The Outer Rim
The Outer Rim
May 8, 2008
Buy at CDJapan
Though known most in video game circles for his work at Konami, and in particular on the Metal Gear Solid series, composer Norihiko Hibino is also an accomplished saxophonist. The recent release of jazz group The Outer Rim’s self-titled debut release offers Hibino fans a chance to hear the musician showcase his performance talent while being treated to the songwriting of bassist Jeff Curry. Keyboardist Hakuei Kim and drummer Fuji Nobuaki round out the lineup, contributing standout performances of their own. With top notch musicianship and an affective palette ranging from ambient to aggressive, The Outer Rim are worthy of the attention of anyone with even a passing interest in jazz or instrumental music.
The Outer Rim opens with the scorching “N.M.H. The Outer Rim Remix (album remix)”, Hibino’s aggressive arrangement of Masafumi Takada’s iconic theme for the game No More Heroes. Although the diminished role of the source material stretches the definition arrangement to the limit, the piece is an accomplishment in its own right. The track is dominated by improvisation, and showcases the talents of Hakuei Kim and Hibino right off the bat. Hibino’s performance is particularly impressive for the sheer visceral power he loads through the saxophone in bursts of floral fire, only to pull back for the brief lyrical interlude halfway through the piece. Though Jeff Curry and Fuji Nobuaki take subdued roles on this track, they do not play lazily, and their energy contributes greatly to the potency of the track.
“The Instant” is Kim’s compositional contribution to the album, and it reels back some of the aggression of the opener, though it keeps the energy level high. Nobuaki’s busy drum and bass inspired beat consistently bubbles beneath the glassy shimmer of Kim’s electric piano, which rests upon Jeff Curry’s warm bass sound. Hibino then arrives with the smooth melody that stands out as one of the album’s most memorable. I am particularly impressed by the effect that comes in the tail end of the theme leading into the solos. The rhythm of the drums slows dramatically, and the entire ensemble settles on one rhythm as Hibino soars to the peak of the melody. This leads welcomes an energetic solo from Hibino, and one of the more whimsical and memorable keyboard solos on the album before reprising the main theme to close out the piece.
The energetic “The Instant” is followed by the first of Jeff Curry’s compositions for the album, “A False Sense Of…”. This cut is slower and less demonstrative than its antecedent. Though the atmospheric opening establishes a slower tempo and combines smooth piano chords with an airy pad to create a relaxed atmosphere, the doubt expressed in the piece’s title comes to the surface as the bass and drums begin poking into the texture. Both creep under the keyboard pads in awkwardly short phrases cutoff with clinical precision creating an eerie effect, especially in the couple of phrases where Nobuaki’s final note is exactly a half beat after Curry chokes the sound of his bass. We cool back down to the promise of the track’s first few bars when the full band comes together for the Hibino’s statement of the theme at 1:14. Again, despite the very relaxed mood of this passage, its role in the entire structure of the piece continues the precedent Curry’s creeping bass in the opening set up. The passage is quite short, only eight bars long, and cuts immediately into the next section without any overlap. Coming out of the passage into a solo inspired by the first arrival of the bass in the piece is jarring and accents, in structure, the anxiety in the title and in one of the piece’s earlier motifs.
From here the piece breaks into the requisite solos, which alternate between being based on the smoother sections established so far and sparser, more rhythmic, and all around more agitated sections. This time the theme comes out of a solo based on its own vamp and is repeated after its initial statement, suggesting some kind of reconciliation with whatever tension was in the piece. However, conflicted to the end, even this stable structure drops out suddenly into the piano chords that opened the piece. Only this time, the phrase introduces a sudden, surprisingly foreign harmony just before the chords repeat and begin to fade out, the music inaudible before we have a chance to hear if this new development leads to any new exciting passage. I often view the fade out as a cop out for an artist looking for a way to end a piece without actually having to make a decision as to how to end the piece. Here, however, it manages to be conclusive. With the piece’s previous preference to abrupt phrase distinctions, the introduction of one final abrupt surprise before fading into ambiguity is the perfect way to end this piece.
Curry follows up the fantastic “A False Sense Of…” with “Stranger”: what would be the album’s purest lyrical statement were it not for a leap into absolute fury halfway through the piece. Structurally, “Stranger” has some of the most surprises on the album. It opens with a beautiful layering of sounds, opening with warm bass, adding a spacious pad, slowly introducing piano, and finally brushing the sound of a melody played by both piano and saxophone over it all. This leads into two solos based around this image: one for the saxophone, one for the piano. Kim’s piano solo builds the rhythmic energy of the piece, eventually causing the music to burst into a powerful theme played in parallel between the whole band that alternates between 6/8 + 5/8 and 6/8 + 3/4 in a variation on the familiar rhythmic pattern. It is one of the rare instances on the album where Hibino takes a break from the lyrical sound he favours on most of the album and shows off his ability to honk in the saxophone’s lower register as well. This aggressive theme culminates in a brief explosion of musical energy, before slipping back into a brief lyric piano solo, which returns right back to an extended statement of the band’s most aggressive furious sound.
After exhausting the possibilities of aggression, the band pretty much restarts the track from step one. Though the path is different, the motions are the same. Build from nothing, arrive at the lyrical theme, solo for a bit and run through the gauntlet tune while Nobuaki shows off some of his best stuff on the entire album. “Stranger” is one of the most interesting tracks on the album, but I lose the track during the ambiance from 4:30 to 6:30. Aside from that though, the track’s lyrical statements are some of the album’s best, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a more energetic tune than this track’s B section.
Having arrived at “IYOGIN”, this is as good a time as any for me to bring up my biggest complaint about the album, and that’s the voice acting. I restrained myself on their first appearance in “N.M.H.”, not wanting to start my review of an album I greatly respect on a very negative note, but I have to get to it now. It’s bad. Really bad. I realize that’s partially by design, as a sort of attempt to recall the old days of cheesy radio shows, and I understand wanting to explicitly reference the happenings of this album as something occurring in the future, but it didn’t work for me. Instead of enhancing the drama, I spend all of my time during the voice acting noticing how bad the script is, and how awful the woman’s French accent is, and how unconvincing the actors’ alternately deadpan and melodramatic delivery is. Instead of deepening my involvement with the album, these segments break me out of the experience, and it takes quite a bit of effort to get back in once the concentration is broken. No more on that subject though, back to the music. Hopefully you spend about two minutes and twenty seconds reading this paragraph before I start talking about “IYOGIN”, because that’s how much time the voice actors waste of this track.
It’s a real shame that unless I’m listening to this album all the way through “IYOGIN” mostly gets skipped over on my iPod because of the voice acting because there are some beautiful moments here. I don’t find it quite as structurally sound as most of the tracks on the album as it tends to wander a lot, but the melody is one of the strongest on the album. In addition to cutting out the dreadful voice acting, I think “IYOGIN” could benefit from a little trim here and there to make the piece flow better.
“Sanctuary” wakes us up from the sleepy “IYOGIN” and might just be the most fun this album has to offer. “Sanctuary” is in a dead heat with “The Instant” for the album’s most straightforward track. The intro sets the stage, and for most of the piece, that is mostly what you get. Curry’s bass plays a sleazy rhythm and for the most part does not depart from it. Over the rhythm Hibino and Kim play the album’s most infectious melody that has a sort of sinister charm. This track is perhaps most noticeable though for the drum (essentially) solo at the end of the piece, which sports some phenomenal drumming. I just wish the ending would have either omitted the obnoxious stabs from the rest of the band, or actually done something other than just repeat the same motif over and over and over. And then once more for good measure.
“Coleman’s Cliff” is the briefest piece on the album, and thank god, because it brings the voice acting back. Only this time, the voice acting actually coincides with the music. For the most part, in the other tracks, the voice parts were relegated to their own little corner and not allowed to interact with the big boys, or the music was so inconsequential while they were talking that it didn’t matter. Why the decision was made to let one of them trample over the some of the album’s most beautiful harmonies is beyond me. Complaints about the voice acting aside, “Coleman’s Cliff” isn’t perfect anyway. The track is quite repetitive for one as brief as itself, mostly due to the ostinato bass. Still, there are moments of beauty that poke out here, and I can’t help but blame the bad musical decisions on the vocal drama, as if this track were stripped down in order to accommodate the high drama occurring above it. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I’m going to blame it on the voice acting anyway because this is my review and because it’s probably true.
After falling over “Coleman’s Cliff”, The Outer Rim launches right into “Where Are You”, another of the album’s more straightforward tracks. This time, there’s a more aggressive tone though, and the harmonies are more adventurous than anything “The Instant” or “Sanctuary” had to offer. In exchange, this tune is not as infectious as either of those other two, and seems to be improvisatorially driven right from bar one. Hibino stars on this track, breaking out his most aggressive sax sound, showing off his ability to construct an improvisation with purpose, and proving his endurance. Curry also shows some impressive flourishes in the upper end of the bass’s range, Kim adds an inspired solo as well, and Nobuaki is as strong as ever, but Hibino definitely takes the crown for this track.
In all honesty, “Where Are You” probably should have been the end of the album. It is a tour de force for every member of the band, and the power of the conclusion so firmly affirms a musical idea coming to an end that “In Peace” feels so anticlimactic. It is a beautiful track, but it seems ill suited to ending an album, especially in the wake of “Where Are You”. It’s not just coming after “Where Are You” though, and it’s not just its serene character that makes it a poor closing number though. The structure of the piece itself tends to betray conclusion. It is a track that starts so slowly and needs to build up steam before it finally hits its full stride toward the end of the track. Ideally, an ending tune would take the energy from the album and slowly bring the album to its natural end. A track that builds to its highest point contradicts the album’s closing. Though this effect is similar to the one employed on “A False Sense Of…”, I don’t find it nearly as convincing here.
As a whole, The Outer Rim is a very good debut album. It showcases each of its performers, introduces us to the songwriting abilities of Jeff Curry, and covers a wide range of emotional terrain. No More Heroes fans expecting more Outer Rim remixes are likely to be disappointed, but those looking for more solid instrumental music should walk away pleased. This is not an album that will appeal to everyone, and even then, it isn’t flawless. The voice acting is very bad, there are times when the album loses its focus, and the ordering of the tracks themselves are sometimes questionable. Still, there is enough adventure and talent on this disc to counteract its lulls and shortcomings, and I hope this will be the first of many releases for The Outer Rim.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Richard Walls. Last modified on August 1, 2012.