Ken Ishii
Jelly Tones






Summer of Love contemporaries and survivors of the mercilessly exciting British Rave landscape will tell you that the late 80’s and early 90’s were the greatest times music-wise, and I obey indeed; many an Ambient-focused House classic and dreamy Detroit diorama was created during the timeframe, be it The KLF’s mostly beatless Chill Out (1990), The Orb’s charts-smashing #1 spacecapade U.F.Orb (1992) or Dave Angel’s various opalescent cyberspace concoctions. When a new movement took place during the mid–90’s that united the coldness of avantgarde architectonics with the spiraling moisture of analogue synths – call it IDM, Electronica or something else, as all categorizations sound mercilessly embarrassing nowadays –, electronic music reached a crossroads… or stood on the edge of a precipice. It is here where Japanese Ken Ishii’s second album Jelly Tones comes into play. Released in 1995 on the legendary Belgian R & S Records, this album is an odd artifact to review at AmbientExotica, for it is normally filed away under Techno or Detroit. The latter genre, however, is an auspicious one even for Ambient fans, and Ishii’s work caters indeed to both groups of listeners, those who want to move their body and the ones who favor a more contemplative synth-wadded architecture. Speaking of architecture: all eight tracks feature the implied designs of manmade dens and skyscrapers, there are no traces of nature to be found, even though the ensuing warmth is organic. The solution to this strange simultaneity is given in the album title. The arrangement of layers is clearly artificial and synthetic, but wobbles and bubbles quasi-organically, like an edible and flamboyantly saturated pile of jelly. Detroit-y, pumping, but with a benign Ambient core, Jelly Tones resides in the outer peripheries of the Ambient genre, but is still close enough to be considered here for an in-depth review.


Launching an album with a track called Extra is definitely a distinct choice, but the physiognomy is that of a stomper and can hence be embraced, although it is one of Ishii’s most minimal tracks he has ever created. This does not reveal much per se, for there is still a soothing ambience wafting in the distance, serving as a transitional faux-natural shrubbery which becomes more and more artificial. What starts with wonderfully turquoise-tinted synth scents is elevated into histrionic spheres. The glissando garbles and warbles, is catapulted time and again before making room for a Rave organ-accentuated three-note bass twister which is placed in adjacency to sizzling shakers and galactic globs. The Techno base frame reveals itself in the middle section which comprises of rather dull and synthless beat constructions, with the final encore letting the warped melodrama reappear once again. Cocoa Mousse then turns out to be a denser dish spiced with vaulted New Age-oid terraqueous drones of purity and rounded off by an equally moist but much more splashy snare drum which is further ameliorated by aquatic spirals. Fans of early Sun Electric material (they were R & S label mates anyway) and Dave Angel concoctions will rejoice, and this one is indeed compatible with the needs of Ambient fans as well. The simultaneity of the backdrop's cosmic balm with the punchy midtempo beats works well. A favorite.


Stretch is an even more futuristic track and comprises of posh synth architectures which are erected beneath a staggeringly teutonic beat. Everything feels brazen and clanging, even the gently plinking prongs which gyrate around the brutish beat. The jingle-like city vesicles, the alkaline bubbles and the short echoey protrusions resemble a neon-lit skyline shining in vivacious colors. Stretch is keen on its technicity, but never feels cold nor abhorrently artificial. Once an ethereal monotonous synth flume flows in the background, the purity only grows. Afterwards, Ethos 9 takes the liquid aorta of Stretch and places it in a spacey setup, Ken Ishii crafts a dualistic capsule of rapture. Feigning a Jungle beat structure and ameliorating it with gorgeously aeriform stardust specters and luminous laser apparitions, the Ambient factor is strangely augmented by the refreshing frenzy – and vice versa. Moved By Air follows and releases the most gaseous and eminently haunting layer; everything feels haunted. The exotic goblet drum-underpinned midtempo beat augments this perception, the melodramatic use of orchestral synth stabs draws the attention to the tension, with the only playful ingredient being the synthetic Honky Tonk piano. Mildly creepy and mysterious, but a welcome counterpart.


In Pause In Herbs, the sixth track of the album, Ken Ishii revisits the fresh space synths of Ethos 9, pitches them down a tad and places them in-between a hi-hat-heavy quasi-breakbeat structure in tandem with chirping cyberbirds, apocryphal sylvan tendrils and a constant fluxion of iridescent scintillae. Despite its bustling beat, Pause In Herbs feels mildly dreamy without reaching contemplatively phantasmagoric states. A glistening Ambient vignette camouflaged as a Dance-oriented track. Frame Out meanwhile is the black sheep of the album. Not only does it feature the most adamantly pumping shrapnel of beats, it also lacks the melodious cyber coppices and retro riverbeds the other tracks so magnanimously provide. This is the only instance where even the smallest link to the Ambient genre is amiss. The final Endless Season, however, delivers a revelatory downbeat apotheosis whose looped eight-note melody shimmers in a green-yellowish verdure while its genteel dark matter wah-wah sinews oscillate joyously in close proximity to the elasticized-coruscating chime layers and hi-hat paroxysms. Melody and textures reign in unison and result in one of those warmly analogue mid–90’s tracks whose polymorphous magic is so utterly enchanting. With a cautiously revved up beat enshrinement and a runtime of almost ten minutes, one can get lost in the tranquility that is Endless Season.


Jelly Tones is one of those albums whose title is remarkably well-chosen and skillfully transformed into music. It is also one of those albums that sound dated, but not in terms of the used synthesizers and surface-related choices rather than due to the playfulness and depth which are aesthetic signs of the time. The structure of jelly is found in most of the eight tracks. The beats are of course a mere necessity and not related to the slimy-slippery appearance, but the synth cloudlets and runlets resemble the wobbling aspic in a striking way. Again, the album has aged well, even though its release date can be easily pinpointed to the mid–90’s. The textures and patterns of the synthetic backdrops are in fact so mellow and silky that the pumping beats become much more tolerable for Ambient fans. They do not reach the gargantuan oomph of Gas’ albums, so the fear of listening to a frantic techno-oid album never manifests itself. From the dreamy antra and sugary interstices of Cocoa Mousse over the galactic glissandos in Ethos 9 and Pause In Herbs to the unforgettable spheroidal loop structures of Endless Season, it is Ken Ishii’s achievement to unite the club-compatible needs with the dreamscapes of the Ambient genre. And it works: the album is so well-balanced and amicable that it is a pure joy to use it during workout or jogging escapades. Endless Season is obviously my top pick due to its thickly wadded verdure which is placed in a crystal cavity, but the remaining songs are no less enthralling and are a prime example of the far-sighted impetus the Belgian R & S label had during the 90’s. Ken Ishii’s Jelly Tones is available on vinyl, on CD with two bonus remixes and as a digital download versions at Amazon MP3, iTunes and cohorts. 



Ambient Review 254: Ken Ishii – Jelly Tones (1995). Originally published on Aug. 28, 2013 at