ZAZEN BOYS III was a polarizing album.
Some listeners admired the audacity of the band’s reckless abandon. Other listeners (myself included) found the wild improvisation lacking and unskilled.
In the end, ZAZEN BOYS III was an extreme album, and going further would have taken Mukai Shuutoku and company down some creatively treacherous paths.
Instead, Mukai stepped back. He went to long-time producer Dave Fridmann to helm the follow-up, and the band started to experiment with synthesizers and beat boxes. ZAZEN BOYS 4 is the result, and it reigns in all the ideas Mukai has been exploring up to this point into something actually cohesive.
At a quick glance, employing ’80s-sounding synthesizers looked like ZAZEN BOYS were jumping on an indie rock bandwagon, cashing in on a rapidly-deflating New Wave revival. The release of "I Don’t Wanna Be with You" before the album certainly left that impression.
In reality, ZAZEN BOYS chops and grinds the ’80s in the same manner they’ve done with other forms of music, and those synths and beat boxes get woven into the complex rhythms and obtuse guitar riffs that are de rigeur for the band.
The first two tracks of the album, "Asobi" and "Honnoji", establish the conflicting directions that create tension for the rest of the album — the former propelled exclusively by synthesizers, piano and drum machine, the latter driven by the band’s explosive playing.
Both come together on "Weekend", with a funky bass line grounding Mukai’s manic vocals. "Idiot Funk" pits drummer Matsushita Atsushi against an arsenal of synthetic sounds.
"Memories" and "Fureai" could have been programmed into a bunch of machines, but the band plays these rhythmically tricky tracks live with impeccable timing.
If there’s an overriding musical theme to this album, it’s the blurring of man and machine, with ZAZEN BOYS taking on more characteristics of the latter. What they lacked when dealing with unstructured improvisation, they make up for in collective precision.
I’ll credit Fridmann for reigning in Mukai’s extreme tendencies because left to his own devices, ZAZEN BOYS’ dear leader can get pretty inscrutable. ZAZEN BOYS 4 is the most tuneful work Mukai has produced since, well, NUMBER GIRL. He still sounds like his appendix is ready to rupture, but at least now, it’s listenable.
ZAZEN BOYS III made me question whether the band had much left to offer, and it made me hesitant to approach ZAZEN BOYS 4. As it turns out, ZAZEN BOYS 4 fashions the best bits of the group into something new and familiar.
They didn’t jump on the ’80s bandwagon so much as they jammed a stick into the wagon wheel spokes and made it crash. In a good way.