Not many people can say that, before their 19th birthday, they’d learned classical piano, joined an idol band, covered John Cage, left an idol band, relocated 1000km across country, performed live with hard noise legend Toshiji Mikawa, released over a dozen CD-Rs of music (spanning noise, ambient, psychedelia, rock, techno, hip hop, classical and folk) and made music accompanied by a cat on electronics. Okinawa Electric Girl Saya can say all of these things and more.
It’s a well-kept secret but the Japanese ‘underground idol’ movement is producing some of the best and most interesting music being released right now. Far beyond the well-established acts like Babymetal or BiS, there’s a wealth of young female artists pushing the boundaries of genre and performance in all manner of new and confounding ways. Arguably, there’s no one captures who the scene’s idiosyncratic spirit as well as Okinawa Electric Girl Saya, and her new album Black Angel is an uncompromising statement of intent.
After releasing one CD-R a month since January 2018 and gaining a reputation for unpredictable and emotionally-charged live shows, Saya successfully crowdfunded the recording and release of Black Angel. While technically at least her second full album (following the far noisier Chastity), Black Angel represents a conscious leap forward. It’s accessible and immaculately produced (by Saya and Hajime Nakamura), but loses none of the experimentation, high emotion or technical depth that she has become known for.
It begins with a wash of rain and a gorgeous off-kilter piano melody before plunging into the grinding title track, which blends industro-metal rhythms with pop vocals and an instantly memorable chorus. The video takes its inspiration from Takashi Ishii’s 1998 film of the same name (which also serves as a loose central concept for the album) and serves up nocturnal Tokyo chic in abundance. It shouldn’t be as smooth a segue as it is but when Black Angel melts into Tone Of Tears, a gorgeous idol ballad punctuated with swathes of beautiful fuzz, it’s the first of many magical unexpected transitions.
The album is a journey through the mind of Saya; not just her musical and cinematic influences but the feelings and places that have shaped her life so far. There are songs inspired by her home island, like Sōgen-ji Temple, a minimal synth number that wouldn’t sound out of place on Coil’s Horse Rotorvator. Saya sings in Okinawan dialect to honour an ancient monastery destroyed in the war and it captures an eerie feeling of loss amongst its zenlike beauty. Other songs are pure Tokyo (her newly adopted city), like the triptych of hot jazz numbers on here. Ghost Spider finds Saya rapping over squonking sax and drum loops; Give Me Your Cheeks At Night is an exuberant swing, all wild abandon and basement-bar cool; while Crunch Of Murder grabs its spasmodic jazz in a chokehold and feeds it screaming distortion. Never forgetting her roots, Saya even pays homage to her old idol band Tincy with a revamp of their tribal techno bop Memento Mori.
For every moment of graceful melody – the Sixties psychedelic pop of Black Hair or the elegiac beauty of Secret Forest – there’s a contrasting violence, with the most extreme examples being Hatred Hierarchy – a collaboration with Naohiro Ukawa that drops ear-punishing high-frequency noise in with spluttering beats – and Dedicated To Red Shoes/Captain Beefheart – a Japanoise soundscape of nursery rhymes and ominous intonations from the void (“I was killed and eaten by a foreigner”). Even Saya admits this is “a pervert song” that scares her to listen to…
You might think this is eclecticism for the sake of it or too chaotic for its own good but what’s most impressive about Black Angel is how well it flows as an album. Lead single Black Flower (a head-on collision of pop, folk and industrial noise) is perhaps the archetype of how Saya grounds her experimentation, how she can bring it all together as one perfectly coherent whole, and these hybrid songs are like landmarks. Flags planted in the sand to help guide you through the complex sonic labyrinth she and her collaborators have constructed with Black Angel. The other trail left throughout is an emotional one. As manic and diverse as the music can be, Saya’s powerful vocals are a consistent force. There’s a heartfelt sincerity to her singing that makes Black Angel feel like a deep and fully-formed manifestation of a singular vision.
Far from being an experimental novelty, Black Angel is a serious, brilliant piece of work and a strong contender for my favourite album of 2019.