Bandcamp rerelease, 27 February 2016
LP edition, 5 February 2020
There are three albums that lie between where we last left off with the ex-Japan people and now. The first is Barbieri and Jansen’s Other Worlds in a Small Room, released in 1996. It’s an absolutely delightful ambient record that’s more than a worthy sequel to the similarly-titled album from a decade earlier, encompassing the whole spectrum of emotions that ambient music is really good at articulating. Light Years in particular comes highly recommended.
A year later, Barbieri and Jansen got together with Nobukazu Takemura and released Changing Hands, a little atmospheric record that fits comfortably into the other stuff they were doing at the time. It’s also, quite frankly, rather unmemorable. I listened to it twice now, and each time it went in one ear and out the other, another data point in favor of me just thoroughly bouncing off this particular style of music. (See also: much of Mick Karn’s discography.) At least we’re not sounding like a computer game soundtrack anymore.
1998’s _ism, on the other hand, is probably the best record an ex-Japan collective have ever made, with lots of abrasive guitars over trip-hop-esque drums with heavy layers of electronics and a general noirish atmosphere. It’s not JBK does Mezzanine, exactly, since the two albums were recorded and released at roughly the same time, but since super-dark trip hop was in the air at the time, something like this was inevitable. And thank God. JBK always came off as slightly dated, but once in a while it can be parlayed into something wonderfully dated, and _ism is a perfect example of that.
_ism’s other revelation comes through the particular ways in which it illustrates an optimum for JBK as a project. Or: this thing has vocals. Very nice ones, thanks largely to Zoe Niblett. She elevates whatever she’s doing into complete songs as opposed to, well, playing in a room. Her voice ties the song together, and this suggests that more JBK albums should have had songs amenable to having vocals in them.
From this vantage point, then, we can get a better idea of the arc of JBK’s career, and it’s only occasionally pretty. After Rain Tree Crow comes a post-imperial phase profoundly susceptible to ossification, as much of their 90s work seems like an extended, somewhat meandering jam session more than anything else. There are exceptions, of course– Beginning to Melt, The Wilderness, Sleepers Awake, and so forth–but it was only with _ism that we hit on something definitive that could give an idea of what the group could sound like in the new century.
_ism was also the last collaborative studio release involving more than one ex-Japan person, and Playing in a Room With People is that last original release from the ex-Japan collective period.
The way this bleeds over into JB (and occasionally K)’s live performance is a fraught one, largely because they didn’t perform live all that much. The first signpost here is obviously Lumen, recorded in 1996, released 2015, and apparently thrown up on Spotify when I wasn’t looking. Recorded in Amsterdam, and featuring Steven Wilson on guitar and synethesizer, it’s the only time JB performed live as JB. (Although K did come along for the ride.)
Most of what’s on Lumen comes from the Stories Across Borders album from 1991, their saving throw after the disaster that was The Dolphin Brothers. Maybe it’s the way the album came directly after Dolphin Brothers that elevated my initial perceptions, but Stories Across Borders isn’t exactly successful at distinguishing itself in a vacuum. It’s mid-tier ex-Japan at best, and their live renditions don’t add much, either. The best songs off Lumen are Sleepers Awake and Beginning to Melt, which already sounded amazing in the studio.
Playing in a Room with People, meanwhile, pulls not just from JB’s discography but also from Rain Tree Crow and Mick Karn’s solo work. Interestingly, although they picked more middle-of-the-road stuff to represent JB and Rain Tree Crow, the Karn stuff on display here is actually pretty good, particularly Saday Maday (accentuated with Wilson’s guitar and Theo Travis’ saxophone toward the end) and Plaster the Magic Tongue (Travis again, this time on that wonderful flute solo). The album opener, Walkabout, which appears to be an original Barbieri composition, is also quite good, moody and atmospheric, yet also industrial and abrasive. There should have been a whole album of stuff like that.
As a sendoff, though, Playing in a Room With People works great. Even though it’s far from a complete survey of JB and K’s numerous musical collaborations, it’s still an excellent summation of their post-Japan collaborations. Just like with the parent project, though, there’s still that sense of aborted possibility, that we’re going our separate ways right as we’re about to make a sort of breakthrough, either in terms of popularity or our evolution as musicians.
Since we don’t see much of these people after this, it might be worth taking a quick look at where the individual players went from here. Barbieri would spend the aughts focusing primarily on Porcupine Tree, although he would still release the occasional solo album, some of which we’ll take a look at as we move forward.
Steve Jansen and Mick Karn, meanwhile, would mostly keep to their solo careers after this. The most relevant album in Jansen’s case is his debut solo album, 2007’s Slope, a record that suggests a glitchier, jazzier, more experimental direction that JBK could have taken…in other words, something that sounds like an Anja Garbarek record. That’s kind of fitting, as she guests on this album, along with other familiar names like Theo Travis and David Sylvian.
As for Mick Karn, his first post-JBK records of note is Endless, a 2009 album by Italian prog rock outfit Fjieri. In addition to Karn, who plays bass on two songs, one of which sees him reunite with Richard Barbieri, Endless boasts a guest list that’s a who’s-who of Wilson-adjacent people, like Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers, and Gavin Harrison. This means the album benefits by-proxy from the incredible chemistry that Porcupine Tree had, as though a chunk of that band broke off and found its way here. This happens whenever two ex-PT members get together and start playing, like when Harrison reunited with Colin Edwin in 2016 for iamthemorning’s Lighthouse, or when Wilson and Barbieri briefly played together during Wilson’s three-night Royal Albert Hall residency in 2018. The song that Karn, Barbieri, and Harrison all play on, Ad Occhi Chiusi, sounds like a spicy Italian remix of a Porcupine Tree song, and is absolutely delightful.
The other Karn album worth mentioning here is what would have been the second full-length collaboration between Karn and Peter Murphy. I say “would have been” because before they were to head into the studio, Karn was diagnosed with an unspecified but aggressive form of cancer. Fundraisers were announced, benefit concerts were organized, and Porcupine Tree would release a live album, with the profits going to Karn’s medical expenses. These appeals allowed Karn, who was living in Cyprus at the time, to move back to London for treatment. Unfortunately the cancer proved too aggressive and Karn died in January of 2011. At the time of his death, Karn and Murphy had recorded five songs from what would have been their latest album, and it was these songs that would be released as InGladAloneness, an EP dedicated to Karn’s memory. So it goes.
Coda: Far Future
Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. Playing in a Room with People was released the month of 9/11. This album, like any album released that month, has nothing to do with 9/11, except that it too sits right on the fulcrum between a known past and an unknown future. JBK will not exist after this record. Neither will a lot of people’s understanding of the international order. These two things aren’t even remotely equivalent, but since they still happened simultaneously there’s still a temptation, however wrongheaded, to connect them somehow.
9/11 will not have a serious impact on Steven Wilson’s story for a few years, as its repercussions on politics and culture ripple outward and reach endpoints that are even more horrific than the act itself. Nevertheless, here we are now, in real time, as it’s happening, as a civilization convulses in great collective trauma, and we begin to understand that the familiar world of the nineties is truly dead and gone, and although it may not have been peaceful it sure as hell is going to feel like it compared to what’s coming, and now is the time of monsters.
It is the first day of April 2020, and I am writing this in the middle of a pandemic. My county is on lockdown. It is illegal for me to leave my house except to go to work or to go grocery shopping. Hospitals are overwhelmed, small businesses are collapsing, and state and local governments will soon have to amputate entire limbs for spare change. Current projections place the eventual American death toll at anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions. The Hungarian parliament voted to allow its fascist tyrant of a Prime Minister to rule by decree indefinitely. More nations may follow. The governor of Idaho signed legislation severely restricting the rights of trans people. It won’t be the last. The barbarisms of the new decade are becoming clearer by the day, and they are terrifying.
And from this whirlwind emerges the same sense of existential fear and anxiety that was in the air after 9/11, the climate in which Playing in a Room with People suddenly found itself. What should have been a nice little live album celebrating the collective discography of three men about to go their separate ways has instead been marked out prematurely as an artifact from an earlier age, a reminder of precisely what we’re losing.