- 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. async is Sakamoto's first solo album since news emerged of his illness. async is a humble record about appreciating the little things in life and taking in the fullness of sound, even at its most delicate.
While Sakamoto might have a new perspective on life, async isn't exactly a cheery album. It begins with solo piano that's eventually subsumed by funereal organs, and later, on "Ubi," a downcast piano melody conjures up a sad scene from some old movie. Sakamoto himself mentioned Andrei Tarkovsky as part of the inspiration for the album, and that director's habit for long takes and still scenes manifests in the way Sakamoto savours every sound and the reverb trail. Each track presents a central idea, embellished by just a few instruments or sounds, that studies a different facet of Sakamoto's musical persona.
On tracks like "ZURE" there are gorgeous synthesizer passages, where poignant chords ring out into the emptiness. There are new age compositions like "Ff" that highlight angelic tones. There are pieces that focus on sound rather than melody, like the low, discordant piano notes of "Disintegration." Other tracks blur boundaries, such as the unsettling "Async," where strings are plucked sharply alongside percussion until you can't tell them apart. That's followed by "Tri," the album's simplest song, where Sakamoto plays notes on a triangle. He lets the resonance linger until the frequencies resemble a glitchy sequencer.
At its best moments, async combines Sakamoto's history in acoustic music with his legacy in electronic music. In addition to the pristine sound quality, Sakamoto adds little touches here and there—persistent sonar pings on the otherwise baroque "Ubi," high-pitched ringing under the striking string instruments of "Honj," electrical interference on "Andata." It calls back to some of his earliest work, like Disappointment-Hateruma—a collaborative album with Toshiyuki Tsuchitori that predates Yellow Magic Orchestra—and looks more recently to his experimental music with the likes of Taylor Deupree.
Perhaps it's no coincidence that following a life-threatening illness, the album seems to take stock of Sakamoto's long career. It's the work of an artist who has discovered the beauty in both the instruments in his collection and the most mundane things around him. That makes async seem universal, too—anyone can pick up the objects around them and make music, and Sakamoto shows how engaging even the simplest exercises in sound can be.
One of the album's centrepieces, "Fullmoon," reflects the same theme of universality, layering speech samples in various languages. The English voice talks about coming to terms with death. You could take that as a commentary on how people deal with death, or as a reflection on the potential of sound and music to unite people of different cultures and backgrounds. But you won't get an explanation from "Fullmoon," or the rest of async: it's an album that speaks only in its own hushed, private tones.
11. Life, Life