Friday, August 17, 2007

Japanese Telecom - Virtual Geisha

Japanese Telecom's 'Virtual Geisha' came out on Gigolo Records in 2001 and could lay claim to being the great lost Gerald Donald (I must return to referring to him thus as no writer/production credit is given) album but that doesn’t mean his best. Lacking as it does the kudos of any one single track standing out, with the possible exception of 'Cigarette Lighter', may be one of the reasons why it has become something of an obscurity in his canon. It might also be a case of his chosen anonymity working against the record. But a more pressing reason for this today is that it appears to be out of print. It’s also not one I’ve ever heard many fans talking about outside of Discogs entries. Which is a shame as it’s certainly his most pop album to date and the one it could be argued where he would for the last time so unashamedly venture down this most populist of paths.

The theme is similar to the preceding Japanese Telecom album as there are lots of Japanese imagery in the titles only this time mixed with his obvious interest in simulated sex. The artwork really says it all as far as where this album appears to be coming from although I would say it appears he more than likely only approved the work of ‘gorgeous Shana’ of the wonderfully named Abuse Industries. But he likely stipulated that the artwork should reflect the content. In this instance the telephone communication he obviously wanted to allude to was Japanese lines. Now I’m not an expert but maybe they go in for cartoons on all their line advertising or else this is a particular kink of virtual phone in Japan that Donald wanted to examine. The meaning of the album title itself may be slightly expanded on with the ‘she interacts’ appendage of the title track itself. Can we take this to indicate Donald emphasising with the virtual geisha herself as she deals with her clients? While a real woman would be at the end of these phone lines she would still have to play along with the fantasy to match her cartoon image. I would guess that the artwork is made up of genuine ads culled from Japanese magazines, if not, top marks for authenticity. The Japanese Telecom logo itself of a lone figure on the phone at a desk now also has an added significance. The type face used for the artist name also remains from the first album. In general this is a far more consistent album theme-wise than the more unfocused debut, this time with most of the titles all tying in neatly with the artwork, Japan and Japanese .

What appears to be a press release of the time described the album thus, ‘Debuting on Detroit's Intuit Solar last year, the mystic Japanese Telecom deliver a versatile ten-track release taking us on a technological journey from Dusseldorf to Detroit and Tokyo. Sizzling Kraftwerk style electro elements, futuristic motor-city techno visions and the new-age pop sensibility of Japan's neon culture. From full-fledged electrified techno to sublime electro robotix, this is truly something not to be missed.’

Opener ‘The making of Ultraman’ sounds more like something particularly sparse from the previous debut Japanese Telecom album of 1999 and serves as a reminder of those heady pre-millennial times, not. An instrumental but to be honest while it has a stark charm with that unmistakably dark Donald production touch it is a bit lightweight, especially to be the first track. Ultraman is a famous Japanese comic book hero. ‘Beta Capsule’ doesn’t really raise the standards and you might at this point start to think you know why this is his lost album. ‘Cigarette Lighter’ changes all that though. Probably the best known track from the album due to mass compilation appearances, the template used here is stripped down good time electro pop. ‘Enter Mrs Suzuki’ as in ‘entering her in a ual way’ no doubt, is a strange bunch of noises collaged together with no melody save a heavily distorted bass line that ‘enters’ midway. Quite a lengthy track which sounds like insects having , in Japan of course. 'Pagoda of Sin’ lightens the mood very much and sounds like it’s built upon some cheesy keyboard pre-set but is essentially more filler. But wait, all is about to change!

‘Virtual Origami’ is by far one of my all-time favourite Gerald Donald productions, don't ask me why, it's a gut reaction thing. I love the back and forth of the intro, the huge organ sound, those rising keyboard lines, the deep drum pattern and all the other lovely touches throughout. In many ways I could see it dismissed as standard good auto-pilot Donald but I disagree as it's another one of those tracks I have previously talked about when sometimes Stinson and Donald hit that magical point when everything inexplicably clicks and that feeling in your gut I mentioned just tells you, this is the one. In the past I persistently dropped this track at every opportunity while DJing and it always got a positive reaction.

The title track, 'Virtual Geisha (she interacts)' is another high point on the album, slow to start, very laid back, great bass line throughout. Could even be a very slowed down Neptune's Lair era Drexciya track. 'Japanese Matrix' is very short, as in seconds, no more than a melody. As I only have the vinyl version of the album to work from, 'Remote Transmitter' confusingly appears to be two tracks, at least going by the times (about 6 mins) given on the CD entry at Discogs. If I'm wrong there is an extra un-credited track on the LP version but if you look at the vinyl you can see no visible gap at the brief point of silence when each 'track' meets so when it was originally cut it was definitely done as one continuous composition. To add to the confusion there is indeed an extra track on the CD version, 'Virtual Origami 2' which appears to be a slightly shorter version. Of course if you have any more information on this please let me know. Taking ‘Remote Transmitter’ as a single track then I much prefer the first half, all organs, slow release bass lines and computer noises trotting along at mid-tempo but found the latter half a product of Donald going into bad auto-pilot production mode, it really goes nowhere and is rather dull once you get pass the first minute, sounding very unfinished. Obviously the two tracks are totally unalike melody-wise. The title I guess is self-explanatory, I can't see any added significance.

The final track, ‘Mounting Yoko’, is again very reminiscent of Donald’ production of the time, this being one of his more sparse examples, there is a real sheen of perfection to this ‘futuristic motor-city techno vision’. Going by the title does this mean that in Beatles speak Gerald Donald is a Yoko Ono r or perhaps it means he likes her? It's worth pointing out that if you slowed down this track and went forward 1 year it could be a near carbon copy of 'Devoid of Wires', minus that tracks vocals, from the first Arpanet album 'Wireless Internet'. As I said it is one of those signature Donald tracks, one for the time capsule. It’s important to note that he is at times starting to repeat himself at this stage of his career and he no doubt recognised that in himself.

The sleeve notes tell us that the album was licensed from Intuit-Solar, the Detroit label which put out the first Japanese Telecom album but surprisingly they never released an edition of it themselves in the States. They may have planned to, it would have been fairly lucrative, it certainly wouldn’t have lost them money anyway but for whatever reason they never did. I’m guessing then that Germanys Gigolo Records edition was then only ever available on import in the States and hence a bit more expensive than the average release, so maybe cost or even availability might have been a factor in the albums non-popularity. I read an interview with DJ Hell where he talked about how he wasn’t in direct contact with Gerald Donald but instead dealt with people who had the rights to licence his material. While Dataphysix, which I can‘t believe is operated by anyone other than Donald himself, was one of those ‘people’ he might also have been thinking of how he acquired the rights for this album. In the artwork Gigolo are at pains to indicate that this is not just another one of their new acts but something a bit more exotic by using the legends ‘Detroit Style Electropop’ and ‘made in Germany via Detroit’. What Gerald Donald made of all this I don’t know.

Again, as already mentioned, like the previous album there are no credits, Heinrich Mueller or otherwise, completely anonymous, it could even be a virtual artist for all the information we get. To date, and after 6 years it doesn’t look like there will be anymore Japanese Telecom albums (go on, prove me wrong!), this has been the only truly anonymous project from Gerald Donald.

To be honest and brutally frank there are only 4 and a half truly great tracks on this album but the rest is pure Donald through and through, warts and all, albeit the man he was in solo guise between 1995 and 2001. Still that’s 4 and a half more than many lesser acts that probably get more praise and recognition than him but that’s another story. Maybe this album shows the first signs he was getting tired of it, it was all too easy, he was now running in circles with ‘electropop‘, the joke not funny anymore. I went into this somewhat in the Der Zyklus II article that it's likely that this final Japanese Telecom album could well have been completed for some time before it's release, maybe even prior to the Der Zyklus II 12". While his next move into his Arpanet guise would still initially retain many of his old production signatures, his themes would begin to get far more studied, although his continued fascination with electronic communications would continue. ’Virtual Geisha’ then stands as the high water mark of Gerald Donald’s dalliance with a genre he helped to define, with Der Zyklus II showing the first real signs of change, but from this point on he was facing a crossroads.

As ever I now face my own, till next time.

The 5 year anniversary of James Stinson's passing has come and gone and in the absense of anything offical to mark it like reissues or otherwise I can only recommend a mix that was sent to me. I guess for now it is up to the fans doing things like this to keep his memory and his music alive for the future where it belongs.

Also right now someone is hosting 'that' James Stinson Detroit radio interview from May 2002. I mean to transcribe this here sometime soon.

Der Zyklus II

The Der Zyklus II 12” came out on Gigolo Records in 2000 and must stand as one of the many high points of Heinrich Mueller’s production career to date. Featuring 4 tracks, each one truly incredible, all united by a fairly dark feel they still manage to come across as accessible. This EP did a lot to cement his reputation and deservedly had some of its tracks reissued awhile back on Clone’s Frustrated Funk label. A lot of the tracks here were also featured on numerous compilations of the time and hopefully of the future too.

The minimal style of the artwork is very much in keeping with his previous 12” debut as Der Zyklus, although with no picture sleeve that would not be hard but he keeps up the German language shtick with Seit Eins, Phax etc as well as having the titles of course again in German. However even with all this attention to detail a spelling mistake does manage to creep in. If you can spot it then you are as sad as I am, ‘Geschrieben und produziert von Heinrich Müller'. In fact now that I think about it the two dots on the u might be the correct way to spell Mueller, the proper German spelling, do you know?

The first track, ‘Elektronisches Zeitecho’ is very minimal and ably displays this early Der Zyklus template which seems to have been the feel Mueller had been going for since the first and previous Der Zyklus release. Also one of the two instrumentals here it is certainly dark and what little light that does get through may be found only in the quick tempo. This is sleek, highly engineered, no space for slack, it works perfectly, if it was a car it would have to be a top of the line Mercedes.

‘Mxyzptik’does have a few more light moments courtesy of its lengthy vocal. I’ve written about this before in my entry for Transllusion ‘L.I.F.E.’ because the same type of space alien voice is used there on the track ‘Bump It’. The complete lyric here goes, “I am Mxyzptik coming from a black hole on the other side of the gamma quadrant. (laughs) I am now conducting tests with your bio-ports. (laughs) It's an experiment in bio technology. I’m up to my old dirty tricks again. (laughs) Mxyzptik This is Mxyzptik conducting biological experiments and testing new theories in alien concepts. I am levitating, testing your mental parameters, can you feel my presence, levitation is so neat, isn't it . I am now in connection with your mind, I shall now exit.” I get more of a humour vibe from this than anything too serious, I think that Mueller at this point could still have a laugh with this type of subject matter but not for much longer. Mxyzptik is the name of a trickster character from the Superman comics. In mythology and folklore, a trickster is an entity that plays tricks and disobeys normal rules of time and space and conventional behaviour. Interestingly in the comic, if he himself is tricked into saying his name backwards this will bring back to the fifth dimension. Anyone else saying it too would also be brought back to the fifth dimension. A way to return to your home dimension? Musically it has a great big bass line, the first minute could be booty! It’s easily the most distinct production of the four, still quite dark as I said, it just has a more busy production with more elements coming at you.

‘Formenverwandler’ is quite simply superb, from another very familiar sounding minimal Mueller template it includes a truly lovely male vocal that loops “I’m shape-shifting from place to place, bending time, curving space.” You know if The Other People Place album wasn’t so damn cohesive and self-contained this might have fitted on there, it’s that good. I can’t not comment on these lyrics though, it doesn’t surprise me that Mueller’s head is at this stage concerned with this stuff of the universe and the theories about it like time travel and other dimensions which the so-called 'new physics', post Newton, very quickly lead you to consider. It’s interesting to see how he is at this stage beginning to incorporate this passion and interest into his music. We are witnessing the start of a major transition for him and his music here, but at this stage it is simply a personal one.

I’ve heard unsubstantiated verbal accounts of Heinrich Mueller around this period saying to people in the middle of a normal conversation something like, “I wonder what Kraftwerk are doing right now?“ Now this might not be true but I have a feeling this guy has or has had a fascination for that pioneering German group. Disregarding a decade of lazy journalism he was never blatantly ripped them off or even to my ears has done anything too close to them, until now that is and in this case it appears to be a calculated one-off move. If you don’t already know, let me tell you that ‘Mathematische Modelle’ could easily have been included on Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album, and I mean that if it was reissued with this as an extra track you would totally believe it belonged there. It matches the style, the tempo and even has the authentic sounding technical production. Incidentally all the titles on that album are in German as well, the last time they could do this as their popularity spread outside their own country. On ‘Mathematische Modelle’ Heinrich Mueller is Kraftwerk circa 1974. My hat is off to you sir! Maybe it’s his reaction to all that rubbish about Dopplereffekt being directly inspired by Kraftwerk. Like he’s saying that if he really wanted to do that he could do an exact copy, he’s that good. On the other hand this might not have been a conscious attempt to do Kraftwerk but it's still a great track none the less as I furiously back-peddle on my assumption!

Just prior to this he also did a remix of 'What Use' by Tuxedo Moon. Gigolo Records were generous enough to give him a whole side of a 12" to himself to stretch out with a dark but pacey interpretation of the original which has all the hallmarks of the classic Mueller production of this time. He unsurprisingly used his Heinrich Mueller pseudonym for his 'Technik Mix'. It sounds very much like his own voice to haltingly say “What is the use” and there is also an atmospheric female vocal sample or some other sound running throughout. Interestingly the other remix artist on the single was Ectomorph which featured one of his key past collaborators from the Flexitone project, Brendan M Gillen.

There doesn’t appear to be a solid theme with this release, but whether Heinrich Mueller knew it or not at the time it tells a story nonetheless. 1 part is business as usual, continuing the perfection of technology theme which was started on Der Zyklus I, then the next 2 parts look to his own future and the final part is a nod/farewell to the past. Spread out over these 5 tracks Heinrich Mueller seems to have reached a moment of perfection, long strived towards for sure but he seems to have reached some sort of plateau with his music. It is no coincidence that in tandem with this he appears to have begun to undergo a more personal change which in time will reveal itself in his music also. His next chronological release, Japanese Telecom’s ‘Virtual Geisha’ seems like such a backwards step in this light but it could have already been done before these tracks. But even this is not without its merits but they are of a cheapened variety compared with what we have just considered. Also at this time the concept for the Strom Series would have been formulating between him and his Drexciyan partner James Stinson. Just 2 years after this the first of their dimensional waves would break with the already mentioned The Other People Place. For sure this 2000/2001 period is indeed a crucial time of change for both of them.

Physics and music might seem a strange mix but Heisenberg, responsible for the Uncertainty Principle, is quoted as saying, " the history of human thinking, the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought that a real interaction can take place, then one can hope that new and interesting developments may follow." This is from 'The Tao of Physics' by Fritjof Capra. I think you'll agree that 'new and interesting developments' do indeed begin to occur in his music from this point on and that the term fruitful would be an understatement judging by his recent work rate.