Sakura by Susumu Yokota (Review)

Yokota’s compositions allow me to regain a sense of serenity and composure.
Sakura, Susumu Yokota

As of late, my life has been a rather chaotic mess. Long days at work, rarely seeing my home except to grab a few hours of sleep, barely having time to eat, and a mood of anxiety and brooding that pervades even these gorgeous late summer days — that’s all been par for the course it seems.

In fact, as I begin this review, I’m currently ending one of the most stressful workdays I’ve had in a long time. In the midst of all of this stress, Sakura has been like a balm to my soul, a shimmering oasis that helps ease and refresh my mind and spirit.

Ambient music is nothing new to my ears, but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard ambient music this soothing and rich in texture and emotion. The first time I listened to Yokota reminded me of when I discovered Vidna Obmana. And like Obmana, Yokota’s compositions allow me to regain a sense of serenity and composure (though it may not seem that way to those around me).

At the same time, there’s a surreality to much of Sakura that’s akin to the fabulous works of Lucid. Like Lucid, Yokota is quite adept at truly transporting the listener elsewhere through his fragile sounds and field recordings.

Much of Sakura feels like it’s coming from distant time or place, as if it’s composed more of memories rather than sound. And like memories, it’s often intangible, tickling the edge of awareness. Any attempt to grasp and study it just sends it scattering.

Yokoto doesn’t seem to compose his music as much as set it in motion, which would explain the grace and ease with which “Saku” seems to drift from one lovely, gossamery sound to the next, from fuzzy drones to sparkling, glinting chimes.

On “Uchu Tanjyo,” Yokota achieves a stunning blend of ancient and modern sounds (a theme he’d go on to pursue more fully with 2002’s “The Boy And The Tree”). The rapid, gutteral speech of an aboriginal tribesmen merges with pulsing synths and tribal drums, suggesting ancient, primal ceremonies full of painted bodies dancing around a roaring bonfire.

After “Uchu Tanjyo“ s earthier segue, Yokota returns to the stark, lovely minimalism of “Hagoromo”; specks of sound spiral against drones like dust swirling about in shafts of light. As the song continues, it slowly grows more complex, as additional layers of sound begin to emerge. “Kodomotachi” is one of the most otherworldly tracks on the disc; ghostly mantras and a cascade of gamelan-like tones drift above a sputtering beat in a manner reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s lighter and prettier material (think “Girl/Boy Song” or “Nannou”).

“Kirakiraboshi” ends on the album on a very dreamlike note that recalls Lucid’s Baby Labyrinthian and Idylls and the Secret Remain albums (two of the finest experimental CDs I own). Fragments of sound swirl and spin about in slow motion, like leaves caught in a light spring breeze.

Occasionally, snippets of human voices briefly appear for just a moment before dissolving, but their presence is so transient that they might as well be in your imagination. Although the track is just under two minutes, you can sense whole worlds of wonder existing within the song’s folds and swirls.

While Steve Reich comparisons are perhaps inevitable throughout Sakura, they become unavoidable with “Gekkoh.” The song opens with what might as well be a sample from Music For Eighteen Musicians, as a shimmering lattice of piano and xylophone so Reich-esque it borders on criminal begins to take shape.

But as derivative as it sounds, initially at least, Yokota slowly transforms it into something else. As sparse, elegant tones reverberate throughout its length, the song feels like it’s practically turning inside out as strange new sonic formations begin forming. Although the song never truly escapes the Reich comparisons, it does feel like Yokota has created something unique and special by the time it ends.

Occasionally, Yokota comes close to breaking the serene mood he so carefully constructs, incorporating clubby beats, more pronounced rhythms, and even some groove now and then. I can see where some might find the sudden transition to “Genshi“ s thumping rhythms (a holdover, perhaps, from Yokota’s day job as one of Japan’s most popular DJs) and the David Sylvian-esque “Hisen” a bit jarring. However, I find they only add more color to the album.

Although they do take the album down some interesting paths, Yokota’s sensitivity prevents these tracks from going too far astray. “Genshi“ s beat may seem more conducive to clubbing rather than meditation, but the sparse electronics layered over top keep it in check. Likewise, a shimmering, moonlit Rhodes keeps “Hisen“ s groove muted and subtle. While Sylvian’s rich baritone doesn’t make an appearace, it’s not too difficult to imagine its presence.

Even “Naminote” — the album’s biggest deviation, with it’s swaggering piano and jazzy, uptempo drumming — is morphed into something smooth and ethereal as chimes and graceful guitar glissandoes slowly filter through (imagine a DJ Shadow remix of Bark Psychosis’ Hex, and you’re close).

The moment Sakura starts drifting over my headphones, I feel myself being transported elsewhere. Not in some cheesy New Age-y sort of way (though I’m sure many would find that Sakura goes quite well with incense and TM), but in a way that reminds me of why I started listening to more avant-garde music in the first place. And at the same time, I’m impressed with how accessible and unconfrontational the album is.

Yokota’s music doesn’t force you to acclimate yourself to it, nor does it challenge you to try and wrap your mind around its obtuse and difficult nature, because it doesn’t have one. Rather, Yokota’s music comes to you on your own terms, and while you listen, slowly changes your surroundings into something far more wondrous and serene (often without you even noticing). And lately, a sense of wonder and serenity is what I’ve been craving more than anything else.

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