Review Summary: Intimate, fragile, adventurous, beautiful, Masterpiece: 100% buzzword-resistance guaranteed.
Well-established as a pioneer of contemporary folk, Ichiko Aoba has been able to spend the latter half of the decade watching her 2013 opus 0
chalk up all manner of online accolades and statements of acclaim. It is quite striking, then, that while labels of the Best of the Decade variety will do wonders for some albums’ profiles (think Carrie and Lowell
, Public Strain
or even good ol’ Pamyu Pamyu Revolution
), they all feel strangely tangential to 0
. In fact, it’s the kind of record that isn’t so much actively resistant to labels and expedient descriptions as it is casually indifferent to them. It’s certainly possible to pigeonhole this album in all sorts of ways, but none of them are remotely worthwhile. This somewhat complicates my brief as a writer and confuses things for an unfamiliar reader, so we can run through the motions anyway. It’s easy enough to reiterate that Ichiko Aoba is an experimentally inclined folk singer-songwriter that people tend to consider beautiful and innovative, but this doesn’t give a particularly accurate impression of her music in the way that it would for, say, 2013-era Oomori Seiko (if you swapped the adjectives in question for ‘raw and cathartic’). It’s also not that helpful to deconstruct the songs themselves, although it’s a pretty easy exercise: Mars 2027
has an adventurous progression that boils over into very bleak territory, which Iriguchi Deguchi
inverts into something fragile and sparse, only for Uta no Kehai
to fill in as a short, uplifting palette cleanser before Kikaijikake No Uchuu
poses a labyrinthine ebbing and flowing of tensions that teases a scope beyond even its twelve-and-a-half-minutes. And so on.
Maybe this seems intriguing, but it’s a shoddy representation of what’s really going on here. Part of the reason for this is that the instrumentation is so minimal, meaning that the substance of 0
is abundantly evident. The only sounds you’ll hear on this album are Ichiko’s voice, her classical guitar, and the occasional ambient field recording. There are no obvious overdubs and absolutely no layering, so when anything happens, you’ll immediately be aware of it if you’re listening closely enough. Summarising it just feels like stating the obvious without touching on anything essential
to the record and misses the point of what made it so engaging to begin with: an absolutely spellbinding sense of intimacy that is far too delicate and evasive to lend itself to crass verbal synopses.
Fortunately, I have an anecdotal proxy. I was lucky enough to experience around half this album for the first time at a basement gig lit solely by a slightly-too-bright naked lightbulb directly next to Ichiko’s stool. The whole audience was sat down, silent as the grave; Ichiko said very little between songs and, while by no means insensitive to our presence, was so absorbed in her music that she could have been anywhere in the world (a video of her performing on top of a large rock in the Japanese countryside immediately comes to mind…), but the incredible part is that so could we
. Her performance was mesmerising in its simplicity and the whole room’s attention was fixed on her. Whenever anyone took a sip of their drink, we were all instantly aware that the collective fixation had dropped somewhat. I realised I needed the loo at the start of Kikaijikake No Uchuu
but decided to stay put til the next song started (with no idea how long that would be) and cannot recall a more captivating tax on my bladder. Sounds silly, but this was music that made the world and everything in it (especially you) drift out of town and into its own orbit, and this
is at the core of what makes 0
and Ichiko Aoba in general so special and so rewarding.
This sense of captivation is drawn from how Ichiko’s music resembles its own private reality, or, more accurately, a highly engaging reinvention of what we thought was familiar ground. She turns the simplest chords and song structures into hypnotic reveries that sound as though they could never have existed anywhere else, even if they don’t represent particularly groundbreaking territory when looked at technically. Take opener Ikinokori Bokura
or closer, Haru Natsu Aki Fuyu
: in the hands of another artist, these tracks would be template coffee-shop folk or a snoozer of a ballad, respectively, but in Aoba’s hands they come off as fresh and original, as though those melodies and chords had been untouched until the moment she plucked them. I’m hardly a folk devotee, but from my experience the difference between a great folk artist and a competent one is the ability to take the most unassuming music and turn it into something distinctly captivating, and this is as good a case study you are likely to find for that phenomenon.
That quality certainly covers a good part of what makes Ichiko Aoba so outstanding, but it doesn’t do justice to the experimentation at play here; 0
frequently ventures into adventurous territory that convincingly challenges the scope of what can generally be expected from a singer-songwriter. While most of the individual ideas here come from established musical traditions, she arranges them in unpredictable structures that open up into expansive complexity without ever giving the sense that she has bitten off more than she can chew. Mars 2027
and Kikaijikake No Uchuu
both cycle through convoluted structures towards huge peaks of tension but, crucially, Ichiko never lets these songs explode into the climaxes almost any other artist would shoot for. Instead, she unpicks what she has just woven and lets the tracks wind back to their original theses; Mars 2027
is essentially one eight-minute arc in this fashion, whereas Kikaijikake No Uchuu
offers a seemingly endless cycle of permutations of its central theme interspersed with whatever Ichiko seemed think would work best in between (all of which is disorientating but perfect). It’s not all about cycles and progressions though; Ikinokori Bokura
is an elegant hopscotch of inviting chord progressions whereas Uta no Kehai
is a refreshingly straightforward midway break full of folk and sunshine.
Of all the album’s technical and structural qualities, however, it’s the dynamics that are the most deeply masterful. Aoba’s guitar technique is nuanced to the extent that she can mirror and complement the subtleties of her vocal melodies (themselves delivered with great nuance) to perfection, and the result is staggeringly rich. Just look at Iriguchi Deguchi
: one single motif sustains twelve minutes. That’s two bars of three notes each (and the chords each bar is grounded in), over and over again with endless permutations of tempo and intensity; you’ll never hear this phrase the same way twice throughout this song and the incorporation of the most minimal urban field recordings imaginable fleshes out the song’s constantly changing sense of space and atmosphere in a manner cogent with its dynamics. To clarify, when I say dynamics
I don’t mean a straightforward loud/quite tradeoff (although there are elements of this); this is to do with the way a musical phrase can subtly reinvent itself through changes of intensity and volume in a manner more comparable to Talk Talk’s late albums. While general comparisons to that kind of post-rock (or any post-rock for that matter) aren’t particularly useful here, it’s still interesting to note similarities in the ways iam POD (0%)
or Shigatsu no Shitaku
and, say, Bark Psychosis’ Pendulum Man
create such a distinct sense of tone with the smallest of touches. From my experience as a musician, dynamics are the second hardest component of music to get right (after good rhythm), but Ichiko delivers a masterclass throughout this album.
Just as it felt trite to introduce 0
in reductive terms, it also feels inadequate to reach for a pithy conclusion. The album is an entity unto itself, masterfully crafted, beautifully intimate and thoroughly captivating; if I haven’t conveyed the sense of that at length, there’s no way I’ll be able to do so now. Perhaps more appropriate, then, would be to end on a caveat of sorts: 0
is not necessarily an easy listen. It’s hardly narrow in its appeal (the emotional overtones and melodic sensibilities are highly accessible), but because of the level of focus and attention that it both demands and requires to deliver a fully rewarding listen. When I saw her live, I went with a friend who had never heard her music before and wasn’t as focused on the performance as I was; he still enjoyed it, but for him it was something soothing and indistinct whereas for me it was compelling and full of rich subtleties. As far as background music goes you could do far worse than Ichiko Aoba, but if you come out of 0
with a broadly positive impression but little to no recollection of any of the musical detail, you owe it to yourself to dive back in. And with that out of the way, it’s enough to diplomatically acknowledge 0
as one of the strongest albums of the decade and leave things there; it’ll still be out there, in its own separate bubble of the universe, and nothing I write is ever really going to touch that.