Ryuichi Sakamoto is an enigmatic man, which leaves much to be said about his music. It has never been clearer than now, on his latest release Moto.tronic, a mélange of quintessential Sakamoto efforts gathered over the last decade. Three of the tracks come from Cinemage (2000), three from BTTB (2001), two from Neo Geo (1991), and the remainder are singular takes from Casa (2002), A Day in New York (2003), and Discord (1998). There are seemingly few commonalities that define Sakamoto’s music. His diverse tastes and influences run from eastern to western culture, and from the past to the future. His ‘voice’ is found not so much in the stylistic attributes of the music he produces, but in absolute conviction with which he delivers all of his music.
The collection begins with “Forbidden Colours” from the soundtrack Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. The song is deceptively simple, opening with a haunting and delicate piano melody accompanied by soft sporadic strings. David Sylvian’s gentle vocals kick in and as they settle, the piano begins to move in fifths, a common compositional technique to foster an oriental feel. The middle section reveals the song’s true nature and the transformation is startling. The music is heavier, carrying equal weight to the subject matter. As the strings switch to move in unison military-style with snappy repetitive notes, the vocals swell, “I’ll go walking in circles / While doubting the very ground beneath me / Trying to show unquestionable faith in everything / Here am I / A lifetime away from you / The blood of christ change / Or a change of heart / My love wears forbidden colours / My life believes”. After the first track saps you dry, the second seems appropriately placed in its efforts to restore calm and prepare you for what’s to come. Aptly titled, “Energy Flow” is an uplifting piano solo taken from the album BTTB. The melody holds nothing back in its attempt to engage your emotions. It somehow manages to do this without sounding trite, even when it pulls some of the oldest tricks in the book, such as repeating the climatic section in a higher register. Originally released in 1999, this piece lingered at the top of Japan’s singles chart for eight weeks, a first for any solo instrumental record.
It’s worth pointing out now that the layout of the album gives some meaning to the title Moto.tronic. Inferring movement and mechanisms, the tracks tend to follow the roller coaster of alternating between emotion draining and emotion charging music. Succumb to it for an exhilarating experience otherwise it will leave your head spinning. For example, from the invigorating “Energy Flow” follows “O Grande Amor”, a cover track featuring Sakamoto’s collaborative effort with Paula Morelenbaum (vocals) and her husband Jaques Morelenbaum (cello). Taken from the album Casa, this track is a tribute to Antonio Carlos Jobim. It is a respectful rendition that gives everything to the Bossa Nova artist, but in terms of subject matter, it’s entirely divorced from the rest of the album.
Sakamoto commands a respectable amount of attention as a film composer. “Little Buddha” from The Last Emperor is appropriately dramatic, theatrical, and replete with grandiose melodies and Asian inflections. As with “Forbidden Colours”, the emotions are soothed in the aftermath by another autonomous solo piano piece. “Railroad Man” is a slow, contemplative track, mostly constructed of chords that move against a melody that imitate rain falling against the window. The idea seems derivative from a Bach chorale; short cadential statements that revolve around one central phrase. “Opus” reflects another facet of Sakamoto’s musical training. In the style of French Impressionist music, this is an ethereal piece reminiscent of Ravel in sound, but with the feel of a Debussy prelude in structure.
The diversity continues through to the end. “Neo Geo” is a funky pan-Asian concoction of quirky vocals fused together with some cool electronic mixes. Rare Force provides a remix of “Anger” from the album Discord, but it holds no comparison to the original. Where anger once resided in the pounding of aggressive chords, pithy spats and dull beats have now replaced it. This is probably the biggest let down of all the tracks and seems to give indication that Sakamoto’s music should not be messed with.
And finally, after the regurgitation, what makes the compilation really worth it is the bonus DVD. It contains five videos previously unreleased in the US. It’s entirely plausible that the motive behind the inclusion of a DVD is to appease the fans that will be disappointed that, with the exception of the “Anger” remix version there is no new material on the CD. While the DVD would never stand as being worth purchasing on its own, the visual component complements the aural to accentuate the originality of the artist. All in all, as compilations go, this is outstanding. For new listeners, this duo package contains just enough to pique your interest. For existing fans, this reinforces why you liked him in the first place. There’s something for everyone.