Sensuous Synchronized Mindmelt: Cornelius at Webster Hall
photo by Ariella Stok
Saturday, January 26
The fourth wall has always been particularly fascinating to Keigo Oyamada, aka Cornelius, who began 1996's Fantasma with a song called "Mic Check," ended 2002's Point with the command "Point! Stop the music!" On Saturday January 26th, he started his show at Webster Hall by having roadies pull a taut white scrim in front of his band's gear and for the first 20 minutes, isolated color bars flashed across the screen, as if the equipment were tuning itself, while Hawaiian strains occasionally wafted from a pre-recorded ghost-band. Finally, the musicians got into place. "H-E-L-L-O," the screen spelled out. "The Cornelius Group," it read. "Sensuous Synchronized Show." Paint oozed over the letters, and the fourth wall dropped, revealing Keigo Oyamada in a bowler hat.
Though Oyamada has often been called the Japanese Beck, and not wrongly, his stage show is in a class of its own, part Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads, part set-the-controls-for-the-heart-of-the-MOTHERFUCKING-LASER-LIGHT-SHOW Pink Floyd. Playing to intricately synched video sequences, the quartet—in moptop-via-Shibuya-kei finery—simply grooved. On record—most recently 2007's Sensuous—Oyamada's music is comprised of auteurish layers of warm bleeps and electro-acoustic blurps, cut with the occasional Beach Boys harmony. Divided among two guitars, bass, and drums, Oyamada's micro-rhythms turned into repeating figures that locked together and swung like African guitar jams.
One of the band's more delightful paradoxes was how funky they remained even while playing in meticulous dude-did-you-see-that lockstep with the constantly flashing videos. The visuals overflowed with optical tricks, using extreme tempo repetition to hypnotize the eye into erecting and obliterating miniature fourth walls. Paint splattered in complex figure-ground illusions, mouths bisected and rearranged (and mimed along with the Japanese lyrics), and light bulbs exploded in slow motion—all in time with cymbal splashes, snare hits, and guitar stabs. A handful of straight music videos—including the urban time lapses of the acoustic-aided "Point of View Point" and the floating soap bubbles of "Breezin'"—helped as well.
Working with quieter material—including a segment where Oyamada waved an audience member's hand over a theramin to create "Love Me Tender," and the set-closing cover of Frank Sinatra's "Sleep Warm"—the Japanese quartet was welcomed with Webster Hall hospitality: the hideous crash of disco boiling up from below. Not to diss dance clubs, but it must be right insulting for bands to have to deal with obnoxious beats and be herded off by 11 on a Saturday night. It's a raw deal for musicians, especially those as meticulous and artful as Cornelius, and it's disrespectful to those are paying to see the music.
Still, Oyamada's elegance prevailed, in birds floating over a rolling Escher-like landscape and via infinite 8-bit horizons spinning to "Star Fruit Surf Rider." Though the band touched on the occasionally hyperkinetic number, like "Count Five Or Six," the bulk of the show concentrated on deeply Floydian space-outs, pulling heavily from Sensuous and landing in a small handful of lulls. And while Oyamada's latest is a bit of a musical step backwards—too much electro, not enough acoustic—Keigo Oyamada is far from done. Besides projects like scoring Gameboy Advance puzzle game Coloris, as he did in 2006, it is the type of material that befits a band who might provide reliable multimedia mindblowouts for years to come. Assuming, that is, they return to the States sometime in the next half-decade.