In stressful times, it’s natural to seek comfort in the familiar. But even for people still inclined to hunt for new music, some genres can feel more welcoming than others. Thankfully, the current vogue for ambient, drone and music on the new age spectrum means there’s never any shortage of fresh sounds to soothe frazzled minds.
Japan has a rich tradition for this stuff, as documented on last year’s Grammy-nominated “Kankyo Ongaku,” a survey of “environmental music” from 1980-90 released by American label Light In The Attic. Often created for commercial purposes, this was music that didn’t so much fade into the background as subtly tweak it, gently perfuming the air.
While some of the artists featured were household names, others were less celebrated, such as the late Hiroshi Yoshimura, whose intoxicating 1986 album, “Green,” was recently reissued by the same label.
Working in his home studio on then state-of-the-art Yamaha synthesizers, Yoshimura created a series of glistening aural kaleidoscopes whose tones are unmistakably artificial, yet conjure images of the natural world: all dewdrops and light reflecting off water. The first U.S. release of the album made this explicit by adding environmental sounds to the mix — a superfluous touch that’s thankfully absent in the reissue, which uses the original Japanese mix instead.
A few of Yoshimura’s contemporaries feature on “Oto no Wa,” a compilation by Japan-based selectors Ken Hidaka, Max Essa and Dr. Rob, which joins the dots between 1980s ambient and more contemporary strains of chill-out. It’s impeccably sequenced, and if a few tracks sound like something you might hear playing in a corporate video, they’re more than compensated for by cuts such as percussionist Yoshiaki Ochi’s hypnotic “Balasong” and Coastlines’ buoyant cover of the Ralph MacDonald 1979 calypso-disco classic, “East Dry River.”
One of the most distinctive new albums to emerge from Japan so far this year is “Iki,” released by Yosuke Fujita under his alias, FUJI||||||||||TA. Over the course of four lengthy, meditative pieces, Fujita investigates the sonic possibilities of a self-built pipe organ that he says was inspired by traditional gagaku court music. While organ music is often characterized by its density, Fujita’s playing is fragile and gossamer-light, the sound of the organ’s air pump lending rhythmic punctuation throughout.
Gagaku also serves as a touchpoint for Yui Onodera’s “Moire,” which gives a starring role to one of that music’s core instruments, the shō (a bamboo free reed mouth organ). Onodera started learning the instrument a few years ago, and on “Moire” he uses it to exhale chords that hang like sighs in a vast cathedral of reverb. Though not quite as arresting as Tim Hecker’s recent dalliance with gagaku, the album’s five tracks have a desolate beauty that sounds just right in the current climate.
Working under his Celer alias, Tokyo-based musician Will Long has delivered what seems like an ode to lockdown, aptly named “Wait for a Little Longer.” Available as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp — where Long has more than 100 releases on offer — it loops for nearly 40 minutes, creating a balm of gaseous synthesizers, aquatic strings and chimes that stretch into infinity.
If you like that, you should also appreciate fellow Tokyo resident Corey Fuller’s “Sanctuary.” It’s another long-form piece, in which occasional piano notes ring out amid slow-motion blooms that recall Ryuichi Sakamoto at his most contemplative. The piece was originally created for an installation, designed to let people escape the noise of central Tokyo. Now that the city has gone quiet, it works just as well for cultivating a sanctuary at home.