Part Two in a week-long, five part series celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Cornelius’ musical masterpiece Fantasma. Read Part One — the introduction to the series as well as “The Age of Music Nerds.”
Part Two: Oyamada Keigo before Fantasma / Fantasma as an Album
Oyamada Keigo before Fantasma
Fantasma looms large in Oyamada Keigo’s legend. Before the album hit, he had already earned a place in Japanese musical history as a young prodigy and respected tastemaker. Through his first band Flipper’s Guitar, he became a god to Japan’s emerging class of indie kids from good families who wanted to indulge in culture that was distinct from society’s increasingly wealthy middle mass. He was not exactly an “underground” icon, however — he did ads for hair mousse brand Uno and thousands of girls in agnès b border shirts would faint at his presence. Upon exiting Flipper’s, he was rewarded with his own sub-label on Polystar called Trattoria that put out his friends’ bands and re-released forgotten Bill Wyman albums no one would be expected to buy (people investing into your certainly-money losing ideas is a true mark of cachet.) Despite achieving this charmed life by his mid-20s, Oyamada still had not established any sort of timeless musical reputation. If Oyamada was a building, he was closer to an immaculately trendy café than a museum.
Flipper’s Guitar — Oyamada’s teenage band, formed with fellow indie prince Ozawa Kenji — had revolutionized the Japanese pop music scene in the very late 1980s by bringing obsessive referencing of unknown British indie bands into the heart of the mainstream market (titles such as “Goodbye, Our Pastels Badges”, “Colour Field,” ad nauseum). Never had Japanese pop music been exposed to such fringe Western influences. And once critics lumped Flipper’s Guitar together with like-minded bands Scha Dara Parr and Pizzicato Five under the crude rubric “Shibuya-kei,” Oyamada and Ozawa became gatekeepers themselves, able to open the door to dozens of more interesting bands who cribbed extensively from Western records known only to 5,000 people worldwide.
Over in Osaka and Western Japan, a truly underground culture had given birth to experimental bands like The Boredoms. Tokyo’s Shibuya-kei revolution, however, developed mostly as an offshoot of consumer culture, revolving around the previously mentioned hipster cachet of reference collection. The Flipper’s Guitar opus thus suffered the natural consequences of this approach: Oyamada and Ozawa were often more interested in rewriting their favorite old songs rather than creating anything that could stand on its own. On their final record Doctor Head’s World Tower — the title celebrating expertise on the Monkees’ 1968 psych-pop film Head — Flipper’s just flat out rerecorded Primal Scream’s “Loaded” as a lyric-heavy pop song called “The Quizmaster.” The vocal melody of Scream’s “Come Together” acted as the verse hook of “Groove Tube.” Track “Aquamarine” is a languid pastiche of My Bloody Valentine’s “Lose My Breath” that drags into the musical equivalent of an Unisom. Sure these timbres and winks were landmark for 1991 Japan (and it’s overall a great record), but Oyamada and Ozawa seemed to be gunning for the title “Kings of Record Store Snobbery” rather than wanting to be recognized as songwriters who pushed melodies into new trajectories and painted brand new sonic landscapes.
After Flipper’s Guitar break up in 1991, Oyamada Keigo spent time producing singles for belle Kahimi Karie and Pizzicato Five’s album Bossa Nova (see Oyamada dance in a fake moustache in their video). Around 1993, he finally rechristened himself “Cornelius,” inspired by a Planet of the Apes TV filmathon. (The same one that apparently inspired Nigo to call his brand A Bathing Ape.) Oyamada’s first album under this moniker, The First Question Award, took nearly three years after Flipper’s dissolved to hit shelves, and despite that distance, it generally felt like a relapse into his old band’s Camera Talk-era pop songs. That’s to say, Oyamada confused himself as a singer-songwriter despite not much track record for original songwriting nor a particularly dynamic voice. He also continued to believe that his “style” of songwriting meant rewriting his favorite songs. The final track “The Love Parade,” for example, is a wholesale and unabashed redo of Roger Nichols and Small Circle of Friends’ “Don’t Take Your Time.” Whether he was determined to sell lots of records to fashionable teens or he fell in way too close to Pizzicato Five’s Konishi Yasuharu, the first Cornelius album has not aged particularly well. The liner notes to the Fantasma remaster suggest that more people remember the T-shirts that came out to promote First Question Award than the music itself. And in hindsight, nothing on the album really foreshadows what would make up Cornelius’ peak output, except perhaps the Charlton Heston-inspired, spacey lounge house of “Back Door to Heaven.”
Cornelius’ next album 69/96 came out in 1995, with a marketing hype that suggested the Ape had a true epic on his hands. But despite moving to a tougher, rock-based sound, the album suffered again from Oyamada’s confusion of himself as a singer and songwriter. Strongly reacting against his previous incarnation as a beret-wearing, overly-pleasant, moussed-up soft rocker, Cornelius made the choice to photograph himself for the album wearing devil horns.
As an angry simian, Cornelius built 69/96 on giant rock riffs, distorted vocals, and sluggish songs (single “Moon Walk”). The overall effect is not particularly pleasant on the ears, but in the process, Oyamada stumbled upon a big idea: his diversity of musical knowledge could work to push his albums beyond a commercial necessity and into a rumination on the history of pop. In the course of 72-minutes, Cornelius hits doowop, AC/DC-esque FM radio rock, giant Sabbath-y heavy metal, Hawaiian ukelele, ‘60s sitar clichés, G. Love and Special Sauce-like blues harp over breakbeats, classical music, and the sound of waves crashing for a good ten minutes. He is, however, not able to bring these disparate elements into a tight narrative, and the album feels almost infinite in time. The references themselves are also generally mainstream and accessible, making the album feel like a “sell out” by someone who is too lost within the labyrinth of indie music obsession to truly sell out.
69/96 is an interesting mess, but comes off ultimately as an indulgent moment from a label boss who hasn’t found his raison d’être. There are two stand out tracks, however: the mellow bossa nova of “Brand New Season,” which was one of the few pre-Fantasma tracks to end up in the permanent Cornelius live repertoire, and the extra-terrestrial porn grooves of “Rock / 96,” somewhat hidden as second side filler. But he just couldn’t leave the album though without ripping off a classic track — leading to a rewrite of The Beach Boys’ “Little Pad” as the triumphant exit “World’s End Humming (Reprise in Hawaii).”
Both records did not necessarily live up to the cultural impact of Flipper’s Guitar, but neither damaged Cornelius’ god-like aura. 69/69 was near the top hundred of best selling albums in 1995, and his embrace of like-minded T-shirt brand A Bathing Ape helped propel the Ura-Harajuku label into fashion stardom. Oyamada commanded a massive fanbase and a roster of talented junior bands under his direction on Trattoria. He had everything a musician could ever want — other than a killer, moment-defining album.
Fantasma as an Album
The early edition of Cornelius’ third album Fantasma dropped on August 6, 1997, sporting a retro-psych orange-and-white cover and the cryptic titling, “performed by CORNELIUS produced by KEIGO OYAMADA” — splitting the self and alter ego into distinct labor units. Oyamada was 28 years old at the time, a bit older than the Beatles during Sgt. Pepper but generally a good age for churning out one’s best pop music. Trattoria and Polystar staged the album’s release as a pop cultural event complete with radio ads and a TV spot (both included in the remaster boxset DVD).
Just as with Sgt. Pepper, nothing better signals an “incredibly important musical moment” like a meta-concept album. Fantasma is not just a loose collection of songs, but an immaculately-sequenced set of tracks that bleed into, complement, and reference each other. The contrasts between tracks are as meaningful as the similarities. And unlike sonically holistic masterpieces like Radiohead’s Kid A or My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Cornelius maxes out the possible number of sounds, instruments, genres, and musical conventions that could be held in a single silicon disc. Yet a very tight internal logic brings these particular aural expressions together. Despite its extreme diversity, Fantasma is never random. Even the odd sound bursts and feedback drones are perfectly on theme. And like any good concept album, the intention is for a straight listen from the first song to the last, in order, no skipping. Oyamada told Tokion (#6, May/June 1998), “Fantasma is a kind of album that only has one entrance and one exit. That is, you can’t listen to if from the middle. It’s important for Fantasma to be listened to as a whole from start to end.”
If Fantasma is a concept album, then what exactly is the concept? Simply-put, Fantasma is an album about music itself — a tribute to how the very process of hardcore music nerd fandom and collection reference lead to creation and production. Almost every song title references the name of a band (Microdisney, The Music Machine, Clash, Count Five) or a previously-existing song (Primal Scream’s “Star Fruit Surf Rider”, The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”). And lyrics discuss Oyamada’s favorite tunes like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey.” On Fantasma, Oyamada does not just enact his normal musical protocol but makes a statement about his own artistic philosophy. Even the fancy production tricks appear to be about the act of using fancy production tricks than just employing them to produce a seamless or professional sound.
The emphasis on production and soundscape is further amplified by the general lack of meaningful lyrics throughout the work. Six of the 13 tracks have no lyrics or just rhythmically repetitive wordings. For the other half, Cornelius completely abandons standard pop music lyrical clichés, never touching upon love, heartbreak, etc. There is a palpable lack of human emotion and social relation. We get the story of a “New Music Machine” launched into space by NASA in 2010 that ends up falling apart. “Clash” is vaguely about seeing a band at a club, perhaps The Clash. “Star Fruit Surf Rider”’s lyrical world is somewhere between pot-induced daze and a Murakami Haruki-esque life of lonely wandering, where the only person Oyamada meets on the streets is a cat. In fact, all of the text presents a narrative of solitude — listening to music by yourself, walking around by yourself, humming “Just Like Honey” to yourself. “God Only Knows” contains a solipsistic paradox where Oyamada can believe “I was the only one in the world / who caught a cold.” This all comes together to re-emphasize the overarching, and slightly melancholy, theme of solitary musical collection and study. But more importantly, Cornelius’ de-emphasis of vocals and lyrics — which had historically been perhaps the weakest of his many musical talents — is what allows Fantasma to go far beyond his previous records.
In fact, Oyamada’s vocals feel completely absent for the first burst of the album. The froggy-voiced “Mic Check” itself is oddly credited to Fujiwara Kazumichi rather than the Ape, but even if it is Oyamada who uttered those words, you never hear the former singer-songwriter “sing” anything until the song’s final loops of the word “start” harmonized into a tense chord which resolves into the luscious harp that will become the next track “The Micro Disneycal World Tour.” Oyamada never really takes the lead vocalist helm until the third track “New Music Machine.” Compared with his own oeuvre and that of his closest peers, this was a radical move for Cornelius. With Fantasma, he moved the entire Shibuya-kei needle closer towards experimental peers Buffalo Daughter and future wife Minekawa Takako, and away from the lyrical pop of Love Tambourines and Pizzicato Five. And moreover this was a public burial for any lingering vestiges of Flipper’s Guitar.
In keeping with the idea of music as a lonely pursuit, the album is also meant to be enjoyed in headphones rather than on speakers (or DJ’d at a club). This is explicitly explained on the “Fantasma spot” radio ad as well as hinted to with the special release of the album that included earbuds and came with a sticker that read “Album of the Ear.” Despite this directive for close listening, the album does not indulge in “micro-sounds” per se. Fantasma is wholly dynamic and ear-piercing throughout — with a healthy smattering of giant synth twinkles as if we are to exclaim “my god it’s full of stars” every five minutes. The emphasis on headphones, however, allows Cornelius to express his vision in the emphasis of individual instrumental parts, fragments, and production decisions rather than a general “blend” of sound coming out of speakers to complement and bolster an underlying song. The liner notes to the remaster (written up by Citrus’ Emori Takeaki) mention several times the idea of Fantasma as a “Rube Goldberg machine” — with many moving parts and always on the possible brink of disaster. The headphones give the listener a chance therefore to enjoy the tension between the individual modules performing and the successful race to the end of the track.
Since Cornelius is often referred to as the “Japanese Beck,” we should note here that Beck’s landmark Odelay came out almost exactly a year before, on June 16, 1996. Both Fantasma and Odelay can easily be seen as the two of the greatest late ‘90s records and harbingers for where the rest of the decade would take indie music in its flee from the earnestness of grunge and lo-fi. Sure there is a “Lord Only Knows” on Odelay and a “God Only Knows” on Fantasma, but both are just throwaway Beach Boys references rather than Cornelius’ contemporary borrowing of Beck. (Oyamada had already sampled “God Only Knows” back in 1991 quite prominently on the Flipper’s Guitar track “Dolphin Song.”) The albums otherwise have almost nothing to do with each other. Odelay is a classic American pop record built from loopy breaks and samples but ultimately lyrical and melodic. There is pastiche of ‘60s soft rock, old-school hip-hop, and Exile-era Rolling Stones, but always appropriated with irony.
As we will see below, Fantasma is a much deeper step into the abyss, almost totally abandoning the notion of songs and pushing pastiche so hard that it becomes completely denatured. And as I stated before, Oyamada had established his reference-heavy pop style long before Beck had committed his early weirdo folk grumblings to cassette. Clearly the two men found a kinship once Cornelius went international, but saying that Cornelius “was inspired by Beck” does not adhere to the actual timeline. The closest thing to what Cornelius’ Beck rip-off would sound like is the scratches, synth bass, funk horns, and break-beats of Fantasma outtake “Taylor,” which notably did not make it on the album. And Fantasma, despite its use of tools from electronic and hip-hop music, almost never makes explicit reference to African-American music like Mr. Campbell/Hansen. Cornelius’ drum ’n’ bass is chaotic Futurist noise rather than rasta-inflected jungle.
Next time: Fantasma, Track by Track