Japonica’s debut album Into the Kaleidoscope is one that is easy to review, and yet at the same time impossible to review. That is to say, I could review it in the way most album reviews are written, and as I mostly (though not always) write myself, but it could never do justice to the album, nor adequately describe any of the tracks which make up this incredibly beautiful collection of songs.
So who exactly are Japonica? Well let’s just say I know, but you don’t need to. I didn’t need to know, I asked, purely for the purpose of this review as it’s the norm for TPA to give performance credits at the end of a review. Let’s just say that Japonica is a mysterious collective, and leave it at that. The music is all you need, and it’s gorgeous.
As to why I can’t review this album in a traditional sense, you need only to think of that old proverb that a picture paints a thousand words. You can describe, for example, Claude Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant, but you can no more adequately put it into words than to describe an actual sunrise. Each track on Into the Kaleidoscope provides a perfect vignette, brief and evocative, yet defying description. A small Impressionist scene, focussing on one moment. And Impressionism seems to resonate throughout this album. Though never sounding quite like Debussy, that composer’s Impressionist ethos is forever present. Japonica make no mention of Debussy as an inspiration or influence, but I would not be surprised at all if it were so.
It could be, perhaps, the influence of Ryuichi Sakamoto, who Japonica do list – as, after all, Sakamoto has said on more than one occasion that Debussy is his greatest influence. And Sakamoto is not the only modern classical composer that you could compare Japonica to, as I am reminded of Jóhann Jóhannsson and Ólafur Arnalds, but those Icelandic composers were influenced by quite different classical composers while Sakamoto is undeniably Impressionist, as are Japonica. Indeed, if we want to look to Iceland, while I do find much of Japonica’s album reminiscent of Jóhannsson and Arnalds, it is Sigur Rós that really stand out as an influence – and, again are given as such in Japonica’s bio. Both bands manage to very effectively combine classical and ambient elements in their music to great effect – to paint aural pictures beyond description. And the use of bowed guitar in both bands is surely not coincidental.
Sigur Rós once collaborated with Radiohead, and Radiohead are clearly another great influence in Japonica’s music (as they note). I don’t normally like to rely so much on either comparison with other artists or on an artist’s biography – but in the case of Into the Kaleidoscope, I feel it is simply the best way to go about this. I don’t want to describe the songs, or even the overall sound, so much as give you hints as to what it might sound like, leaving this review perhaps as mysterious as the collective who created it. Pretentious? Perhaps, but this is really a journey you need to take yourself, with as little guidance as possible. The album is all about letting go of the information that surrounds us and attempts to sway us one way or another, and returning to nature. Again, making it impossible to review adequately, as I may inevitably sway you and would merely be adding to the information that the album suggests you let go of.
So, let me just add some more artists I am reminded of. These are not given as influences, so I am definitely not suggesting they are, these are merely artists I find myself thinking of at times. The first is possibly not surprising for anyone who knows me. I love David Bowie, and I find quite a few pieces and passages on Into the Kaleidoscope reminiscent of his work (particularly Low and, perhaps less obviously, Outside). From more out of left-field, I offer Jane’s Addiction. That might seem strange, if you’re familiar only with the radio hits, but just listen to the way Up the Beach begins my favourite Jane’s album, Nothing’s Shocking, for one example of where I am coming from.
Overall, I go back to Impressionism. Just as Impressionist painters convey mood and atmosphere with their use of colour, so does Impressionist music. So Into the Kaleidoscope’s colourful artwork seems quite apt. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is as famous for being one of the first Impressionist pieces of music as Debussy is for rejecting being described as an Impressionist. And just as Prélude presents a succession of richly textured vignettes, creating musical images through its use of timbre (or colour, if you will), and a delicate aesthetic carried by its themes and motifs, so too does Japonica’s Into the Kaleidoscope. The music is, as all Impressionist art is, evocative, and beautifully so.
In a way, the physical release of this album could not have come at a better time. As I mentioned somewhere above, this album is all about escaping from the overwhelming barrage of information that surrounds us. For many listeners, this album will provide a welcome solace in these times of uncertainty. A means of escape, and an opportunity to paint our own pictures, based on the imagery that Into the Kaleidoscope provokes. I very much look forward to what is next on the horizon for Japonica, and although it could well be some time away (as is the case for any artist at the moment), seeing them play live will be a must!
01. Mudlark at Dawn (4:59)
02. Through the Mountains, Into the Lake (5:30)
03. Barn Burner (6:02)
04. Hygge (5:41)
05. Abandoned Abbey (4:46)
06. Just to Protect Her (6:41)
07. Dalisay (4:35)
08. It Fades (6:06)
09. Resferber (5:33)
Total Time – 49:53
Japonica are a London-based music collective…
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 22nd November 2019 (digital) / 18th April 2020