark. Then things pull back together towards the end. Part 3 revisits the themes of the first two parts in a much more fractured and experimental fashion, and as a result feels less satisfying.

"Der Spiegel im Spiegel im Spiegel" is the album's most experimental track, which will either inspire or bore. It is entirely disjointed and rather repetitive, and while it may work as a distinctive artistic expression it is not particularly enjoyable as a piece of music. Like "Decalogue Minus 8" it feels a little too avant-garde for comfort.

Penultimate song "The Offering Inferno" continues some of the elements from the previous track but adds in a nightmarish collection of what sound like horror movie clips. It creates a deeply disturbing atmosphere. It's a better track than "De Spiegel", but still is not an easy listen.

The album concludes with "Unfinished Finale Shed". It is by far the most conventional song on the whole CD, with a gentle and melancholic tone and a slow, leisurely pace. In many respects it almost feels as if Maeda is reassuring the listener that the rest of the album is deliberate: he could create a conventional work if he wanted to, but instead chose the complexity and chaos on purpose. It is a beautiful finale, and closes the album out in a soft, rather mournful fashion.

Altogether this a great and challenging CD, and an eye-opening look at the more experimental end of Japanese pop music. While Maeda has continued to compose and release music via a series of EPs and film scores, Seven Idiots remains his last complete album. I hope it isn't his last.

Average score: 3.6

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