The late Stephen Hawking will be remembered for many things, but his ability to discuss the most mind-bending aspects of the cosmos in common words was chief among them.
Hawking spoke of the universe in a way that transcended textbooks and equations, offering a glorious glimpse of all-consuming everything that is the universe. In a sense, that’s what Keigo Oyamada does too. Under the moniker Cornelius, the Japanese pop maestro approaches music as an impossible equation and invites listeners in as he tries to solve it anyway.
On St. Patrick Day’s Eve, fans at the Independent were a day removed from the terrible decisions they’d likely soon make. Content to embrace their lesser instincts the following evening, the crowd instead lent itself over to revelry as Cornelius — presented on this tour as a four-person ensemble — stepped gingerly over snaking cables and glowing boxes.
It’s been 20 years since Fantasma introduced North America to the staggeringly intricate array of melodies, drum lines, and dynamic guitar solos that have come to represent Cornelius. The genre that best describes this sound comes courtesy of Oyamada’s homeland. Shibuya-kei (which translates to “eclectic pop”) is defined by a reverence for 1960s pop blended with elements of jazz and soul.
To hear it is one thing. To see it is something else entirely.
Touring behind Mellow Waves — his first album in 11 years — Oyamada made sure to bring some truly talented friends along with him. Decked out in his standard black shades, he put his bandmates Hiroshisa Horie, Yuko Araki, and Yumiko Matsumura to work right away. Everyone was impressive, but it was Araki on drums who quickly established herself as a focal point of the evening.
Part of the challenge of bringing Cornelius’ music to life for a live performance is the frequent and abrupt transitions within songs. Hokey pun aside, Araki didn’t miss a beat. People like to focus on percussion as the backbone of a rock band. To a certain extent that’s true, but in reality it’s rare for a drummer to outshine her fellow performers to the point that you forget for a minute who’s show your seeing.
That’s what Araki did, and whatever Oyamada is paying her, he should double it.
The demographic of the crowd was akin to what you’d expect to find at a Pavement reunion show or a midnight screening of Punch-Drunk Love (full disclosure: I’m guilty of attending both). In fairness though, Cornelius does make nerd music. It’s dazzling and engrossing, but it’s also mathematical. Watching it live, it’s almost as though your ear can discern that some extra level of thought went into the arrangements, like a loaf of bread your taste buds know instantly was crafted by a master baker.
Longtime fans of Cornelius reacted appropriately when the band delved into Fantasma favorites like “Count Five or Six” and “Chapter 8: Seashore and Horizon,” but similar to the ambiance of a jazz concert, the focus was less on what they played and more on how they played it.
For this reason, I find the frequently cited references to Cornelius as a “Japanese Brian Wilson” or “Japanese Beck” somewhat faulty. First off, I think we’re all probably better off not comparing artists by adding an ethnicity to their names. Secondly, anyone who has paid to see Brian Wilson knows the last thing you want is for him to fuck around with “God Only Knows.”
There is one way to play that song — the right way — and that’s it. Beck is the same deal. They are both immensely talented artists that I count among my favorites, but their songs in no way lend themselves to Bossa nova interludes or improvised flights of fancy. They are extremely well crafted pieces of music that people want to hear as they were written.
With Cornelius, that’s simply not the case. It’s the risks Oyamada takes and the fact this music, rather than being sacred, is instead a malleable putty of pop that can be stretched and reassembled at will that makes it so breathtaking. The only thing more impressive than perfection is innovation.
It’s why Stephen Hawking will forever be known as a man who gave us a key to the universe. In his own way, that’s what Cornelius is here to offer as well.