Genteel tension

On the surface, neuma’s debut album Mado is all about the genteel.

The opening chords of “Ato Sukoshi” sound like almost every bossa nova recording made in Japan. (Bossa nova is pretty big there.)

And for the first half of the song, singer Shiba Rie and guitarist Yugawa Torahiko pretty much go unadorned. Then the rest of the band jumps in, with accordion player Satoo Yoshiaki making the biggest sound.

An accordion!

In fact, Satoo is responsible for most of album’s tense moments. Thereafter, the genteel surface of Mado gives way to reveal a tug-of-war between strong melodicism and even stronger dissonance.

Sometimes, Satoo stays out of the way, as on such pretty tracks as “Itsu Ka” and “Wa ~Arukinagara~”. On other tracks, he literally crashes in with wild harmonies, as he does half way through “Kujira King”. On “Zauberei”, the dissonance is front and center throughout.

Most of the time, the focus is squarely on Shiba’s languid delivery, with little more than piano or guitar backing her. “Nemuri Hana” calls to mind Talitha Mackenzie’s a capella interpretation of old Scottish folk songs.

“Mabataki” feels like a lullaby until a cello scrapes its way through an eerie solo. “Aoi Shizuku”, meanwhile, sounds like it was recorded on an old foil cylindar.

neuma could have probably left the genteel aspects of Mado alone, and it would have made for a nice, if not unremarkable sound. Thankfully, that’s not the case here.

Mado is a captivating listening experience in the way its dissonance highlights its melodicism. The songs on the album eschew the common perception that quiet music is pretty music, let alone dissonance is ugly.

More surprising — the band achieves this tension without relying on very many electronics. Save for a splash of synthesizer on “Mabataki” and a pulse on “Itsu Ka”, neuma is entirely acoustic.

Drummer Suganuma Yuuta follows a less-is-more approach, oftentimes letting a quiet boom anchor the band’s songs, while even contrabassist Moriya Hiroshi manages to sound huge.

In short, neuma is an impressive ensemble, spare and minimal but fascinating and tense.