YOU QUITE possibly haven’t come across UNKNOWN ME, a Japanese collective with a very particularly glimmering, space-age approach to the the business of ambience; in fact, if their moniker is anything to go by, maybe even they haven’t. But if trippy electronic sound is your bag, and it oughta be, then perhaps now is an ideal time to make their acquaintance.
They’re all set to release their fourth album, BISHINTAI, intended in conception as “a sublime synthetic suite of cosmic wellness transmissions;” the “bishintai” of the title is a Kanji compound word meaning “beauty, mind, body.”
Their back catalogue shows a concern for the rhythm of the quotidian; the tracks on 2016’s Sunday Void were accompanied by times of day, from 9.15am’s “Nature Trail” to 11.30pm’s “Cosmic Mind”, It was, absolutely, no more and no less, a half-hour cassette to spend the seventh day to.
In 2017 they signed with the excellent Not Not Fun imprint, one of those label’s whose first consideration is music at the creative cutting edge rather than units shifted and influencer endorsement; and their first (again, cassette-only) release was Subtropics; this time, the tracks came tied to a conceptual menu of worldwide cities. Here, try “AWA (Buenos Aires)” for size. Lovely, right?
A year later they were back with Astronauts, which, need I explain thematically? And spacey and spatial and space-age it was too, taking the open, textural aesthetic of The Boats and mixing with a unselfconscious and playful synth whimsy. Result? Delightful. Go be dazzled by “Orbicular Water”, why dontcha. It sounds like a brilliantly trippy children’s TV soundtrack and one from a world I actually would love to be living in. One where maybe The Orb and Múm had given up any pretence of adulthood.
Anyhow, three long years have passed, the world has lurched into some pretty weird places, but UNKNOWN ME’s commitment to beautiful, retrotronic ambience remains unwavering. Which is wholly a Good Thing. As is the news that for the first time, wax heads, at least in terms of long-players, their new album, BISHINTAI, will be making an appearance on vinyl; thus you can invest and line it up next to your Global Communications and Higher Intelligence Agency and other such ambient lushness, next to your decks. Again, a massively Good Thing.
For instalment no.4, the core UNKNOWN ME quartet of Yakenohara, P-RUFF, H. Takahashi, and Osawa Yudai went to work with software, synthesizers, steel drums, rhythm boxes, and robotic voices, in order to create another soundtrack for living; but they also called on a clutch of collaborators, including one-time Sonic Youth and Loose Fur man Jim O’Rourke, psych mystery man footman, and Japanese underground shape-shifters MC.Sirafu and Lisa Nakagawa.
We’re told that BISHINTAI is intended as a “sublime synthetic suite of cosmic wellness transmissions”; the “bishintai” of the title is a Kanji compound word meaning “beauty, mind, body.”
On a simpler level, their intent? The “pursuit of beautiful tones.” Now that I can wholly get behind. Let’s see if the synthesis sublimates; for me, the proof of the electronic pudding, &c.
The manifesto is set with opener “Beauty, Mind and Body #1”, a little preluding chopping, blip-blip-blip of tones and drones, with a little vocal compèring; a gateway for “Open The Sense”, a single from back in February, which we’ve saved you the troublesome clicking about out there in ether and embedded it again below.
It’s a metronomic glimmer of a tune, all bells and soft percussion, with plenty of whooshing and lofting towards the heavens. It’s very much a song of bright coloration, of cerise, peach, orange; imagine if you will, perhaps The Gentle People with a little touch of motorik. Subsidiary tones pitch-bend and chitter and circle, like being in some exotically populated sonic forest.
“Gaze on Your Palm” parts the fronds and leads you into a riverside clearing, with a pristine synth flow, anchored on a little chirping rhythm, the title slipping in and out and repeating as a mantra. That’s very Irresistible Force. All kinds of sound beings circle and swoop, dip and dive; retrotronic starlings in colourful flight.
“Breathing Wave” is the first collaborative track, and sees foodman, aka producer Takahide Higuchi, bring a little jazzy lick to run alongside some intricate and delightful Japanese wooden percussion. This would’ve sounded right at home on Ninja Tune at various junctures. Vocals and chordal tones chop and flow, chop and flow.
Jim O’Rourke. who if you’ve got this far should really need no introduction, is the guest turn on “Have a Noble Meal”, a more hallucinatory and textured affair made of drone resonance, ringing chimes, a whole afforestation of deeper nuanced sounds going about their own business underneath. Tones sweep and filter like the beam of a lighthouse. “Moisture of View” is an essay for steel drums and clicking percussion; pretty. Very damn pretty. It’s a percussive postcard from some manga world of pinks and bubbles, possibly cotton candy clouds.
“Beauty, Mind and Body #2” begins the second side (yep, I’m being purist and flipping my virtual vinyl over) by checking in in highly robotic tones: “You are getting close to the real beauty; we’re sure that you’ll be able to have a fun time now,” it comments; and do you know what, I really am. it gives way to the majestic, spinning analogue burbles of “Isometrics”, which is so the sort of thing that made Mixmaster Morris such a great artist. All kinds of cadences form and bubble and mesh, skitter in the distance, make way for close sonic relatives. Allegedly, you’d imagine this would be shiningly great on psychedelics.
And now they’ve hit the motherlode, they recognise a really bloody good thing and go with it; “Can You Hear a New World” is the rhetorically titled antecedent, a more open space of gongs and tones spinning galactically, which ends with a cyclical pronouncement on the synthesis of personal beauty.
“Treadmill” veers closer to 8-bit, all dawn-bright clockwork pinging ameliorated by the wordless vocal balm of, I’m presuming, fellow Japanese underground scene traveller Lisa Nakagawa. It’s metronomic; fantastic, in the sense of sounding like it’s music that’s leaked from a fantasy. There’s a little bit of Cornelius in there somewhere too, for my money. And it more seems to mutate rather than give way to “Aroma Oxygen” as it fades into a middle passage of woozy bells, the clockwork figure softening, a little jazzy vocal vamp.
The latter track swops in a less obvious masculine voice, the motorik drops an octave or two, and it picks up a very beautiful breakbeat rhythm you ‘d imagine the Yellow Magic Orchestra would’ve loved to have chanced upon. Yeah, it’s a little more Eighties synthpop than Nineties ambient, this one; but at the most halcyon end of the particular spectrum, knowing, retro, wholly content with how lovely it looks in the mirror. It remains only for “Beauty, Mind and Body #3” to debrief us in multitracked robotic tones over Pierre Henry-style skeletal brightness.
Although the group cites a therapeutic muse behind the record, intending it as “made for the maintenance of the minds of city dwellers”, it’s beautiful glimmer which can be enjoyed just as well from the comfort of your rural beanbag, lava lamp a-go-go.
It’s a delightful album, candy-colour bright, beamed from some offworld where fantastic cuboid furniture and hanging egg chairs are the norm; it will add a little brain-clearing wasabi to the most humdrum and dun day. If you’ve ever swooned for some of the artists referenced above; for the Sushi 3003 and 4004 compilations; for Air at their most “Sexy Boy” cosmic and and most especially definitely, the bright retro-futurism of The Gentle People – then boy, is this album ever for you.
UNKNOWN ME’s BISHINTAI will be released by Not Not Fun digitally and on vinyl on April 30th; pre-orders are now being accepted, folks, over at Bandcamp.