Yui Onodera: Sinkai
Critical Path

Yui Onodera & Vadim Bondarenko: Cloudscapes

Cloudscapes once again finds Yui Onodera in a comfortable spot: collaborating with another artist, something he's done in the past with Celer's Will Long, The Beautiful Schizophonic, Pjusk, and Stephen Vitiello. This time the Tokyo, Japan-based sound artist teams up with Russian multi-instrumentalist Vadim Bondarenko, a classically trained musician who studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and plays piano and clarinet on the recording. The roles performed by the two are clearly defined, with Bondarenko the front-line soloist and Onodera, credited with environmental sound, processing, mixing, and electric guitars, largely adopting the role of atmospheric colourist on the album's eleven untitled tracks.

Evocative, elegant, minimalistic, and immersive, the material on Cloudscapes is very much in keeping with the Serein label identity. Bondarenko's presence on the release makes a world of difference: with his contributions removed, the album would be a forty-one-minute collection of deeply textured micro-ambient settings; with his acoustic sounds included, the material is enhanced by a strong melodic character and personality. He elevates the material by imbuing Onodera's shimmering sound design with refined piano playing, and his switching back and forth between clarinet and piano makes for a consistently engaging listening experience. One moment does arise on Cloudscapes, however, that offers an indication of how the project would sound with Bondarenko's contributions removed. Already conspicuous for being ten minutes in length on an album where many of the pieces are in the two- to four-minute range, “Cloudscape 5” omits clarinet and piano playing altogether (admittedly it's possible that an acoustic instrument is present but processed so extensively it's lost all identification as such), and as a result the endlessly burbling setting ostensibly becomes an Onodera solo venture.

While it might be convenient to do so, characterizing Onodera as a background colourist to Bondarenko turns out to be somewhat inaccurate. During the fourth piece, for example, the clarinet doesn't so much solo against the electronic soundfield as interact with it, much as a jazz soloist and drummer might in a different context, and something similar occurs within the eleventh piece, too, though this time between the piano and electronics. In such cases, Bondarenko and Onodera give the impression of playing in real-time and responding spontaneously to each other's gestures like improvising musicians. Of course, the piano-electronics combination featured on Cloudscapes has as its precedent Eno's work with Harold Budd. But what differentiates Bondarenko and Onodera's approach from that of their predecessors is that Bondarenko's piano style is markedly unlike Budd's. At the risk of being overly reductive, Bondarenko's piano playing, in comparison to Budd's gauzy impressionistic style, is more assertive and melodically oriented.

In pairing up with Bondarenko, Onodera naturally assumes the role of accompanist on Cloudscapes, which makes Sinkai all the more valuable in allowing the listener to hear Onodera crafting electroacoustic worlds on his own. Issued on his own Critical Path label, the forty-minute recording features eight titled tracks he created using sounds sourced from piano, electric guitar, synthesizers, field recordings, found objects, analog electronics, and processing.

Perhaps the thing that's most striking about the material is the degree to which rhythm elements play such a prominent role. I expected the eight tracks to include all manner of atmospheric detail, but to hear them undergirded by bass throbs and beat patterns is something I didn't anticipate. One of the album's standout tracks, “Akatsuki” conveys a rather ethereal effect in its fluttering mix of monosyllabic vocal breaths, spacey synth textures, and bright cymbal accents. The repeated pound of a booming bass drum, on the other hand, brings “Matou” into techno's orbit—not, I'll admit, the kind of thing I would have expected from a Yui Onodera recording. Beatless settings are present, too, and they hold up as strongly as the others. The magnificent “Kasumi,” for example, is a towering ambient soundscape whose pulsating masses feel as if they're reaching up to the stars. Compared to Cloudscapes, the pieces on Sinkai are rather more aggressive, and so much detail is packed into its dense settings, they sometimes feel as if they're at the breaking point as far as density is concerned. It's, all things considered, a fine portrait of Onodera in solo mode.

June 2015