Much of the nostalgic, hyper-real sounds emerging from the current wellspring of electronic music comes from a fictional, idealized Japan: vaporwave and “future funk” artists sampling buttery, synth-centic Japanese funk and boogie records; ambient artists attempting to capture their icy Eighties New Age rarities; PC Music tweaking the exaggerated “kawaii” of J-Pop. Even many of the most powerful, glossy avant-garde sounds – Oneohtrix Point Never sounding like a synthetic koto on R Plus Seven or Jlin opening Black Origami with something like a digital shamisen – evoke Japanese folk instruments run through the digital funhouse mirror.
Tim Hecker, the contemporary ambient music icon, has made a satisfying inversion on his ninth album, Konoyo. Much of the raw materials here are purely acoustic, courtesy of members of Tokyo Gakuso, an ensemble that performs gagaku – an orchestral music and dance that has roots in the 5th Century – as well as new compositions. A handful of woodwinds are present here – the piercing bamboo shō, the reedy hichiriki, the flighty ryuteki – as well as a handful of percussion instruments. Texturally, it’s new ground for Hecker, but in function its reminiscent of his 2011 breakthrough Ravedeath 1972,; here though instead of piano fighting his shoegaze-y gusts and digital manipulations, its ancient instruments.
Though the bio says Hecker was “drawn towards restraint and elegance,” there are still parts of this that sound like his most suffocating intensity, the sighing woodwinds of “This Life” and dank drones of “Keyed Out” both crescendo to massive blankets of power ambient. Sparser moments like the back end of “In Death Valley” or the beginning of gorgeous 15-minute album highlight “Across to Anoyo” sound like the current crop of tape label ambient, except rendered on analog instruments. The tense “In Sodium Codec Phase” feature flutes whirring into action like a revving motorcycle. Bringing a new sonic palette into his discipline of manipulated notes and overwhelming whoosh, Hecker gushes, drones and distends in ways that are both new and familiar.