Here’s a startling statistic: ZAZEN BOYS has lasted longer than NUMBER GIRL.
Mukai Shuutoku’s watershed band lasted 7 years, whereas ZAZEN BOYS will be turning 10 in 2013.
There’s no mistaking ZAZEN BOYS as anything other than Mukai’s personal sonic canvas. NUMBER GIRL didn’t survive one member leaving. ZAZEN BOYS has survived two line-up changes. Despite the longevity, it doesn’t seem Mukai really zeroed in on the band’s core sound until recently.
I’ll admit I was nervous about the release of Stories. It’s been more than a half decade since ZAZEN BOYS III, an album of pointless noise-making that made me question Mukai’s creative direction. 2008’s ZAZEN BOYS 4 provided a course correction, with Flaming Lips producer Dave Fridmann easing Mukai into the world of synthesizers.
Would Mukai be able to reign in his freak outs without the guiding hand of an outside producer? Stories provides the answer, and all signs point to yes.
One good thing did come out ZAZEN BOYS III — it established a benchmark for how weird ZAZEN BOYS can get. Stories doesn’t reach that far, but it’s still a fairly avant-garde work.
Instead of working with the concept of melody, chords or harmonic rhythm, Mukai fashions long strings of melodic ideas — most of them only vaguely tonal — into a punctured texture. Very few tracks on Stories have a steady beat, and most of them don’t have anything resembling a hook.
“Potato Salad” has the shifting rhythms Mukai explored in “Himitsu Girl’s Top Secret.” “Kigatsukeba Midnight” is some strange form of be-bop where the stated melody never turns into an improvisation. “Sandpaper Zarazara” could almost be considered minimalist if Philip Glass decided to sound more like Thurston Moore.
At the same time, Stories has some of the most melodic material Mukai has written in a long time. “Heartbreak” has a bona fide guitar hook, and Mukai sings a real melody. The album’s title track could have been a lost work from Mukai’s collaboration with pop singer Leo IMAI. The synth-heavy track is almost danceable.
Even the concluding track “Tengu”, a clash of keyboards, guitars and drums, is threaded together by Mukai’s mouthy but coherent vocals.
It’s taken a decade, but Mukai seems to have found how far he can push his boundaries. Stories doesn’t alienate, but it stays true to its avant-garde core.