Ryuichi Sakamoto: async

The celebrated composer is back from a recent health scare with his first solo album in eight years, and it's a dark, eerie, ethereal beauty.

Ryuichi Sakamoto


Label: Milan
US Release Date: 2017-04-28

People react to the subject of mortality in different ways. It wouldn’t be surprising for a musical artist to release a sunny, life-affirming album after staring into the abyss with a deadly disease only to come out of it with a second chance.

For Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer and pianist Ryuichi Sakamoto, his 2014 cancer diagnosis -- and subsequent recovery -- likely inspired a great deal of soul-searching, although what you find on his latest album, async, is a dark, sparse work that, while gorgeous, is a collection of very deliberate moves that are highly creative but not necessarily celebratory.

async is Sakamoto’s first solo album in eight years, without counting his 2015 score of Alejandro Inarritu’s The Revenant. Judging by the tone of this brilliant new album, Sakamoto is not intent on flooding his fans’ ears with a rushed barrage of multiple sonic ideas. This is a somewhat minimalist feast of keyboard beds mixed with field recordings and “found sounds” that are equally jarring and soothing. It would only be considered “new age” if your idea of new age is the revolutionary prepared piano pieces of John Cage, for example.

During the creation of async, Sakamoto came upon the concept of creating a soundtrack for a nonexistent film by the late director Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Andrei Rublev, Stalker), which is an odd way to approach a music project -- even someone like Sakamoto, who won an Oscar for his score of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. But using the idea of a film score makes sense as the music creates a lush yet unsettling background ambiance.

The stark, reflective piano that runs through the opening track, “andata", recalls the simple yet moving notes of Erik Satie but is eventually thrown into a darker hole with the addition of funereal organ chords and unusual white-noise effects. Soon we’re in the territory of the aforementioned John Cage with “disintegration", which combines sparse, industrial-sounding low, blunt piano notes, seemingly struck at random, while a pulse is eventually generated with instruments of a higher register and low, humming synthesizers. It’s the sound of a dark, subterranean beast slowly coming to life.

This combination of old and new sounds is also present in songs like “ubi", where what sounds like a distorted sonar ping is paired up with plaintive solo piano. “ZURE” uses ‘80s-era minor-key synth chord blasts and combines them with noisy distortion that cuts in and out like a bad radio signal. “walker” is a dark, simple, quiet piece that fuses droning music beds with audio samples of what sounds like footsteps walking through a forest.

Plenty of spoken word samples find their way into async as well, adding even more layers of sonic curiosities. “fullmoon” features the voice of author Paul Bowles (whose book, The Sheltering Sky, was made into a 1990 film scored by Sakamoto) speaking on the subject of death and how to come to terms with it. This is combined with a variety of male and female voices in all manner of foreign language, creating an eerie collage of music and dialogue that is both ethereally beautiful and deeply mysterious.

Tracks like “ff” create much simpler landscapes, with long, sustaining synthesizer chords gently overlapping in a manner strongly reminiscent of Brian Eno. The closing track “garden” uses those same aural “long takes", with simple yet deeply meditative chords stretching across the composition, albeit with a slightly more grating and distorted sonic palette.

It’s hard to say if the songs on async are a direct or indirect reflection of his recent health scares -- it’s tempting to overanalyze music created in the aftermath of such events -- or if this is simply a real soundtrack to an imaginary film. Whatever the case, Ryuichi Sakamoto is back and shows no signs of being boring or predictable. For this, we should all be thankful.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.