Monday 11 September 2017

REV: The Reflection Wave One—Original Soundtrack, by Trevor Horn

For someone who has been so successful and working in the industry for so many years, it is perhaps odd that Trevor Horn has never released a solo album before. As he says in one of the video interviews for the special edition of The Reflection Wave One—Original Soundtrack, he wouldn't pick himself as someone to produce. Yet here we are, Trevor Horn's first solo album... of sorts. Following on from Producers/The Trevor Horn Band, Horn steps out from behind the recording desk, although a soundtrack album still keeps him one step removed from your usual solo debut.

What then has coaxed Horn out of his shell? The surprising answer is a Japanese anime series entitled The Reflection, co-created by famed comics writer Stan Lee (co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the X-Men, Thor etc. etc.) and director Hiroshi Nagahama (directed Mushishi, The Flowers of Evil, Detroit Metal City). An initial season of 12 episodes premiered 22 July 2017 on NHK. The show has had middling reviews. I'm enjoying it (subtitled), but I wouldn't make any grand claims for it. The story entails a cataclysmic event some years previously, the Reflection of the title, that has left select individuals as superheroes or supervillains. We follow the protagonists along as they team up to fight the bad guys. The anime itself has a blocky visual style, a reference, I take it, to old comic books. And, indeed, the whole story is a paean to a style of comic storytelling that Lee pioneered. There are, perhaps, only so many superpowers to dream up, so some of the characters are familiar: a key villain is a female Magneto, for example. Others, like Lisa Livingstone, are more imaginative. We're still partway through the series, so no comment yet on how it all fits together.

Within all this is Horn's music, but the music is also part of the fiction. The lead single, “Sky Show”, exists within the story as a 1980s one-hit wonder by a character called Ian Izette, who has now donned a super-suit to fight crime. Trevor Horn 'appears' in episode 4 (voiced by someone else, in Japanese) as the producer of "Sky Show". (On the soundtrack album, "Loneliness and Solitude" begins by replicating this scene in English, with Horn doing his own voice, and his daughter doing her voice.) Another four characters in the show are meant to map on 9nine, the Japanese girl group who sing the end title song.

Along with the anime and a forthcoming DVD release, we have The Reflection Wave One—Original Soundtrack (U/M/A/A Inc.). This is available in a regular form on CD in Japan, released 16 August, but only digitally in the US and UK (it's available on iTunes, but not Amazon). The US and UK also get a digital single of "Sky Show" with three additional songs, which are also available on a limited edition expanded CD release in Japan, that also comes with a bonus DVD with various interviews and 5.1 mixes. Thus, you can get all the music on the expanded Japanese CD in the US and UK by getting the album plus single.

 Let's start with the two songs. "Sky Show", befitting its role in the fiction, is kind of like a less dystopian The Buggles. It has that '80s Horn production sound, distinctly Trevor Horn, with a pulsing rhythm and soaring vocals. But, more so, it wouldn't sound out of place on Producers' Made in Basing Street, a companion piece to Freeway, with maybe a few '80s-isms thrown in. (And the extended version would fit on the extended edition of Made in Basing Street, with added instrumental arrangements/solos.) The similarity to Producers is not too surprising with the return of Chris Braide as a co-writer and on backing vocals. (Indeed, there's a version with Braide on vocals on YouTube.) The song was inspired by the great sunsets, a literal sky show, visible from one of Horn's SARM studios.

The third version of the song on the expanded Japanese CD, or a b-side on the US/UK single, is "unplugged" and, I think, is the same version used within the fiction as the supposed original demo of the song.

 The other song, my favourite piece on the album, is "Future Boyfriends", a more modern style, perhaps representative of the 2017 Trevor Horn Band rather than the earlier Producers. It's a co-write with Simon Bloor and Cameron Gower Poole, two mainstays of the recent band. It's a classic of the Japanese anime end credits theme genre. Up there with "Lithium Flower" from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The lyrics are cute and reference the show. It's a good melody, a clever arrangement: a great pop tune. Great vocals by Paget Shand, a little known US singer-songwriter who has her own band as WŸNN.

 "Future Boyfriends" is only the English-language version of the song. The Japanese version that is used in the show is called "SunSunSunrise" and is sung by a Japanese idol group currently consisting of Uki Satake, Sayaka Nishiwaki, Kanae Yoshii, and Hirona Murata. Signed to Sony, they've had a number of top ten singles in Japan and recently sampled Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" (produced by Horn) for their single "Why don't you RELAX?". 9nine recorded their vocals in Japan, without Horn's involvement.

The Horn soundtrack album just gets you the 89 second version of "SunSunSunrise", as used on the show. For the full song in Japanese, you need 9nine's single release, which comes in multiple variants, although if you've heard the full English version "Future Boyfriends" and the short Japanese edit, then there is not much new on the full Japanese version. Both language versions use an identical backing track. The long version gets you a club break and instrumental section, including keyboard solo.

Although in places the Japanese version is described as a translation of the English, it isn't. There's no relationship between Horn's English lyrics and Kohei Tsunami's Japanese lyrics. This is slightly confusing because Horn's lyrics refer to the series in several ways, whereas the Japanese lyrics don't. Was there a plan to translate Horn's lyrics or just to use English lyrics (as anime sometimes does)? Did 9nine want a single that wasn't so obviously tied to a show? The bigger question is whether we'll see an English-language version of The Reflection and, if so, which version they'll use.

If you get 9nine's single, you get – at least in some versions – two b-sides, "ゆるとぴあ" ["Yurutopia"] and "ケセラセラヴ" ["Que sera, se love"], the latter with music by Kohei Tsunami, the "SunSunSunshine" lyricist. The b-sides are very J-poppy. "ゆるとぴあ" is almost chiptune, with staccato rhyming. "ケセラセラヴ" has a gloriously odd mix of English and Japanese words. My Japanese isn't good enough to fully appreciate either.

To return the soundtrack album, that makes two good Trevor Horn songs, recommended for fans of his work. There's a whole album here though. The score is a score, which means short instrumental cues. Score music is not to everyone's tastes: just get the single if you want the songs.

The track labelled "Main Theme" is the music to the opening credits, kind of a mini-overture for the whole score. This is big, superhero action music, with a scary undertone. In one interview, Horn explains how the good guys get more orchestral cues (mostly written with regular collaborator Julian Hinton) while the bad guys get electronic cues (mostly written with another regular collaborator Jamie Muhoberac), which he thinks might be better. I concur: there's more interest in the electronic cues, like the foreboding "Hear Them Come" (or the more percussive arrangement, "Here Them Come (Again)") or the evil prance of "Reflected". The heroic cues seen more familiar: big, rousing pieces. "From on High", "From Battle to Flight" or "Greater Expectations", for example, could have come from half a dozen other film composers or projects. Which is fine: they serve their purpose in the show.

The pieces were written to clear mood descriptions, which Horn describes in one of the interviews as being very useful. For example, "In a Work of Unreason" is made to be background music. Nice to have, but I'm not rushing to listen to again. Other pieces have a bit more character, like "Loneliness and Solitude" or "The Transition". "I am Alone with Sadness" evokes Jean-Michel Jarre. "Left in a Bleak and Desolate Land" (co-written with Lol Crème) could be on a James Bond score. Some pieces remind me of the Art of Noise, like "In Chaos and Confusion" and "Peace in Blue". "My Daily Life" perhaps get closest to a song structure: you could imagine this with vocals as a Buggles song.

 TL;DR: There are two classic Trevor Horn pop songs here and the cheapest way to get them in the West is the digital single "Sky Show". Hardcore fans will want the whole album.

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