While Nisennenmondai hit the noteworthy decade watermark this year, I only became aware of them last year while trying to plot my 2008 SXSW. The one track I heard was enough to send me into the kind of hype overdrive that only a music blogger or a Christmas list making five year old can know. I didn't know what type of show these three Japanese women were going to put on (their first U.S. release, 2008's Neji/Tori, was composed of their first two EPs: Sorede Souzousuru Neji and Tori) but I knew it was going to be amazing and probably life changing. Alas, my fest was equal parts over ambitious and disaster prone and I missed them. My emotions cooled in the intervening year and I did my best to move on. Even so, my heart still skipped a beat when I saw that Destination Tokyo was out and I jumped at the chance to snag a copy.
I tell you all this not just because I like talking about myself, but to show just what type of insurmountable expectations this record was facing from the second I received it. Listening to Destination Tokyo was kind of the aural equivalent of dating a high school crush ten years after the fact. It probably would be categorized as a fine experience but it wasn't going to take me back in time and make me a quarterback. So it was that my initial reaction was unfairly negative. I was expecting immediate satisfaction and was instead given the most sophisticated Nisennenmondai material I had experienced. Where the material on Neji/Tori represented a dirtier and more primal reveling in noise, Destination Tokyo is polished and represents a shift towards clear and precise orchestration. At first I considered the underlying song structures frustratingly repetitive. It was obvious that the songs were full of interesting ideas but it seemed equally obvious that they didn't seem to be going far enough. I was being desensitized to what should have been alarmingly frenetic lines. There were countless moments where the build up seemed to be positively pleading for a climax and instead Nisennenmondai would continue past the expected breakdown point and alter an element ever so slightly in order to release some of the tension, denying me the gigantic rift I felt entitled to.
I decided to give Destination Tokyo some space and returned to it later, knowing full well this time that there would be neither implosion nor explosion. With noise albums it's easy to get in the mindset that there is "a point" to the song that everything is leading towards. Once I'd gotten over that expectation I began to see each song as a wonderfully cohesive piece. The melodies are given so much room to establish themselves and the shifts are so nuanced that there is always a recognizable element that serves as an anchor and keeps the listener feeling that they are still in the same song. As long as we're on the subject of cohesion it should be noted that Destination Tokyo features a drastic reduction in show stealing moments. There are very few instances when any one element dominates the sonic landscape and even where one could argue that they do exist, like during the fantastic "dance track from hell" bass line in "Disco," it still feels like it's just to lead the listener to where to the guitar and drums really come in to play.
What felt at first like a project unified by a general tendency towards repetitiveness turned into a surprisingly diverse and mature effort that is evidence of a great amount of growth on three musicians' part. Critics have been eager to draw comparisons between Nisennenmondai and other noise bands in part because they have been championed by some very big names like Battles and Lightning Bolt in recent years and particularly in light of the homages, or name checking depending on your outlook, to bands like Sonic Youth and and This Heat in their Neji/Tori song titles. While those comparisons were probably all fair, I think Nisennenmondai has done a lot to distance themselves from both their peers and their roots with this release. If you are simply looking for a more obviously aggressive and immediately gratifying experience I would point you towards their earlier material; but, if you're looking for an album that has room to be explored and are willing to spend some time with, I urge you to take a look at Destination Tokyo.