Susumu Yokota – Kaleidoscope (Lo Recordings/Border)

Who makes ambient records in 2011? Even Brian Eno, who is usually given credit for kicking off the genre, is back making albums with banging percussion tracks.

One problem for ambient music was its hi-jacking by the twinkly-twinkly New Age brigade, and there are so many reprehensible examples of this (NZ’s Jeff Clarkson, stand up: firing squad, ready!) that those exploring atmospheric sonic drift with intelligence and imagination are too often tarred with the twinkly brush. Another reason for the low profile of ambient music is that people simply love rhythm, and you can’t tap your foot to this stuff. Disparaging friends refer to this as “sleepy-time” music, and they have a point: I dozed off while listening to Kaleidoscope, twice. In its defense, however, I was making up for a particularly poor sleep the night before.

Susumu Yokota is one of the ambient world’s contemporary heavyweights, and Kaleidoscope, his 20th long-player, has been getting sterling reviews. I can see why: it’s a return to form after a number of misfires in recent years, and comes close at times to the intoxicating audio hallucinations of Sakura (1999) and The Boy & The Tree (2002). A decade ago, Yokota seemed to have found his most fertile ground, effortlessly creating rich, resonant soundscapes that were as simple and surefooted as a Japanese watercolour, but beguiling and unknowable at the same time. The recordings released through esoteric English label Lo Recordings were reliably in this tradition, but Yokota had a second career making rather mundane House and Techno records, and at some point, in error, he tried to combine the styles. Instantly, the magic, his illusion, was gone; and recent albums have been frustratingly hit and miss affairs.

Kaleidoscope gets back to his strengths, at least in part – that ability to use sonic means to transport the listener as if narcotised, then cut loose on LSD. In the right room, at the right time, parts of this album will appear as vivid and trance inducing. But while Yokota mostly gets it right, there are a few moments that sound humdrum, automatic; where he lets the loops do his work for him.

My favourite Yokota album is Image 1983-1998, a record that uses loops in inventive and charming ways. Where that album uses unusual female voices and circus sounds in an entirely novel way, and has the cheek to salvage hissy old recordings of rudimentary guitar playing that somehow fill the listener with a sense of wonder, Kaleidoscope sometimes has the opposite effect by using similar techniques. Perhaps transposing one sample onto another bed of looped sounds has simply become too easy, because there’s a sense of process here that leads to loss of wonder.

But despite my suspicions, Kaleidoscope frequently works, and it’s worth pointing out that unlike so many amorphous ambient albums, while there are no beats, there is a sense of rhythm, and melodic development that will keep most normal human beings awake and engaged. GARY STEEL

Music = 3.5/5

Sound = 3.5/5

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