Thursday, November 24, 2011

JAM DESHO: Ryuichi Sakamoto - Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto

By Steve Jones.

That Ursula Bogner post got me in the mood for some pre-'80s synth brilliance, and one of my favorite examples of such happens to come from Japanese electronic pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto.

In mid-1978, before Yellow Magic Orchestra debuted with their self-titled, Sakamoto dropped Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the first of many solo adventures.  It shows all of the hallmarks of a young, bright-eyed composer--it never stays in one place for too long, it jumps across styles and instruments, and overall there is a definite sense of eagerness that endears the music to the listener.

The most notable tracks for me are the bookends, both of which seem a fusion of electronic dance music, traditional Japanese melodies, and blues-style guitar, provided by guitar virtuoso Kazumi Watanabe.  The title track "Thousand Knives" is my favorite.  The first minute-and-a-half are a heavily vocoded recitation of a poem by Mao Zedong.  It's near-unintelligible, particularly to my foreign ears, but there's still a lot to appreciate in the harmonic progressions and cadences.  The rest of the track is taken up by a relentless set of synthesized drumbeats, organ, and other sounds which are complemented by two fantastic electric guitar solos.  I remember that, after becoming so disillusioned with rock music, I listened to this track, and it made me fall in love with the electric guitar again.  It's an unlikely but perfect companion to the electronic wizardry provided by Sakamoto.  The last track, "The End of Asia," is cut from a similar mold, and while it does not quite hold up to "Thousand Knives," it is still a worthy closer.

The second track, "Island of Woods," is a field recording made inside the studio, an abstract collection of sounds mimicking a walk through a heavily forested jungle.  Unlike the rest of the album, this isn't so much a "song" as an experiment.  It may be off-putting to a new listener, but it is a fascinating and trippy demonstration of the versatility of old synths.  "Grasshoppers," almost forgoes electronic sounds entirely, driven by an impressive solo piano performance, upon which electric bass, keyboard, and eventually string synths are added.  Trivia: this track was later sampled by Ghostface Killah in the song "Baby"--certainly not the first or last case of hip-hop sampling YMO or its members.

"Das Neue Japanische Elektronische Volkslied" is a more ponderous piece of electronic exploration.  It has a great beat and a Japanese sounding melody, but the variety and complexity of Sakamoto's production is what really makes the album a treat.  "Plastic Bamboo" takes a turn for the funkier.  It easily sounds like something Daft Punk could have (and perhaps should have) sampled.

What really strikes me about Thousand Knives is how little it has aged.  The sounds it uses are definitely evocative of the time it was made, but they are used in a such a way so as to not sound dated at all, particularly in this time of synth pop revivalism.  If the track "Thousand Knives" were to be released today, I think it would cause quite a bit of buzz with how fresh and challenging it continues to sound.  30 years later, nobody is doing electronic music quite the way Sakamoto did it.  I don't know whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does mean that is Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto is adventurous electronic music which is still relevant and still excellent.

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