YOU SEE artists with this particular facet at work across the various spheres in our delightful musical cosmos; The Fall were one such. Sun Ra? Furiously so. Acid Mothers Temple? You’d better believe it boy. John Dwyer and the spiral arm of Thee Oh Sees/Oh Sees/Osees, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard; fully paid up.
I’m talking about artists who have the muse, who produce, produce, always have an album due, a musical iron in the fire, a dizzying catalogue; and another such is the Japanese ambient electronica scion, Chihei Hatakeyama, whose beautiful longform blurs touch into the seasons, the elements, shoegaze, more. Deep immersion in a field in which many people are creating, he still has a feel and a musical fingerprint I think entirely his own.
His first full-length album, Minima Moralia, came out on Kranky in 2006, which a stamp of by appointment in ambient-drone circles if ever there was one; with songs titled with a focus on a particular moment in time, it contained gems such as the grainy, slowly enveloping, onward pulse of “Beside A Well”. A really very decent first crop, you’ll agree.
The future looked bright, although at that time we had no idea whatsoever that the future would look this fecund; he’s since released more than 70, yep, 70 albums for labels such as Lawrence English’s Room 40, with a huge body of work coming out on his own White Paddy Mountain label. No Use Your Illusion-style elephantine gestation here. It is, by any measure, a mighty old canon; but the more important thing is that the quality and consistency of Chihei’s output is stunning.
His latest album (having only released what? five last year) is entitled Late Spring, and arrives with us roundabout the right time for the title, in early April; perhaps more precisely calibrated in the Japanese system, which eschews our fuzzy quartet for 72 microseasons, as Tsubame kitaru: ‘swallows return’. And as with so much of his work previous to this (Winter, Alone By The Sea, Moonlight Reflecting Over Mountains), is deeply bound up with the natural world, the landscape, the elements, fleeting moments of rapture and observation captured in sound psychogeographically.
For the first time, Chihei has teamed with London analogue pressing specialists and expert jazz crate-diggers Gearbox Records for this release: 200-gramme heavyweight vinyl? Gonna sound delicious, rich, wonderful.
Inspired by the circularity of the natural world, the album takes a partial cue from film director Yasujirō Ozu, with whose 1949 film the album shares a title. It’s also arranged to project the impression of an old film. The concept behind circular movement and shifting within the record came to Chihei as he was watching Twin Peaks – The Return.
Actually, rowing back on the lightning-quick productive reputation just a little, Chihei reportedly considers this to be one of the more time-intensive records of his career – he started working on it in 2018, and completed it towards the end of 2020. He reified his approach to performance, using new equipment to record his guitar and synthesisers. To simplify the melody and the tone, he only used one kind of instrument for each track: one synth only, one electric guitar. It’s produced a refined sound within which Chihei gradually and expertly whittles away to the right burnished texture, a master craftsman.
“Breaking Dawn” is the ideal place to begin, obviously; and it’s a woozy, subaquatic stunner, the sacred textures of an organ in polyphony, lost in the shimmer of quartz sands and clear water, Atlantis-deep, and delightful with a haunting frisson as you find in Boards of Canada; the half-remembered melodies of a folk tune played by beings rarely seen with the human eye. The same dynamic is at play in “Rain Funeral”, following, which is fathoms deeper, the sound echoing and resonating off coral and shoals. That flutelike tone rises high and seizes the lead briefly, before contentedly settling back into the immersive whole.
“Butterfly’s Dream” dream glides forward into a place of almost unimaginable beauty, staying with that warmth and blur, singing high; it’s liking waking beside your lover – that kind of wholeness and impressionistic high. Post-coitally lovely, and that’s no stretch.
“Sound of Air” allows the guitar to become a detectable player in its own right, and has the kind of actual cherubic drift and glide of Cocteau Twins’ masterpiece Victorialand – I mean, that’s high praise and absolutely no hype at all. There’s moments where you’d be convinced that’s Robin Guthrie playing, adrift in the memory bliss of mistily verdant synth; its epilogue, “Sound of Air II” stays true to its progenitor, an absolute shiver of meandering guitar and electronica delight, spiralling deep.
“Spica”, named I’m guessing for the star in Virgo, one of the 20 brightest in the night sky (it says here), remains absolutely beautiful melodically, and its bright keyed tones evoke cleverly the shimmer of the night sky, stars pulsing away; and also introduces a little glitchy chop-up, just a tease to trip you delightfully, make you crack an eye open from your astral lullaby as the song judders and pops.
“Thunder Ringing in the Distance” evokes the distant storm in the kind of beautifully clean-lined, bending and sustained guitar maelstrom Neil Halstead would be proud of; and that thunder rings across a body of water, those muzzy synth melodies rippling underneath and in concert with the slow shoegaze surge.
“Memory in the Screen” submerges us once more, in a recall that arcs and falls, arcs and falls, on a lovely chordal interplay, with the following “Butterfly’s Dream II” so wholly like a delicious post-coital dream. It’s terribly, terribly lovely, as is the namesake it reprises. It has an actually pretty heart-rending sweetness to its lead melody, at once folksy and IDM and – here’s a word choosed with full appreciation of its hackneyed debasement in slacker culture, but chosen precisely – awesome. The beauty of a Brocken spectre appearing, amazed wonderment, sorta awesome.
“Long Shadows” dives fathoms-deep once more; has a William Baskinski-like tape decay quality, the sound of a song snatched away on the wind and all the more beautiful for that evasion of capture, and also very hypnagogic. We end in the “Twilight Sea”, that trademark Chihei blur and obfuscation rendering the tune even more magical, a sweet, gong-like melody playing under the ice of Thomas Köner’s Permafrost and again just slightly pausing and glitching; stirring you back into conscious engagement just enough to think: hang on, did I just hear that or was I … dreaming?
A gorgeous, subconscious, psychedelic trip around the insides of your own skull, is Late Spring Chihei’s best yet? With that 70-plus album catalogue standing strong and firm behind it, it’s damned difficult to say with hand on heart; and I mean, I own a fair few.
What can be said with integrity and honesty is that Late Spring takes elements of IDM, shoegaze, and drone, and fashions them together in an impressionistic, delicious fog, with a pretty unique pastoralist feel, alive in nature. It’s pretty much the only album I’ve ever heard that makes me reconsider such unassailable classics of the slow leftfield as Stars of the Lids’ The Tired Sounds Of … and Windy & Carl’s Consciousness and made me think: whoah there guys, these records are a bit … sharp-edged, right? Take it easy. Let it breathe. That halcyon.
Late Spring is bloody, bloody beautiful. Buy.
Chihei Hatakeyama Late Spring will be released by Gearbox Records digitally, on CD with obi strip and on heavyweight (200g) vinyl with obi strip on April 9th; you can order yours from Gearbox here.