Review Summary: The downtempo artist's finest moment. Full of ambient twists and turns, "Irony" makes for one of the most solid and gripping Japanese mainstream albums in recent years.
Aco first hit the Japanese mainstream in the mid 90's with her "Kittenish Love" EP. Fast forward just three years later, and the initial downtempo R&B elements of Aco expand quite rapidly, and her experimentation seemed to first start to shine on the 1999 "Absolute Ego" album, which sounded like a gravitational mixture of soul, trip hop and sheer experimental music. Thanks to the experimental side of the "Absolute Ego" album, as well as the follow-up album, 2001's "Material", Aco seemed to have been ready to take on experimental music in totality, and, in 2003, she released her fifth full length album, "Irony", which toned down the trip hop elements of her previous works, in exchange for a much more challenging mixture of bare ambience and soul-warming electronica goodness.
"Lang" has a sleepy, gravitational pull to it, and starts off with a drowsy introduction, with flickering synths and humming sound effects becoming the backbone of the song. Aco then starts to whisper to the listener's weepy ears, and creates an environment of audial ambient paradise, with echoed croons and static-y strings creating the song's impressive atmosphere. "Hans" has a creeping pull to it, with minimal shrieking sound effects in the background, while Aco begins to enter a relaxing aura once more with whispered vocals slowly emerging, before breaking off into an almost operatic tone, with flickered sound effects covering the canvas of the track. One of the most memorable tracks on the album, due to the apparent focus on minimal melody and its beautiful relaxation appeal. "Machi" is a collaboration with Icelandic electro-ambient giants, múm, and has a nice progressive creep to it, with soul-touching keys and gentle crooning from Aco. The song is a wonderful piece of ambience that is sure to win over any ambient fans, more specifically fans of the múm group.
The surface of the next track, "Sato Niwa", is almost galactic, and sounds similar to that of a Bjork song. However, Aco's beautiful, signature whispered vocals prove to make the song hers entirely. The strong emotional feel in this song is spectacular by itself. "Subako" is a piece that touches on Japanese folk music, and is one of the most beautiful pieces on the album. The melody of the traditional Japanese instruments playing, added with Aco's lovely vocals and floating bassline, makes "Subako" one of the most insightful and ambitious songs on the album, bravely showing Aco developing a much more mature and together sound than what she had before, which had a more thick, molasses-like sound. The title track, "Irony", is a track that follows slightly in the steps of droney ambience, with elongated bells and slightly faded feedback colliding with flickered, protruding drums, and the lightly faded vocals of Aco. This creates a near heavenly result, and creates an experimental paradise. "Kuuhaku no Tane" has a nice, sputtered tone, with stuttering blips and ambient tones wonderfully covering Aco's whispered vocals. The album's final track, "Kitchen", is perhaps one of the most straightforward songs on the album. Instead of a focus on flickered or droned elements, "Kitchen" focuses on a slightly manipulated drum style, relaxed keys and lively basslines. "Kitchen"'s grip on more straightforward melodies make the song a suitable closing to one of the most impressive mainstream Japanese albums in recent years.
In the end, "Irony" proves to be Aco's most complex, yet solid, works to date, full of mellow ambient sounds and heartwarming croons. While it's not an ideal choice for common Japanese pop fans, it is definitely worth looking at nonetheless. With an addictive sense of relaxation, "Irony" has the potential to be one of the greatest pieces of music pressed by the Japanese mainstream to date.