GUEST: Jansen Barbieri Karn – Beginning to Melt

October 1993

“It’s actually been an irritant, not a selling point. We’ve even had clauses in gig contracts to prevent them from saying ‘ex-Japan’.” —Richard Barbieri, Classic Rock magazine

There’s a pun involving a certain visual kei band that’s probably more trouble to make than it’s worth.

But so anyway let’s talk about Richard Barbieri. So far he’s drifted around the edges of what Wilson’s been doing, contributing the odd keyboard part or remix here and there, but he’s going to join the band real soon, so we’ll have to get to his back catalogue eventually. So what better place to do that than an album where he’s one of the main players.

Lots to cover here, so I’ll attempt to be brief. The story goes something like this: besides Porcupine Tree, Barbieri is best known as one of the keyboardists for Japan, a band which sold quite well in Japan. Other personnel: vocalist David Sylvian, bassist Mick Karn, drummer Steve Jansen, guitarist Rob Dean. They released five albums in four years, here summarized:

  • The funk touches in Adolescent Sex made me wish I was listening to actual funk.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Obscure Alternatives is in just about every respect superior to the album that came before it. However. The big reason I’ll probably never listen to it again is Sylvian’s extremely ill-advised n-bomb in Rhodesia, what would otherwise have been the album’s standout track. It was to make a vaguely anti-racist political point, and it was 1978, and a cursory glance at Sylvian’s Twitter feed makes me think it’s not a decision he’d make today, but it still pretty much wrecked the listening experience for me. On the upside, though, The Tenant remains absolutely brilliant, and is a much better indicator of where they’d be going than Life In Tokyo could ever be.
  • Quiet Life is a dark, brooding synthpop masterpiece. The camp yet vaguely punkish sneer Sylvian used in their first two records was a weird mismatch for their music and took me out of the mood fairly often, so his switch to a proto-Gahan baritone was more than welcome. Despair and the cover of All Tomorrow’s Parties are the standouts here.
  • Gentlemen Take Polaroids is a bit more eclectic and experimental than Quiet Life, but the tradeoff is that it’s also more uneven.
  • Tin Drum is, if you’re a Westerner in 1981, exactly what you’d expect a new wave band called Japan to sound like…if by “Japan” you mean “China,” because insulated Europeans hadn’t learned to tell different East Asian countries apart yet. Listening to this album, it’s clear that the issue with Polaroids was that they simply could not find a viable way to push their sound forward. The sumptuous bass and traditional East Asian synth work fill what we now recognize as a void in Polaroids’ earlier noodlings, and we leave this album wondering why they hadn’t thought of this sooner. I’m not entirely sure if it’s Japan’s best album—Quiet Life is still more coherent—but it’s definitely the shot in the arm the band needed at that point in time. It would have been interesting to see where they’d have gone next.

…aaaaand then a year later personal shenanigans involving Mick Karn’s girlfriend would force the band apart. The split wasn’t necessarily acrimonious, the various band members would collaborate with each other regularly into the 90s, but Japan proper would never release another album. (Don’t worry, the comparison to what happened with Porcupine Tree in 2010 has been made already.) Here’s what Barbieri specifically was up to through the end of 1993:

  • The 1985 Jansen/Barbieri collaboration Worlds in a Small Room is an airy, soothing bit of inimitably 80s ambient goodness commissioned by JVC Victor as a score for some NASA stock footage they intended to release as a film.
  • In 1987 Jansen and Barbieri collaborated again as the Dolphin Brothers, this time releasing something called Catch the Fall. It’s not hard to draw a direct line from late Japan to what they’re doing here…but unfortunately, this sounds like a regression more than anything else, jettisoning the East Asian influences and powerful drums from that period for what is, essentially, Living in a Box on downers. There are occasional moments of brilliance, like Love that You Need or Face to Face, but the album in general sounds an awful lot like something you’d hear as department store muzak.
  • 1991 saw Barbieri involved in two (hoist the signal) ex-Japan projects. The first we’ve arbitrarily defined as Stories Across Borders, yet another collaboration with Steve Jansen. It’s mostly a bunch of haunting, atmospheric instrumental pieces with touches of jazz and industrial and other stuff. It’s also right up my alley the way the sophistipop from last go-round wasn’t.
  • And finally, of course, there was Rain Tree Crow, the Japan reunion that technically wasn’t a Japan reunion. Oh my God. Okay, let’s begin by making one thing clear: this isn’t a new Japan album. There’s no new wave or art pop or any of that to be found here. If there’s any sense of a narrative through-line from Tin Drum to here it’s Sylvian and company finding themselves on the brink of superstardom and deciding, screw this, let’s go make something as experimental and anti-pop as we possibly can. No, this is Rain Tree Crow, a glorious forty-five minute jam session that plays like Graceland mashed up with The Sky Moves Sideways and performed round a Joshua Tree campfire. This is the culmination of everything these four were doing since 1978. The Asian/world elements aren’t just orientalist window dressing and are actually well-integrated into the songs. Jansen’s drums and Karn’s bass have never sounded better. (No seriously, dat bass. I want to make love to it.) This album is a beautiful revelation and you should go listen to it right now. It’s on Spotify. Do it. (And then listen to Sixth Floor off the SimCity 3000 Unlimited soundtrack but you didn’t hear that from me.)

So now we’re finally up to the present, and to the first Jansen/Barbieri/Karn collaboration, Beginning to Melt. Well, okay, let’s not get carried away. It’s not a full-fledged follow-up to Rain Tree Crow, nor are we on the level of, say, Storm Corrosion. Out of the seven songs on this album, three are a true group effort, and the other four are little solo bits they had lying around that needed a home. Some are more interesting than others. Ego Dance is tight and tense. March of the Innocents plays like if Boards of Canada were an alternative band. Meanwhile, Shipwrecks is a snorefest and Human Age is just flat boring. So, you know, it’s about as even as you’d expect an album of dusted-off not-quite-B-sides to be.

We’re here primarily for the first two tracks. The first is the soundtrack to a leisurely wander through a science fictional desert, and as such is the most obviously Rain Tree Crow-like of anything on this album. It’s one of the album’s collaborative songs, and it shows. We’ve got Jansen’s sexy drums and fuzzed-out electric guitar, we’ve got Mick Karn’s even sexier bass…and, most importantly for our purposes, we’ve got Barbieri on the keyboards, tinkering with his synthesizer in ways that would become integral to Porcupine Tree’s sound in the coming years. The other song we’re interested in is The Wilderness, on which Steven Wilson played acoustic guitar.

I wish to emphasize that The Wilderness’ status as the best track on the album and Steven Wilson’s presence on that track is a coincidence. Wilson’s part is pretty simple and mixed pretty far back, involving only some rhythmic strumming that he could probably do in his sleep. I didn’t even know it was there the first time around. The highlight here, instead, is Suzanne Barbieri’s vocals. We’ve heard her before, doing the spoken word bit of Up the Downstair, but here she’s the main event. Even as the instrumentation remains sparse and earthy, emphasizing that the wilderness is not a hospitable place, her downright angelic performance elevates the tale of the Boneshaker into something fantastic, almost mythical.

Two ancillary things before we wrap up. 1) I’m glad Suzanne’s here in the context of this retrospective because this thing has been and largely will be a sausagefest, and 2) there’s a delightfully cheesy symphonic metal cover of this song just waiting to be made.

Going back to her husband now, Richard Barbieri is probably one of the most experienced and virtuosic people Wilson’s ever worked with…and, in some ways, a person whose career with Japan would prefigure Wilson’s own with Porcupine Tree. He would join the band right around the time of this album’s release, and Colin Edwin would follow in a few months’ time. Now all we need is a drummer.

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