‘Ghost Is Dead,” the 10th album from Tokyo’s Spangle call Lilli line, shouldn’t exist. Regular life caught up with the trio, leaving them with little time to contemplate creating new music: Lead singer Kana Otsubo had a baby and her bandmates saw their day jobs eat up more and more of their personal time.
Guitarist Ken Fujieda laughs as he says he couldn’t even find time to practice his instrument over the past five years. “But as we get busier with our lives, and our day jobs, we found we really wanted to go back to the band,” he says from an office conference room in Shibuya Ward during a work break.
For a group that used to release multiple albums a year, putting together “Ghost Is Dead” required a lot more time. It comes five years after Spangle’s last full-length release, “Forest at the Head of a River,” the longest such gap in a career spanning more than a decade and a half.
“This one also took the longest time to record,” Fujieda says. “We used to complete albums in two or three months. We started ‘Ghost’ in January and didn’t finalize it until the very end of September.”
Recording required the members to sacrifice most of their spare time and holidays, and Fujieda worried the whole process would fall apart at a moment’s notice.
But it worked, and “Ghost Is Dead” arrived last week as a reminder that Spangle call Lilli line, when it can find the time, remains one of the most consistently intriguing bands in the country. The album is an 11-song collection that finds Otsubo, Fujieda and guitarist Kiyoaki Sasahara embracing space, creating their most minimalist album to date out of simple guitar and drum patterns, and the occasional synthesizer. Yet it still captures the essence of the band, primarily via Otsubo’s wispy vocals. I can imagine listening to it while walking around a west Tokyo suburb at dusk, just thinking over the day’s events.
There’s a consistent inconsistency to Spangle’s work. The band is constantly changing its sound, perhaps due to the time between albums, but manages to retain a similar vibe in each of its releases. The members all went to the same art school in the late 1990s. Their first few albums found them playing knotty songs routinely approaching the 10-minute mark, but eventually they tightened things up, resulting in rock songs that were more accessible to the average listener.
The band then began to experiment with its sound — orchestral pop dominated 2008’s “Isolation” and chugging rock featured on 2011’s “New Season” EP. Spangle switched up the sound on everything it released (“We never want to do the same thing twice,” Fujieda said in an interview 10 years ago), but always found a way to hold onto a core, fluttering mood.
“Everyone in the band is in their 40s now and as we’ve gotten older we’ve embraced simplicity,” he says, adding that part of this comes from not having played any instruments much over the past five years. Because of their lack of practice, though, he says the trio labored more carefully over every song and rerecorded things over and over until getting the tracks just right.
The skeletal frames of songs such as “Iris” and album closer “Sogna” don’t initially sound like pieces that would require too much devotion, but capturing that Spangle essence is vital to the process, and “Ghost Is Dead” never falters on that point. Otsubo remains the key, her voice drifting over sparse melodies, adding an internal tension and melancholy that also allows for moments of much-needed release.
“I felt fresh singing in the recording studio after such a long break,” she says via email, unable to join Fujieda for the in-person interview (work keeps Sasahara away, too). “In the past, I’ve had the sound right next to my ear while recording, but this time, it stayed away. That unstable feeling was incredible.”
Otsubo’s diction has always been more about sound than meaning, and she toyed around with singing all of the lyrics on “Ghost Is Dead” in English before deciding to also include Japanese.
“Writing for me is like trying to follow a series of hints, or sculpting,” she says. “I also wanted it to resonate with people regardless of (things like) gender.”
Her singing transforms relatively basic numbers into compelling meditations, highlighted by the skippy “Azure” and the swelling climax “Constellation.” Also, for the first time in the band’s history a guest singer appears on one of the tracks. Moto Kawabe, the lead singer of Tokyo alt-rock outfit Mitsume, joins Otsubo on the vocals for “Feel Uneasy.”
“I’ve sung on our songs before, so a male voice isn’t new,” Fujieda says. “But we realized there were no songs on here I could sing. We had been listening to Mitsume for some time and thought Kawabe’s voice would work well alongside Otsubo’s, since they are both pretty high-pitched. The important thing was finding someone who could slide into our sound.”
Kawabe’s guest spot aside, “Ghost Is Dead” is Spangle call Lilli line doing what it has done well for nearly two decades. It isn’t a pioneering step forward for Japanese rock, but more like a comforting visit from a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Just don’t expect a tour anytime soon.
“We used up all our days off making the album, we don’t want to sacrifice any more at the moment to tour,” Fujieda says with a laugh.
“Ghost Is Dead” is in stores now via Felicity Records. Spangle call Lilli line plays Akasaka Blitz in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on Dec. 13 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,240-¥5,000; 03-3405-9999 ). For more information, visit www.lilliline.com.
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