When Fujiya & Miyagi first started attracting critical attention with the release of their second album, 2006’s Transparent Things, even the most well-trained ear would have had difficulty guessing where they came from. Firstly, the name: taking into account the clinical precision of the beats and the fondness for synthetic sounds, and with the whispered deadpan vocals bearing a striking resemblance to Damo Suzuki, the easy assumption was that this was the work of a pair of Japanese tech-heads. Realising the moniker was a red herring (a composite of a vintage stereo brand and the mentor from the Karate Kid films), an educated second guess would propose German origins, but despite a krautrock sound so authentic it could’ve been cooked up at Inner Space Studio in 1973, the reality was nowhere as exotic. The band’s roots actually spread little further than Britain’s South coast, but nearly a decade into their time together it’s only now on Ventriloquizzing – their fourth album – that the quartet (yes, quartet) are really showing signs of the eccentric Englishness that characterised the music of their native art-rock forefathers.
Discounting 2002’s Electro Karaoke In The Negative Style – a more IDM-inspired affair recorded by the band’s founding duo Steve “Fujiya” Lewis and David “Miyagi” Best – F&M’s beats have always been bouncy, the melodies bright and the lyrics quirky, but Ventriloquizzing is a much darker album than previous efforts. Here, the tempos and textures are all toned down, while Best’s previously abstract words display a new-found purpose. If Transparent Things featured the band locking into grooves and jamming them out with military rigidity, and follow-up Lightbulbs tweaked that formula slightly to give the tracks a more poppy feel, Ventriloquizzing is the logical progression. It’s an album that owes a great deal to classic British song-writing, full of carefully considered arrangements, rhythmic shifts and key changes that encompass the psychedelic whimsy and kitchen-sink melodrama of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and the Kinks’, the theatricality of early Bowie and the grand progressive pomp of Roxy Music. Thankfully, F&M manage to accommodate all these new influences without making too many drastic changes to their existing trademark sound, and those that fell for the band on the basis of their Can and Neu! impressions will be happy to know that new drummer Lee Adams drives almost every track with either a metronomic Klaus Dinger beat or a Jaki Leibzeit-like flair that make you wonder how the band ever managed to make programmed beats sound so lively.
The band stumble, however, when they try too hard. “Sixteen Shades Of Black And Blue” and “Cat Got Your Tongue” evince a glam-rock swagger and hip-hop strut respectively that just don’t work coming from a bunch of slightly geeky, middle-aged men. The former song’s “I’ll beat you black and blue” refrain could just as easily be some kinky come-on as a threat of violence, but like fellow oddballs Hot Chip, F&M don’t really convince as either lovers or fighters: the last guys to leave the office, maybe, but certainly not the “last gang in town.” Cliché-ridden as it may be, Fujiya and Miyagi are best when they stick to what they’re best at, and here those moments are the ones hark back to the Transparent Things days. Gliding along like bullet trains, “Pills” sounds like an amphetamine-fed Broadcast, whilst album highlight “Tinsel & Glitter” opens with a cheeky pop-culture reference: “Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air/ Sometimes I don’t.” Though Ventriloquizzing doesn’t demonstrate the best the quartet have to offer, it’s a perfect overview of their different sides, and proof that they remain one of our most consistently entertaining bands.