[25 October 2005]
Susumu Yokota, the name ring any bells? OK, bad jokes aside, I’m sure virtually everyone’s familiar with the workaholic behind the echoing lattices of delight that make up such recordings as Grinning Cat and Sakura, as well as the deep, jazzual and funky ‘80s house of albums like Zero. You might not know that he also runs his own record label, Skintone, and is an exhibiting graphic designer who makes all his own record covers; quite frankly, he’s probably the only person in the world who can rival Madlib for ludicrous amounts of diverse creative output. Now that’s cute, because the promo sheet under my beady eye compares Susumu’s “supernatural kind of funk” to California’s most blunted. Except they spell it Mad Lib, which sounds like a pendant to Stephen Malkmus’ Pig Lib, only for wackos (sign me up!).
Anyway, if you haven’t heard anything by Mr. Yokota, you’re missing out because he’s justly famous for being able to create wondrous atmospheres from the barest assortments of intertwined sounds, and he’s not afraid of being pretty or lush, either. A good place to start might be Symbol, which uses a very well-known selection of classical music as the starting threads, and which everyone except Wire magazine loved. My personal tip would be Grinning Cat, but for goodness’ sakes don’t start with The Boy and the Tree, because it’s all weird concussive dub gongs instead of bells on the breeze, and may dent your headspace.
Or you could start with this album right here, a fantastic display of all his internationally acclaimed production hallmarks. However, although Yokota is behind the boards, most of the music here is of Rothko’s making, and Rothko deserve more than a word or two by way of introduction. Initially consisting of nothing more than a trio of bass players and some FX (lofi gem In the Pulse of an Artery), the output of this loose collective around founding member Max Beazley moved through blissful ambient recordings (A Continual Search for Origins) towards the velvet intensity of A Space Between, where longtime collaborator and creamily voiced English poet/songstress Caroline Ross achieved equal billing, adding the folkish tones of her playing to Beazley’s ever-mellifluous bass fretwork, which has always been Rothko’s liquid spine. Along the way Beazley’s put out a slew of albums not mentioned above, found the time to collaborate with Four Tet on the gorgeous Rivers Become Oceans split 7” and released Wish for a World Without Hurt, a reaction to the events of September 11th that saw him work with static merchant Black Bear and produce music like nothing so much as the ashes of the impact site crying to themselves.
And to think I find it difficult to fit in a couple of reviews around my working week.
Yokota veterans will find themselves instantly at home on the warm broken beats of opener “Deep in Mist”, where Ross’ voice blossoms in wordless flight, and second track “Waters Edge”, which wraps her into tiny tonal chant cycles (a Yokota peccadillo) beneath gently oscillating rings and resonating piano notes huge and softly heavy as summer cloud banks. Rothko stalwarts need not be put off by the threat of pounding beats, as these only take the aural foreground on a minority of tracks, and are anyway more sinuous pulse than kick. Rest assured that things retain a silkily organic feel throughout, that there are still drifts into near-silent idyll, and that Beazley’s high tones are as gorgeously evocative of sunlight rippling on water as ever (with a particular mention perhaps being due for “Brook and Burn”).
Everyone else can go out and get it safe in the knowledge that they are purchasing a collaboration by masters of their respective crafts, who in joining forces have created some of the best and most blissful music either have achieved. This is one of the ambient albums of this—and indeed most—years, and when I say ambient, I don’t really mean Eno’s airport soundtrack; apart from anything else, there is genuine songwriting and structure here. No, ambient, as in: You can do whatever you want while listening to it, but the music does not become background, it becomes part of you. One to slot next to Budd & Bernocchi’s “Fragments From the Inside” while blessing all musicians too productive to enjoy physical peace, who therefore need to create it in their minds, and let it sound like this.
A small body of such artists (Beazley amongst them) have been taking shelter from the underground cold at www.burningshed.com. I would humbly suggest that you go and peruse what they’ve got to offer, because it’s likely that you’ll find something there to cherish. I did.