Seeming simplicity disguises subtle layers of tension.
This cassette-only release from the Berlin label Dead Bison is reportedly an unreleased ‘80s ambient album from a Japanese minimalist named Natsukashii. But a little digging reveals that the project comes from one of a number of aliases assumed by UK producer-musician-DJ Luke Sanger, aka Dry and Slobbie, aka Duke Slammer, aka Luke’s Anger. Whatever its backstory, Driving East earns its apocryphal origin tale with a half-hour of shimmering, soothing timbres and gorgeous melodies whose seeming simplicity disguises subtle layers of tension.
The album is fairly irresistible from its opening notes. “Dunes” begins the program with a series of mournful single synth notes reverberating as more percussive melodies build in counterpoint, culminating in three or four layers shifting in and out of an engaging arrangement. The moodier title track, despite its musical description of motion, slows down the pulse a bit and suggests a nighttime ride in a neon-soaked city. As on all of Driving East, Natsukashii creates a spacious mix for his sonic world, and its somber tempo is in counterpoint to the rapid pace of the road. This would be perfect music for an ‘80s Michael Mann project about an assassin working in a seedy Tokyo milieu, with cascading keyboard figures evoking a rainy drive.
The album’s eight tracks last no longer than three or four minutes for a half-hour total of efficient pieces that sound convincingly like vintage ambient. You can hear traces of Eno or Vangelis or Aphex Twin, among others, but Natsukashii absorbs these influences into hooky confections that condense ‘80s ambient explorations into the structures of a catchy pop single.
Driving East is a far cry from Sanger’s funkier alter-egos, but the unfussy approach to whatever musical hat he happens to be wearing is similar, and it’s fascinating to compare it to the producer’s other projects. Duke Slammer’s “Dub Trax,” for instance, builds from an infectious bassline and adds layers of percussion and texture over a dancefloor foundation. On the Filas and Undercuts EP, Luke’s Anger taps ‘90s jungle with tripper, twitchier beats.
All of this comes from one versatile musician. Sanger contains multitudes, and is as adept at laying down a hip-shaking groove as he is at soothing the savage beast. Natsukashii uses the same structural principles for music with an entirely different purpose. Yet one wonders what he might be accomplish if he didn’t compartmentalize his talents and instead tried to integrate them under a single, genre-jumping rubric.
Still, how many listeners, present company excluded, would want an album that shifted through so many split musical personalities? Cheeky press language pitches Driving East as “a foundational landmark in functional music,” and that meditative function would indeed be subverted by an abrupt careening into trip-hop.
Still, despite a unified sound, Driving East colors your life with subtle variations on its basic hues, and may not be as calming as it first appears. “Wildlife,” which layers its glassy synth washes over a deep, rumbling timbre, builds an introspective tension, its rippling figures evoking a tropical jungle that’s rich in natural beauty but highly volatile. The more persistent percussion of “Swimming in the Rain” makes it one of the album’s denser soundscapes, and even if the main melody’s rain-like patter vaguely recalls Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home,” the ‘80s mood it creates comes from a nostalgia that’s less Top 40 and more arthouse cinema.
Under his real name, Natsukashii hosts a radio show called Flatland Frequencies, which he accurately describes as Ambient Drone. Driving East is inspired by his playlists, its delicate sounds at once fresh and familiar, and thoroughly enchanting.