The Boy and the Tree by Susumu Yokota (Review)

The Boy and the Tree - Susumu Yokota

When people discuss Japan’s underground/experimental music scene, it seems like they usually focus on its more extreme facets. For example, the psychedelic bombast of Acid Mothers Temple or the nigh-legendary sonic terrorism of Japanoise artists like Merzbow, Masonna, and Aube. But lately, I’ve found myself far more enamored with the Land of the Rising Sun’s quieter, subtler side, and right now, it doesn’t seem to get much better than Susumu Yokota.

Susumu Yokota’s Sakura was a thoroughly atmospheric and engaging album. As I listened to it, however, there was one track that stuck out from the others. Not because it was better or worse, but because it was just different. Whereas most of Sakura consisted of glassy atmospherics and drones, shimmering textures, and minimal beats, “Uchu Tanjyo” was something earthier and more primitive, merging the cut-up vocals of some tribesmen with pulsing synths and tribal drumming. It was an intriguing track, but a bit out of line with Sakura’s flow.

However, that track could be considered a bit of foreshadowing to Yokota’s next album, the much more disorienting and hallucinogenic The Boy and the Tree. Now, musically-speaking, The Boy and the Tree doesn’t have much in common with “Uchu Tanjyo.” You’ll find little, if any, tribal chanting or aboriginal dialog within its 12 tracks. Instead, it somehow feels more apt to think of The Boy and the Tree’s soundscapes as a description or sonic map of the world inhabited by “Uchu Tanjyo“ s speaker. Or at least a painting of the world as seen through his eyes, revealing a place full of wonder and beauty, but also one that is extremely alien and more than a tad foreboding.

I would use the world “mercurial” to describe The Boy and the Tree, but that word somehow seems far too inadequate, as does “hallucinogenic” and “psychedelic” (and Yokota’s subsequent releases have grown only stranger). Indeed, any mere description of the sounds that flow through this album like peyote-fuelled visions feels incomplete. There’s something about the act of hearing these sounds that imbues them with life, as if by listening you see age-old ceremonies, carried out by primitives at the dawn of time, suddenly spring forth before your eyes. As if the jungle mists and desert mirages fall away, revealing ancient and mystical locales that have remained hidden for millennia.

“Fairy Link” and “Future Tiger” may reference Javanese gamelan music and African tribal drumming respectively. However, you don’t get the sense that Yokota is doing so merely because such elements sound “cool,” or because he wants to hop on a world music bandwagon. Rather, he seems much more interested in truly tapping into the same sort of spiritual and metaphysical elements that their respective cultures might have ascribed to them. Listen to them and you feel as if you’ve suddenly plopped down in the middle of some dense rainforest, surrounded by unseen ghostly voices — and the sprightliness of the music, full of weaving tones and harp-like shimmerings, evokes some sort of fertility rite. The same could be said for “Red Swan.” With its undulating horns and stately procession, the mood is just as ceremonial but far more solemn, with perhaps even a hint of mourning.

“Secret Garden” does evoke some secret and sacred place. Shapeless yet foreboding atmospheres groan in the background, as if reminding the listener that they’re stepping on hallowed ground. Birds flit about, observing the listener from the dense foliage. Meanwhile, bells, ghostly vocals, and sparse dulcimer-esque tones flutter about, their etherealness somehow making the song feel less real. (One has to use “-esque” quite often with Yokota’s music, as the nature of the sounds sometimes makes it difficult to pin down what they really are.)

When the sounds fade away, one wonders if they actually heard anything at all, or if it wasn’t just some sort of daydream. But then a flurry of activity suddenly erupts, as if your mere presence has awoken something, or you’ve stumbled across yet another ancient rite.

Just as Sakura had a track hinting at The Boy and the Tree, this album has a track that links back to Yokota’s previous work. “Thread Leads To Heaven” is a beautiful and fragile track, a latticework of sparse guitars and shimmering, cascading synths anchored by a hypnotic, theremin-like melody. And in Yokota’s inimitable style, the piece never remains static, but instead seems to reveal new facets with each new iteration — almost like Yokota composed the piece as one might grow a crystal or weave an intricate pattern.

I find it quite difficult to do normal, mundane activities while listening to The Boy and the Tree. For example, I was folding blankets while “Secret Garden” played in the background, and as odd as this sounds, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything “real” at all. Rather, I felt like I was in the middle of some waking dream, or perhaps some modern variant of dreamtime (Yokota even describes the album as his “dream story,” something primal and natural). I had to fight the urge to just sit down, close my eyes, and be taken someplace far, far away. Where, exactly, I don’t know. But if Yokota’s sonic descriptions are even remotely accurate, it’ll most likely be a wonderful and mysterious place nonetheless.

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