Review: Kero Kero Bonito: ‘Civilization II’

Few bands have been as instantly recogisable in their sound as Kero Kero Bonito since they first emerged with their brand of synth-pop influenced by J-pop and vintage video game music. Their latest release, Civilization II, is a follow-up EP to 2019’s Civilization, and it strongly continues the band on its path towards a maturation in their sound.

KKB’s first few realeases, notably their first full-length, Bonito Generation, takes a view of the world through the eyes of a child, lauding innocent thrills such as bouncing on a trampoline and watching fish in a fishbowl. The progression of their releases since then feels like a narration of a life from beginning onwards, with material from this early chapter expressing whimsical youthful worries which go only so far as waking up early and the repetition of the educational routine.

Kero Kero Bonito’s most fascinating feature has always been the form that Sarah Midori Perry’s narrative voice takes in their lyrics, from the perspective of an impressionable child grappling with ideas imparted by the ‘grown-ups’ around her. The feeling of being overwhelmed by the prospect of adulting on your own runs strongly through their work. What’s more, the narrative voice of the ‘child’ is seemingly progressively growing up with each release. As such, the deep-dive into childhood naivety has made way for a somewhat darker and more earnest tone. Their second album, Time’n’ Place begins in a whirlwind of distorted punkish guitar, and their experimentations with jazz harmony began to distance them from the lullaby-like narrations of childhood. If their early releases were the chapter on childhood, though, then ‘Civilization II’ completes the chapter about young adulthood.

The opening track, ‘The Princess and the Clock’, narrates a dream-like story and preserves the childish evocations from KKB’s early work. However, brief excursions into disorienting chord turnarounds are tastefully and carefully chosen, taking the song from a twee jingle to something more interesting. Sonically, the videogame and 8-bit influence is detectable in the quiet introduction, before it launches into a fast synth-pop thriller.

‘21/04/20’ reflects upon the warped effects of time in an eventless day of lockdown. Spacey and chilled-out, this is a slower and slightly more sentimental song with a pleasant feeling. The lyrics are a ‘day in the life’ account of an insipid summery day in lockdown. With this, the band show their sensitivity to the significance of the pandemic and attempt to contextualize it in history from a bored bystander’s point of view. This grand and historical awareness is present throughout the EP, as reflected by the title.

However, it is the third and final song of the EP which steals the show and invites greatest reflection about the progression of the band’s development and maturation. Lyrically, ‘Well Rested’ imitates an epic adventure story, speaking of “ascension” and “doomsday” and humanity’s “destiny”, in order to narrate an anthropological path from humanity’s earliest days right up to the present. The broad historical perspective in the lyrics is seen here even more strikingly.

 ‘Well Rested’ borrows from ambient and techno genres, with a furious, hypnotic beat and musky vocals buried deep in a crowded mix. Laser-like SAW synths remind of a smoky dance floor in Berlin or Detroit instead of the nods to classic videogame soundtracks. The use of sound affects illustrates the song’s point aptly. Sounds of running water, verdant imagery and evocations of “Gaia” are juxtaposed sharply with piercing and industrial electronic sounds, feeling like the encroachment of monstrous machinery upon nature. So does the ominous closing line, coldly spoken: “You cannot stop civilization”.

It is a grand and challenging song with a lot to unpack. The whimsy of forgetting the world and escaping into a dream is no more to be seen. Under its language appears an earnest reckoning with existential worry about social and environmental issues. The feeling is of generational responsibility for these issues encroaching on what should be a liberated and care-free window of young adulthood. But nevertheless, the song chooses a positive spin, giving a sense of joyous adventure about exploration, discovery and learning about the world.

This EP, along with its prequel, Civilization, marks the band’s narrator figure facing more adult difficulties. The band’s voice has always been one specific to their generation and the members’ stages of life. Now the worries and responsibilities of young adulthood are the focus of this chapter of Kero Kero Bonito’s story, and this provides a fascinating angle for young listeners who are growing up with them.

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