Peter Holslin is big in Japan
Back when I was in high school, my friends and I referred to Cornelius in hushed tones. “Have you ever heard Point?,” one of us would whisper, slipping the other a CD-R. This was before Wikipedia and YouTube, before you could pull up everything instantaneously. There was still some surprise and wonder left in the world. And the impact on our consciousness was like Cornelius had offered us the detonation codes for a nuclear bomb.
Keigo Oyamada emerged out of Japan’s Shibuya-kei scene in the 1990s. Shibuya is a glitzy fashionable shopping district in Tokyo,, and back then, it was also an incubator for record stores stocked with choice CD and vinyl imports. As Momus writes in this article from the Glasgow Herald, Japan’s relationship with Western music at the time wasn’t shackled to the same kind of scene politics and critical agendas that drove indie-rock and post-punk scenes in the United States and UK.
When an artist like Oyamada hit up Shibuya to go shopping, he’d snap up mass quantities of music irregardless of international origin or genre or context. It’s a cosmopolitan mindset that helped fuse everything from electronic beats and jazz chords into one brightly lit, crystal-clear, Western-influenced, but also Japanese pop sound.
Cornelius’ third album, Fantasma—originally released in 1997 and recently reissued on Lefse Records—is a masterpiece of this genre, a whimsical roller-coaster ride of Disney-fied freakouts, pummeling shoegaze anthems, dreamy old-school drum machine ballads and hi-fi sampledelica. The production itself is stunning, the clarity apparent even in the opening track “Mic Check,” where Oyamada makes a fantastical experiment out of the sound of him cracking open a soda and putting a bag on the microphone.
Outside of the technical genius, it’s also just a thrilling listen. The guitar distortion on “New Music Machine” is like nothing I’ve ever heard. “Star Fruits Surf Rider” sails along like a romantic boat cruise only to hit a white-water rapid of gnarly drum breaks. “Thank You For the Music” is the greatest all-American honky tonk classic that never came out of America.
Momus writes that Cornelius was drawing from a Japanese concept called “ton-chi”: “looking at something and garnering a different answer,” as Oyamada puts it. In some ways this approach doesn’t feel that far off from an American artist like Beck or from a hip-hop producer, mining wax for loops and breaks. But what’s really admirable about Cornelius is his sheer boldness of innovation.
It’s not uncommon to hear voices, instruments, and samples jump radically from one ear to another, making full use of the stereo field. There are songs that turn 180-degrees in a matter of seconds, only to turn back. “Chapter 8 (Seashore And Horizon)” is essentially two different songs—a Beck-ian acoustic strummer and a dreamy waltz—stitched together like you’re toggling from one radio station to another. Yet it’s all the more cohesive for it.
Nearly 20 years after the album’s initial release, the cut-up concepts presented on Fantasma are basically the firmament of American pop and Internet culture. Technological advances have offered limitless new possibilities, but they’ve also made this whole process ridiculously easy and taken away some of that old wonder. Fantasma represents a much different time and place. Oyamada had to work hard and search deep and have an open mind in order to do what he was doing. He didn’t have this path already set up for him; he was one of the ones who helped create it, and today it’s clear that he did so with unparalleled detail and care. Even when you listen today, you’re bound to be surprised.