34423: Masquerade

Qibe: Nafas Batin
Nature Bliss

stilllife: Yoru No Katarogu
The Ethnorth Gallery

Toshiyuki Yasuda: Nameless God's Blue

zmi: fu-ne

Every so often, a package arrives from the Tokyo-based company Nature Bliss filled with all kinds of wonderful sounds. Being a label itself as well as an outlet for SPEKK, Panai, Kaico, Lantern, Happy Prince, and others, it's not surprising that the genres encompassed by its associated releases would be large in number. The most recent collection sent textura's way exemplifies that diversity more than perhaps any other I've received, with its contents ranging from field recordings-based work and instrumental shoegaze to easy-listening pop and experimental electronica. Based on the evidence of this particular package, Japan would appear to be an especially fertile part of the world as far as musical creativity and production are concerned.

Without a doubt, the prettiest of the five releases is zmi's debut album fu-ne (“sound of wind”), a collection of delicate piano settings that's as lovely as the watercolour gracing its cover. The Japanese female composer in question has gathered thirteen pieces, many of them miniatures, into a forty-four-minute recording eminently capable of stirring the receptive listener's soul. She conceived the songs with the seasons in mind, the intent being to capture in musical form the stillness of winter, autumnal grace of fall, vitality of spring, and carefree joy of summer. Pieces such as “shigatsu ame” and “psyche” exude a timeless folk-styled quality similar to that of “Shenandoah.” Yet while much of the album is peaceful and pastoral, there are moments of high spirits, too: with chiming melodic patterns cascading like resplendent waterfalls, “amenoodoriko” and “akino kamisama” both radiate joy. An occasional field recording works its way into zmi's songs, such that “tamayura,” for example, is intensified by the nostalgic association brought about by seaside sounds. In other cases, nothing more than the piano is heard (albeit one sometimes tinted with the glow of reverb), and its crystalline purity is more than enough. zmi eschews clutter in her playing and writing, making for material whose simple beauty speaks directly to the listener.

Entirely different from fu-ne on stylistic grounds is Nafas Batin, the debut release by Syakti Fiandana under the Qibe name. Recorded in his bedroom studio at his Jakarta, Indonesia home, the sixty-eight-minute recording is a set of guitar-fueled shoegaze instrumentals that largely blazes from start to finish. It's a solid effort by Fiandana, especially when one considers that he only began making music from his home in 2011. In time-honoured shoegaze fashion, the typical Nafas Batin cut is pitched at a roar, with Fiandana's multi-tiered guitar swarm supported by charging drum and bass patterns. Though such a single-minded approach could prove wearying over the course of a full album, Fiandana does two things to prevent boredom from setting in: he first makes sure that melody is as central to the project as its sonic presentation; secondly, in some tracks he deviates from the uptempo clip (“Suara selatan” lays the buzzsaw attack aside for six shimmering minutes of beachside splendour, and “Kilas akhir” unspools at a downtempo lope), thereby ensuring that Nafas Batin won't be heard as one-dimensional. There's also a good amount of emotional territory covered on the album, ranging as it does from plaintive melancholy (“Merajut nyawa,” “Menatap senja”) to ecstatic joy (“Ketika biru”)—even if that emotional spectrum is typically clothed in anthemic, guitar-heavy garb.

Experimental electronica would appear to be alive and well in Japan, based on the hour's worth of evidence Fumi Miyoshi presents on her sophomore 34423 album Masquerade. In the two years that have passed since her Tough and Tender debut was released, Miyoshi's sound has developed into a polished fusion of electronica and dance rhythms. Each of Masquerade's thirteen set-pieces teems with detail and incident, making the typical 34423 track design anything but minimal. Electronic textures and programmed beats are plentiful, and one comes away from the hour-long album thinking 34423 would be a natural addition to the Raster-Noton roster. Certain pieces hit especially hard: “Ark,” for example, verges on rave when its techno groove pounds with such intensity, while the later “Milling Crowd” stomps with a single-minded fervour when it's not breathing dizzying electro fire. The aptly titled “Cosmic” sees Miyoshi indulging her interest in kosmische-styled synthesizer music, and there's a pop side to 34423, too, as a track like “Architects” shows in its sunny melodies and funky bounce. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Masquerade is its range, with the intrepid Miyoshi boldly working electronica, techno, and industrial into her genre-spanning productions. By now, it should be patently obvious that 34423's recording holds up equally well when experienced publicly (in a nightclub) and privately (at home and on headphones).

Without question, the artful presentation of Yoru No Katarogu (“The night catalog”), the first album release from stilllife (field recording artists Takashi Tsuda and Hiroki Sasajima), makes a very strong impression. The label involved, The Ethnorth Gallery, obviously spared no expense in housing the CD within a hardcover booklet design containing (Japanese) text and full-colour photos and adorning it with a vellum dust jacket. But take note: the fifty minutes of material on the CD are outdoor field recordings presented in their purest form, and no manipulations of any dramatic kind have been applied to the recordings either. The ten sound portraits include many of the by-now familiar elements associated with such releases: bird chatter, rainfall patter, wind rustling through the trees, and so on. The recording isn't without interest, however: “Suisei” stands out for the way it accents nature and creature sounds with minimal flute accents (“Sinyou” similarly augments its nature sounds with the pluck of a string instrument), and in “Kaimen” the rapid movement of sounds from one channel to the other is ear-catching, too. Your response to Yoru No Katarogu will likely be affected by your familiarity with the field recordings genre. If you're new to it, stilllife's release provides a perfectly credible primer; if you're a long-term devotee of the genre, the recording will impress less, given that it doesn't add anything radically new to the genre that hasn't been presented before.

If zmi's fu-ne is the prettiest of the five releases, Toshiyuki Yasuda's Nameless God's Blue is the most surprising in presenting singer-songwriter material that's in places so laid back it could be categorized easy listening. Yasuda's fifth solo album impresses on multiple levels: its songs are melodically affecting, the arrangements artful, and the delicate vocals, shared by Yasuda with a small number of guests, are pleasing, too. Nameless God's Blue sprinkles its vocal songs (mostly sung in English) with arresting instrumentals (the vibes-and-piano vignette “Ironic Dance” a good example), and the presentation of Yasuda's songs is enhanced by his own piano, guitar, vibraphone, and celesta playing as well as the drums, contrabass, and viola contributions of guests. Though the vocal pairing of Yasuda and Takako Sato is one of the most attractive things about the scene-setting opener “La pesanteur,” the song is elevated by breezy melodic lines, French lyrics, and a sparkling arrangement. As lovely are “Sei gradi di separazione,” a relaxed, jazz-styled ballad in 3/4 time featuring Yasuda dueting with Viola d'Acquarone, and “Don't Miss the Time,” a heartfelt ballad sung by Yasuda alone that takes melodic flight during its gently soaring chorus (“Set me oh free, my fairy...”). His easy listening side comes to the fore during “Falling Stars,” with once again the song elevated by a stirring chorus (“Uuu, Everything is keeping silence...”). Yasuda saves one final surprise for the album's end in the form of a fifteen-minute ambient-styled setting called “Journey's End in the Eastern Evening Sky.” While it is admittedly overlong, it doesn't cast a damning shadow on an album that's overall a splendid surprise.

April 2015