October 26, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Deck Harper
Admittedly, it can be challenging to find music with an elusive quality of novelty. Of course, this is a somewhat subjective quality, forever defined and redefined by the kinds of music or tonal qualities a particular listener is familiar with. It’s just as hard to find music that feels like it’s expressing something genuinely inspired and exciting.
The sad truth is that the dreams many hold of becoming musicians are not the same as being a musician, and the countless hours of practice it may require to hone one’s craft never guarantees anything other than the repetitious motions from which sounds arise. And often, when trying to find new music one is greeted by the same old tunes, and when trying to compose new music one only comes up with the dullest melodies and hollowest textures, I wonder…
Should anyone even bother?
After listening to the duo Syzygys, my answer is – “Yes. Yes, they should.”
The first time I heard their composition “Fauna Grotesque,” I laughed and grooved along, totally thrilled. It was everything I’d been looking for: it felt new, it felt inspired, it felt exciting. By the third listen, I developed a headache. By the fifth, I considered dropping out of college and running away into the desert. Truly, I’d lost my mind, and my sister sent me some Indian classical music to cleanse my pallet.
Formed in 1985, Syzygys is a Japanese pop duo with Shimizu Hitomi on organ, Nishida Hiromi on violin and both on vocals. Their music is stunningly energetic, melodic, whimsical, and eccentric.
See, this isn’t any ordinary organ. Unlike the twelve notes that make up the keys on the piano or the frets on the guitar, this organ has forty-three notes in any given octave. Although I’m no stranger to microtonal music, I’ve seldom heard microtonal scales used in this pop context.
But it’s not the microtonal scales that make the music worth listening to, nor what makes it unique. After all, it’s hardly as if Syzygys is the first or only artist to write microtonal music. The very same Indian classical music I mentioned earlier is also microtonal (and worth listening to). Rather, it’s the character of these musicians – their animated, surreal pop soundscapes and dreamlike melodies, all coming together in this peculiar combination that makes this special.
For the sake of this article, I’ll discuss their “Complete Studio Recordings” album. The first track, “Fauna Grotesque,” begins with a standard rhythmic motif. The moment the melody comes in, the atmosphere transforms.
To me, it feels like staring at a perfectly uniform, pink strawberry cake, and suddenly ladybugs start crawling out of it, and the icing begins to melt – and I mean that in the best way possible. The whole track is constantly sliding downward, occasionally interrupted by more normal melodic lines. The microtones really add to this falling quality, allowing for a more gradual decline in pitch. Doubled notes create a kind of out-there tone to some of the otherwise wholesome melodies, with intervals much smaller than a typical twelve-tone scale would allow. This bizarre shifting soundscape carries over the much less idiosyncratic beat established earlier. Based on personal experience, I don’t recommend listening to it on loop, as I started to lose touch with reality, but it’s absolutely worth checking out.
“Ammonite Dream” is markedly less odd, although it still has the same kind of “falling” feel at times. The violin melody creates a nice interplay with the vocals and organ, and alongside the drums, it stands out as the most grounding aspect of the piece. It is much more melodic in the traditional sense. “D.P.O.” shares this lyricism, although it’s situated in a more fast-paced context. It lacks the coolness of “Ammonite Dream,” though is somehow more ethereal, despite lacking any kind of cosmic quality to the composition.
One of the most unique tracks on the album is “Suicide On A Fine Day.” It combines the oddities, melodicism, and atmosphere of the other tracks, but has a much more driven and melancholier feel. Ironically, it is one of the more traditionally pop-like songs, which perhaps is why it stands out on this album. It features some excellent guitar work, floating above the sliding drones of the middle sections. It is gloomily energetic, which is perhaps an unorthodox combination, but Syzygys manages to pull it off.
“Gyoji” is one of the darkest entries on the album. Its repetitive, spacy texture continues to morph throughout its three-minute runtime, with melodies at first droning, and then shifting through moving, sliding patterns, usually building, sometimes declining, until only the sustain of a few high notes rings out at the end.
So, whether you’re a discouraged musician, a dejected listener, already a fan of this unconventional duo, or just want to listen to something new, I highly recommend checking out the recordings of Syzygys. They managed to rekindle that sense of musical vitality which had long been waning in me. As for the side effects, you’ve been warned.
- “Fauna Grotesque”
- “Ammonite Dream”
- “Moroccan Rose”
- “Suicide on a Fine Day”
- “Harimao Hunters”