Welcome Home, Hayabusa

Welcome Home, HayabusaHayabusa was a Japanese space probe that landed on and sampled asteroid Itokawa in 2011. This would be a stunning space feat for any country’s space agency, but Japan happened to get there first, and the surge of national pride for this technological accomplishment has spawned no fewer than three movies, ranging from documentaries to – in the case of Okaeri Hayabusa (Welcome Home, Hayabusa) – a fictionalized family drama with the mission as backdrop and framing story.

And who better to score a movie whose drama takes place around the launch and flight of one of Japan’s crowning space achievements? None other than the late, great Japanese synth pioneer Isao Tomita. Whether you realize it or not, Tomita’s connection with space exploration is lengthy – and almost purely coincidental. Tomita’s late ’70s synth reworking of Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1” was appropriated by the Miami Planetarium to top and tail each installment of the planetarium’s long-running PBS series Star Hustler (later Star Gazer, after the realities of the search engine age caught up with the show and began directing young viewers toward a certain adult periodical with “hustler” in the title). Tomita’s music was synonymous with astronomer Jack Horkheimer’s exuberant weekly lessons on amateur astronomy from then on.

Tomita is an absolutely brilliant choice to score this film. Not only is his synthesizer work as crisp and inventive as ever, but he gives brilliant musical accompaniment to visualizations of data being transmitted to Earth from deep space, and uses appropriately icy synths to illustrate the bleak emptiness of space traversed by Hayabusa. There have been many musical odes to major space missions, and by fairly high 4 out of 4profile composers (Vangelis springs to mind), but Tomita’s translation of event to music makes this among the best. This soundtrack also steps outside the usual all-synth comfort zone with which Tomita is associated, allowing the composer to bring his classical training into play with real trumpet solos, woodwinds and strings augmenting his normally “icy” synthesizers with a warmer human touch.

The real tragedy is that Japan has launched Hayabusa 2 to dare even mightier things, and Tomita is no longer around to give that mission its own soundtrack.

Order this CD

  1. Challenge To The Universe (5:03)
  2. Engineer Crush (1:20)
  3. Dreaming Of The Flyby (1:21)
  4. Toward The Asteroid (3:30)
  5. Touchdown On Itokawa! (2:43)
  6. Recollection Of Naoko (1:34)
  7. The Fight Against Sickness (3:23)
  8. 1-Bit Communication / Connecting The Hope (3:19)
  9. Mother’s Joy / Surgery Success (1:49)
  10. Cross Operation? (1:52)
  11. Finally To Return (1:36)
  12. Tristan & Isolde / From Beyond The Galaxy (8:15)
  13. Hayabusa / Tristan & Isolde To The Future (5:47)

Released by: Shochiku Records
Release date: 2-29-2012
Total running time: 41:32

Tree Wave – Virtual 10-Inch

Tree Wave - Virtual 10-InchIt’s been a long time since we’ve heard from Dallas-based Tree Wave, another pioneer of the “chiptunes”/”micromusic” movement. But while other acts (such as 8 Bit Weapon) have carved their own path through that genre, Tree Wave was always different and decidedly more analog: dot matrix printers, among other things, were specially programmed and miked up as instruments in and of themselves. Tree Wave has also never limited itself solely to computer hardware; ethereal distorted guitars have always been a part of the duo’s soundscape.

Almost by accident, I discovered that Tree Wave released a new mini-EP (or as Paul Slocum calls it, a “virtual 10-inch”, referring to the size of a “maxi-single” on vinyl but almost certainly milking the double entendre for whatever it’s worth) in August. Consisting of four songs, Virtual 10-Inch shows an evolution in Tree Wave’s sound. If anything, that sound has morphed into prog-rock-with-computer-hardware.

The good news is that Tree Wave’s tendency toward warm, weird, wide-open chords hasn’t changed. In places, though, Virtual 10-Inch serves notice that, if the sound wasn’t necessarily constrained to old electronics before, it’s even less so now; there are moments where Tree Wave’s signature computer sounds are drenched with a dreamy multi-tracked wash of distorted guitars – or at least computer audio run through a distortion pedal (a trick Slocum has been known to employ).

“onewordb” and “plentyc” are the two tracks that will seem most familiar to fans of Tree Wave’s previous work; “onewordb” is unusual in that it introduces a male vocal (presumably Slocum), which features in the other songs as well; vocalist Lauren Gray doesn’t appear until the second track, “realaudio8”, which is part of the more decidedly abstract half of Virtual 10-Inch. She takes the lead on “plentyc”, and the final track, “time29”, closes things out on an experimental note again.

It’s been too long since we’ve heard anything out of Tree Wave (they’ve been touring steadily since 2003, though), and hopefully Virtual 10-Inch is a sign that they’re working on more new 3 out of 4material. This pint-sized collection – less than 15 minutes to hear the whole thing – may not be for everyone, but it’s an intriguing sound that’s carving out its own swath. It may be micromusic, but it doesn’t “sound like an old video game” by a long shot…and I like that.

Virtual 10-Inch is available as a free download from Tree Wave’s web site (see link below).

Free Download

  1. onewordb (2:50)
  2. realaudio8 (3:36)
  3. plentyc (2:36)
  4. time29 (3:10)

Released by: Tree Wave
Release date: 2009
Total running time: 12:12

TV Eyes

TV EyesAnother project from the trio that brought us the bizarre soundtrack-to-a-nonexistent-movie Logan’s Sanctuary, TV Eyes is nothing less than an ’80s revival band that’s playing brand new songs instead of new wave covers. If anything, it’s more of a stylistic tribute to the early ’80s than anything – in some of the songs, you catch a hint of Duran Duran here, a snippet of Kajagoogoo there, and so on. TV Eyes doesn’t use those bands’ songs, but it does appropriate some of their stylistic maneuvers.

The result is a delirious trip right back to the ’80s – I’d almost swear that this is just some 25-year-old album that I’ve never heard before. Standouts include the unabashed ’80s flashback that is the Falkner-penned “She’s A Study”, whose synth arpeggios bring vintage synth-heavy acts such as Level 42 and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark immediately to mind. Falkner’s also responsible for “Mission: Submission”, a throwback to some of the style of Gary Numan, with lyrics that are pure ’80s material, predicting a world run by computers, and the least synth-oriented song on the entire album, “The Party’s Over”, a Clash-esque rocker with political overtones that are vague enough to be from any era and yet directly address the 2000s.

“Over The City” and “Need To Love” shamelessly sound more like the Duran Duran that everyone remembers than Duran Duran itself does these days. My first impression was that it was a little too “drum ‘n’ bass” modern to fit the stylistic parameters of the album, but the rapid-fire keyboard work and funky bassline seals the deal even before the startlingly LeBon-esque vocals kick in. “She Gets Around” is a dance number with a hypnotic synth loop, while “What She Said” is an ode to that oddity of the ’80s, a non-rap song with spoken lyrics.

All of it adds up to one of the most repeat-listen-worthy CDs I’ve come across in years. This stuff is just impossible to get out of your head – it’s that catchy. It’s got a knack for sounding so familiar that you’d think that you’ve been hearing these songs on countless ’80s compilations down through the years, and yet the album – and the songs – are only a couple of years old as of this writing.

4 out of 4TV Eyes’ debut album is a dandy, and it’s a testament to the sad state of musical tastemaking on this side of the world that this group could only find a label in Japan. (Two of its members, Jellyfish alumni Roger Manning and Jason Falkner, have also released music in Japan that’s unavailable here except as wallet-stranglingly expensive imports.) Someone in America, anyone: pick these guys up, pronto. They really “get” what was so good about some of the music of the 1980s.

Order this CD

  1. Fade Away (4:33)
  2. She’s A Study (4:55)
  3. Fascinating (5:20)
  4. Love To Need (4:05)
  5. The Party’s Over (4:42)
  6. What She Said (4:14)
  7. Over The City (5:00)
  8. Mission: Submission (4:30)
  9. She Gets Around (5:22)
  10. Time’s Up (4:45)

Released by: Phantom
Release date: 2006
Total running time: 48:26

Isao Tomita – The Planets

Isao Tomita - The PlanetsAlso known as The Tomita Planets, this is Japanese synth whiz Isao Tomita’s rendition of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Tomita used no traditional acoustic instruments, but did lean somewhat on the traditional arrangement. Opening with a bit of vocoder-and-synth “babble” to set the mood, Tomita launches into an energetic “Mars, The Bringer Of War” which appropriately now sounds like it belongs to the space age.

The same treatment is delivered on the other pieces in the suite, with “Venus: The Bringer Of Peace” and “Jupiter: The Bringer Of Jollity” getting an especially spacey treatment; the synth work on “Mercury: The Winged Messenger” dates it a bit, but for something recorded over 30 years ago, the whole thing still manages to sound futuristic. In places you might even catch a hint of the synthesized “whistle” sound which Tomita also used on what is arguably his most famous recording, Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1”, also known as the theme song for Jack Horkheimer’s PBS stargazing show.

Of the outer planet pieces, “Saturn, Bringer of Old Age” and “Neptune, The Mystic” are the real highlights; “Saturn” ticks away like a time bomb with a synth “tick-tock” motif and flanged synths a la Jarre or Vangelis. “Neptune” has long been my favorite part of The Planets – I’ve always felt that it may be the most spiritual piece of music that anyone in the western world has ever composed (take that, Handel!) – so I was eager to see what Tomita would do with this particular segment. For the most part, “Neptune” sticks almost slavishly to the traditional arrangement, allowing enough wiggle room for some interesting changes in emphasis and “instrument” balance.

3 out of 4Overall, Tomita’s rendition of The Planets is interesting, a fascinating listen, but I can’t help but feel that there one could go further “out there” with arrangements and instrumentation, further afield from the orchestral arrangements that we’re all so used to. Other interpretations by folks like Rick Wakeman and Jeff (Musucal Version of War Of The Worlds) Wayne have also failed to break out of the orbit of the orchestral Planets. I know that there’s only so far one can go without actually changing the music itself, but within that limitation, I don’t think all the possibilities have been fully explored. Tomita does a good job, but The Planets could probably stand up to more intense, offbeat exploration.

Order this CD

  1. Mars: The Bringer Of War (10:58)
  2. Venus: The Bringer Of Peace (9:20)
  3. Mercury: The Winged Messenger (4:37)
  4. Jupiter: The Bringer Of Jollity (9:22)
  5. Saturn: The Bringer Of Old Age (8:41)
  6. Uranus: The Magician (2:14)
  7. Neptune: The Mystic (6:49)

Released by: RCA Victor
Release date: 1976
Total running time: 52:01

Talking Heads – Little Creatures

Talking Heads - Little CreaturesThis Talking Heads album gets a bit of a bad rap for being the one where David Byrne took over the band’s creative direction completely, but be that as it may, it’s my favorite. Of course, just about any album that kicks off with “And She Was” would stand a good chance of ranking right up there with me – incredibly catchy, surreal and funny all at the same time. Which just about sums up this whole album.

This is also the album with the single “Road To Nowhere” on it, bringing up the rear as the closing track, and yet sandwiched between those two minor hits are some of the Talking Heads’ best stuff.

But not all of it – “Give Me Back My Name” is just sorta so-so, an interesting lyric that seems like it should be supported by a more interesting melody. “Creatures Of Love” can catch you off guard with a bit of a country-ish sound, while “The Lady Don’t Mind” slips back into more of the typical Talking Heads sound.

Right smack in the middle of Little Creatures are two of my all-time favorites from this band: the obscure, not-quite-a-hit single “Perfect World” and “Stay Up Late”. “Perfect World” has one of my favorite Talking Heads melodies, and some of my favorite David Byrne vocals. Somewhat surprisingly, and yet not surprisingly, “Stay Up Late” has enjoyed something of a revival – with its cute lyric about keeping one’s baby brother up way past his bedtime, it’s guaranteed at least one spin per night in ABC’s overnight World News Now show. If “Stay Up Late” doesn’t inspire you to laugh out loud at least once, you’re listening to the wrong song.

“Walk It Down” is a song that opens with a deceptively odd, percussive sound that gives way to something more akin to an upbeat, joyous, almost churchy feel during the choruses. The catchy “Television Man” – another great Byrne vocal performance, by the way – stops just this side of being Jerzy Kosinski’s novel (and later film) Being There set to music. Now there’s a concept that would be worthy of David Byrne’s talents – not that anything wrong’s with “Television Man” as it is.

rating: 3 out of 4I’ve heard a few diehard fans refer to Little Creatures as a bit of a post-sellout album for Byrne & company, but I have a hard time buying into that (miserable pun intended). Some of the band’s best and most offbeat stuff can be found here, though for this group, delving into more popular territory as this album did was offbeat. It’s rather uneven as an album when listened to all in one sitting, but there are indivdual numbers that make this easy to overlook. Little Creatures is a big joy to listen to.

Order this CD

  1. And She Was (3:39)
  2. Give Me Back My Name (3:22)
  3. Creatures Of Love (4:15)
  4. The Lady Don’t Mind (3:58)
  5. Perfect World (4:27)
  6. Stay Up Late (3:43)
  7. Walk It Down (4:44)
  8. Television Man (6:10)
  9. Road To Nowhere (4:19)

Released by: Sire
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 38:37

Tree Wave – Cabana+ EP

Tree Wave - Cabana+ EPAn Austin-based duo, Tree Wave is earning quite a name for itself, as much for its music as how it’s being made. Electronics wiz and musician Paul Slocum has fashioned a cluster of distinctly 80s technology into his own arsenal of instruments: a 386 PC with a dot matrix printer souped up to produce specific pitches, an Atari 2600 running Paul’s custom-programmed music software, and a Commodore 64. On the surface of it, this sounds like an act that’s going to be turning out some very twitchy, blippy music, right? You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.

In fact, Tree Wave comes off sounding like an early new wave band in an age when the songs weren’t written much differently than before, but the real novelty was in how the sounds were made. Vocalist Lauren Gray’s take on the human element in this decidedly electronic brew can range from husky to airy depending on the particular song, and it strikes just the right counterbalance to Slocum’s dense wall of sound. There are occasionally some blippy, 8-bit elements to the backing tracks, but there’s also something unexpectedly full and orchestrated about the sound – unobtrusive synth pads and decent drum sounds keep things afloat, and if you’re shaking your head at the thought of a printer as a musical instrument, listen to the anthemic opening moments of “Sleep” and think again. Slocum has found a great balance between the novelty of how he’s making the music, and the music that’s being played (not to mention that he breaks Tree Wave’s apparent mandate in the opening track, “May Banners”, with some Byrds-esque guitar work). The novelty never takes over for sheer 4 out of 4gimmickry’s sake. “Morning Coffee Hymn” and “Same” are also highlights.

Tree Wave is gaining quite a bit of attention from the music community and the media, so hopefully it’ll only be a matter of time the right label takes note and signs them for a full-length album and promotes them with a bit of tender loving care. Mainstream they’re not, but catchy they most definitely are.

Order this CD

  1. May Banners (3:43)
  2. Machines Fall Apart (3:06)
  3. Sleep (2:56)
  4. Instrumental 1b (4:00)
  5. Morning Coffee Hymn (3:38)
  6. Same (3:20)

Released by: Tree Wave
Release date: 2005
Total running time: 23:43

10cc – The Very Best Of 10cc

10cc - The Very Best Of 10ccWhat do you get with a band that seems to be equal parts Beatles influence and comedic irony? That would be 10cc, and those looking for an entry-level crash course into the band’s history could hardly ask for better than The Very Best Of, covering the British group’s six-year career and following it up with some material from alumni Godley & Creme.

10cc’s most offbeat material has always been what appealed to me most about the group, and most of their better efforts can be found here, including “Rubber Bullets”, “Life Is A Minestrone”, “I’m Not In Love”, and a healthy helping of songs from Deceptive Bends, their biggest-selling album (which has already been reviewed here). There are some other tunes which don’t quite do it for me (you’d think, being the vocal harmony fanatic that I am, that I’d dig “I’m Mandy Fly Me”, but for some reason I’ve never really gotten to like that one), but at the very least it’s a decent grouping of the band’s best material.

I’m a little torn about the decision to cap the collection off with Godley & Creme’s “Cry” – it seems a bit like 3 out of 4tagging a Wings song onto a Beatles compilation to me – especially when Godley & Creme’s “History Mix” would’ve been more apt, combining “Cry” with several 10cc chestnuts in a bit of techno mega-mix – it seems to me that this would’ve been a more relevant track. But as fond as people are of “Cry”, I can see why it was included. Overall, a solid slice of 10cc.

Order this CD

  1. Donna (2:54)
  2. Rubber Bullets (5:17)
  3. The Dean And I (3:03)
  4. The Wall Street Shuffle (3:52)
  5. Sully Love (3:57)
  6. Life Is A Minestrone (4:40)
  7. I’m Not In Love (6:05)
  8. Art For Art’s Sake (5:52)
  9. I’m Mandy Fly Me (5:20)
  10. The Things We Do For Love (3:31)
  11. Good Morning Judge (2:53)
  12. People In Love (3:45)
  13. Dreadlock Holiday (4:59)
  14. For You And I (5:18)
  15. Cry (3:55)

Released by: Mercury
Release date: 1997
Total running time: 65:21