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Tracklisting:

1. The Art of Parties (4:09)
2. Talking Drum (3:34)
3. Ghosts (4:33)
4. Canton (5:30)
5. Still Life in Mobile Homes (5:32)
6. Visions of China (3:37)
7. Sons of Pioneers (7:07)
8. Cantonese Boy (3:44)

Lineup:

David Sylvian – vocals, guitar, keyboards
Mick Karn – bass guitar, saxophone, oboe, african flute, vocals
Steve Jansen – drums and percussion, keyboards, vocals
Richard Barbieri – keyboards, tape, programming, vocals

With:
Yuka Fujii – vocals
Simon House – violin

And now for something completely different, though this album and the one previously reviewed have something in common – the release date.

Japan’s swan song, Tin Drum, is an album that does not often get the love (or at least respect) it amply deserves.  There are still people who believe ‘New Wave’ and progressive rock to be two mutually exclusive entities, so that even the slightest connection with the likes of punk or New Wave is grounds enough to dismiss a band out of hand. For what it is worth, I believe there is more creativity to be found in many of those much-reviled Eighties bands (often tagged by hardcore prog fans as ‘guilty pleasures’) than in a great deal of  bands or artists with impeccable prog credentials. Though being progressive has nothing to do with  flinging mellotrons around with wild abandon, or penning 30-minute-long epics on would-be weighty (and often terminally boring) topics, nowadays it seems to be far more acceptable to label a symphonic metal band as progressive than one associated with those two late Seventies-early Eighties movements. A band like Japan, with their suits, make-up and hairspray, in some people’s minds becomes synonymous with  ‘synth pop’,  and end up being lumped together with the likes of Visage or Spandau Ballet.

Released just prior to the band’s split, Tin Drum is undeniably Japan’s most mature effort, and the one which earns them a rightful place in progressive territory. It is no wonder that its four members went on to pursue musical careers that brought them in much closer contact with prog: David Sylvian collaborated with Robert Fripp and Holger Czukay, among others;  his brother, drummer Steve Jansen, followed him for most of his solo career; keyboardist Richard Barbieri is now well-known as member of Porcupine Tree, and bassist Mick Karn worked with jazz guitarist David Torn and legendary drummer Terry Bozzio. Such career developments should be proof enough of the fact that Japan were much more than a mere ‘New Romantic’ band, in spite of their image – which, by the way, is as much related to  David Bowie and Roxy Music as to the likes of Duran Duran, setting the band squarely into the  elusive ‘Art Rock’ tradition.

Virtuoso bassist Mick Karn (one of the truly unsung heroes of his instrument, currently fighting advanced cancer) is probably the real star of this album – his thick, pneumatic bass lines all over the place, working in perfect unison with Steve Jansen’s agile, inventive drumming. Their finest hour as a rhythm section is the 7-minute-plus “Sons of Pioneers”, which displays more than a fleeting Krautrock influence. The album’s highlight, the haunting “Ghosts”, is instead dominated by Barbieri’s sparse synth textures and Sylvian’s brooding vocals.  The Oriental theme evident in both the band’s name and the album’s title shows up most clearly in the intriguingly catchy “Visions of China” , closing track “Cantonese Boy”, and the instrumental “Canton” – even though it can be felt throughout the record, in the lilting, intricate interplay of bass and drums, the use of exotic percussion, and even Sylvian’s highly stylised vocals (an acquired taste for sure,though absolutely perfect for the band’s sound). The overall sound of the album is further enhanced by the contribution of former High Tide and Hawkwind violinist Simon House.

The beautiful, stylish cover artwork is an added bonus to one of the best discs released in the Eighties, full of outstanding musicianship and intriguing lyrical themes. Approach this album with an open mind, forgetting any labels and tags – and you will be surprised by 38 minutes of stunning music.

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