Yellow Magic Orchestra – Solid State Survivor (1980)
As you’d expect from an album of electronic music released in 1980, Solid State Survivor is pretty analog synthesizer heavy. I’ve written about this sort of thing before, and my general experience with this era of electronic music is that the melodic sounds hold up better than drum machines. Yellow Magic Orchestra, however, uses a human drummer on this album (Yukihiro Takahashi), and as a result, it’s aged a lot better aesthetically than many of its contemporaries. It’s also been very influential and popular, with some of its songs being frequently sampled and covered by figures as popular as Michael Jackson and Eric Clapton.
Compositions here tend towards the pop/rock end of whatever spectrum of composition you were expecting – there’s a bit of experimentation with sound and structure, but overall, this should be distinguished from the ambient approach of Kraftwerk, or the dance floor stylings of Telex, to use examples I’ve written about recently. Notably, the first half of the album is essentially instrumental (if you don’t count the crazed yelping in “Absolute Ego Dance” or the vocoder effects in “Technopolis”), while the second half contains lyrics. Due to the assistance of one Chris Mosdell and one Beatles cover, these are coherent English lyrics, even if the diction of the vocalists leaves a bit to be desired.
I’d say that more than anything, Solid State Survivor‘s major point of interest is its incorporation of rock music tropes into what would otherwise be a very heavily electronic album. Takahashi (who had some rock background prior to this due to his involvement in the Sadistic Mika Band) contributes to this with his drumming, but it’s really more a matter of composition than instrumentation, even with such things as the occasional guitar parts. However, I don’t see much underlying difference between the poppier strains of rock and dance music, since they both rely on riff repetition and hooky choruses to embed themselves in the listeners’ minds. Solid State Survivor is actually at its most rock-like when it breaks away from from basic song structures and occasionally dips its toes into the progressive rock camp (most prominent on ‘Castalia’), but either way the influence permeates all of these songs, at least to a minor extent.
In short, Solid State Survivor sounds excellent, and is competently written, although in that regard it’s quite basic. The rock elements probably drew in a lot of pop listeners who weren’t familiar with some of the electronic experiments of the late 1970s – things that the album’s personnel had participated in. Surprisingly, this album wasn’t released in the USA, although many of its songs made their way onto the local printing of X∞Multiplies. Either way, this is probably the high point of YMO. Later albums (particularly Technodelic) seem to prioritize experimentation with sounds and aesthetic over good solid composition. You can predict how that turned out.
Highlights: “Technopolis”, “Rydeen”, “Behind The Mask”