The Architecture of Sound: A Synesthete’s Guide to Hollowgram

The entire world is composed of shapes, colors, words, and sounds – and, because of synesthesia, my perceptions of all those things are skewed.  That means that my entire world perception is different from the average person’s.  I don’t see things the way other people do.  And that can be lonely, not to mention frustrating.  There’s nothing worse than watching someone’s face as you hand them a shooting star, and realizing that they’re seeing a plain, uninteresting rock.

This makes it difficult to talk about things like my favorite bands.  I feel compelled to have these conversations, because when you find something you love, it’s natural to want to share it with the people around you.  But I find that most individuals appreciate music for very different reasons than I do.  My father, for example, is a trumpet player, a composer, and a high school music teacher.  He loves music.  And, to his credit, he is always willing to patiently listen to whatever I bring him.  But he often struggles to understand just what it is I like about it in the first place.  I know that he sees driveway gravel in my jars of fireflies, and I can’t even begin to explain how frustrating that is.

My main motivation for starting this blog was to try and help people see the music I love the way that I see it.  I have no painting or drawing skills at all; words are the only medium I can really use (and only poorly at that.)  But what some of these bands achieve is nothing short of magic, and it’s not fair to them – or to you – for that to pass by unremarked upon.  And so, I’m determined to try.  I sincerely appreciate those of you who are willing to come along for the ride.

This is the reason, though, that it takes me so long to turn these articles around after a concert.  Nothing I type ever seems adequate to what I’ve experienced, which is a whole different type of injustice to the bands.  I don’t have a very strong memory for set lists, and standard concert reviews are already abundant online.  I feel like it’s safe to leave those details to other people.  I want to share the concert experience the way I experienced it.  That’s what I feel I have to offer to the discussion.  

All of this being said, it is extraordinarily difficult for me to talk about Ryo and all of his many musical projects.  But since Hollowgram’s 4th Anniversary live, Drawing Pictures, at Hatsudai’s The Doors was my first concert of 2018, that is exactly what is on fare for tonight.

First of all, there’s just something about Ryo himself that’s difficult to put into words.  I admire his drive, not to mention his time management skills (I seriously question whether or not the man ever sleeps, or just what insane percentage of his diet is pure caffeine.)  Of course, I  admire him as a creator, in his artwork and his lyrics and his musical compositions.  He’s also one of the best live performers in this field that I’ve ever seen.  But that’s all entirely separate from this indefinable something that he has.

The first music I heard by him was Hollowgram’s Qualia album, back when it was being sold through Mix Speaker’s,Inc.’s website in 2014.  Seek was promoting the band quite a bit on Twitter at that time, and I was finally curious enough to have a look.  I really liked it, and the album became part of my regular music rotation.  But I never got around to looking up anything about the band.  My decision to attend their only 2017 live last September was mostly a whim; I really like that CD, and bands which manage to tweak my synesthesia through a recording usually have a much more pleasing and powerful effect upon it live.  But I still knew next to nothing about the band.  I distinctly remember skimming their (very sparse) Wikipedia page on the train while on my way to the venue.  

And the funny thing is that, though I sincerely enjoyed the concert – Hollowgram is an amazing band, and they sound incredible live – I had gotten trapped in an awkward place in the crowd, and couldn’t really see anything.  I enjoyed listening, but I only caught the briefest glimpses of Ryo himself, and so this thing about him that I’m trying to describe didn’t really hit me at the time.

But I did finally do some research when I got home.  First of all, I was genuinely startled by just how many projects Ryo is currently apart of.  Indie artist or no, his workload is completely staggering.  Intrigued, I started to listen to some more of them.  Dallë was instantly intriguing to me because of Közi’s participation in the group (Malice Mizer was my first ever foray into the world of Japanese rock), and when I found out that they were playing a gig the following month, I quickly bought a ticket.  And then also dragged a friend along with me for moral support, in case Ryo’s foray into industrial post-punk goth rock turned out to be a disappointment.

It did not.

We had so much fun that night, and got so close to the stage – close enough for me to finally see Ryo clearly, that’s for sure.  

And that was it.  I was hooked.  

The man is a walking ball of charisma.  I’m not really sure how else to put it.  By all accounts that I’ve read, he’s a soft-spoken individual with a ‘gentle’ personality – but there’s also this insane magnetism to him that makes it hard to look away.  He’s a really strange singer for me to fall for, too, because his voice is so different from what I naturally gravitate towards.  As my favorite vocalist, Keiyuu gets to be the standard by which all other singers are measured.  His voice is like liquid silk, and smooth as glass.  It’s cool, clear, and bright.  If we’re talking temperature, Ryo is on the complete opposite side of the tonal spectrum.  His voice is warm, cloying, and a sort of sepia-amber, compared to Kieyuu’s beautiful blue.  

They’re as different as night and day in a stylistic sense, too.  Ryo’s voice is much more adenoidal, and he sings high in his mouth, with a remarkably precise control which holds the sound tight against his upper palate.  To me, it sounds like someone walking on their tiptoes, albeit in a controlled and graceful way.  I tend to prefer vocals which sit much lower.   If any of you have ever ridden a horse, think of settling your weight in the saddle, well-balanced and comfortably within your center of gravity.  With most of the vocalists I follow, the sound generally sits level like that.  Ryo’s voice, however, is always directed upward, with the weight of it settling high and just a little forward.  (If we’re going with the horse analogy, Ryo is the equivalent of a rider standing in the stirrups and leaning over their mount’s neck mid-jump.)  

Which is not meant to imply that he’s straining in any way.  He sings with a very tangible and conscious understanding of breath support and intonation, and even when he’s flying upward into that insane falsetto range of his, his voice never thins out.  Even canted high and forward the way it is, it’s still a remarkably strong, full-bodied sound.  

Which should be par the course for singers in any genre, but it really isn’t.  Mix Speaker’s,Inc.’s vocalist, Miki, is a good example of this.  I adore Miki, but he has absolutely no sense of support or intonation when he sings.  He can’t project, and the second a song takes him out of his range, his voice completely evaporates.  And he’s by no means alone in this, which is another reason that Ryo’s control over his voice is so pleasingly remarkable.

But to get back to the synesthetic comparisons: if we’re talking in terms of seasonal connotations, Keiyuu’s voice is the crystal clarity of a starlit summer night (think the cool kiss of night-swept grass against bare feet), whereas Ryo is absolutely the antiqued amber of an autumn afternoon.  Think maple syrup.  Cinnamon and honey.  Russet-gold leaves, and that sweet, dry smell that comes with them as they rustle underfoot.  That absolutely perfect shade of sunlight at the Golden Hour of the afternoon.    

Okay.  Maybe he’s not such a weird vocalist for me to fall for, after all.  

But the thing about Hollowgram is that their music doesn’t contain itself within this sort of rigidly defined spectrum.  In fact, my very favorite Hollowgram songs are the ones in which Ryo’s voice is threaded like rays of setting sunlight through the cooler, darker tones of the instrumentals.  Have you ever dropped food coloring into water?  And then watched the heavier dye fall through the liquid before dissolving, twirling and stretching until total saturation is reached, and the color is changed?  That’s Hollowgram – minus the total saturation.  Put the image of the ink falling on an infinite loop, but with varying colors (blues and golds primarily, but really, you can choose your poison) and that’s what listening to Hollowgram is like for me.  

There’s so much motion in it, which is as much a part of the synesthetic experience as the colors are.  I’m not sure that the casual listener appreciates just how difficult some of this music is.  There are so many moments where I realize suddenly that they’ve changed time signatures, but that the transition happened so seamlessly that I can’t say for sure exactly when it occurred unless I go back and listen again.  Most popular music sticks pretty faithfully to 4/4 time, and as a result, you generally get the obvious downbeats and upticks and the same repetitive, back-and-forth motion.  Hollowgram’s music doesn’t do that.  Even better than the time signature changes are when the band suddenly shifts the stressed beat, as though they’ve shifted their weight from one foot to the other.  Nothing about the structure changes, really, but the entire feel of the song is suddenly shifted.  It’s simple, but it’s not easy to execute, and I can honestly say that it’s one of Hollowgram’s strengths – and one of the reasons I like listening to them more than most other bands.

In that regard, their music is like Sukekiyo’s  – you’re just never quite sure what direction it’s going to spin off into next.  And yet, it’s all executed with that same perfect, tight control that I mentioned before.  There’s no chaos here.  Only architecture.

Music like this not only requires an extraordinary attention to detail, which Hollowgram has in spades.  It also requires an innate understanding of the shape and flow of sound itself.  One of the reasons that I enjoy watching Ryo onstage so much is that he clearly feels the music in the same way that I see it.  He moves his entire body while he’s singing, and it’s about so much more than merely swaying to the rhythm.  He delineates the edges and the curves of the sound, striking bright notes in the air, cutting and parsing phrases with his expressive hands.  His whole body jerks to unexpected drum hits, and he bends and dips his way around guitar riffs and bass solos.  For someone who is already feeling all of that in the air around them, watching him do this is a very unique and unexpected source of pleasure.  Ryo is always perfectly synced up with what I’m seeing when I listen to the music.  

I’ve spent a lot of time so far talking about Ryo, because he’s the mastermind behind Hollowgram’s art – but credit where credit is due.  The band’s instrumentalists are legitimately extraordinary.  Honestly, the reason that I’m so certain of this is because I rarely ever notice them.  And that’s the highest compliment I can pay them.  They’re such sensitive, accomplished musicians, playing the beautifully crafted compositions which they have all helped put together, that they fit seamlessly together.  Their individual sounds blend perfectly into the track itself, until all you really notice is the music.

And they make it clear that the music is really what it’s all about.  Unlike most of the bands I actively follow, Hollowgram isn’t a visual kei group.  There are no stage props, no backdrops, and generally, they stick to wearing simple black.  They also don’t talk much while onstage, and one of the things I genuinely appreciate about them is their onstage pacing technique.  In truth, Hollowgram handles this particular problem better than any other band I follow.  First of all, they genuinely take a breather when they need one, at regularly spaced and premeditated intervals.  During this time, they don’t talk; they don’t perform; they don’t play to the audience at all.  And, better still, they precisely time these pauses out by using a BG music track with audio cues for them to follow.  In general, it’s just enough time for them to get a drink, wipe the sweat off of their faces, and re-adjust their instruments and clothing.  We can see what they’re doing, obviously, but the lights are down for these and the BG is meant to give the audience something to listen to in addition to timing out the break for the musicians. The tracks they choose aren’t from the band’s standard repertoire, but Ryo told me on Twitter that they are written by the musicians (for this live in particular, Kazuya took the helm.)  It’s all very professional.  I’d even go so far as to say ‘classy.’  Sometimes, the audience takes advantage of the pause to scream the name of their favorite musician for a few minutes, but there are other times when everyone stands quietly and just listens, and honestly, the latter seems to be keeping more with the overall mood and intent (even if the musicians themselves occasionally encourage all of the cat-calling.) They manage to find a way to catch their breath without interrupting the flow of the concert.

And really, that’s a good point all by itself: they never stop.  Their energy level is insane.  Ryo said on Twitter that they played their entire discography at this show – all twenty-six songs.  I’ve noticed this at Keel concerts, too, but when Ryo finally takes off his jacket (he always seems to be wearing a very good-looking jacket that makes him die of heat stroke), that’s a signal that things are about to kick up a notch.  

(When that man takes off his jacket, plays with his sleeves, and wraps the mic cord around his wrist, you know it’s Serious Business Time.)

And this is an insane concept, because what came before wasn’t exactly ‘low energy.’  The brilliance of Hollowgram as a live act is that everything is so full and rich and complex, that even the slower songs have their own powerful sense of momentum.  I’ve seen shows with setlists which were obviously utilizing the ballad section as either a warm-up (as is the case with D), or as a breather (Kra is kind of infamous for this.)  But Hollowgram’s setlists feel much more like a playlist that you might make for yourself on your computer.  The pacing elements are there, but they’re much less obvious, because it’s extremely well thought-out and organized.  The transitions are perfect, and again, the energy level is fairly consistent.  

That night, I watched Ryo shrug out of his jacket, and I honestly thought, Holy shit.  Really?!

There is so much more that I’d like to say about this band, but I’ll save it for now, since I’m lucky enough to have two additional Hollowgram concerts already on the calendar: March 31st’s live with Stereo.C.K, and Shinya’s birthday live on May 20th.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this:

With most other bands, my synesthesia registers as a physical sensation on the outside of my body, like silk over skin (as is famously the case with Keiyuu’s voice.)  But Hollowgram is very much an internal sensation.  Their music is a gentle pressure outward from within my ribcage; a contented sort of fullness, firm but soft, like an embrace.  I feel as though something warm and gently viscous is being slowly poured over my bones.  It’s a pleasant sensation.  It’s like how drinking hot cocoa makes you feel.  It’s always just the right temperature, and one which brings with it associations of comfort, security, and protection.  

It’s rare that something in this world can be as beautiful as it is soothing.
If you are unfamiliar with Hollogram, and want to check them out, you can find out more on their official website – hollowgram.net – or via their official Twitter feed, @HOLLOWGRAM_info  

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