UK-based Japanese artist and musician Susumu Mukai released his debut album under the moniker Zongamin back in 2003, but, bar a couple of exhibitions and the odd remix, has done little else since. Which is a shame, as his first effort is a fiendishly unique adventure spanning numerous musical genres, yet rendered in his own inimitable style that can only be described as Zongamin-esque.
From the short sparky choral-driven opener (Make Love Not War) onwards, Zongamin crafts a strange concoction of mysterious music that feels like a trip into the unknown. Much of it sounds like backing music to a 70’s documentary on jungle exploration or unearthing mystical tombs of Ancient Egypt, especially Street Surgery, Tresspasser and Mummies (of course, judging by the track names and album artwork, this is no happy accident). It’s all a rather strange, sometimes even sinister, atmosphere for what would otherwise be pigeonholed as a dance or electronic or even rock album, but even then, it’s the kind of dance music that refuses to make a song and dance about it; and muterock, if you will. With the clipped beats, tiny blips and mumbling bass, it’s both raw and restrained, with a lo-fi charm that can be attributed to Susumu playing his own instruments and then editing and mixing his own created samples. Only the two-minute rock-burst of Whiplash, also the only track with vocals (guess what the lyric is?), pushes Zongamin to a state of mild mania.
But that’s not to say the rest of the album is too understated – indeed, it’s exactly that which makes the upbeat funkier tracks that bit more interesting. Both Spiral and Painless are exciting expeditions into minimalistic disco, and J. Shivers Theme is a whistle-led bongo bop of the highest caliber (and was used in a recent Orange mobile ad campaign with narration from Stephen Fry), but it’s the grimy grooves of Serious Trouble and Tunnel Music that are the album’s real treats. Unconventional certainly, but undeniably compelling in a way that makes you want to pop limbs and twist appendages. And the Japanese bonus tracks aren’t half bad either.
However, it’s all a bit too much to take in on one sitting. All the tracks have their merits, but after two minutes or so, many of them suffer from repetition and lack of direction, and it’s not long before impatience turns to skipping tracks altogether. There’s a lot of talent on show, but it seems that many ideas run out of steam before the crucial point at which they can be stepped up that extra gear to turn what is simply a good tune into a great one. Much of this review has been spent building up the wonders of the Zongamin-iverse, and it’s still an album to recommend, but it all just lacks a certain something to keep the ears from wandering elsewhere. Regardless, I hope we see another offering from Susumu soon – there’s still a lot of potential on the music-front to be realised.
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