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Japan - Oil on Canvas  CD (album) cover




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3.41 | 38 ratings

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RIO/Avant/Zeuhl Team
4 stars Japan are living proof of how persistently labels can stick to a band or artist, and be extremely hard to shake off. Because of their relative popularity in the late Seventies and early Eighties, as well as their image, they were mercilessly lumped together with the so-called 'New Romantic' bands of the same era (that is, the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet), or at best associated with the ultimately nebulous 'new wave' movement. Since everybody knows that new wave (whatever it may be) stems from punk, its incompatibility with anything even remotely related to prog should be a given.

However, music should be mainly judged by listening, not by associations, or questions of appearance. Though the band's dandified, decadent image seemed a million miles removed from any traditional prog iconography, it came straight from artists who had more than a fleeting connection with progressive rock - namely, David Bowie and Roxy Music. The same could be said about their sound, definitely darker and more complex than that of the 'pretty boy' bands with whom they were unfairly associated. David Sylvian's languid baritone takes Bryan Ferry's crooner-on-acid style to another, more sophisticated level, and Mick Karn's distinctive bass playing gives the band's music both depth and an edge.

All those elements are very much in evidence in this live album, released in 1983 after the band had split up the previous year. As it is to be expected, it features most of the tracks of Japan's last studio effort, the excellent "Tin Drum", as well as some highlights from two of their previous albums, "Quiet Life" and "Gentlemen Take Polaroids". The stylistic difference between the latter songs and those taken from "Tin Drum" is often rather evident. It could be said that the band's earlier compositions are more 'new-waveish' in sound, being somewhat 'colder' and lacking the Oriental inspiration that characterises their last album. The most interesting is definitely the eerie, keyboard-based Nightporter, quite reminiscent of Eno-era Roxy Music's darker offerings. On the other hand, some of the tracks from Tin Drum possess a jagged, funky rhythm driven by Karn's skillful use of the fretless bass - notably "Still Life in Mobile Homes" and The Art of Parties, the latter featuring a vaguely martial, Oriental-style chorus. The album's highlight is, however, the haunting, rarefied "Ghosts", iits mysterious synths and evocative percussion patterns forming a perfect background for Sylvian's inspired crooning.

In spite of some people's scepticism, Japan's relation to prog is undeniable, both as regards the band members' subsequent career (keyboardist Richard Barbieri joined Porcupine Tree, and Sylvian has since become a very respected progressive artist, working among others with Robert Fripp) and their musical approach, which blends typically Western elements like electronica with ethnic influences. Though their music may not be everyone's cup of tea, they deserve to be listened to without prejudice. "Oil on Canvas", which was ironically their most successful release, is an excellent starting point for those who are interested in learning more about this intriguing band. Approach with an open mind, and enjoy.

Raff | 4/5 |


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