Finally it has reached the Occident, on February 8, 2013! Here we have a gemstone of an album for a very specific audience that can still be enjoyed by most Ambient listeners who favor mellow, glistening settings with occasional melancholic bits and bold Japanese flavors. Dominic Oakenfull aka Ski Oakenfull (reserved for his clubbier Deep House releases) aka Ayota from London delivered his first Ayota album called Helicopter Cuts in 2007. It was released on Third Ear Records, but only in Japan. Originally scheduled for an international release in April 2012, the very same album finally saw a release outside Japan in the colder months of 2013, and it‘s about time, for its spellbinding aura and its comprehensive presentation of nature, technology and tradition can now be experienced by everyone. I was lucky enough to send my brother to Japan in order to get me the original edition, but as things turned out, he could not send packages to all of you! Now that this problem is out of the way, I can concentrate on the 13 tracks with a total runtime of 52 minutes, all of them beautifully encapsulated in the modern organic art of Matazo Kayama (1927–2004), seen on the front cover above. Additionally, London-based Sachie Kaga provides her voice for a threefold recitation of poems by Sakiho, a close friend of Oakenfull, in beautiful Ambient surroundings. As Oakenfull tells in the liner notes, Sakiho‘s poems are "the catalyst for me to write the music," so her poems, the music and the artwork form a meaningful overall concept that can be appreciated first and foremost by Ambient fans in Japan. Since works of art find their ways across countries and isolated human minds, I think that I am able to grasp the illuminated aura and beauty of Helicopter Cuts even though I am not able to speak or read Japanese. With these limitations in mind, I am up for a deep analysis.
The album starts with Llamas and presents a great juxtaposition of an underwhelming lo-fi synth that is trembling along and a much more vivid and effervescent backing melody that oscillates all the time between different blurry and incisive states. A reverberated beat fades in and takes over the focus while the synths swirl light the background with their lucent nature. The mood shuttles between melancholy, 80‘s memorabilia (the intendedly vestigial synth pad backbone) and glowing excitement. If you‘re searching for that typical Ayota style that transforms music into Japanese imagery, Llamas is not it, but it‘s beautiful in its own way, all the while Oakenfull proves that he can intermix different moods and non-Japanese styles into one song. But wait no further, for この世 (This World) is next and offers a lush, synth-laden and above all a soothing ambience with slow pulses, a coruscating, gently meandering two-synth combo plus a short Trance artifact that rolls by in form of a quavering minimal staccato hook – the remainders of an unreleased 90‘s track by Ski Oakenfull? Whatever it is, the song has another adjunct: it is the first track of three that features the voice of Sachie Kaga, and sure enough, I don‘t get anything she is saying. However, I do know from the liner notes that she is reading the aforementioned poems by Sakiho, and she does it in an inspiring and sagacious way. All in all, there is a distant ecclesial feeling, and while I am not a member of the target group for whom this record has been primarily created, I perceive the warmth and coziness of this song and somehow get the feeling that Sakiho‘s poems are important, not just as an inspirational source for Oakenfull, but in a much broader way. Sabor is the following track and is built on the framework of a one-note synth pulse, very soft bass lines that fade out almost immediately and, first and foremost, sparkling sprinkles, glowing dots and soporific spirals of various melodies played in that Japanese style I came to expect from Ayota. It fulfills every cliché, but does so in a resplendent fashion, exemplifying the morphogenesis of Ayota‘s sound: creating brightly euphonious Japanese-sounding synthesizer melodies and merging them with location-independent accompaniments in the form of glistening pulses and occasional bass lines. That‘s the way I see it. And yet I‘m proven wrong with the following track…
Fischer Price is the track that works differently. It‘s a Clicks & Cuts hommage with an added wonkiness. Various frizzles, metallic clangs and electronic whistles are merged with spectral backing melodies. While the mood is quite eerie at the beginning, the gorgeously sublime melody bits that mimic a Far Eastern, harp-like string instrument are catapulting this song into a much brighter territory and allow an obvious assertion, namely the intertwining of Japanese culture with the love for technical gadgetries. Even if my interpretation is far-off, it‘s still a terrific song in its rendering of two contrarieties – tradition and technology – that follow us through life incessantly. I‘m craving for more, and I am lucky, for Butterfly draws a similar harp-like setting, even though the harp loop is quite inaccessible and rather distraught. A dark synth pad melody and intensified superimpositions of monotonous bright synths don‘t change the focus, but enhance the enchantment with their upswelling nature. Despite looking wrong on your display, this is Ayota‘s darkest and most urgent piece. The darkness is partly revisited by 虹 (Niji) which means rainbow, but it doesn‘t show its technicolored beauty yet. A slow, stark 4/4 beat and tremoling 8-bit pulses of different tone keys epitomize the other distinct ingredient of the song. Shortly thereafter, another nasty and mean-sounding 8-bit relic is added in form of a piercing but somehow majestic main melody. Maybe it is just the context, but yes, this melody inherits that Japanese spirit. The perfect setting would be a boss fight in old Beat‘em Up games like Double Dragon or Streets Of Rage, but my comparison might go too far, although the dark vocal snippets of a woman named Shizuka somehow add to the perception. If there weren‘t superb galactical synth washes added from time to time, I would‘ve probably been even more reliant in my comparison. 虹 (Niji) has nothing rainbow-like to offer, but is a gorgeous shift in direction, as is Fischer Price. After all these aural experiments, Oakenfull delivers a proper Ayota track next: 日溜り(Hidamari) consists of a beautifully mesmerizing piano melody plus complemental backings that altogether with the sparkling glockenspiels and bass bursts induce a luminous radiancy and blissful happiness. With all these extensively cherubic devices, the voice of Sachie Kaga, who reads another Sakiho poem here, is just an added bonus. All Gone turns things down a notch and is the perfect melancholic piece for a Sunday afternoon. This is a very organic and real piece which consists of the constant team play between two three-note loops on an acoustic guitar and piano backings. Also noteworthy is the singular use of a gentle electric guitar, played by Shawn Lee. The flittering, spiraling digital piano bits that merge perfectly with their organic brethren are also devices of placid fluidity. This song is definitely not for everyone, and I myself am more than a bit careful when acoustic guitars enter predominantly electronic albums, but the setting actually works, and the piano backings, while being rudimentary and easy on the ears, provide the endemic Japanese flavor. Top notch!
What‘s next is a terrific beat-driven Ambient piece that is so huge! Airport starts in medias res and offers the almost mandatory field recording of typical declarations and information messages you hear incessantly, all the while a pulsating groove with added scintillas of sparkling synth pulses can be heard. After approximately 45 seconds, a soothing but somehow frosty two-note synthscape is entering as well as a slow, steady and subordinate 4/4 beat. This mentioned frosty synth is later warped and twisted. The clinical, technology-driven atmosphere is cold and yet welcoming and relaxing. A killer track … for those who only travel occasionally and are actually truly happy to enter an airplane. Coming up next are two beatless Ambient beauties: The dawn-like, mythical and pristine Bath Island starts with a glitzy, rising five-note scheme, as the sustain of the last tone merges with dry zipper-like pulses and accompanying synth tones, while the über-fabulous ひとつ (Hitotsu) (meaning one thing) is a feast for fans of ethereal heaviness created with truckloads of synthesizer goodness. A spellbinding, towering one-note synth that is warped and pitched all the time is the main attraction of the mix, while Sachie Kaga‘s last performance is a close second place. The ubiquitous sounds of various tinging bells and the short piano chords in the second half of the track form a grand unison in this Ambient show-stopper. This is the ultimate Ayota Ambient track. The following 1000 Minutes doesn‘t need to hide, though. The reunion of Lee‘s acoustic guitar with Oakenfull‘s piano is a welcome injection, and the staccato bells as well as the limewashed synth howls which wash away over the listener‘s head build a recumbent setting that is spiced in the second half of the track with a leisurely wandering percussion in downbeat style while retaining the soothing aura that was built in the minutes before. The final piece is called 四日市 (Yokkaichi) and is both the gateway to the end and a dedication to the city of the same name. It begins with warbled radio frequencies but otherwise loses not much time in displaying the liveliness of city life. The song has the loudest percussion and drums – again in downbeat fashion –, contains field recordings of an ambulance and pompously upsurging synth string monsters that add tremendous tension to the otherwise vivid setting. Another interesting inclusion is the rhythmical clicking of claves, a must-have in Far Eastern Exotica records, so I‘m all the more happy to hear them on Helicopter Cuts as well. All in all, 四日市 (Yokkaichi) is the most curious inclusion on the album, and the mixture of styles and moods doesn‘t glue together, I‘m afraid, but the slightly apocalyptic feeling and the persuasive use of field recordings make this a good track overall – it‘s just a questionable choice as a closing track.
Helicopter Cuts is a magnificent album that was under everyone‘s radar long enough! It finally will see the dawn of day outside of Japan. No more pesky import surcharges. While the targeted audience is clearly Japanese, I believe that the only remaining problem for an occidental fanbase is the inclusion of Japanese poems. While it is common to listen to singers whose languages you don‘t understand – take Chihiro Butterfly‘s performances on Ayota‘s Sōnen EP into account –, it is entirely different to listen to spoken monologues as performed by Sachie Kaga and Shizuka. If you can swallow your pride and nescience, as I was all too willed to, this shouldn‘t be a huge let-down in the end, for the rapturous intermixture of synthscapes with glinting bells and exhilarant pulses compensates you big time. On every song, you can feel Oakenfull‘s unconditional love for Japan, and this dedication is reflected by slightly clichéd piano melodies as well as it is manifested in its overarching topics of nature, tradition and technology. The synthesizers literally glow and deliver a shower of sparks in each and every track. Ayota‘s music skillfully oscillates between introverted peace, exuberant joy and astute melancholy. Since this music was released in January 2007 in Japan, Oakenfull has refined his style used in his Ayota project in the meantime, and I am more than sure that he will deliver similarly mesmerizing pieces in the near future, especially now that his first and, for the time being, only Ayota album is available more broadly. If you love the typical and instantly recognizable Japanese keys in electronic music and favor a strongly beatless ambience, look no further and get yourself both Helicopter Cuts and the Sōnen EP. The latter one also features two proper 4/4 stompers that take the dreamy Ambient atmosphere and weave them into settings that are perfectly suitable for workout and running playlists.
- Dominic Oakenfull's Twitter account is @skioakenfull.
- There is a highly interesting 6+ minute interview of Flomotion Radio with Dominic Oakenfull about his Ayota project and the people – or to be more precise: the above-mentioned women – involved with it. You can find it on iTunes or listen to it via its web interface directly in your browser.
Ambient Review 068: Ayota – Helicopter Cuts (2007). Originally published on May 9, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.