Kero Kero Bonito, Civilisation
It’s kind of crazy how most people’s introduction to the wonderful hyperpop of Kero Kero Bonito was through Vine. Yes, I’m talking about that “Flamingo” track, the one about eating too many shrimp and turning your skin pink. But then again, the U.K. trio has consistently embraced the novelty of internet music. Take their sophomore LP Bonito Generation, the entire record sounded like walking into a toy store and going to the PC Music Product section. I just imagine a Sarah Bonito-style Barbie in various settings, “Big City” Sarah! “Trampoline” Bonito! The record had overarching themes of graduating, becoming an adult and all the exploration that comes with it, but it’s fragmented structure was very appealing. Like fine artist Alake Shilling’s artwork, it is music geared towards adults with a whimsical, childlike spirit that refuses to be broken. The novelties were sorely missed on the straightforward grunge and rock of their disappointing follow-up, Time ‘n’ Place. The band attempted to be playful again, embracing novelty completely with the “Bugsnax” single, but by that point, I didn’t have a lot of hope that the misstep could be undone.
Well, it turns out KKB is still one of the best bands in this style. Two EPs this year, Civilisation I and II, proved to me that they could mature their lyrical content while still keeping the musical setting fun. There were plenty of interesting and squelching keyboard solos, the content was on point and actually quite topical and I was hearing some of the group’s very best songs. Needless to say, I was very excited to hear a full length album from the trio. As their new music points out, the world is a really strange place. And to go along with that, it turns out I had been listening to their new album the whole time. Yes, the new album, called Civilisation, is just the two EPs put together. I have to say, the presentation does kind of suppress my overall excitement, and might ever so slightly affect my grade too. I think this record would’ve just been more powerful had I been able to listen to it all the way through rather than in parts. Nonetheless, this is their best record since Bonito Generation, and it honestly might even be better than that.
As I previously mentioned, KKB is known for being very topical. If they make a song about taking a break, you best bet Sarah is going to tell you everything that comes with it. The emotions, the activities and the reasoning behind the break, and not only that, she’ll rope it back into the daily struggles of the working class to relate to us. Civilisation is similarly themed, but rather than a bunch of separate toys we get like a Dungeons and Dragons-style board game of a record. The world is ending in various ways, like being set on fire or drowned out like Noah’s Arc, and we are hearing all about it. On top of that, there are these monarchies at constant war with each other. I will say, I don't think this record is long enough to flesh out the world enough, but I find the brief visits to this fantasy land to be really entertaining. It all kicks off with “Battle Lines”. Just like the Bonito Generation tracks, we get a song that dives into a very specific scenario (street wars) and relates it to everyday life (protests, online distractions and division, etc.). It starts off very depressing and different than a normal one of their songs too, with the lines “Know the nation you keep/Identify and feed them grief”. It speaks to the way social media ropes us off into different angry comments sections and keeps us busy while the founders of it continue to ruin the Earth.
Fire burns the face of the planet, and water washes the damage away. “When The Fires Come” and “The River” dive into these separate events, and what they mean for us. You wouldn’t be able to tell by the instrumentals though, which both sound like very pleasant keyboard pop music with different ‘80s style arcade effects. This is a major positive quality of the record in my opinion, hearing something like “As a pillar of smoke comes to strange the land” sounds so benign and cute unless you’re actually paying attention. I personally prefer the shaky and percussive “The River”, with it’s wailing key solos giving it an extra layer of atmosphere and intrigue. I would say the first half of this record is generally pretty sad and hopeless despite the way it sounds, really hammering home the fact that no one is going to be around to remember us when everything is wreckage.
The second half of the album gets a little more loose with the concept, speaking from the point-of-view of Sarah rather than a world-weary omniscient narrator. “The Princess and the Clock” is already one of my favorite tracks of the year just based on how playful, funky and well-written it generally is. It uses this allegory of a princess to allow Sarah to speak about her level of stardom. She is a princess (musician) trapped in a high castle (the expectations of the fans) being forced to paint the same shit over and over again (making the same music). Even if that’s all just what I’m getting out of the record and not really what the track is about, it works on its face as an Adventure Time episode in song form. I also like how it ends with her jumping out of the window of the tower and flying, soaring and exploring new limits to art. Interestingly enough, I think this album does that for the band. Before, they were stuck between pandering and making the same music, or totally switching it up and disappointing everyone. Now, they have transcended, able to do both simultaneously and getting W’s on either side.
“21/04/20” is the only track on the record that doesn’t address the overall theme at all, but instead it takes the perspective of the real world Sarah. It reminds me of a Sun Kil Moon (fuck Mark Kozelek) song in how detailed it gets with mundane stuff, “As I head up the road/A private ambulance zooms off in the distance/In silence/All the shops are closed/With rainbows painted in the glass”. In the U.K. during the pandemic, shop owners did this to encourage positivity and remind people that they will be back. It’s just one of many small points in the song that speaks to the overall improved songwriting and specificity of the group. Speaking of, holy shit, “Well Rested” is the most ambitious song they’ve ever made. Beside the insane songwriting, which includes a Japanese bridge, multiple verses, a Daft Punk-style electronic freakout and the calming sound of water at the end, we get all three members performing like it’s nobody’s business. It’s tense, danceable and kind of inspiring all at once. I especially love the little loudspeaker snippets they lace into the track, with Sarah yelling out about temples falling and false prophets. I feel that on their next album, they will have such an undeniable concept and make a masterpiece. For now, we get a really excellent half-concept that never gets stale or boring for even a minute. Great job!!