Japan’s final release, remembered fondly…
The synthesizer fervour that gripped Britain in the wake of Kraftwerk and The Human League’s late-seventies output was particularly beneficial to Japan, who, seemingly overnight, ditched the platform boots and wild hair, refined their make-up, slowed down their sound to take in swirly synth textures and loping fretless bass, and emerged in 1979 with Quiet Life, an album that pushed the elegant, improbably-coiffed Sylvian into the limelight, aided and abetted by some of the band’s best songs, such as the pleasingly camp title track, the driving ‘Fall In Love With Me’, the ice-cold ‘Despair’ and a delightfully rigid take on the Velvet Underground classic ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’. Quiet Life deserves to be placed alongside Travelogue, Mix-Up and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark as one of the key early British synth-based pop/rock albums, as it defined a very European form of detached, sexually-ambiguous and thoughtful art-pop, one not too dissimilar to what the ever-prescient David Bowie had delivered two years earlier with Low.
Quiet Life became a springboard to send Japan into radically bold new territory. The album followed its two predecessors in garnering very little interest in the UK, but Sylvian’s beautiful features, tight-fitting suits and elegant quiff helped make them stars in the country that gave them their name. Struggling to get noticed at home, they could fill the Budokan in Tokyo, and this exposure to a brand new culture seemed to fire Sylvian’s synapses, as 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids took the sound of Quiet Life and refined it into a series of oblique, almost cinematic avant-pop creations that exquisitely surround the frontman’s woozy post-Bryan Ferry croon in layers of pop textures that sounded like little else by Japan’s contemporaries. As well as Sylvian, Japan featured the talents of his brother Steve Jansen on drums, a polyrhythmic genius behind the skins, the late, great Mick Karn, whose bouncing fretless bass made Japan instantly recognisable and was also a dab hand at the sax and clarinet, and the increasingly moody and atmospheric ambient synth flourishes of keyboardist Richard Barbieri. Together, they transcended the very notion of “synth-pop”, rendering the term completely useless as a way of describing towering, crystalline mini-masterpieces like ‘Methods of Dance’, ‘Swing’ and ‘My New Career’. Only guitarist Rob Dean was an uneasy fit in Japan’s meticulous form of synergy, and he promptly left before the band recorded its masterpiece, Tin Drum, in 1981.
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