Wednesday, May 30, 2012

JAM DESHO: Zabadak - Welcome to Zabadak

By Steve Jones.

I listened to Welcome to Zabadak primarily because it promised a synthesis of two things for which I have quite the fondness: '80s Japanese pop and Celtic folk. And it delivers.

I haven't been able to dig up (i.e. Google) a lot of information about Zabadak. They originally started in 1985 as a 3-member band, but given this album art I'd say this 1987 record was made when the group consisted of only Tomohiko Kira and Yoko Ueno. I didn't know it at the time, but my first experience with Welcome to Zabadak was not actually my first experience with either Kira or Ueno. Yoko Ueno left the band in 1993 and went onto have several more musical projects, one of which was the band Oranges & Lemons, who provided the memorable Azumanga Daioh OP "Soramimi Cake." Tomohiko Kira has continued to release albums under the Zabadak name since Ueno's departure, but he has also contributed to other projects. Most notably (in my humble opinion) he produced the first Spice & Wolf OP "Tabi no Tochuu" sung by Natsumi Kiyoura. Moral of the story: you never know when anime knowledge will become real life knowledge.

Back to Zabadak proper, what I particularly like about Welcome to Zabadak is precisely how the folk influences are integrated in a way that enhances songs that would otherwise still be fine examples of quintessentially bouncy and interesting pop music. It's nice to hear, too, because more often when I come across modern music that hearkens back to Celtic and English folk, it is smothered by New Age hokeyness or just kinda falls into standard revival fare. This album has a unique approach that I appreciate.

The opening track "Blanche" is representative of most of the qualities I like here (so take a listen above!). The first notes communicate to the listener that the record is going to have a different kind of sound. The synthesized reed and drum invoke images that are both old and modern, and this juxtaposition creates an otherworldliness I love to hear. This is more of a personal connection, but the retro-sounding electronic folk also reminds me of the kind of music you'd hear soundtracking a town in a 16-bit RPG. This theme is vamped upon for a minute, but then the tune suddenly shifts from male-voiced ethereality to a female-voiced pop vehicle much more in.line with what you'd expect coming from 1987. Perhaps these two halves will be too disparate for some listeners to reconcile, but I find them to mesh perfectly together in spite of the initially jarring tonal shift. I don't have much to say in regards to the lyrics, but I think the track is about a journey through the "Blanche Forest," and if this is true it succeeds at encompassing both the mystery and the beauty of the woods.

Actually, mysterious and beautiful are good descriptors of the rest of the tracks to be found here as well. There's just something about recreating older instruments with synthesizers that pleases my ears like very few other things can, and doing this within a synth pop context makes it all the sweeter. The last track "Fairly Dreams" sounds like the sister of "Blanche," both of which bookend the record admirably, although I am more partial to the killer bass hooks on "Fairly Dreams." But I also enjoy the moments on Welcome to Zabadak that deviate from this formula. The sixth track "Luna" layers Ueno's voice on top of itself in order to create a one-woman chorus, which sings a tantalizingly short piece that wouldn't sound too out of place in a 15th century chapel. "Avenue" is another interlude-type song, which sounds like a marimba solo being played over a field recording of a city street. Honestly, I think the record would have been fine without this track (maybe even a little better for it), but it doesn't feel too intrusive when listening the full album. Finally, the penultimate track "In the Early Morning" is pretty much a standard piano ballad elevated by Ueno's wonderful delivery and the strength of the melody.

There's not a single dud of a track on this record. It's interesting, fun pop not necessarily similar to, but along the same lines of Jun Togawa, and I don't think a Kate Bush comparison would be out of line either. It's artful without being too obtuse, which is a very fine line to ride as well as Zabadak do. And I may have the '80s Japan bias, but that is a bias usually concerned with Yellow Magic Orchestra and associated works. For instance, when I learned that Togawa had a lot of Hosono-produced material, it didn't really surprise me, but I am a little surprised that not a single YMO member was involved in Welcome to Zabadak's production. That's high praise from me! So much respect to Kira and Ueno for defining their own flavor of creative pop.

I'm probably speaking to a very limited audience with this sentence, but if you enjoyed the Spice & Wolf anime, specifically the soundtrack, you should check out this album for a different approach utilizing a similar sound. For everyone else, if you ever doubted that Celtic Japanese synth pop could be a thing, let Welcome to Zabadak dispel your ignorance.

P.S. Many thanks to this Zabadak fansite for information on the background and history of this group!

(Steve Jones is your Samsonite samurai, at least until he thinks of a less copyright-infringing name. Like most uninteresting people, he has a Twitter @vestenet.)


  1. Celtic and Japanese seems like the most absurd combination ever.

  2. It's surprisingly not as uncommon as you would think.