on Thrill Jockey
Reviewed by John Payne
What are we looking for when we listen to new music? What is most important? It’s not so much that each and every musical experience has to be formally groundbreaking and utterly unlike anything that has come before, though that rare occurrence certainly does help. Really, we’re talking about the same thing we ask of pop music or jazz or anything else, which is the element of surprise — surprise at how our assumptions about what music is and ought to be get a hefty boot in the booty; surprise at how our own pretensions toward being in whatever kind of vanguard get challenged, how we are forced to question our own orthodoxies, our own ways of breaking the rules.
There is very little that is not surprising about OOIOO. The Japanese four-piece began as a fictitious band for a photo shoot for a magazine in 1996. When the group’s leader Yoshimi was asked to do a photo shoot for a magazine, she invited a few of her friends to join her and created for the shoot a fake band called OOIOO — which they later decided to make real. It was a bit like how the Monkees became a real and quite good band, or how the hoary story about punk bands goes, this brazen assertion that perhaps music can be created by people who aren’t “real” musicians, and that their unconventional musical views (and often limited technical abilities) can shake things up big-time. YoshimiO, as she currently calls herself, is a drummer/singer/trumpeter best known for her percussion prowess in Japan’s experimental rock titans Boredoms; she has collaborated with New York drummer/composer Susie Ibarra, with Kim Gordon in Free Kitten, with Sean Lennon, Yuka Honda, the Flaming Lips and loads more. After a six-year hiatus, OOIOO is back with a new album, called Nijimusi. They’ve opted to use conventional rock band instrumentation of two guitars, bass, and drums for this album, in order to strip away unnecessary sonic possibilities in its creation, though it’s not quite a case of less being more.
The sound OOIOO produce together is like the sound of one unified and very complex entity: The album begins with the titular “Nijimusi,” a hair-shirt blast/sheen of skull-skratch electronics and wobbly radio screech, a brief opening salvo that cheerfully proclaims that “This is the way it’s gonna be.” But what way is that? Right away such a sound, the entire enterprise, is deceptive. “Nijimu” follows up with overlayed patterns of skittering drums and distant distorted voice; like the previous track it’s immediately relentless and if it comes off like a mere wall of sound, well so what if it is? The pitter-patter of synth sequences and various machine-gun 64th notes pile atop a repetitive bass pattern that makes for a change-up of sorts, to a different tonality, a different color of noise.
But it’s not noise; in fact it’s all about patterns and pre-planned parts; it’s highly organized, surprise surprise surprise. Not too strangely perhaps, tracks like “Jibun” display one of the band’s most-favored flavors, ’70s jazz rock, with slick polyrhythmic drum flourishes wrapped with unison lines of guitar and keyboard, like a much less corny Return to Forever, or Mahavishnu Ork on shrooms. Euro-style art rock a la early ‘70s rears its pointy head too, what with all these convoluted angular compositional lines and sculpted guitar/drums shapes on shapes. Here YoshimiO sings, so to speak, she whoops and she hollers and she chants. Then there’s a transformation as she improvises vocalese over a rocky martial thump and some real choice guitar-buzzardry, then, wow!, another transcending upward unto a glorious waterfall of guitars and synths.
There is a track called “Tisou” in which the tom-toms pound in one time and a guitar layers over in another; birds chirp, electronically. The resulting polyrhythm is interlaced with vocals wrung through absolutely remorseless electronics; one part suggests a chorus of bullfrogs leaping through space in support of YoshimiO’s imperious squawk about who knows exactly what. It’s all spiky and splintery, like jazz-rock put through a blender, though not quite frappéd.
There’s a bracingly ambiguous nigh on celebratory air in tracks such as “Bulun,” when the quartet combine repetitive instrumental lines with varied mutated backing, such as chanting or electronically distorted staccato vocals and Balinese gamelan-like timbres — and a “walking’ bass line that propels the entire beast forward. The effect is not that of vertical music and hardly “nonlinear” by design; indeed it is, as was once said about Bunuel’s Phantom of the Liberty, linear to the point of madness. This is a sophisticated, noisy music that blatantly disregards dynamics in general, so it’s pretty much all high-end and truly hectoring. But that means it’s funny, too, because of its laser-sharp focus on doing things its own way, Western music-ears be damned.
Not an emotional music as such, but then not so intellectual either, thus best not to contextualize OOIOO’s organized anarchy in a cold/dry art-theory cage. If you insist on reference points, call it No Wave or maybe art-punk, and it’s not too far afield from the post-Third Reich German bands of the ‘60s-70s, like Can, Faust or Cluster, all of whom built a new “rock” music that acknowledged their utter separateness from American or English aesthetics. Similarly, OOIOO’s perhaps rather Japanese aesthetic/perspective is a sound whose ambitious conglomeration of parts and ideas makes for…not pretty stuff, exactly, not mellow, not relaxing. It’s irritating, in fact. It’s what you’d call “a challenge.” Apparently they’ve entered a black hole and come out in an alternative universe on the far side of music.
John Payne is Riot Material’s Music Critic and Helmsman through the Avant-Garde. He also writes about music and film at publications including Mojo, The Quietus, Red Bulletin, High Times and Bluefat. Mr. Payne is the former music editor of LA Weekly, and the author of the forthcoming official Diamanda Galás biography Homicidal Love Songs and co-author of Jaki Liebezeit: The Life, Theory and Practice of a Master Drummer Unbound, London).