Oto No Wa doesn’t make waves; it rides the tides and lets us forget the ocean’s roar for 73 minutes.
Musicians often respond to the frenetic and noisy modern world with a competing volume level and hectic bpms desperate to outrace the times. That can be a thrilling adrenaline rush; but what if what the doctor orders is an antidote to speed? A quietly enchanting new compilation from Music for Dreams samples the downtempo undercurrent that emerged in the midst of a bustling metropolis. A spiritual successor to Light in the Attic’s essential Kankyo Ongaku, which traced Japanese ambient and background music until 1990, Oto No Wa follows the development of relaxing pop and electronica from the late ‘80s to the current decade. It’s music to hang out to, which may not seem ambitious, but in these troubled times it is more valuable than ever.
Compiled by Ken Hidaka, Max Essa and Dr. Rob, Oto No Wa is a comforting mixtape in an anxious time. The title translates as “the sound of coming together,” and for a little over an hour these chill sounds can soothe the savage breast. Dr. Rob accurately describes the tracks as “idylls imagined in city apartments” and “sonic paintings of idealized holiday snapshots.” If Kankyo Ongaku demonstrated a response to Brian Emo’s Music for Airports in an often commercialized ‘80s context of department store muzak, Oto No Wa reflects the next phase of ambient, which in part emerged from the pop stew brewing in Shibuya.
Think of it as Japanese exotica for the late 20th and early 21st century. In fact, the steel drums of Little Tempo’s “Frostie,” from 1999, suggests a tropical scene filtered through the bustling metropolis, the soundtrack for a tiny haven away from the world’s noise. Call it chill dub, so effective that none other than Lee “Scratch” Perry invited them to play London’s Meltdown Festival in 2006.
This may not seem as distinctly Japanese as the sparer Light in the Attic comp, but even electronic arrangements keep something of the old world at hand, as in Karel Arbus and Eiji Takamatsu’s percussion-heavy “Coco and the Fish.” Ironically, neither musician is Japanese; Arbus is Australian and Takamatsu Hawaiian, but the global pedigree is another example of how this scene, much like the Shibuya-kei pop that began to flourish in the ‘90s with Pizzicato Five and Cornelius, freely crossed musical and geographical boundaries. The watery wooden instruments here invoke both traditional Japan and a stylish modern era.
Yoshi Ojima’s “Sealed” opens the album with an enchanting mood piece that suits the label’s name. Like many of the artists on Kankyo Ongaku, Ojima made BGM—background music—and this was specifically created for the Wacoal Art Center. But this is far more textured than mere muzak; the sleepy rhythms are slightly undercut by synth washes that swoon in and out of mild distortion. Such imperfections provide a backdrop for delicate, dreamlike percussion, gorgeous and sleep-inducing, in a good way.
Oto No Wa isn’t one long lullaby, but with a set-up like that, even the heavier beats on Scha Dara Parr’s “N.I.C.E. Guy (Nice Guitar Dub)” are conducive to meditation. The band is called “The Beastie Boys of Japan,” but there’s nothing ill about them; this is the mellowest of hip-hop, transforming and cross-referencing samples and subgenres into a low-key soundscape. The acoustic rhythm guitar helps, and the whole effect is so unassuming it’s easy to overlook the lightly swooning melodies that work against, but with, the steady beat. Melding such disparate elements is exactly what Dr. Rob is referring to when he writes of the harmony in this scene; like the best hip-hop artists, Scha Dara Parr and others on this set take elements that seem incongruous, even antithetical, and makes them sound effortlessly compatible.
Even more delightful is “Scuba,” a 2006 single by veteran producer Eitetsu Takamiya, recording as Little Big Bee. Its pieces are deceptively simple, Kenji Jinguji’s mellow bassline a gently driving timbre underneath a series of bubbling sounds that are soon echoed by a percussive synth line. The drumbeat moves along at a shuffle before the stroke changes to yet another synth melody, all of the rhythms and tunes in the imaginary sea coming together, just as the album title promises. Water imagery closes the album with Takashi Kokubo’s “Quiet Inlet,” with waves supporting a melancholy, minor-key piano figure whose light distortion brings the set full-circle from the imperfect, beguiling beginning. Oto No Wa doesn’t make waves; it rides the tides and lets us forget the ocean’s roar for 73 minutes.