I first listened to this song in 2004, during my year out of university, and to this day I’m mystified as to how I came across it. Cymbals were a relatively well-known group in Japan, and searching for the band’s name in various portals and music sites still yields plenty of relevant results with lots of comments from still-devoted fans. Their best-of album, ‘Anthology‘, was even released in Korea. However, there’s only one video of ‘時間を名乗る天使’ (loosely translated as ‘An Angel Named Time’) on the whole of Youtube, and the album containing the song, ‘Love You’, is rather hard to find – and certainly unavailable in Korea. Given this scarcity of information, I cannot for the life of me remember where or through what ungodly machinations I was able to get my clammy hands on this song.
I am very glad I did, however, because ‘時間を名乗る天使’ is simply one of the greatest songs ever written: a seven-and-a-half minute rollercoaster of heartbreaking melodies and vividly evocative lyrics, this song leaves you wondering just how inspired a group of musicians needs to be in order to create something like this. For the first three and a half minutes, the song continually brings a new melody at every turn: an establishing opening part segues beautifully into a brief instrumental accompanied by mournful vocals, which in turn is followed effortlessly by Toki Asako and a male singer (don’t know his name, unfortunately) who take turns handling the most delicate of verses. This lasts for well over three minutes – as long as most songs’ entire playtime, impressively refusing to repeat itself whatsoever, but also retaining a firm sense of control throughout.
‘時間を名乗る天使’ also boasts breathtaking transitions, first at 2:44 when the relatively raucous instrumental changeover quietens down for the ghostly vocal interlude. This, however, pales in comparison to the one at 6:46: preceded by a hailstorm of instruments which goes on for almost half the length of the song, everything suddenly and miraculously subsides to let the final bittersweet, haunting verse round things off. These transitions are handled with absolute expertise, confidence and exquisite timing, so much so that they lend the whole thing a classical immediacy which only the very best songs possess.
What is rather puzzling is that ‘Cymbals’ as a band has never before, and will never again write anything even remotely similar to ‘時間を名乗る天使’. They are the very definition of Shibuya-kei, and a cursory listen to any random track from their albums reveals a sound that is consistently and painfully prototypical of the genre. There are some standout numbers here and there: ‘Love Thing‘ is a rather likeable and jaunty song, while ‘My Brave Face‘ is a faster paced effort with plenty of whimsy and initiative. But these, like all the others from the group’s oeuvre, are very much the product of the Shibuya-kei mindset and display none of the drama, the contemplativeness and the delicate poise of ‘時間を名乗る天使’. It deserved to truly make their name, and Cymbals themselves should have at least attempted to do a few more songs of its ilk, but alas ‘Love You’ is their final proper album before splitting up (two compilations would follow), and with the exception of Toki Asako (who now mainly sings turgid ‘jazz’ numbers) the other members, especially the songwriter Okii Reiji, seem to be keeping a low profile. A shame, because if ever there was a song which deserves to be heard by the widest possible audience, this is it.