Ohanami: Agapanthus

Saburo Ubukata: Reflection Primal

Tokyo, Japan-based electronic composer Saburo Ubukata makes a memorable impression with his debut full-length, Reflection Primal, also incidentally the first release on the SPEKK sub-label Kaico. It's an evocative, ten-track collection of oft-soothing moodscapes populated by elegant neo-classical piano playing, electronic textures, programmed beats, mallet percussion, and field recordings. Piano and field recordings constitute the core of the album's sound, however, with the former (primarily acoustic but sometimes electric, too) the primary melodic element and the latter liberally applied for purposes of textural enhancement. Ubukata gathered the field recordings from all over Japan, and, consequently, the aptly titled “Tokyo Eufonio” plays as if a pianist were restrainedly accompanying a wide-ranging sound portrait of the country depicting urban and rural aspects in equal measure.

“Refrains” makes for a beautiful start to the recording, with delicate piano cascades and soft vibraphone patterns generating a heartfelt nostalgic tone. Though brief, the seventh piece, “From Late Spring,” is as pretty, especially when its soft splendour is deepened by the wordless vocal presence of Reisiu Sakai, and a nice balance is also struck during the dreamscape “Harvest Moon” when piano and shimmering vibraphone patterns are paired with the hum of night-time insects.

Field recordings sometimes figure a little too prominently, although it's not so much a matter of how much they're incorporated but where they're positioned within the mix. “Refrains” would be even more affecting, for example, had the balance been shifted so that the musical elements were more emphasized and the nature sounds less so. A pulsating bass and 4/4 groove give “Seaglass” a slightly dancefloor-related character, even if the field recordings are so dense as to sometimes camouflage that aspect. At the same time, there are settings in which field recordings are a significant enhancement, such as during “Light Passages” and “Night Flow,” where they help conjure twilight, dream-like moods, and “Mosaic,” where fireworks transport the listener to childhood and the wondrous spectacle of seeing explosions in the night sky for the first time.

A scan of the recording details listed on Ohanami's Agapanthus provides a pretty good indication of what to expect from this Tokyo-based instrumental outing from Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and Miimo band member and Amorfon label head Yoshio Machida. The former's a drummer who's also credited with crotales, gong, percussion, and metal slit drum on the ten-track recording, while Machida (whose Amorfon releases, including Steelpan Improvisations: 2001-2008 and The Spirit of Beauty, have been reviewed in textura in the past) augments his steelpan playing with toy piano, analog synthesizer, and electronic steelpan (PanKat).

A typical Ohanami piece is a restless affair, one held together by a central theme or two (most often voiced by the steelpan or piano) but otherwise characterized by a free-wheeling flow of percussive effects, drums, and tiny sounds. Though it's possible that the pieces were thoroughly pre-planned, they exude a loose, improv-styled feel—playful might be a better word to capture the music's constant invention. It often sounds as if the duo might have laid down steelpan-and-drum jams and then fleshed out their skeletons with generous layers of additional instrument textures. Ohanami's music ends up sounding both spontaneous and through-composed, with the truth falling somewhere in between, and while it eludes easy classification, a track such as “Huashan” suggests that post-rock might come closest, even if dub also forms a significant part of the oft-wild mix. It's certainly never boring—Yamamoto's a far too animated drummer for that to ever happen (check out his playing on “Recommender Plays The Daffodil” and the funky closer “Hibiscus” as representative examples)—and Agapanthus thus holds one's attention for its fifty-minute running time despite its predominantly percussive focus.

One final thing: the Agapanthus, also known as the African lily, is a plant native to Africa that's characterized by blue or white funnel-shaped flowers and sword-shaped leaves—not that that necessarily clarifies why Yamamoto and Machida chose it for the title of their long-player.

July 2013