Though it has been 11 years since his last album, Keigo Oyamada never really went away. The studio wizard known as Cornelius has spent the past decade diversifying his portfolio: creating soundtracks for anime and educational TV; playing in electro super-group Metafive and collaborating with J-pop singer Salyu; touring with Yoko Ono and Yellow Magic Orchestra; and remixing everyone from Philip Glass to Sakanaction.
Speaking to The Japan Times last summer, Oyamada gave a prosaic reason for reviving his solo project: “I want to do some of the things I couldn’t do in those contexts,” he said, referring to his various extracurricular activities. “I haven’t had much chance to do vocals, so I think I’m going to make a bunch of songs I can sing myself.”
It’s an interesting statement coming from a performer who has never seemed especially comfortable in the limelight. On his most famous album, “Fantasma” — which marks its 20th anniversary this September — Oyamada outed himself as a massive record geek while revealing little else, preferring to let himself get lost in the music. As his productions grew more spacious and refined on 2001’s “Point” and 2006’s “Sensuous,” it became harder to discern a human presence behind them.
So the effect of “If You’re Here,” the opening track on “Mellow Waves,” is akin to the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain and singing a confessional love song. Based around a slow, unsteady drumbeat and tremolo-heavy electric piano, it’s practically a slow jam, even if the lyrics — penned by former Yura Yura Teikoku frontman Shintaro Sakamoto — strike a more emotionally ambivalent tone: “Why does it hurt me just to look at you? Why does my heart beat faster when I see you move?”
Like many of the songs that follow, Oyamada deploys an arsenal of production tricks — sending sounds pinging across the stereo field or exploding in plumes of reverb — without letting them get in the way of his melodies. “Mellow Waves” contains some of the most straightforward and lyrical music he has released, and also the most affecting.
It’s hard to imagine the younger Oyamada making a song like “The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness,” which enlists Miki Berenyi of 1990s Brit rockers Lush (actually a distant relative) on lead vocals. What sounds initially like a sweetly naive lullaby in the Brian Wilson mold turns out to be rather darker: By the end, it’s clear that the song’s narrator is walking out on her “perfect” family.
Oyamada is on more familiar ground with the deconstructed tropicalia of “Sometime/Someplace” and “Helix/Spiral,” a musical zoetrope of organ lines, polyrhythmic percussion and Speak & Spell vocals. But even here, his productions sound looser than on previous albums — the result, as he said in a recent interview with Stereogum, of working off the metric computer sequencer grids that had defined “Point” and “Sensuous.”
Not everything on the album is quite so essential: “Surfing on Mind Wave pt 2” is five minutes of forgettable new age drone, and the closing guitar instrumental, “Crepuscule,” is a straight retread of the title track from “Sensuous.” But overall, “Mellow Waves” is a convincing comeback from a musician who’d seemed like he was never going to outgrow his man-child persona. It may not be the “Fantasma” sequel that some fans wanted, but maturity suits Oyamada well.