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UNKNOWN ME: Bishintai

A recent promo photo for Japanese ambient quartet UNKNOWN ME shows four fuzzy figures dressed in black and white scattered in some urban greenspace, the composition suggesting a play on Last Year at Marienbad. While that film is in glorious black and white, UNKNOWN ME’s cinematic music is in playful color. Bishintai, which stands for “Beauty, mind and body,” is the group’s fourth release. But while their previous outing, the 2018 cassette-only Astronauts, was more straight-faced ambient, their latest peppers its mesmerizing theme with near-skits that subvert the atmospheric design. The resulting album is not suitable for a steady ambient trance; but the dry humor adds another level of delight.

After a series of cassette releases, Bishintai is UNKNOWN ME’s first LP, released in the indie label Not Not Fun, and the label name’s sly wit suits the group, who describes the new album as “environmental music for urban dwellers.” That self-assessment marks the foursome as descendants of the Japanese ambient scene sampled on the great Kankyo Ongaku comp, but more tongue-in-cheek.

The album starts with the percolating fragment “Beauty, Mind and Body #1.” A slightly robotic voice welcomes the listener to the group’s world, explaining, “This music is gentle practice for a way to connect to your mind and body.” That may seem like a new age sentiment, but the delivery is at a near-dada level of alienation, arrhythmic synth blips setting up some unknown and unpredictable electronic adventure. Don’t worry, though, the music itself is enchanting: “Open the Sense,” for instance, is a minimalist drone that loops and is layered with space-age textures and countermelodies. “Gaze on Your Palm” runs on laser-like synth washes over percussion that recalls the late Jon Hassell or Aphex Twin, with a (sampled?) voice instructs listeners in the title act. This is on some level still relaxing music, but there’s a distinct tension that’s as much conceptual as musical: the meditative lines are used with a consistent repetition, which in theory makes for “gentle practice,” but the mildly jarring rhythm subverts its ambient nature. Still, that very tension encourages a different kind of meditative practice: that of remaining a steady breath despite constant interruptions.

Special guests include foodman on “Breathing Wave” and Jim O’Rourke, who lends more dramatic tension to “Have a Noble Meal.” Japanese underground artist Lisa Nakagawa features on the hypnotic “Treadmill,” which is at once catchy and dystopic. “This is music of utopia and nowhere,” UNKNOWN ME claims, and that’s fairly accurate, but the bleak message doesn’t make the music any less charming, like the work of an ambient trickster leaning every so imperceptibly into synth-pop and skit-comedy.

Closing track “Beauty, Mind and Body #3” asks in a “How was it/ Did you find your real beauty?” The robotic voice betrays a slight British accent, which, come to think of it, combined with that promo photo of the faceless band dressed in white shirts and black slacks, evokes A Clockwork Orange. From the anonymous name to the deceptively pleasant music and the satirical spoken-word narrative, UNKNOWN ME seems to play against a mission statement that declares the group’s aim “in pursuit of beautiful tones.” But maybe the electronic apocalypse will be perfectly lovely.

This Japanese foursome are descendants of the ambient scene sampled on the great Kankyo Ongaku comp, but more tongue-in-cheek.
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Cheeky Ambient

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