Fantasma’s deliberately dated sound may work even better in 2016 than it did in 1997.
Cornelius’ Fantasma introduces itself as what may seem like a standard trip-hop record, and then spends the rest of its run time destroying any notion of adherence to a single genre. The 1997 album, recently remastered reissued with a handful of additional tracks, is the kind of record critics will tell you must listen to all the way through in one sitting. But the reality is that each of the 17 songs here are so wonderfully weird that it’s just as easy to get lost in the sub-one minute title track as it is the nearly eight-minute “God Only Knows.”
Cornelius, who hails from Tokyo, went on to remix songs by artists like Beck, Moby and MGMT, and perform in the revitalized Plastic Ono Band with Yoko Ono and traffics in the subgenre shibuya-kei, which relies heavily on reinterpreting left-field sounds and samples from previous decades. He also released two more solo albums, 2001’s Point and 2006’s Sensuous.
The ragbag of samples gives Fantasma a twitchy, restless energy that propels Cornelius from one track to the next. It’s an album that can’t sit still and wants desperately to soak in everything that came before it. The style is difficult to describe without hearing it for yourself, but imagine Girl Talk’s tendency to stack samples on top of each other, but coming from a producer with a predilection for the past instead of contemporary hits.
Opener “Mic Check” is as straight-forward as Cornelius allows himself to get, beginning with intricate 360 panning before giving way to some crisp breakbeat drums. However, “Mic Check” only stays predictable for about a minute before twangy acoustic guitar and synths pummel the drums into the background.
The ensuing “Micro Disneycal World Tour” is a perfect encapsulation of what makes Fantasma worth re-releasing today. It blends amusement park vocal harmonies, ominous synth chords, cinematic strings and pounding percussion—a mixture that would be repellent if managed by a lesser talent—into something wonderful and wholly unique.
“Star Fruits Surf Rider” sounds like a direct ancestor of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips, a patchwork of quirky percussion and soulful guitar. The song’s lyrics may not come together to depict a clear narrative, but the contemplative sonic backdrop makes it clear that this is a deep moment of reflection.
The bits of Fantasma that lean towards heavier rock instrumentation don’t hold up quite as well, but they are still enjoyable for their nostalgia factor. “Count Five or Six” is a bit too manic, and the vocal sample never quite finds its groove within the instrumentation. “New Music Machine” works better as a dreamy splash of lo-fi. The problem with both tracks is that the guitar Cornelius layers onto each doesn’t allow him the same freedom to play with samples and unique instrumentation, since the heavy chords dominate the mix.
Fantasma’s reissue comes with four additional cuts, none of which sound out-of-place on the genre-fluid record. “Lazy” is the standout, reminiscent of “Star Fruits Surf Rider” with its dusky cadence, while “Taylor” is funky and confrontational, employing Ratatat-style guitars to give it an extra dose of attitude.
Phenomenally ambitious and terrifically immersive, Fantasma’s deliberately dated sound may work even better in 2016 than it did in 1997. Though a producer today may have better technology at their disposal, it’s hard to imagine anyone putting together a better record than Fantasma with the glut of bizarre samples Cornelius had at his disposal. Hopefully, the album will inspire young, savvy listeners to dive into the strange and exciting world of shibuya-kei, because it would be fascinating to see how it could impact music today.