Samstag, 17. Januar 2009

Pick of the day: YMCK

YMCK (check them out on myspace) is an 8-bit/chiptune pop outfit from Japan (no shit), consisting of 2 musicians/programmers and a female vocalist. The song is taken from their 2004 debut album "family music" and is representative of what they are about: a happy blend of pop and jazz with a latin tinge, built on intricate compositions with loads of chord changes and frantic solos, topped with breathy vocals (think: Astrud Gilberto on speed), all crammed into a hyperactive 2-minute-song, delivered at breakneck speed. Most songs are over before your mind can even begin to grasp what the hell is going on, leaving you with the feeling that you just got hit by a freight train. And whatever that was, you want it again, and more of it.

At first sight, the form, or rather: the aesthetic means of production (i.e. the bleepy, sawing sound) seem to dominate the content (i.e. the music itself). But after a few listens, you will witness a sea change in this dialectic, and the beautiful, virtuosic quality of the song will unfold and grow on you. (I promise!)
Check out the furious finale of "Does John Coltrane dream of a merry-go-round":

Not only are the driving chord changes similar to the progressions in Coltrane's famous "Giant Steps" - even the phrasing and the syncopation of the solo (when was the last time you heard something like that in a pop song?) are almost identical:

Granted, the 8-bit constraint implies quite a restriction: the sound is flat and cheap, lacking the full and rich timbre of a real instrument or the fatness of an analogue synth. YMCK more than make up for that with increased velocity, speed and force ... and polyphony. Besides, they seem to be quite content with the sound possiblilities at hand. After all, ANY music is based on restriction, and quality in music is a matter of simultaneously accepting and testing these boundaries, always pushing the envelope a little bit further.

This is postmodern music at its best. On the debut album alone, YMCK unsleash an impressive amount of pop cultural namedropping: tech talk (CMYK), video games (Tetris, Dragon Quest), musicians (John Coltrane), books (Do androids dream of electric sheep?), ...
It's cute, it's tongue-in-cheek, it's radically eclectic - but it would be bland and boring if it was JUST that, an ironic and empty regurgitating of cultural heritage. However, YMCK are too smart and too serious for that. They tackle their material with rare sincerity and an almost protestant work ethic that's objectified in the miniature songs, each of them being a complex composition.

So even if Marx was right and all history is to repeat itself, it seems appropriate to revise his claim that the tragedy will return as farce - in YMCK's book, it's more likely to be pastiche.

Slightly off-topic epilogue: If you share my musical taste (which you probably don't), then the dueling solos in the YMCK/Coltrane track might remind you of something only peripherally related to chiptune music: the lyric sheet of any Slayer album, always featuring the unforgettable line "Leads: Hannemann, King, Hannemann". Word.

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