May 6, 2009

Susumu Yokota – Sakura (2000, Leaf)

“Sakura” is another all-time favorite ambient album, although in this case it was hard to choose between this album and its successor “Grinning Cat”. In the end, I think I have returned to “Sakura” even more than “Grinning Cat”, but both have received my strong recommendation for many years. This CD made a buzz on some discussion forums I was on when it first came out, as it was called by many an “ambient album of the year”, with frequent comparisons to Brian Eno. Indeed the first two tracks of “Sakura” have a very Eno-esque feel; warm, melodic tones following repeating patterns slowly shifting form, echoing and timeless. As the album progresses, one realizes what an impressive palette of sounds Yokota paints with. I’ve often thought that he must have an incredible library of field recordings, as he layers up an amazing sequence of organic and acoustic samples seemingly from all over the globe. Ethnic percussion and obscure found-sounds are woven around looping patterns of tonal instrumentation, sometimes leaning into the “down-tempo” side of things, other times drifting into beat-less ambience. The lush, high quality field recordings and samples take this to a level above many synthesizer-oriented ambient releases, as many of the sounds have a very organic vibe. The result is both soothing and entirely other-worldly, with a somewhat playful, psychedelic feeling. This is probably one of those “top 10” kind of ambient albums, in that it has a very distinct, unique sound that I really haven’t heard other artists capture. 2001’s “Grinning Cat” deserves another mention here, as it takes this ambient sound and develops it more in the down-tempo/groove-oriented direction. Yokota has continued to explore both ambient and dance music in his many releases (for a while he was putting out a couple albums per year), and just about anything you can find by him is worth hearing. His deep house and disco-influenced rhythmic explorations are top-notch dance material (“Sound Of Sky” is fantastic), while his more recent CDs have explored waltz time-signatures and classical motifs.