Sayan Ghosh: Cornelius and the neon-soaked charm of ‘Fantasma’
For a brief moment in mid ’90s Tokyo, a new musical genre flourished and traveled around the world to the very countries that fed into its creation in the first place. “Shibuya-kei” was a patchwork of genres that borrowed from the previous decade’s city pop and everything from MPB (Brazilian pop), French chansons and ’70s lounge music. The district Shibuya is an eclectic monument to consumerism in the best way such a description could entail, and Shibuya-kei reflects its soul.
Trying to recount the complex, fascinating history of the genre in just a few short sentences would do it a disservice, so I recommend checking out this brilliant article by Drowned in Sound for a primer. Keigo Oyamada, known as Cornelius, was one of the founders of Shibuya-kei’s most iconic bands, Flipper’s Guitar. His 1997 work Fantasma (which the article names as the genre’s “essential album”) is a result of his prolific solo career, and distills the essence of the genre he helped elevate into a cohesive yet chaotic album.
Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights (in my opinion, one of the best albums ever made), takes the listener on a tour of the city in the dead of night, when its seedy underbelly comes to the surface and when one can feel the crushing isolation it induces. Fantasma rewinds a couple hours before the comedown. Manic energy is abounding, and the night is still unpredictable.
Fantasma bounces around genres and time periods, with Cornelius paying homage to figures from Brian Wilson to ABBA, and injecting his homages with an infectious kitchiness. “New Music Machine” channels noise pop and shoegaze, reminding me of an amped-up version of Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube.” “Chapter 8 ‘Seashore and Horizon’” feels like a warped Revolver-era Beatles Track. “Star Fruits Surf Rider” somehow combines a Jungle-esque breakbeat and a beautiful orchestral interlude. “Clash” alternates between lying on a bed of bossa nova chords and bursting into a powerful chorus.
The album is an interesting case study on artistic influences. Like the Greta van Fleets of the world, Cornelius wears his unabashedly on his sleeve. Unlike the Greta van Fleets of the world, he synthesizes them into a compelling, inventive and most importantly, completely novel form. You can feel his admiration and love for the artists he channels without every getting the sense he’s making a hackneyed cover of any one of them.
Fantasma may veer into overtly cartoonish territory at times, but that’s what gives it its charm. Listening to it is like taking a peek into its creator’s colorful mind or like walking around Shibuya at night, with the neon signs illuminating the throngs of people around you and the cacophony of noises settling into a somewhat comfortable background. It’s overwhelming, sure, but it’s also incredibly exciting.