Ah, remix albums. Too often they feel like answers to a musical question that no one asked. "How would one of my favorite albums sound if an army of DJs tampered with it?" "How would a great album sound if it subtracted all of the musical elements that made people love it and substituted them with outside clichés from club culture?" "What if this exceptional album were to be suddenly dipped into a new musical genre, one which could severely make or break my opinion of everything at hand?" It's not always that bad. But the higher the profile of the original source material, the greater the risk.
Ryuichi Sakamoto, on the other hand, floats around the periphery. He's one of those lucky souls who get to feed bits and scraps to the machine of popular culture without getting soaked by the limelight. Case in point, his Academy Award-nominated soundtrack work for The Revenant lost out to, of all people, Ennio Morricone. When he's not dipping his pinky finger in mainstream pop culture, Sakamoto is going about his merry way making music that blends classical, electronic, ambient, and several more subgenres of the avant-garde. His career as a pop musician (see work with Bill Laswell, Dee Dee Brave, Roddy Frame, and about half of the Lounge Lizards) appears to be on indefinite leave, though it's naive to think that he left all that he learned from his days in the Yellow Magic Orchestra behind for good. In other words, if you are familiar with the name Ryuichi Sakamoto, news of a remix album of his material is not an unwelcome thing.
The original async is pretty pliable to begin with. Acoustic and electric sounds were woven together in a manner that was a few more degrees experimental than it was neo-classical. There were sample-heavy passages as well as minimalist cadences tinged with soft noise (PopMatters's Chris Ingalls pronounced it a dark, eerie, ethereal beauty). The listener is never given the impression that Async: Remodels is the sound of a sacred cow being led to slaughter. Electronic artists like Andy Stott, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Christian Fennesz have taken an already sprawling and uncompromising work like async and somehow unlocked a whole new series of doors for half of the compositions to creep through. Whether or not Async: Remodels bests its parent async depends on many subjective factors in the beholder, as is always the case. But I would like to try and convince you that Remodels is every bit as exploratory and delightfully weird as async. If you enjoy one, you'll enjoy the other.
Seven of async's 14 tracks are remixed, and four of those are remixed twice. The two "andata" remixes play towards different ends. While Oneohtrix Point Never intends to throw the curtains wide open for some Eno sunlight to bathe the room, Electric Youth wants to take the same track out for a night on the town with cocktails and disco balls. The prepared piano piece "disintegration" gets to hold onto its defining trait under the supervision of Alva Noto (who co-composed The Revenant with Sakamoto), though the surrounding atmospherics make it float like a ghost. Under the hands of Christian Fennesz and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, the stretched ambiance of "solari" is thrust further into outer space with gentle yet discordant noises and billowing synthesizers.
Yves Tumor's tinkering of "ZURE" takes the prize for the most surprising interpretation. One of the two ominous minor chords that drive the piece is still there, but it's intermittently interrupted by a cymbal crash and bending guitar note. It initially struck me as a joke. Cornelius's rendition of the same track sounds like an excuse to play around with various outboard effects. Hey, on a remix album, this can't be an entirely bad thing! If Tumor's remix is the most surprising, then Andy Stott's "Life, Life" would have to take second place. He nicely twists the song into something that only peripherally resembles the original track, yet retains all of its inherent subtlety. It would be at home on an Andy Stott release, and yes, that's a compliment.
Async: Remodels is more likely to serve as handsome background music than a tool to convert the uninitiated. But that's not to say that it can't happen. Listeners more inclined to admire ambient sounds could use either async or Async: Remodels as a way to get into Sakamoto's work. If you only know of the composer's name through films like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence or The Last Emperor, then this remix album and its parent release could pose a bit of a challenge. But not all challenges hurt, and Sakamoto's army of knob twiddlers make it one that's as interesting as the first go-round.