Yoshi Wada first emerged as an artist during the 1960s Fluxus Movement, and has proven himself to be one of the more accessible artists of his time. Unlike John Cage, whose song “4’33” is literal silence for its entire duration, Wada’s music remains grounded in solid musicianship, pounding rhythms, and rising crescendos. And compared to Yoko Ono, another prominent member of the Fluxus Movement, Wada feels less pretentious, incorporating elements of experimentalism not to get a rise out of his audience, but to seep his songs in a subtle, fresh beauty that was both new and fulfilling. With Off the Wall, Yoshi Wada solidifies himself as one of the most interesting ambient artists of his day, even if he repeats himself a few too many times.
Quite possibly the most unique trait of the opener is its roots in post-rock sensibilities. Besides the cacophonous bagpipes and measured organ in the background, “Off the Wall I” truly becomes a fully realized musical adventure when the echoing, hollow percussion enters around the seven-and-a-half minute mark. These, combined with the Indian harmonies of the bagpipes, build the song to a satisfying climax, as the drums crossfade behind the organ, trying frantically to keep up with its fellow instruments. This quickening pace doesn’t let up, however, and the track cuts out abruptly, ending in the most memorable and exhilarating way possible.
Like much of Wada’s other albums, Off the Wall also gains a sense of sublimity and globalism that almost no other ambient album has. Disregarding the song’s post-rock qualities, the Scottish bagpipes — coupled with the Indian harmonies and Western-style song structure — fuse to form twenty minutes of music that only a musician living in the 20th and 21st centuries could have made. “Off the Wall I” may look towards the indigenous past of humanity, but it simultaneously embraces the idealized, unified futurism that made its creation possible to begin with.
It is through Wada’s perfect marrying of grandiosity, experimentalism and song structure that “Off the Wall I” gains its dirge-like tonality. The bagpipes moan and hum through the air, weaving their melodies together as they cut through the air. In the meantime, the organ lurks in the background, adding momentum and fullness to complement the light, minor-key notes of the pipes themselves. By about the 15th minute of the track, when the percussion gains some speed, these three instruments merge to paint a funeral scene, complete with a musical elegy fit for a king or prince. The song may feel elevated, but only to a certain extent; Wada is careful to not to overstep and suffer from the pretentiousness that has plagued many of his earlier contemporaries’ albums. He moves the track towards greater heights, but keeps his music as down-to-earth and ambient as possible by fine-tuning the rhythm and harmonies as “Off the Wall I” progresses.
While “Off the Wall II” retains many of its predecessor’s arrangements and characteristics, it nevertheless feels derivative within the context of the album. The same cacophony and rising action appear on this second track, with the only major difference being the percussive rhythms, which have a bongo-like sound to them. To consider it as merely an alternate version of the first song would be oversimplifying matters, but to recognize it as an original song in its own right would be to wrongfully dismiss the elegance of the track before it. For an experimentalist like Yoshi Wada, the worst mistake that one can make is to take the safe route, yet he sadly does this on “Off the Wall II” for all of its twenty minutes.
The secret to drone music lies not in its musicianship necessarily, but in the atmosphere it creates. With Off the Wall Yoshi Wada certainly proves mastery of the former, but not necessarily of the latter. With the exception of the tail end of the first track, there is not much in the album’s grieving attitude to evoke a strong emotional response from its listeners. Like a soft breeze, Off the Wall is refreshing, but lacks the strong impact needed to make it a memorable.