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V/A - The Definitive Japanese Scene, Vol. 1

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Artist: V/A

Album: The Definitive Japanese Scene, Vol. 1

Label: Mule Musiq

Review date: Apr. 16, 2009

On this first collection from Mule Musiq, compiler and label boss Toshiya Kawasaki aims to help electronic producers from his homeland "open up their future." Some of the names here will be recognizable by fans of the label’s output, but most of them are new; the styles run the gamut of electronica, from slow jazziness to bouncy techno. Music like this is a tricky thing to experience out of context – many of these tracks require a dancefloor-sized PA and a crowd to bloom. Even those sedate enough to be effective late-night listens at home fade a bit too comfortably into the background. The mid-tempo beats of the opener, Righteous’ "Midnight Muse,” are a case in point. A slow jazz groove, it opens with an oddly-accented piano riff that stutters just a bit, and sampled horns that repeat gently as the occasional vocal samples place the song firmly in smoky lounge territory. The closer, "Spy vs Spy" from Haruki Matsuo, bookends the album with a different example of slow grooves. Its skeletal, shuffling beats and organ-like synth have a nice dark feel, but are nearly unvarying for seven minutes. In a club, this could be mixed with another track to nice effect, but on its own …

The more predictably techno tracks also feel sparse, as if they’re more properly expecting to be on a 12”, mixed in a booth above a packed dancefloor. Kaoru Inoue’s "Esc" is fairly generic synth bounce, while "Open Up" by Kza lays Yaz blips and bass pads over a standard 4/4 beat. "I-ight" by Force of Nature, perhaps the best-known dance band from Mule Musiq, offers standard techno thump, while Kentaro Iwaki’s "Kinuta" is almost nine minutes of the same predictable beat with minimal variations of synth burbling over it. Each of these tracks makes for a decent bed, but they’re essentially just frames, hardly bothersome, but prone to the background.

Artists that provide more details fare better. Soft blend ethno beats with surf guitar and electronics, Yoshihiro Tsukahara and Kuniyiki’s "Wild and Survive" gets all Frippertronic with a jazzy bounce, and Galarude take Adam Ant’s dual drummers and go one better before throwing down a guitar pulse and letting rip for my favorite piece here. With more layers and sounds, these songs feel more complete, and thus more compelling.

It’s likely that anyone interested in rhythm-focused music will find something they like on this sampler, though they’ll also likely find some they don’t. As an introduction to an assortment of names, The Definitive Japanese Scene accomplishes its mission, but little else.

By Mason Jones

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