Just look at that album cover. Mio Fou’s self-titled debut has an album cover that has fascinated me to no end. You see, the utterly sublime music found in Mio Fou must have some connection to this image. For months I struggled to define what time of the year this picture was taken and what time of the day. Then one day it dawned on me. This was the image of dawn just at the beginning of spring. That is exact moment the album just floored me. I could die a happy man, right then and there, knowing that this symbol explains everything about why this album is special.
In the short span of 34 minutes, the male/female duo of Hirobumi Suzuki and Hirono Mio synthesize all sorts of intriguing influences from Abbey Road-era Pop, Factory Records Durutti Column-esque angular post-punk, Canterbury prog, Japanese minimalist ambient, to the mystical folk modernism of Gorecki and Hans Otte, then go on to create eight set of Pop songs that present all of that jaw-dropping synthesis in ways that are entirely heartfelt, unpretentious, and deeply meaningful. Presenting a different rung of little known Japanese alternative music (at least to western eyes/ears), Mio Fou managed to evade the deep reaches of even the most ardent Japanese music aficionados. That’s something even I struggle to understand.
My own personal feeling is that the lack of overt Japanese kitsch might play a huge role in it. Recorded as a side project away from some infinitely more popular Japanese bands, Moonriders and Real Fish, Mio Fou truly was a labor of love and an escape to capture their own musical ideas far from what everyone else was doing in their country at the time. With little context behind it, it’s simple to slot away something so out of time/step with all sorts of other movements. That’s a huge mistake, in my opinion.
What we know about the duo is that Hirobumi is the younger brother of Keiichi Suzuki lead singer of Moonriders. Sometime, during his early career, Hirobumi was invited to join Moonriders as their bass player. When Hirobumi joined Moonriders, Hirofumi was able to contribute instantly to albums like Amateur Academy and Mania Manièra in ways that even they hadn’t imagined. It was his contributions that yielded some truly gorgeous Pop gems that even YouTube hasn’t hosted like “D／P (ダム／パール) ” or that you can actually experience like “青空のマリー” that more than hinted at his own jangle-pop influences.
Hirono Mio was a young violinist just graduated from university that was getting bits of work doing music for commercials and theater productions. A chance encounter, while doing session work with the Moonriders, allowed Hirono Mio to meet Hirobumi and begin an obvious musical relationship. Together they decided to strike out as Mio Fou (using the last three letters of their last names to compose the band name) and were signed to Japan Records, home of Akiko Yano, P-Model, and Tsukasa Ito. Somehow, it appears, that Japan records feeling the mood of early Factory Records samplers decided to collect and create their own version of the new post-punk sounds. Dubbed Bright Young Aquarium Workers, an obvious nod to the early British post-punk samplers, BYAW was a compilation full of mysterious bands that sounded as if Aztec Camera were born in Shibuya rather than Glasgow.
This fascinating timepiece of Rough Trade-indebted Japanese music yielded two songs that stood out from the rest Mio Fou’s “Pierrot Le Fou” and “ゴッホの糸杉 [Cypress of Van Gogh]” which you can still find in the bonus tracks of Mio Fou which would become their self-titled debut. It was an album shortly recorded after the BYAW sessions from the summer of 1983 to the winter of 1984. It was also a symbol that they had way more to say. “Pierrot Le Fou” displayed Hirobumi’s magical Art Pop touch mixing McCartney-esque balladry with unlikely experimental interjections. “ゴッホの糸杉 [Cypress of Van Gogh]” displayed Hirono’s breathtaking neofolk and neoclassical touch, one she could easily augment with powerful innocent nostalgia. Together, of course they brought out the best in each other, stretching their own sounds even further.
Mio Fou is the sound of them looking further. “大通り [Boulevard]” begins the A-side with a wonderful atmosphere. A lazy bass groove pining as much as luxuriating in some beatific languidness. “ベルフェゴールは誰だ -Belphegor ou la Fantome du Louvre- [Who Is Bellefa Gore]” is when the album begins to take its powerful form. Minimal in sound – piano is the lead instrument – whatever gets added (a spare phasing, clean electric and acoustic guitars, Hirobumi’s overdubbed vocals) seems to strike at some perfect note of mystery between the most gorgeous delay sound not to come out of Vini Reilly’s hand and what sounds like 10cc’s lost string synthesizer. As the song gets flipped and reversed, its coda swiftly reminds you about this unplaceable pining feeling that just snuck up on you. It’s gentle music but rarely is gentle so powerful, in such a way.
Hirono Mio then enters with “海の沈黙 [The Silence of the Sea]” a wistful ballad that’s halfway into the ocean dropping under the weight of it’s watery piano and the stars, pulled by the strings of Hirobumi’s acoustic guitar. Lit by twilight, it’s another song that just sneaks up and whisks you away with the final coda, a vocal harmony for steamboats (one Charles Ives would have been justly proud of). Rather than wax poetic about the rest of the songs, let me just zero in on the final three that end the album. Those three are why I’m here.
A marvelous triad of nostalgic innocent masterpieces that hovers on all those chords that the masters know how to play to touch certain hearts of stones. “夢見るジュリア [Dreaming Julia]” is an absorbing song that combines tinker toy bells, harmonium, acoustic guitar, and floating synths, with Hirobumi’s most Lennon-like intonation of the many ways this unknowable Julia is off, somewhere else, dreaming. It’s a wonder of a song, where even the faint whistling bits, put you eight miles high. “子供達のメトロノーム [Children’s Metronome]” maintains that atmosphere. Propelled by a simple metronome(!) and Hirono Mio’s magnificent harmonies, every little addition, no matter how simple or small keeps that sublime wistfulness going. You can probably count all the parts of the song in the digits of one hand, but each one is performed with such care, such lack of pretentiousness, and huge inspiration, that any extra guitar pluck, square wave press, or string pad hold, would be superfluous.
When “ピカソの青 [Picasso’s Blue]” ends the album on a note like Yoshio Ojima would, where every element layers and builds until the entire feel is appreciated, where then only one can step back and appreciate the whole picture – then the album can only be seen for what it is. Mio Fou can only be appreciated through watercolors. It’s ambient, it’s Pop, it’s experimental, it’s naive, it’s all this and much more. Yet, it’s still inexplicably unknown. Anyone could have created this but only they did. And in this masterpiece, the way I see it, the sun will always be rising from the east.