Ryuichi Sakamoto – BTTB – 4/5
Now I expect this name would mean absolutely nothing to most, but actually he might be considered something of a living legend. It was after all, his keyboard work with Yellow Magic Orchestra back in the 70s that pretty much pioneered the entire electropop genre that dominates Japan now. Not to mention being amongst the first to make hefty use of sampling that seems so common place to replace vastly more expensive live orchestration, as well as producing synthpop before the UK's new age had truly emerged (though the influence here is questionable). And since they split he's continued to write and perform, maintaining his long standing legacy with a number of ambient and synthpop albums, working with the likes of David Sylvian as well as his old band mates.
But this album is none of that: this is the release that proves that despite all the styles he's influenced, he isn't a one trick pony. Standing for “Back to the Basics,” this album is precisely that; there are none of the samples, electronic effects or even vocal lines that fill his other works. With the exception of a few preset effects the entire album is nothing more than him sitting in front of his piano, and for all its simplicity I can't quite place it. It certainly feels to modern to be purely classically inspired, too organic to be retracing his new wave roots, too attention-demanding for Ambient, though certainly has been influenced by all three. The best I can come up with is that its an unconventional “Avant-Garde Easy Listening” release, but even that gives off the wrong impression; one filled with Peruvian flute bands and Whale Songs.
He'll never wow you with technical mastery but this album is filled with the beauty of his composition, the emotional heights afforded to him by the use of volume and pitch. I don't mean emotional to refer simply to sadness here either, but more detailed and complex notions; calm, melancholy, relief, happiness, worry, agitation; it almost feels like a map of emotions that he's somehow managed to transcribe and perform. There is the occasional filler track – the four minute prelude feeling like I'm doing little more than wait for something to happen – and there are times where the piano's tone feels a little too 'hard;' the difference between the gentle and the effervescent perhaps not as pronounced as it could have been, and yet when it was released 'Energy Flow' succeeded in topping the charts in Japan (the first, and to my knowledge, only time an instrumental has succeeded in doing so), and quite frankly, it's not particularly difficult to see why.
Highlights: Energy Flow, Opus, Intermezzo, Aqua