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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto

By the time 1978 rolled around, electronic music was old hat. Switched On Bach had hit shelves a decade earlier, Tangerine Dream had already made their best work, and Kraftwerk had cruised the Trans Europe Express. The Minimoog, released in 1971, no longer sounded so novel, and genre-defining pieces of gear like the TR-808, SP-1200, and DX7 were still a few years off. Punk rock, meanwhile, was laying waste to prog rock’s noodly, keyboard-augmented excesses. One could be forgiven, nearing the dawn of the 1980s, for dismissing all the bleeps and bloops as just a fad. “I really don’t see it” said Lester Bangs. “A lot of these synthesizer groups… Kraftwek did it a lot better a half decade ago.”

Perhaps not seeing it was the point: Many of electronic music’s greatest innovations occurred in the shadows, through misuse, amateurism, or accident. Phuture invented acid house when they stumbled upon design quirks in Roland’s TB-303; hip-hop was born at a block party; and, in 1978, one of electronic music’s most distinctive voices got his start in a parody group. At the time, Ryuichi Sakamoto was a respected session musician in Japan, working his way through the industry, when he was recruited by Haruomi Hosono for a one-off album of electronic exotica. The point was to send up the ridiculous orientalism peddled by artists like Les Baxter, reclaiming a fanciful Western take on the far East. The result was the historic self-titled debut album from Yellow Magic Orchestra. But before it was released, Sakamoto slipped out an album of his own: Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto. Though the record was quickly eclipsed by his band’s smash success, this reissue serves to reintroduce the world to an overlooked gem by a now canonical voice.

As with all of Sakamoto’s work, there’s no distinction between pop and experimentalism. Nearly a decade into his career as a sideman, Sakamoto’s musical fluency is in full effect here. Each of Thousand Knives’ six pieces swerves with a deft touch through complex arrangements, playful voicings, and cheeky key changes. The title track opens with a reading of a poem through a haunting vocoder, drifting with gentle restraint in a field of silence. The mood is somber and yearning, but then the music locks in, and it’s a fusion-tinged instrumental whose main theme is just a little too heavy for an elevator ride. One can imagine the cosmic-disco DJ Daniele Baldelli’s ears perking up—the chugging tempo and twisting atmosphere were a perfect match for the sound he was pioneering in Italy at that time. And, perhaps responding to the disco craze well underway, Sakamoto also lets the track run long. At nearly 10 minutes, his opening salvo is a slo-mo barnburner soaked in guitar solos, breezy melodic flourishes, and gloopy drums. It’s wonderful.

But then “Island of Woods” changes course. A collage of nature sounds, atonal synthesizer squiggles, and new-age flourishes, it answers the ebullient fizz of “Thousand Knives” with a funky take on musique concrete. What stands out is how well the two songs mesh. One senses an intuitive bond—Sakamoto works less in contrasts than in connections. As with Can before him, there’s no friction between dancefloor groove and laboratory explorations. YMO’s exotica remains in full effect on Thousand Knives; listeners with an allergy to kitsch perhaps need not waste their time. But it’s a winking kitsch, a garish beauty. “Plastic Bamboo” takes supreme delight in a melody that seems best serves for a farcical chase scene. Though exquisitely crafted, it’s silly as hell.

The closing song’s title, “The End of Asia,” evokes a number of interpretations: Japan had not so long ago been devastated by the atomic bomb. The influx of the West was radically changing society, and in Japan the economy was exploding, thanks to the surge of technological production that provided many of the instruments Sakamoto used on Thousand Knives. Then again, in line with YMO’s inversion of exotica, perhaps “The End of Asia” refers to the death of a hazy, romantic dream of the Orient. The song, syrupy and effervescent, reprises the shredding guitar from the album’s opening. Is it serious work or a sweet confection? Sakamoto gets to have it both ways. In a recent interview, he says, “At that time, my view of technology was still very positive —I believed in technology, even though I was looking for a dark future.” Thousand Knives foregrounds blinding light, but it’s the subtly traced shadows that give the album its enduring depth.


Buy: Rough Trade

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