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Susumo Yokota – Sakura

December 11, 2006

Essentially what the composer of this music has tried to do is appease to the viewers ears in as picturesque a way as possible, through ambient music. It became increasingly obvious to me over time that the intention here was to paint audible pictures, as there was clearly a symmetry and supreme order here that most ambient work simply does not possess, but at the same time there was this nagging feeling that something went a bit wrong. While most of these are clearly wonderful “paintings” as it were, there are some clear problems, most stemming from Susumo Yokota’s artistic values outdoing his musicality. The result is surely a good album of ambient electronica, but in many respects the album as a whole fails to have any real cohesion or anything. I’m not completely familiar with this mans work, but if the rest of his career is anything like this then he has something to really be proud of. But to me, this is a very NOT memorable or special album with a few VERY memorable pieces.

I’ve got to tell you a story, because I feel like it really relates to this. I go to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a lot because I really do like classical music. The problem with going to see one of the most talented orchestras in the country, maybe even in the world, is that they have such an open mind and such a tolerance for certain modern crap. I love listening to Vivaldi and Handel and Mozart and such, but at the same time I kind of like hearing more off-kilter stuff, or maybe just stuff that you wouldn’t expect a professional orchestra to play. And yet I cannot stand all that atonal shit. And if you don’t know what atonality is, it is pretty much where they get a big orchestra with all sorts of instruments to sit in a big circle and crank out as much completely random nonsensical bullshit on their instruments as possible. I remember reading a program for a show once and I got all excited because the name was “Celestial Amity” or something of that sort that sounded really pretty from the name and ended up being the most ear-shatteringly awful thing I have ever heard. And the composer was there, a nice looking middle aged woman who got three rounds of applause. I didn’t get it. Shit, I still don’t get it. If there is no scale hierarchy it all falls apart. But what I did note was not so much the fact that the notes they were playing made me want to shove a screwdriver into my ears until I could no longer hear it, but instead the whimsical dynamics. Not that this atonal music really has that much in common with this at all, because this is good and all, but for some reason the spontaneity connects the two in some way.

The opening track Saku does sort of remind me of that in a way for some reason, but instead of a huge group of people playing random stuff, it’s a small group of instruments and synthesizers playing the same loops and patterns randomly over a long period of time (and in the same tonal hierarchy too!). This gives the music quite a sense of natural progression and untouched beauty, just like the greatest room on the planet, the room that is millions of years wide, the outside world. This is those dynamics I mentioned working, and yes, it is possible. If you are going to have completely random dynamics and movements and such, make them quiet and relaxing and something beautiful will come out. Of course, this isn’t a new concept… Brian Eno has done much in this field before, and of course all things ambient should really be related back to him, but in a way this is sort of new.

Just after a few tracks into this CD I came to question it’s intent. I saw what it was getting at, for sure. It’s ambient music, and it is pretty geared towards nature, but it is also clearly not meant to be a typical ambient work in a sense that not so many universal themes carry from song to song. Like most other ambient music, it was clearly intended to be non-intrusive background music to something else, or a audible representation of certain images. The cover art is one thing that needs to be kept in mind. If woodblock art like this is constantly in thought of the listener, a bit more sense may be made of this music. Maybe.

But there are some points where this album simply falls hard and can’t recover. While most of the songs don’t really have a beat, there are a few songs with soft electronic beats. With Gekkoh, Yokota breaks one of the utmost essential rules in making ambient music… Don’t lay on the same beat for a long time unless it is really good. While Gekkoh does eventually shift it’s beat, it stays on it for far too long and the result is an aggravated listener. The following of this rule can be great, and it is exactly the ever-changing rhythm that made Music Has The Right To Children by Boards of Canada so strikingly brilliant. Here the rule is cast aside, and like that fucking atonal music, makes a really big sacrifice when these norms are broken. Hisen is just bad, a droll escape for annoying sound effects that just doesn’t go anywhere. Two more flawed songs are Azukiiro No Kaori and Kodomotachi. When you let vocals into ambient music, you have to be SO careful to make sure they are not intrusive. They really are here, and they ruin their songs quite a bit. And then there is the typical problem that ambient music faces with Hagoromo, which pretty much just a really bad synth loop that gets progressively dressed up to be even more uninteresting. Bad synthesizer loops happen. And it seems like the composer doesn’t always have a grasp on what loops are bad. Let’s be honest here, ambient music is hard to make and you have to be really careful to avoid this kind of stuff.

That said, Sakura is an album with painful lows and ingenious highs. Even as background music, some of the songs can strike a chord as great ambient music. Genshi is an obvious winner, and while it dwells on one beat for the entire song, it is a good, simple, relaxing beat accompanied by precise synth parts. Great things happen when Yokota leans toward the natural world and that rich outdoor sound, and Uchu Tanjyo may very well be the greatest of this world. I actually puts vocals to good use too, and creates an ancient sounding jungle swagger. Though it is quite out of place, Naminote is great trippy jazz for a night-time environment, and it paints a picture of a theatrical urban area very well. Yokota should also be complemented for his ways with starting and ending this album, providing the listener with two inspiring openers and two killer Eno-esque clinchers.

Taking a step back and looking at Sakura as a whole, it probably is not as testing as I am making it out to be. But I really did find it to be hit or miss, half of the songs nagging of missed opportunities and the other half emanating very skilled musical spirituality. Maybe it’s just because I’m not that huge of a fan of ambient music, although I do like the genre a lot. I think fans of ambient electronica would deffinitely want to pick this up, and to them it would even be a great album. But for everyone else, me included, this is a release to be careful of. If you want very picturesque atmospheric chill out music, go for it. You’ll love it. Sometimes I love it too. But if that’s not exactly what you are looking for, you will be disappointed.

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