Say Psych: Album Review: Bo Ningen – Sudden Fictions

Meaning ‘Stick Man’ in Japanese, Bo Ningen are a London-based four-piece alternative rock band. Though they come from Gunma, Tajimi, Nishinomiya, and Tokyo in Japan, they coalesced in London. Two met one another at a gig in 2006 and first formed Bo Ningen as a duo, later joined by the other two members. With three studio albums to date, and a global live schedule that would bring a tear to the eye of even the most seasoned touring acts, February 2018 saw the band start recording sessions for what would become their just released fourth LP Sudden Fictions on Alcopop! Records.

Working with Drew Brown as producer—best known for turning his hand to albums such as ‘Amok’ by Atoms For Peace, and ‘Hyperspace’ by Beck—the recording sessions took place at Vox Studios, East West Studios and Studio 101. Recorded around the world in London, Tokyo, and LA in a constant search for inspiration, and embodying the contemporary art/music scene where crossovers of different cultures are flourishing, the quartet fuse disparate sounds and influences into a fierce, eclectic torrent of grooves that marks Sudden Fictions out as their most ambitious and accomplished work to date.

For the sessions, the band had access to the most extensive range of gear they had ever utilised: a drum kit from the 1920s, an “insane” glitch guitar pedal, a monumental Prophet 5 synth, and a Glenn Branca-inspired twin head guitar, to name just a few. Together with Brown and the studio engineers, Bo Ningen captured their sound in superior, tactile high definition. This unprecedented production quality for the band, not bonded to any specific genre or era, helped to put the album in the correct context: timeless, non-linear history—plain and simple. Sudden Fictions is an album that keeps re-defining histories—or perhaps it is a history itself, with an ever transforming structure. “When we talk about history, we are not talking about static, frozen, definite, absolute facts,” explains guitarist Matsuda on the conceptual origins of the album. “Rather, that of a non-linear open structure, like the sky full of stars where we draw constellations. One of the constellations we have drawn is this album.” As a result, Sudden Fictions is a record which is deliberately omnipresent throughout various time periods. Some may place it in the 2000s New York noise rock scene, or in the 1960s when Miles Davis steered towards electric; some in the 2010s when Juke freed the once authentic rhythm, or in the 1950s when Stockhausen turned knobs; others in the 1980s when Kip Hanrahan conducted post-modern cuban music, or the 1940s when Jorge Luis Borges enclosed a universe in a book.

They explain that “this album is an attempt to present that complexity (history as open structure) in the simple form of a rock band,” continues Matsuda, “or more precisely: it is a rock band questioning itself as to what it could be in this time of bedroom producers, alternative R&B, and modern hip-hop. If this apparent history of music has its root somewhere, and that root leads to this present moment when rock bands are being pushed aside, we thought we could dig deep enough to the root, and re-write the present. We wanted to find a new path to follow an alternative history as a rock band. “One needs ears to hear the unknown, unheard, unseen; that which we discover alone, in a personal way, in the special moments of our lives,” adds Tsujii. “Everything is sort of soft-core now. The focus is diffused. It’s nice that people are listening to more diverse music from different parts of the world, but why does it always have to have the same look—certain outfits, or the same particular quality of sound? With Sudden Fictions, I want to declare our departure from any kind of shallow, methodological, geographical, ethnical, or gender-constrained nature of musical characterisation that exists in our time.”

Opener ‘You Make a Mark Like a Calf Branding’ is a complex collection of percussion manufactured with precision around vocals and guitar noise and concludes in a way that will appeal to fans of John Maus and co. ‘AKA’ continues the journey with contrasting pitches and tone that create a sway within the sound and it could sound chaotic, were it not for the precise way it has been compiled. ‘Silenced’ feels muted compared to the preceding tracks but ‘Zankoku’ soon remedies this with an opening dose of heavily distorted guitar fuzz and is the Bo Ningen that fans will be most familiar with based on their live performances and previous albums. ‘Minimal’ features a vocal appearance from Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream) and the contrast this naturally creates makes for a special track.

‘Kyutai’ again makes clever use of non-traditional percussion sounds to back the track, with a strong and mesmeric guitar riff leading into something straight out of a dreamscape. ‘Kuzurenai’ channels smoother, jazz inspired vibes whereas ‘B.C.’ is more of a spoken word offering with an experimental, industrial feel track that offers haunting echoes on the vocals and cranks up in tempo as it progresses. Concluding ‘Riff’ starts so fast it’s hard to work out what’s going, more elements are added and sense emerges showing how cleverly constructed the track is.

Bo Ningen then, are not just placing themselves outside the boundaries of genre, but of time, space and, perhaps most importantly when discussing human communication, language.

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