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Ryuichi Sakamoto resists the prettier path on ‘async’ and comes out stronger

by

Special To The Japan Times

In the liner notes for “async,” his first solo album in eight years, Ryuichi Sakamoto lists some of the strategies he employed during the recording process: capturing elusive melodies at early-morning synthesizer sessions, compiling field recordings of rain and ruins, rearranging Bach chorales until they resembled fine mist.

That may sound like the recipe for a new-age record, but Sakamoto isn’t inclined to take the easy-listening route to serenity. With “async,” he resists the prettiness that has characterized some of his best-known work, and comes out all the stronger for it.

Shiro Takatani’s cover art — in which photos of garden pots and the insides of a piano are transformed into abstract horizontal stripes, like a Gerhard Richter painting gone digital — serves as an apt metaphor for the album itself. While Sakamoto’s previous solo outing, 2009’s “Out of Noise,” seemed torn between the worlds of classical music and electronica, the analog and synthetic, “async” erases the difference.

Though it makes extensive use of conventional instruments, they are often heavily treated, and share their space with washes of digitized noise and ambient sound. Listen closely and the album’s seemingly tranquil surfaces teem with life.

The faded synthesizer pastoral of “solari,” a distant cousin to Boards of Canada, sounds like it might have been recorded at the same time as Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” soundtrack and then left to weather in the Polynesian sun. “Tri” takes a firmament of twinkling percussion and dices it into pointillist electronica; on “stakra” the music warps, distorts and briefly drops out, like a stuttering audio stream.

Sakamoto had been working on a follow-up to “Out of Noise” before he was forced to take a career hiatus in 2014 to undergo treatment for throat cancer. The music on “async” all dates from after his recovery (he scrapped the previous material), and it’s hard not to hear it as a reckoning with mortality.

The emotional centerpiece of the album, “fullmoon,” opens with a recording of the late author Paul Bowles, taken from Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1990 film of his novel “The Sheltering Sky” (for which Sakamoto composed the soundtrack).

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well,” Bowles intones. “How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

A chorus of overlapping voices, including Bertolucci’s, then repeats these lines in different languages, against a backing of glacial piano chords buoyed on clouds of gauzy synthesizer. It’s one of those pieces that forces you to stop what you’re doing and just listen. Though Sakamoto has said he conceived “async” as a soundtrack to an imaginary Andrei Tarkovsky film, at moments like this he comes closer to the existential raptures of late-period Terrence Malick.

“Life, Life,” based around a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky — Andrei’s father — is less successful. That’s no fault of the poem itself, nor David Sylvian’s reading, but the vocals sit uncomfortably in the mix, intruding on an otherwise exquisite arrangement of pizzicato strings, vaporous synth pads and shō (a traditional Japanese reed instrument). It’s perhaps the only misstep here.

After that, “async” seems to gradually recede into the ether. On its closing track, “garden,” a plume of distorted organ recalls the celestial frequencies of Tim Hecker, but Sakamoto clearly isn’t aiming for anything so monumental. As the track progresses, it steadily dissipates until there’s nothing there, like its composer is striving for transcendence, or just a way to disappear completely.