The musical ideas on Fishmans’ final album, 宇宙 日本 世田谷 (Uchū Nippon Setagaya), feel more relevant than ever
Original release date: 24 July 1997
Label: Polydor Records
It’s strange to write a retrospective on a band that’s still growing in popularity. Stranger still, given that Fishmans dissolved in 1999 after the sudden death of their visionary leader Shinji Sato. But the pioneering Japanese group are more beloved today than they were during their artistic peak; though they charted a handful of singles in their home country, and count among their fans artists like Takashi Murakami, Yoko Ono and Ryuichi Sakamoto, the last ten years have seen online music communities propel the group to total cult stardom.
Influenced by the pop pastiche of the Shibuya-kei movement, neo-psychedelia and the steady groove of reggae and dub, any one of Fishmans’ songs could be a set text in a lesson on the 90s. A nostalgic listener might pick out snippets that recall other formative records of the decade: the high, extended vowels and otherworldly longing in Sato’s voice remind you of Thom Yorke, while drummer Kin-ichi Motegi’s baggy propulsion and liberal use of snares on tracks like the epic Walking in the Rhythm feels straight out of Madchester. But despite this magpie-like approach to genre, Fishmans still sound completely beyond their time – and ours.
This intoxicating mix of the familiar and unfamiliar could explain Fishmans’ steady rise in certain corners of Music Internet. On the influential forum Rate Your Music, the highest-ranked live album isn’t by the Beach Boys or Bob Dylan. It’s a recording of Fishmans’ last ever gig together, titled Otokotachi no Wakare, or ‘A Men’s Farewell’. Despite the show’s eerily prescient title, it wasn’t supposed to be the band’s final performance. Bassist Yuzuru Kashiwabara was about to leave the group, and the tour was held in his honour. But three months later, Sato passed away unexpectedly, aged just 33.
It’s the kind of unforeseen tragedy that can set an artist up for posthumous fame. A supergroup including Sakamoto was even put together – Fishmans+ – as a tribute to Sato’s unfinished compositions. A crowd-funded documentary was released in Japan last month. But, as critic and YouTuber Mino Music recently pointed out, in Japan, Otokotachi no Wakare isn’t considered to be Fishmans’ magnum opus. Instead, he highlights the trilogy of studio albums they completed between 1996-97, often referred to as the Setagaya trilogy.
The first of the three, Aerial Camp, holds dreamy, dub-fusion hits like Baby Blue and Night Cruising, and has been ranked by Japanese journalists as one of the best records of all time. Long Season dropped months later: made up of just one 35-minute-long transformative track, it spans dream pop, post-rock, ambient and so much more. Then, in 1997, came Uchū Nippon Setagaya – their seventh, final and finest album.
Combining Fishmans’ succinct, memorable melodies with their penchant for going longform, the record is an exercise in letting musical ideas unfurl over time. The title roughly translates to ‘Space Japan Setagaya’, and space truly is the operative word. By then, Fishmans had fully mastered the art of repetition, and used it to conjure these airy, expansive sensations that still feel like little else. By holding steady one single element of a song – maybe a vocal refrain, perhaps a bassline – they made space for everything else to flourish.
The soft heartbeat of Stuck in the Backbeat and its whispered “goodbye tomorrow” verse is what I imagine a sensory deprivation tank to feel like: warm, dizzying, timeless. Walking in the Rhythm travels thousands of miles in thirteen minutes, through soaring violins and heavy breathing, culminating in sounds of empty gusts of wind.
Weather Report’s lead melody sounds like whale song over a breezy, dubby rhythm section that’s comforting and organic. Half-way through, the track theatrically resets. A drum machine fires blanks into the silence. Then Sato’s voice returns, raspy and plaintive, to repeat: “I see weather”. No description, no judgement, just serene observation.
The album’s devastating highlight In the Flight builds an overwhelming, weightless sense of isolation out of simple ingredients: birdsong, finger clicks, a gently-strummed acoustic guitar. It leaves you completely to yourself, lost in space and time. Perhaps that’s why Fishmans are more needed now than ever before. To me, Uchū Nippon Setagaya feels like pareidolia, the ability to imagine shapes in the clouds. The more your mind wanders, the more you can see. No wonder it’s still drawing people in.