Like the towering building that you never notice from the narrow streets of your neighbourhood or the vast mountain that seems to become part of the sky itself, Ryuichi Sakamoto is an artist so legendary that it’s sometimes easy to forget he exists, so far removed is he from the daily to-and-fro of the music scene and pop landscape. He remains as active and creatively ambitious as ever though, and Async is an extraordinary record.
Broadly within the category of ambient music, I found myself listening to Async in the context of another master of the form, Brian Eno’s 2017 album Reflection, and the differences felt revealing. Where Reflection saw Eno stepping back from the nitty gritty of composition and performance, the album instead taking the form of a single, minimalist track excerpted from an endlessly generating iOS app, Async exists at the other end of the spectrum. Its fourteen tracks feature multiple collaborators and field recordings, each with a distinct identity, each revealing the hands of the composer and performers down to the last detail, from the lush synth washes of Solari to the atonal orchestral jitters of the album’s title track.
What both Async and Reflection share in common is an atmosphere of contemplation and retrospection, implied by the title Eno gave to his album and made explicit in some of the spoken word intrusions into Async – particularly in the multilingual babel of Full Moon. The vocal elements of the album recall other recent Eno projects, with the spoken word Arseny Tarkovsky poem of Life, Life recalling Eno’s The Ship (the line “wave after wave” is a probably coincidental but nonetheless key image in both pieces) and Eno’s work with poet Rick Holland on Drums Between The Bells.
The way Async maintains this atmosphere consistently throughout its diverse sonic explorations pays powerful testament to Sakamoto’s indefatigable creative imagination.