Guitar’s third album, Tokyo, is the sort of thing that sounds really interesting in theory. Michael Lückner took the koto and pipa guitars, two guitars traditionally used in the music of Japan and whose sounds he truly loved, and created an album around them. He played them, spliced them, put them over some other, non-guitar programmed music, and made an album out of the result.
It’s obvious that Mr. Lückner feels a bit indebted to the country that is the inspiration for this album. You see, Guitar’s previous release, Honeysky, was only released in Japan, as Lückner simply couldn’t find distribution for it elsewhere. He obviously holds a very special place in his heart for Japan, and particularly Tokyo, where he spent a good part of 2004, a time during which he recorded this very album. That love is all over Tokyo, as it is an extremely pure, clean sounding album, every sound crisp and clear, no beat, synth, or guitar pick clouded by noise. Parts of it are even quite beautiful, as Lückner’s approach to programming his music is to layer as many sounds as he can on top of each other, until the result renders the original melodies nigh-unrecognizable, but necessary parts contributing to a greater whole. The songs on Tokyo very often climax as deceptively complex washes of sound, propelled forward by beats whose only function is to provide underlying structure to the songs they adorn. Songs like “Red & White” and “Sunday Afternoon at Tamagawa River” exemplify this approach via their length (both break the seven-minute mark) and the fact that the first four minutes of both act merely as setup for their final three — it’s at approximately the four-minute mark of each that Lückner reveals his artistic vision, where the full, layered picture hiding in the parts of the songs becomes clear.
The problem, then, is that Lückner’s love for Tokyo becomes a crutch, an excuse for not delving further into the atmosphere of the city. Tokyo is a city of industrial high-rises mingling with tradition, a city whose underground culture’s favor of excessive sensory stimulation stands in stark contrast to the grip that tradition and presentability has on corporate and social structure. Sure, I speak in broad generalizations here, but so does Lückner, perhaps moreso — the entire picture of Tokyo that he presents is the beauty, exemplified through those lovely programmed walls of sound, and the tradition, portrayed via the constant presence of the uniquely Japanese guitars. Even the cover art is strangely incongruous, an odd, happy-go-lucky combination of the peacefully surreal and the intensely colorful.
Perhaps this is the sound of Tokyo through a western tourist’s ears.
Even as such, it’s hard not to be let down by the simplicity of the beats that back up the songs on Tokyo. Get past the lack of any hint of dirt or grime, and Tokyo could almost function as a mood piece, if not for the distractingly simple nature of the beat programming. It’s a little too obvious that Lückner’s focus was on the melodic layering of his instruments, and not on the beats, which are sparse and unchanging in every single track. And if I haven’t mentioned the vocals, it’s because they are almost inconsequential — Ayako Akashiba has a pretty voice, to be sure, but in this context, with so much swirling around it, it’s incredibly easy to ignore. Songs like “Tokyo Memory” and “Wash Me Away” are pretty, but they don’t really benefit or suffer for Akashiba’s presence.
That leaves penultimate track “Sakura Coming” as the only other track that features Akashiba on vocals, and it’s notable as it sounds like nothing else on the album, a wash of guitar noise turned into something unidentifiable swirling for five minutes while Akashiba lets that whispery voice supply the beauty, and another underdeveloped drum line supplies the beat. As the only sign of variety in Lückner’s vision, it’s the standout track on Tokyo, but it’s too little, too late. Tokyo is what happens when a man is left alone with a vision, with no editors to comment on its weaknesses or cut off the fat — I’m sure it sounds beautiful and perfect to Mr. Luckner, and maybe that’s what matters. Still, it’s just a little too glossy to be experimental, and a little too underdeveloped to be worth further examination. If nothing else, I suppose it would make a nice travel brochure.