Simply phenomenal. That’s a great word to describe Chris Modell’s debut: Equasian. Phenomenally hard to describe. It’s an album released exclusively in Japan by an American artist who got his start translating Japanese lyrics into English for them, and used that entry way to get repaid back, by said Japanese artists, by allowing them to contribute accompaniment to his truly unique vision which bridges their two gaps into a fascinating new other…of his own creation.
Imagine someone being enthralled by the promise of David Bowie’s “Moss Garden” and actually taking that idea to it’s ultimate conclusion. Imagine someone actually taking tiger mountain with strategy – that’s the best I can describe Equasian. Chris had an idea of combining poetry, music, and graphic art into something he’d dub: VISIC. He’d use VISIC as a way to bridge the gap between Asian environmental pull and his own Western one. He’d use VISIC as a way to truly understand his own place in a world where somehow his life’s work is playing an integral role in shaping a “foreign” culture, and how that influence is causing his own birthplace culture to become ever more the foreign one, or as Chris puts it:
Even my attire entered the equation. Albion spliced with the East —the jacket of kimono silk, that infamous hat culled from the remnant of an obi, and myself posing, in all my pomp and glory, as some self-crowned prince of my own mythical making. Today I truly have to marvel at my own fanaticism to create the most brilliant beast. Sometimes it all seems to balance, and then again it all seems to tipple into the fathomless abyss. At times I believe I discover synergic penicillin, and at times the laboratory erupts and explodes. But I presume that too is all part of the equation.
As a poet, Chris came to Japan from Boulder, Colorado in the late ‘70s. There he befriended Harry Hosuono and Ryuichi Sakamoto who were drawn to his unique form of lyricism, and tasked him to translate or contribute lyrics and/or vocals to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s early musical releases. It was he who provided lyrics to YMO’s star-making turn in Solid State Survivor. Equally it was Chris who would lend his talents to other iconic Japanese releases like Sandii & The Sunsetz Heat Scale, Hideki Matsuke’s (as Logic System) Venus, and Imitation’s Muscle and Heat. However, with time some form of frustration crept in.
His desire to capture the “essence of nature” let him realize that words should do much more to capture the form of it like music and visuals do. Visually he’d start to write poems in artistic shapes, like writing a sentence in a maze, or masks, as experimental ways to get it out there. There was a feeling he’d pass on these new ideas to YMO. Eventually, the head of Alfa spurred Chris to actually make music to accompany his own lyrics. This idea would allow Chris to have complete control of all aspects of its release: visuals, music, and lyrics.
Using his Burroughs-esque lyrics, Chris now had master illustrator Koji Suzuki portray them as detailed album artwork. This artwork, which you can view here, he’d then use as a jumping point for a personal exploration. Those visual lyrics would allow him to fashion his own cut-and-paste image, one of someone creating a culture from between cultures. Using this imagery, he’d then fashion music that swung the pendulum briskly between the two musical cultures – from post-Eno/Bowie art pop to YMO techno-pop then even further into ever more uncharted waters.
Enlisting the help of Imitation mastermind Yu Imai, together, they actually build a musical world that manages to sound a bit alien to any tradition. With the aid of other members from Imitation, the Sadistic Mika Band and Sheena & The Rockets, they start to form their Javelin Opera. A true murderers row of musicians – Kenji Omura, Shigeru Inoue, Hideki Matsutake, Osamu Sakai, and truly special work from Midori Takada – brings to life a very distinct sound that favors treated acoustic sounds over things that would date it to its era. One song may be a Mariah-like, mysterious Art Pop song, while the next one may be a Nigerian high-life lilting, Japanese Noh-influenced indescribable dance song. Vocoder-led vocals might be feeding into Takada-led obscure percussive that Yu Imai is laying left-field sonics around. In making this album Chris hoped to understand his own essence. What we’re left with is a masterpiece of truly esoteric, existential musical mystery.
Equasian has no answers for the ideas Chris tried to discover within himself but all the off-beaten paths left in its wake remain far more interesting. Step back. We’re beyond the looking glass, digging an American musician’s work – influenced by Japanese music (due to our own interest in non-western, Japanese music) – created for a Japanese audience, because an American wouldn’t know what to make of it…but yet, here we are, rounding a full circle to back to his own initial experience, discovering its just the same (and wondering how we got here). FIND/DOWNLOAD indeed…