Alstroemeria Records – Killed Dancehall

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This has been my jam the last couple of days. I’ve been listening to this circle’s stuff for the better part of a decade, but I’d slacked on keeping up with their output recently, and last week I realized I had about five albums to go through dating back to 2011. I listened to two of them, and then “Killed Dancehall” totally grabbed me and I couldn’t stop replaying it.

Alstroemeria Records is the label of Masayoshi Minoshima, an artist who’s been putting out doujin electronic albums since 2002, focusing mostly on trance and progressive house arrangements of Touhou melodies. The albums are usually compilations, mixes weighted heavily with his own work and punctuated by tracks from other artists in his circle.

Alstroemeria is serious, heavy dance music. Minoshima and his coterie take influence from contemporary Western DJs and electronic musicians, and their mixes never fail to sound thoroughly polished and professional. I’ve always found them to be a strange phenomenon, an aberration in Touhou doujin music culture, simply because they seem way too cool for the rest of it. Minoshima himself has a look one would expect from a popular DJ, a suave handsomeness coiffed with cool haircuts, and you could play many of his tracks at a normal American dance club without people batting an eye, except perhaps to notice that the vocals are in Japanese. So why are he and his friends part of the Touhou music scene?

The answer, I’m fairly sure, is inspiration. For one thing, Touhou offers a vast storehouse of accessible, powerful melodies that are culturally acceptable for anyone to appropriate. I wrote in a previous blog post about how ZUN, the creator of Touhou, is probably the most professionally-covered musician of all time outside of the famous classical composers. Alstroemeria Records exemplifies why: Minoshima and the other artists on his label use Touhou songs as flavors, with familiar elements of melodies and famous hooks worming their way into their slamming electronic mixes at just the right moments. Often, Alstroemeria tracks have only the faintest resemblance to the Touhou songs they ostensibly cover, and sometimes no resemblance at all.  This is Touhou-as-muse, as pure inspiration rather than distinct form to be rearranged. Other artists have used this same approach, but few with such popular success. Alstroemeria has produced smash hits, their rendition of “Bad Apple” being the biggest so far, so big its video became something of an internet meme and showed up on CNN.

The main effect of this powerful muselike influence is that Alstroemeria albums are the strongest example I’ve ever encountered of what a musician friend of mine once called “night music.” He categorized his own electronic band in the genre, declining to say what exactly he meant by it. But I knew. Certain music only feels appropriate to listen to at night. Often it’s instrumental and electronic, and often it has a kind of yearning emotional quality that only feels quite right when driving through the night, or when on a darkened dance floor. This describes Alstroemeria Records. The circle’s lyrics, all written by “Haruka,” are despondently emotional, focused on pining and lost love, and the deliveries by the female vocalists are almost invariably ridden with strife.

Most of all though, “night music” means dreaminess. Nighttime has always been for mankind the domain of the spirit world, the land of imagination and mystery, and the time of sleep. There is much of that dreaming feeling here, and it’s accomplished by various means. First off, the house and trance genres lend themselves naturally to becoming “night music,” and trance acquired its particular name for a reason. This is music that often operates on something of a subconscious level; on the surface it can seem repetitive, loopy, “stupid” in the way that dance music is often slurred, but the cyclic repetitions and the strength of atmosphere created by the artists’ production skills creates an atmosphere that is genuinely trance-like. Alstroemeria albums feel like experiences more than most records do, being intentional mixes. Every track is crossfaded into the next, creating one long incantation, an emotional spell that isn’t broken until the whole show comes to an end, and this gives the music a quality that repels the kind of playlist-snipping we commonly prefer in the modern era. These albums beg to be heard as a cohesive wholes.

“Killed Dancehall” is an ideal example of this, an album with tracks that all mix together into one extended rapture. It starts out with “Undercover/Romantic Children,” the typical duo of buildup track and attention-grabbing banger that Minoshima likes to lead in with, and the results succeed as usual. “Romantic” is a reworking of a relatively obscure song from Mystic Square, one of the older Touhou games, and it’s a perfect example of what Minoshima does best, using an original melody as a sort of canvas to cut pieces from, taking the phrases he likes and rearranging them into something vital and new. It’s also incredibly, heavily atmospheric, drenched in many layers of synth and driven by a hard pounding bassline. When “Undercover” transitions into “Romantic” at nearly two minutes in, one can’t help but visualize a dancefloor catching fire. This kind of formula is not new or experimental; it is established, and it’s established because it works. Making people dance and making them dream are not very disconnected goals, and both are accomplished here with scientific precision. This is powerful music, music that takes control.

Nachi Sakaue’s vocal in “Romantic Children” is plaintive, evoking amorous longings. Her voice is strident, insistent, and a register or two higher than what we expect from our female vocalists in the west. The high pitch sharpens her delivery, makes it pierce clearly above the rest of the song’s mix, and at times the wracked affect of the words feels like the twisting of a knife. The bittersweet is embraced here, cherished even, and the sentiment resonates just as much as it does in most pop music. It’s a celebration of the full range of human experience. To live and love is to suffer, and the vulnerability of the singer invites us to accept and explore our own. Ironically, it’s the music of pain that invites us to love.

The album’s third track goes even further with Minoshima’s re-interpretative aesthetic. “UN Owen Was Her” is one of the most famous and widely covered songs in the Touhou canon, but I had to look up “Unknown” to realize that’s what it was based on; the title is the only obvious clue. The track is entirely an original creation, and its tone is exactly the same as the last, with heartfelt vocals sung over a rapidly shifting electronic landscape, this time incorporating wobbling dubstep elements. Mei Ayakura has a beautiful voice, more breathy and less nasal than Nachi Sakaue and pitched slightly lower, closer to what we’re accustomed to. The melody of her vocal seems to fly in circles, looping back upon itself, struggling with internal emotional conflict or perhaps just eternal recurrence. It’s lovely how, without even knowing the lyrics, so much of the content is conveyed simply through the tone and the melodic structure.

“Phantoms In Da House,” a track by Minoshima’s compatriot Nhato, reverses the trend of the first few songs by nearly being a straight cover. It leans heavily on “Phantom Ensemble,” a song with one of the strongest melodies in Touhou, first bringing in the melody via scratchy, cheap-sounding horns, and playing around with cut-up orchestra hit samples and a liquid synth bass that squirms around wildly like a snake refusing to be pinned down. The melody returns again in the form of a ghostly reverberating synth that can almost–but not quite–be pinned down to some kind of real instrument, there is a gloriously free-flying arpeggiated synth solo, and finally, exactly at the four minute mark, the song surges into into the frenzy it’s been building toward the whole time, a mad dance of a dozen instrumental elements swirling and exploding around one another, all propelled by a single pounding 4/4 beat. This section of the song lasts for only thirty seconds, but it’s so gloriously cathartic it feels worth the entire four minutes that preceded it. It’s a culmination that almost literally shimmers, so spirited and vibrant that it isn’t hard at all to imagine a hall full of intangible phantoms, floating and glowing in the air, rollicking back and forth as they bust out the most heavenly jam they can conceive.

Without a doubt, it’s this kind of imaginative, directly fantastical inspiration that gives Alstroemeria Records their power. “Phantom Ensemble” is canonically a song played by a trio of spectral musicians, and that inspiration probably never left the composer’s mind. Many of Alstroemeria’s attributes that I’ve discussed so far are common to house and trance music in general, but there is something that is special about the tone of their music. Persistently, across a dozen albums, I’ve seen them evoke a kind of bittersweet nighttime reverie that I’ve heard nowhere else.

It is unspoken, but known by everyone who participates in it, that Touhou artistic culture is a bastion of public dreaming. Because of the particular rules set out by ZUN, the man who created and owns all of the original music and all of the characters, Touhou is a thing that cannot be corporatized. He forbids any works based on it to be produced on a scale beyond the small-time and independent, and the result is one of the world’s last true remaining bohemias, one that exists on the internet and in people’s minds instead of in a physical place. It’s a genuine subculture that cannot be absorbed and spat back out as crass marketing, one in which sex sells but genuine love does as well.

“Flowering Night” is one of the iconic songs of Touhou, and I think there’s a kind of reverence in the fact that Minoshima didn’t rename his cover of it. This is the obvious pinnacle of “night music,” the word right in the title, and Flowering Night is also a yearly live Touhou concert held in Japan, one which Minoshima has performed in before. Amusingly, speaking about the original song, ZUN said “What’s weird to me is that if you think it’s going to be an Asian piece, it sounds like it, but treat it as Western and it sounds like that too. If you think it’s childlike, it’s childlike, and if you think it’s more mature, it sounds that way.” This describes basically all of Touhou music.

Masayoshi’s version of the song is his own style distilled. “Alstroemeria” itself means a kind of flowering plant, the “lily of the incas,” and the dreamy blooming of this piece personifies his musical ambitions. The first minute and a half of the song is pure buildup, synths like waves of sand rolling over dunes, and ayame’s vocal in the verse has the same kind of tentative, recursive quality as in so many of Minoshima’s other songs. When it comes to the bridge it ascends, all the musical elements swelling in strength with ayame’s now double-tracked voice, and then the chorus takes this inertia and simply glides along, sailing through a beautiful dream. You can close your eyes and almost see it. This sublime, visceral dreamstate is what trance music has always aspired to, in all cultures, and somehow Minoshima has captured that feeling and taken it a step further. There’s something about his dream that’s incredibly lucid, crystalline pure, perhaps because it was allowed to flower in the neo-bohemian garden of Touhou culture.

Flowing directly out of “Flowering Night” is “Underdog,” Minoshima’s last track on the album, a creation completely of his own. The song pulses and scintillates, brims with life, rich digital synths evoking the driving soundtracks of the 1980s, its tone right on the edge between making you bang your head and making close your eyes to wistfully daydream. Alstroemeria Records gives me hope that, no matter how cynical the recycling of music culture becomes, it will always be sincere art that rules and expresses our dreams.

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