Can electronic music form the foundations of a new world?
Can electronic music form the foundations of a new world? This question is central to Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto, the solo debut from famed Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto that’s finally been remastered and reissued by Wewantsounds. It dropped in 1978, when Sakamoto was only 26 years old, at a moment when electronic music was just beginning to exit experimental and esoteric realms to find commercial success.
The six, predominantly instrumental songs on Thousand Knives convey this liminal position, equal parts uneasy and breathtaking, between the academy and the streets. Tracks like “Island of Woods” and “Grasshoppers” are indebted to avant-garde and classical stylings, respectively, and feature little in terms of recognizable melody or approachable structure. But “Thousand Knives,” “Plastic Bamboo” and “The End of Asia” include catchy, hummable tunes that foretell the computer game themes Sakamoto would create with Yellow Magic Orchestra, as well as his later film soundtrack work. (And “Das Neue Japanische Elektronische Volkslied” has to be a Kraftwerk shoutout, right?)
The admixture of different styles and ideas comes across as both playful and sophisticated: this is clearly music that knows a lot about composition and theory yet strives to deploy this knowledge to fun-filled ends. Even on “Island of Woods,” the LP’s most strident piece, there’s enjoyment to be had in its array of synthesized fabrics, feathery, needled and clashing. “Grasshoppers,” too, pops with whimsy by layering patches of bubbly synthesizer just beneath the surface of substantial analog piano loops.
The album is even more ambitious than initially meets the eye. Opening with a vocoder-filtered reading of a Mao Zedong poem and closing with a portion of what was China’s national anthem during the Cultural Revolution, Thousand Knives seeks to rebuild global history, starting with Asia (writ large and clearly a West-constructed fiction from the jump) and rippling outwards. As Sakamoto’s work with Yellow Magic Orchestra would later confirm, the project is an anti-colonial, anti-exoticizing one that pulls from an uncontainable range of influences: hard bop (according to Wikipedia, Sakamoto cited Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child as a key influence), reggae, krautrock, traditional gospel (Sakamoto buries the opening notes of “When the Saints Go Marching In” deep inside “Island of Woods”), funky R&B and even the work of Belgian author Henri Michaux, whose description of the effects of mescaline provides the “thousand knives” of the album’s title.
While the album appeared well after the psychedelic ‘60s had ended, it convincingly transfers that decade’s fascination with altered states of mind from drugs to synthesizers. On “Thousand Knives,” that Mao Zedong poem spawns a litter of moogs and syn-drums that bounce their way to polyphonic bliss, assisted by a high-velocity Alembic guitar solo from Kazumi Watanabe (who also played with Yellow Magic Orchestra). This is communism reimagined as futuristic jazz combo, everyone united yet free to improvise at will. “Plastic Bamboo,” along with “Grasshoppers” and “Island of Woods,” reconstructs the natural world from synthetic sounds. Its central groove nears extinction every time a discordant pack of computerized strings frolics into the mix, but it’s only in the track’s final minute that these and a last howl of electricity suggest encompassing rebirth.
[Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto is a huge help in contextualizing Sakamoto’s storied career, since it shows both his faith in music’s revolutionary possibilities and his investment in melody as a thing worth embracing, even in the midst of unprecedented transformations. It also reminds us that the project of using new technologies to change the world is at its most compelling when music is that project’s centripetal force. Is there a more alchemical medium? Sakamoto’s early work demonstrates that he can ably shape pre-existing materials into patterns previously unimaginable, hallucinations we can share.