The guiding principle of progressive electronic music these past few years has been an increasing emphasis on the soft and delicate. Turning away from the harder breakbeats and more aggressive basslines of the fin de siecle, electronic musicians across the spectrum have explored increasingly less substantial sounds, creating melodic and ever more intricate templates that have influenced the fashions in house, techno, trip-hop (such that it is at this late date) and especially IDM. It’s instructive to use, for an example of this transformation, the career of electronic polymath Björk. Always one step ahead of current trends, she was well positioned to exploit the changing style. 1997’s Homogenic was filled with hard, clattering beats and broad, melodic themes similar in nature to what was then popular, the harder-edged big-beat and occasionally violent techno of artists such as the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, as well as the harder drum & bass temperament of Aphex Twin and other Warp stablemates (“All Is Full of Love” notwithstanding). By 2001, she had completely switched courses, and Vespertine was similarly a bellwether for the electronic movement: out was the power and aggression; in was the delicacy and restraint. The sound of programmers like Matmos and Matthew Herbert dictated the music’s new direction.
In the same way that Björk’s later material often buries the lead within deceptively fragile arrangements, Aoki Takamasa and Tujiko Noriko have a habit of hiding their melodies within fragmented, almost crystalline structures that appear too brittle to touch, as if they would break apart at the slightest change in atmospheric pressure. With Twenty-Eight, Takamasa and Noriko have created an interesting album of petite electronic compositions, almost pathologically subdued and entranced by the idea of transient beauty. The album appears like a beam of sunshine on a warm spring day: pleasant and warm, but extremely brief in duration. The duo weave precious melodies — almost reminiscent of vintage Cocteau Twins — around the type of scattered electronic backing that would not seem out of place on an album by Herbert, or even up-and-coming glitch-poppers Some Water and Sun. Also, the fact that most of the tracks are sung in Japanese — a language of which I am pitifully ignorant — brings to mind another Icelandic import, Sigur Rós, and their hypnotically bizarre (and occasionally frustrating) concoctions of poetically inspired gibberish.
Takamasa and Noriko are both Japanese, expatriates who reside in Paris and perform across the European continent. After having met at a Cartier Foundation event in Paris, they struck up a friendship and commenced a working relationship that proceeded apace despite the fact that, until just over a year ago, Takamasa was still living in Osaka. But the creative synergy experienced in their long-distance collaborations was enough to inspire them to continue, and when Takamasa moved to Paris work on a full-length album became considerably easier.
The fruit of their first formal collaboration, “Fly”, is available in slightly amended form as “Fly2”, which opens the album on a characteristic note. The diffuse movements and shifting rhythms bring to mind Autechre collaborating with a vocalist — a willowy Japanese vocalist who has no qualms about allowing her vocal to be warped and stretched to suit the occasion. The rest of the album follows this template: Tracks usually build slowly on the back of a minimally invasive rhythm, unfolding the melody gradually, almost methodically. Even when the rhythm is more assertive, as on “When the Night Comes” or the extremely Autechre-esque “Doki Doki Last Night”, the duo seem almost chronically modest, hiding the motion of their track behind a wall of gauze-like reticence.
Ultimately, this is both the album’s greatest strength and its most telling weakness. It is a very deftly crafted example of the nouvelle vague in electronic music, bringing to mind the work of peers such as Four Tet and Matmos without falling prey to overt slavishness. But, as with even the best of those artists, the results, while uniformly pretty, can all the same be damningly insubstantial. This is not an album for casual listening, despite its casual exterior. A modicum of effort is required on the part of the listener to appreciate the multiple layers of subtle interaction at the heart of Twenty-Eight. Whether or not this exertion pays off in the end for the listener is perhaps a question of individual temperament.