usumu Yokota’s 2000 album Sakura was a landmark for ambient music. Fluid, ethereal and breathlessly beautiful from start to finish - it stands as possibly the best long player of the decade so far. Yokota’s two subsequent ambient releases - Grinning Cat and The Boy and the Tree - continued his restless search for new sounds, but paled next to their predecessor. Both records failed to flow as smoothly and effortlessly as Sakura - but still contained enough lushly beautiful songs for us to keep listening.
Yokota has frequently spoken of his need to make music in relaxed conditions - and up until now, his records have certainly possessed a calm, meditative quality. On Laputa, things take a darker turn – it would seem that Yokota now makes music to soundtrack his worst nightmares. Once an artist whose music sought to soothe, he is now covering more chaotic and disturbing emotional terrain.
On some tracks, this makes for a frustrating, jumbled listening experience. “Gong Gong Gong” is as uncomfortable as a night spent tossing and turning – any attempts to drift into a blissful sleep are disrupted by sharp blasts of static and manic, chattering laughter. “Dizzy Echo” piles frustratingly random noise on top of loud bell-ringing: needless to say, it’s about as enjoyable as being awoken with a bucket of cold water. On songs like these, it’s easy to yearn for the return of the old, peaceful Yokota.
It would be foolish to give up so easily, though. Hidden among these tests of endurance, Yokota treats us to some of the most beautifully molten sound he’s concocted since his high-watermark. “Grey Piano” is an all-too-brief dark lullaby – a gentle piano melody coated in chilling synth effects. “Degrees Dream” combines organ washes, ripples of distorted guitar and a mysterious, detatched vocal to mesmerizing effect. These moments of greatness are well worth weeding out.
And there’s plenty more, too: witness the terrifying alien voices counter-pointing one of Yokota’s sweetest melodies on “True Story”. And the alarming single note hammered throughout “Hidden Love”, underpinning delicious layers of strings and keyboards. This is ambience with a sharp edge. “I am Flying” provides some welcome relief: light, airy piano chords chime peacefully – giving the listener a brief moment of respite from the sinister soundscapes elsewhere.
True, this album is best appreciated on a stereo with a program function: at 55 minutes and 15 tracks, a little home editing makes it significantly more palatable. But, it remains a towering achievement – frustrating at times, but still a gripping mood piece from one of the greatest living sculptors of sound.
Yokota towers above his peers: always moving forward, even in his sleep.
Reviewed by: Kilian Murphy
Reviewed on: 2003-12-02