CD Reviews

Tuesday 1st December

December 2, 2009

KK020_242I hate December so much. Work was a nightmare today, really it already feels like my holiday happened way off in the distant past. Fighting off a headache tonight as I write this, so sorry if my thoughts are a little pedestrian this time. The CD I have finally got around to writing about tonight is the duo release by Toshimaru Nakamura and Tetuzi Akiyama named Semi-Impressionism, released on the Spekk label. Before writing about the music I wanted to just mention the beautiful packaging that Spekk releases come wrapped in, a kind of very simple cardboard digipack, slightly oversized and using a cardboard substitute to the plastic parts. The early releases on the label were a big influence on how I wanted Cathnor releases to look. I just wish I could afford as nice a packaging solution.

Most readers here will already be very aware, but for the few that might not,Akiyama and Nakamura together set up the highly influential Off-Site concert space in Tokyo around the turn of the millenium. The venue, and the largely very quiet, so-called “onkyo” music that came out of it had a big impact on the world of improvised music. The duo played together often at the time, often with additional musicians alongside them, but besides a few stray tracks on compilations, there has been no large scale release of the musicians as a duo. In recent years they seem to have played together a little less, Akiyama taking his guitar music off into other directions, most notably the heavy boogie-woogie guitar drones that have interested me less personally. Nakamura has stuck with his no-input mixing board, and has developed into one of the most recognisable and consistently superb voices in the music. In 2008 though the duo played as series of concerts in Europe together as a duo, and recordings made in Sweden and Austria find there way onto this wonderful disc.

In many ways Semi-Impressionism is a return to pastures old for this pairing. Akiyama plays acoustic guitar in a traditional, picked manner, mainly slow  figures of carefully picked individual notes, suggesting the languor of the delta blues, but somehow avoiding all sense of melody while retaining much of the forlorn beauty. He plays very much in the style of Relator, his early solo album that I love a great deal. Nakaumra then dances around this slowly defined guitar line with bursts of finely controlled, highly detailed feedback driven dissonance. I’m not going to mention any idiotically stereotypical references to yin and yang, but the sense of juxtaposition and contrast this creates gives the music so much of its power. Throughout the album there is a crystal clear clarity around who is making which sound at particularly which time, the input of each music very easy to separate and follow.

The first track here seems to have been edited together from three separate recordings made over four days in Sweden during May 2008. There is much to applaud Toshi Nakamura’s editing and mastering skills for here, as until reading the sleeve notes more closely after several listens I had no idea this was the case. Akiyama picks slow, naturally decaying notes from his guitar, sounding like he isn’t paying much attention to what Nakamura might be doing, but still leaving plenty of space for him to respond. His playing is soft and really very lovely, quite different from his harsher pounding drones. The space left in the music is perfect for Nakamura, who lets his sudden jolts of electronic splatter and squeal stop and start, but fill some of the the gaps around the guitar, but also leaving others empty. Both musicians have a great sense of poise and balance, and a great understanding of each others’ musical sensibilities. Throughout the first track Toshi keeps his input slightly downplayed, allowing the guitar to take  up an achingly beautiful position centre stage, but on the second, and increasingly again on the third track his range of sounds becomes harsher, fiercer, slipping from piercing sinewaves that rattle the nerves, through to almost completely out of control wrenches of feedback. The barrage is far from relentless though, the guitar is never drowned out, not even close, and the silences scattered throughout play a major part.

This is a CD I would probably recommend to someone that wanted a good example of the kind of music I naturally enjoy. There is the mix of the acoustic and the electronic, the beautiful and the ugly, the gentle and the abrupt. There is also a considerable amount of skill on show, Nakamura having achieved a remarkable degree of control over his seemingly chaotic box of tricks these days, and Akiyama close enough to the music of his old friend to be able to provide the perfect counterpoint. There are little puzzles and games in the music that are worked out with a sense of real joy by the musicians, little hints at melody from Akiyama that are resolved with wild attacks from Nakamura, little moments of strummed increases in pace from the guitar offset by the slightest of filigree whispers from the no-input mixer. On paper there is no real reason why this music should work. It should in theory result in a bedraggled mess of unco-ordinated, ill fitting sounds, but it is anything but. However it is also not just an easy ride. As a listener you cannot rest on you laurels. If everything seems peaceful and calming at one point it is soon undercut by a menacing growl. There is a constant feeling of anticipation and tension throughout the disc that really grabs you as a listener and pulls you in.

There is also a very lovely paragraph written by Toshi inside the sleeve. It can be read here, along with a further amusing text explaining the origin of the album’s title. I don’t do end of year lists of my favourite music any longer, but if I did this one would be a late challenger for a top three place. Simply excellent music from some brilliant musicians. Essential stuff.

Comments (5)

  • jon abbey

    December 2, 2009 at 5:33 am

    it’s probably in the top three Toshi releases of the year anyway. I’d agree that it’s a top 10 or 15 2009 release, but I think track 3 is far weaker than the first two. beautiful packaging, though, and the first two tracks are superb, very satisfying release.

    interesting about Spekk’s influence on Cathnor’s design aesthetic, these are the first ones I’ve ever seen, but that makes sense.

  • Jesse

    December 2, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Sounds like I need to hear this.
    The sole Spekk release I have is 002, the Basinski/Chartier duo, and the packaging is striking.
    The designs for Cathnor are consistently appealing, but I am most struck by many of the Vignette cards, really great to look at.

  • Richard Pinnell

    December 2, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    The Basinski / chartier was the one that really caught my attention as well Jesse. I saw it in 323 one day and bought it on the strength of the sleeve design.

    Thanks for the kind words in the Vignette designs. I will pass your thoughts on to Olaf. Interesting that you should single those out as a group as I don’t think he considers them any differently to the “full” releases, but I’d have to ask him. 😉

  • greenmark

    December 2, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    This is one of my favourites of the year. The new Nakamura/Akiyama disc with Henrik Olsson and Erik Carlsson on Bombax bombax entitled ‘In Search of Wild Tulips’ is even better. Lovely.

  • Richard Pinnell

    December 2, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    Thanks Mark, and welcome.

    The bombax disc is one I have in the pile waiting to be heard. Just so much great music around right now. Six (yes six!) new discs from the very lovely Cor Fuhler arrived today as well…. Ah well at least when things qiieten down over the Chistmas break I’ll still have stuff to write about.

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