Let's not beat about the bush: Ryuichi Sakamoto is an electronic music god. His early tunes such as 'Firecracker' (with Yellow Magic Orchestra) and 'Riot In Lagos' influenced the birth of hip hop, electro and techno, and still sound fresh enough to be played by the most cutting-edge DJs. His film soundtracks, right up to his recent work on The Revenant, are hugely influential, and he's made some of the greatest abstract/ambient electronica out there.
It's difficult to drop the needle on track one of Ryuichi Sakamoto's new album and not feel a wave of nostalgia. The Japanese legend's recent throat cancer scare came at a time when too many of our heroes are leaving us. To hear his 65-year-old fingers slide across the keyboard again is a privilege we can't take for granted.
Then, as if to shock us out of our sentimentality, Sakamoto drowns out his plaintive piano solo with a buzz of electronic noise.
async, the 16th studio album from Ryuichi Sakamoto, was written and conceived in the wake of the Japanese composer/songwriter's diagnosis and treatment for throat cancer. While he's in complete remission now, the experience of that prognosis and the possibility of not surviving it naturally shades every moment of this blindingly great record. But unlike other expressions of mortality like David Bowie's Blackstar or Touché Amore's Stage Four, Sakamoto isn't raging against the dying of the light.
For legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, the value in creative engagement is bending and transitional, derived from different inspirations at each new point of departure. Sometimes it comes from a curiosity of a concept, that motivates his musical response to it, sometimes it comes from a gravity pull to other artists, be they other musicians or often in his career, filmmakers, whose work seeks the kind of patient, delicate touch that his beautiful fluency transmits. At times it has been conditions of socio political unrest that have moved him to confront with his own commentary in the form of a musical meditation.
Ambient music means many things in the present moment. Brian Eno's Reflection from earlier this year presented its contemplative side, the recent compilation Mono No Aware posits it as a commentary of modern technology, and ambient musician Keith Fullerton Whitman rhetorically wondered: "What music isn't ambient in the 21st century?" Its modern conception stems from a now-mythologized moment, when Eno was convalescing in a hospital bed after being hit by a cab, the playback on a harp record so low that it blended in with the sound of rain. It's environmental, but from its inception, ambient music also has roots as a healing music.
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 Ryuichi Sakamoto's first solo album since being diagnosed with throat cancer, which put his career on hold for much of 2014 and 2015. After treatment and a full year of recovery, he composed the acclaimed score to Alejandro G. Iñárritu's film The Revenant (which also featured contributions from Raster-Noton co-founder Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner of the National) before working on this album.
Ryuichi Sakamoto's name carries a lot of weight. He's a pop and electronic music pioneer, an actor, an Oscar- and Grammy Award-winning composer and a remarkable pianist. He's tied into so many strands of modern music that the last 40 years would be hard to imagine without his influence, which is why his throat cancer diagnosis in 2014 hit so hard. After some time off, the Japanese artist returned with a score for The Revenant and has since worked on other projects.