A thick Kyoto sound, with all the right elements

by Catherine Pawasarat

“Thick,” “intense,” “heavy.” These are the words people use to describe the new “Kyoto sound.” The Kyoto band Elements is at the forefront of this movement, shown by the sellout sales of their latest recording, “Singular Sky,” upon its release last month.

True to the group’s Kyoto roots, the new CD was designed as an amalgamated oeuvre of both modern and traditional media, with the multifacetedness of international news and the suggestiveness of traditional Japanese poetry.

“This CD is not just an expression of our passion or power, it’s meant to spark the listeners’ imagination, suggest a whole universe, like a haiku,” says guitarist/producer Michihisa Watanabe.”

This was not about making music for music’s sake,” Watanabe says. “We wanted to use music to make something else. Like a newspaper, you can really get into the depths of the subjects of each article, or you can just enjoy it more superficially.”

Whether or not the listener is interested in plunging in deep, “Singular Sky” is a rewarding listen: Veteran Kyoto indies drummer Toru Sanjo and bassist Mitsuru Nasano know how to set a groove, providing excellent support for the soulful voice of vocalist/guitarist max (as he prefers to be known), and the melodic meanderings of accordionist Ryotaro Sudo.”

The music makes people feel like swaying or staying still. It makes people move inward,” says max, a Canadian who’s made Kyoto his home for the last seven years.

The multilevel nature of the first track, “Put It On,” sets the tone for the whole album. It makes extensive use of spoken voice intermingling with sung lyrics. Some of the spoken words are just audible, while others fade into a hum. This creates both a ragalike background drone and an invitation to venture down tangential paths.

Though max is fluent in Japanese, Elements’ lyrics are mostly in English, with a smattering of French.

“The language in which I can best express my feelings is English, it’s the most natural,” he explains. “We’re also looking at listeners outside of Japan as well, in Europe and North America.”

Many of the lyrics on “Singular Sky” are poetic and philosophical musings on modern social ills, food for thought for inquiring minds.

“Thematically, it’s a heavy album,” max reflects. “But I try not to talk about meanings too much, because I don’t own words or their meaning, and I don’t want people to be limited to what I meant when I wrote it.”

Watanabe points out that maybe not all Japanese listeners will understand the lyrics, but key words stand out, such as “time” or “desire.” “We can hear and understand more and more with time, and we put together a story. As producer, I’ve used this intentionally, to make the recording more impressionistic.”

The sensitive, expressive range of max’s voice is amazing, from the soulful “Put It On” and smoky “Bossanovacaine,” to the moody “Time” and wistfully pure “Movin’.”

If max’s voice and lyrics are the soul of “Singular Sky,” Watanabe’s unique arrangements and production skills are the body.

“I really didn’t want the CD to fit into a predetermined style,” Watanabe says. “Some people have told me to change this or that because it doesn’t fit into the formula, but other people tell me it’s great. It gives a key to the imaginative world inside each of us.”

Elements’ previous three CDs, all produced, promoted and distributed by the band, have a simpler, rawer and more melodic feeling, whereas “Singular Sky” is a sophisticated reincarnation. This was the fruit of a burst of creative energy the band felt when the major independent record company Agent Con-Sipio Records picked them up last year.

Con-Sipio is the brainchild of clothing designer and musician Yohji Yamamoto and former Yellow Magic Orchestra drummer Yukihiro Takahashi. Ignoring the majority of Japanese “instant” music, it throws its support behind groups like Elements, which are less oriented toward image and sales only.

As a result, Elements’ CDs can be found prominently displayed nationwide in listening corners in Virgin and Tower record stores. The band has regular gigs in Tokyo and a tour coming up later this summer.

This is new territory for the Kyoto band in terms of geography and listeners.

“We play in Tokyo and people react, ‘This is not a Tokyo sound.’ People say we’re part of the new Kyoto sound, also called a ‘wet’ or ‘humid’ sound,” max says, chuckling at the reference to Kyoto’s intense humidity.

One might imagine that the temptation to move to Tokyo, the center of Japan’s music industry, would be strong, but the vocalist laughs off the suggestion.

“But Elements are this ‘Kyoto sound.’ If we left, we would no longer be wet.”