Half Japanese – Hear The Lions Roar (Fire Records)

Just when I thought I knew about every band to find the courage to lay down on the tracks during the 1970s yet another one resurfaces – complete with an overstocked pedigree of albums spanning decades of hard work and ferocious output.  Half Japanese were born out of the Fair brother’s lo-fi bedroom recordings of the mid-70’s and early 80’s.  Embracing the punk DIY ethic, art college swagger and protest anger, they reinvented music with their off-kilter view and popular outsider rock. 

They became cult heroes in the lo-fi movement when artists like Beck were blazing the trail to make anti-corporate music, whilst also leaving their mark on the early 90s burgeoning indie rock scene.  And they had a lasting influence, experimenting with alternate tunings, chords and melody and in recent years they’ve produced more cohesive offerings.  Their back catalogue is prolific output, including 17 studio albums, 7 eps, 4 live recordings and huge pile of singles.

At their height, the oddball punk band put out a colossal mass of short, sharp shambolic and chaotic rock. Which is not to dissimilar from what the Beastie Boys were making before they discovered Hip-Hop music, when they were hanging with Sonic Youth making the Ciccone Youth (Whitey Album) recordings. In other words: screwed up Punky Brewster Art Rock!   The process was long and intense, involving many players and influencing many more.

Then they took a 14-year holiday, returning with 2014’s Overjoyed, which was a more chilled out, relaxed product with a cleaner sound. But while the art-noise had dissipated the deadpan irony remained and occasional ragged ranting remained, shrouded in layers of jangly Velvet Underground guitars and synths.  It seemed with the tyranny of time-distance and maturity comes the opportunity to bring in greater instrumental prowess to create a fuller approach to their sound – which is exactly what they’ve done on Hear The Lions Roar, their 18th studio release.

Compared to the earlier work, it’s almost a mainstream effort – more accessible to older ears and those more familiar with the new crop like 21 Pilots, Fall Out Boy, Imagine Dragons.  On this one we get a whole host of other elements, including horns (courtesy of Lydia Fischer); cellos (played like John Cage by Sophie Bernadou); jagged, clunky pianos, clattering percussion and syncopated drumming (Gilles-Vincent Rieder); 60’s tremolos and jangly strumming from John Sluggett; driving bass Jason Willett (bass, keys); and even glockenspiel (from guitarist and glock-nerd Mick Hobbs).

Everything is held together by Jad Fair’s nasal slacker-rant vocals.  Over the years his voice has become more worn but the blackboard cringe and snake-bite wit is still firmly intact. “It’s Our Time, right now/Our Time anyhow/Wow!” he sings with deadpan irony on It’s Our Time.  It might be a love song but it also seems like some sort of acknowledgement for the band, a quiet demand to be finally given their dues.  Extra irony is slathered on throughout the repeating jangly chords which are, most likely, intentionally ripped straight from the Velvets’ Waiting For My Man and Sweet Jane.

There are also upbeat offerings like the opener Wherever We Are Led.  It begins in a joyous a flood of wah-wah fuzz before descending into a hypnotic hippie-drum circle vibe. But then you get a brilliant B Movie sci-fi moment on Attack of the Giant Leeches that showcases Rieder’s ultra-cool drumming and Hobb’s clever guitar work with the whole unit circling each other with swirls of slick riffing and tempestuous breakdowns. While The Preventers shares an innocence that calls back to the band’s early days, when their songs were centred around yet more horror movies, tabloids and women, this is not the same group that was once typified by loose, amateur playing.  Now the attention to detail adds many layers and complex references into a seemingly simplistic genre. Like an Old Master, it’s been worked over to get it just ‘so’. Tha comes out on many of the supporting songs like It Never Stops and On The Right Track.

Sometimes Fair’s occasionally maniacal delivery reminds me of David Was’ vocals on Hello Dad, I’m In Jail.  And Fair’s not averse to a bit of post-modernist lecturing either.  “Well, let’s make one thing crystal clear – This Is What I Know,” he whines like Big Bang Theory’s Leonard Hofstadter on the song of the same name, “You are the missing puzzle piece…You and I, let’s do this thing…I’d been got once, twice, don’t give up, that’s my advice!”  And on it goes in a tirade of platitudes and irrelevant, over used quotes from umpteen self-help manuals, all over a bed of swirling Wurlitzers and a rapidly building drum tattoo.

The whole album finishes with yet more digs at the Anthony Robbins of the world: “Let Your Smile Be Your power – superpower – and your heart be your tower.  Your life is just like a flower, a beautiful rose.”  If this was written by anyone else, I would have stopped this tune long ago.  Yet it’s nauseating twee-ness works a treat over the repetitive jazzy groove laid down by Rieder (drums) and Jason Willett (bass).  “Let the goodness finally chime”.

Well crafted, wildly eccentric and humorous Hear The Lions Roar is a dead pan clever indie art rock record from a band almost too obscure for even the most knowledgeable music collector.  Yet that’s why it’s exactly why it’s worth seeking out.

Tim Gruar

If you are quick, you can get a first listen on NPR: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/05/508032806/first-listen-half-japanese-hear-the-lions-roar

Or go to https://halfjapanesefire.bandcamp.com/album/hear-the-lions-roar