PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Kankyo Ongaku: A Gorgeous Ambient Adventure from Another Time and Place

Photo: Jean-Claude Vorgeack / Light in the Attic

Light in the Attic's new collection of Japanese ambient music from the 1980s is an essential instrumental set that's impeccably assembled and executed.

Kankyo Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990
Various Artists

Light in the Attic

22 February 2019

You've got to hand it to Light in the Attic. The Seattle-based independent record label known for its roster of reissue projects and distribution catalog seems practically hell-bent on filling in the blanks across an endless variety of genres to make sure that if there's something good out there that needs to be reissued, they're on top of it. Everything from reissues of the Last Poets and Serge Gainsbourg to an obscure mid-'60s surf-rock project by Lee Hazlewood has been released under their watch, with no signs of slowing down.

Which brings us to one of their latest offerings. Kankyo Ongaku: Japenese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990 certainly fills a niche, and whether or not it's something music consumers have been clamoring for, it's clear from the sheer volume of the set – 25 songs spread across two CDs or three records – there is plenty of material available. And it's all pretty fantastic.

Kankyo Ongaku – which literally means "environmental music" in Japanese – was compiled by Spencer Doran of Portland-based electronic duo Visible Cloaks. As part of the lush booklet that accompanies the set, Doran's essay on Japanese environmental music describes how the music came out of an appreciation among Japanese musicians in the '70s of the ambient music of Brian Eno as well as the esoteric work of French composer Erik Satie (whose "furniture music" created something of a "quiet boom" in Japan). "Furniture music" is meant to imply music made to intermingle with the sounds and environments of everyday life.

With Japan's economic bubble in the 1980s, musicians began to create soundscapes that catered to a sophisticated lifestyle, further advancing the concept of kankyo ongaku. As a result, artists like Satoshi Ashikawa, Yoshio Ojima, and Haruomi Hosono thrived within this genre and are among the many artists represented here. It's important to note that Hosono's pioneering band Yellow Magic Orchestra also appears in this set. Also important is the fact that none of this music has been made commercially available outside of Japan.

As expected, the music on Kankyo Ongaku provides a primarily relaxing ambient atmosphere. Ashikawa's "Still Space" is not only sparse and lush, but it also avoids many of the pitfalls of the overprocessed sounds of the 1980s, employing a relatively organic touch reminiscent of Eno's early ambient recordings. There's also a playful feel to songs like Yoshiaki Ochi's "Ear Dreamin'", which includes buoyant percussion among the synths.

A refreshing human element can be found on songs like Interior's "Park", where a relentless finger snap runs through the dreamy atmosphere, as if a fellow listener is right beside you, keeping time. That kind of repetitious syncopation is also evident on Yasuaki Shimizu's "Seiko 3", a mere sliver of an interlude that includes an almost maddeningly repetitious keyboard riff over a twinkling waterfall of synthesizers. But it's oddly cut off at just over one minute, making way for the bright futurism of "Apple Star" by Inoyama Land.

The aforementioned Japanese obsession with Satie materializes in Hiroshi Yoshimura's "Blink", where a bright electric piano offers some jazzy variations on the famed French composer. That kind of scattered semi-improvisation can also be found on "Loom", the Yellow Magic Orchestra contribution to the set. Lazy piano notes are spread across the track while a lush synthesizer ebbs and flows underneath.

The environmental side of environmental music is most evident on sober, deeply moving tracks like "Variation III" by Masashi Kitamura + Photogenix and "Praying For Mother / Earth Part 1" by Akira Ito. On the former, lapping waves are present throughout the song while a gentle keyboard bed accompanies sparse, organic percussion thumps, creating a unique atmosphere that keenly blends seemingly anomalous sounds. On the latter, a babbling brook is the natural, ambient bed underneath rich, sedate synth chords, eventually accompanied by bird sounds.

Kankyo Ongaku may seem at first to be a very narrow genre from which to gather more than two dozen tracks, but as the set bears out, this is an era and genre rich with sonic delights and a surprising amount of variety. The collection is a warm, poignant, deeply immersive set that is sure to please fans of the genre but quite honestly belongs in every home. It's that beautiful.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.