Let me start by stating that I am obsessed with this album and this band. I have referred to this band as Japan’s answer to Kraftwerk on early listens but really the two were contemporaneous. Why was Kraftwerk so successful when YMO are comparatively unheard of? Perhaps because the former embraced a style and theme and the latter leaned into a fun, futuristic funk and an ‘inherent sexiness’. They combined their clear Eastern style and influence with more Western style song structures which is perhaps why it appealed to me so much. The combination of this with the fun almost high fashion visuals did stagger me.
If you’re a more seasoned gamer you may have come across a sterling example in ‘Rydeen’. Yellow Magic Orchestra’s soaring electro-pop epic, taken from their 1979 album Solid State Survivor, was not only a major influence on the development of early video game music (or “chip tune”) but also appeared directly in titles such as Trooper Truck (1983) and Super Locomotive (1982). More so, the song’s incredible marriage of propulsive rhythm and sugar rush melody laid out the blueprint for what was to become an era defining sound not only in Japan but in western countries such as the UK – where cheap Japanese electronics were being retuned to the post-punk atmosphere. Classic Album Sundays
After the drums of the first track, Technopolis, one immediately feels as though they are in for a thrilling ride. This is the apex of Japanese synth pop. Catchy ‘melody’, rapid fire changes and an overall sense of urgency tying the track together. YMO manage to produce an almost otherworldly sound here.
Absolute Ego Dance follows, and provides a quieter but still very punchy track. Listen to the bass line throughout, which I feel underpins the bizarre frond-like dispersal of sound throughout the film. The high pitched synth takes over about one third through. Try to listen and separate what you are hearing. This is multi-layered and complex, while maintaining high energy and infectious rhythm.
Rydeen, as you will have red above, was featured in several video games, including Sega’s Super Locomotive. The beginning of the track on the album does sound like a train. This is my favourite track on the album. In fact I would go as far as to say this is one of the best, most infectious and appealing synth pop tunes of all time. It was indeed the band’s most successful single. The bridge about halfway through the track lends itself to a terrifically energetic and highly complex final section of the song. So many layers!
Castalia is comparatively mysterious and dark, but still showcases a mastery of synth. The track provides us with a good bridge between the height of energy in the opening tracks and those in closing. When trying to focus on work and needing drive, I tend to skip this track, however I have deigned to listen to it while composing this review.
Behind the Mask is another highlight of the album, the soaring bassline which emerges one minute in and the trippy ethereal backing transport one to another plane, almost. For all its esoteric feel, the track is still incredibly strong and multi-layered.
The band’s decision to deliver their lyrics in English (with help from translator Chris Mosdell) spoke to their ambition to be known as a globalised band, accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. Having grown up in a post-war Japan that was both coming to terms with its isolated past and anticipating its precarious future, its not hard to understand how American imports of jazz, rock, funk, and folk records might have represented a break from the troubles of their parents’ generation. Ibidum
Day Tripper is an audacious cover of a Beatles track which is sure to at once delight and horrify the band’s western audience. High energy, colourful, creative and ultimately alive. This song is emblematic of the ambitions of the album.
Insomnia is the third of three especial highlights on the album for me. The cascading echoing synth is a testament to the capacity of this genre of music. The imaginative strength it must have taken to compose something of this scale baffles me. We know Ryuichi Sakamoto, one of the founding members of YMO, has gone on to compose a variety of soundtracks, notably for the Oscar winning film the Revenant.
In summary, Solid State Survivor is a remarkable, alive, durable album. It brims with adventure and is striking in its agelessness. A true technicolour thrill. YMO had a brief but shining span and have had an enormous impact on this reviewer.