Ichiko Aoba
0


4.5
superb

Review

by JohnnyoftheWell CONTRIBUTOR (90 Reviews)
June 17th, 2019 | 20 replies


Release Date: 2013 | Tracklist

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 of almost any kind as it is casually indifferent to them. It’s very much 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 point out that Ichiko Aoba is classified as 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.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
June 17th 2019


15555 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

That was a real handful to spam out, and one of my points splintered off into a whole separate (incoming) review for qp midway.

Pretty surprised this didn't have a review (although props to Fripp for covering 0%) - this is a must for anyone thinking about their end-of-decade list

Digging: bloodthirsty butchers - Kocorono

Lucman
June 17th 2019


2903 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Amazing review, Johnny. You're quickly becoming one of my favourite reviewers here, no lie. And this album is just stunning. 0% is my fav live album of the decade and somehow elevates these songs to yet another level.

Digging: Chelsea Wolfe - Abyss

samwise2000
June 17th 2019


415 Comments


Great review as always Johnny! I gotta check this out

Slex
Contributing Reviewer
June 17th 2019


7401 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

This sounds incredible, will check

Digging: Joliette - Luz Devora

brainmelter
June 17th 2019


6502 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

woooooooo

great review

Digging: Apocryphal Voice - Pain & Pleasure

Frippertronics
Staff Reviewer
June 17th 2019


18798 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

bless up

NOTINTHEFACE
June 17th 2019


1806 Comments


What how did this not have a review.

This is one of the albums of the decade, if not the century.

hal1ax
June 18th 2019


13880 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

settle down

neekafat
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


16401 Comments


oooooh excited to be checking this (:

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


15555 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Yes yes to folks checking this ;] like I said in the review, this will soak up any praise (or otherwise) you throw at it but it's got its own untouchable sense of integrity that imo is part of what makes a great album

NOTINTHEFACE
June 18th 2019


1806 Comments


Really excellent review man, it absolutely does the album justice, and it's one of your best so far imo. I'm one of those who can't gush enough about just how good this album is and wants to shove it into the ears of everyone I know.

The section of "Mars" that begins with the lullaby tune and then bleeds into something like a bridge is one of my favorite sections of music ever. It doesn't matter how stressed or upset I'm feeling, if I listen to that I can calm down immediately.

Aberf
June 18th 2019


2437 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

8 months since my hiatus from music just to say thank you for this review. Absolutely nails it in every aspect you've introduced.

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
June 18th 2019


15555 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Woah, thanks so much man - glad it brought you back, however fleetingly (please stay long enough to update your LTS ranking with #5 songs though!! I've genuinely been checking periodically to see if they've appeared since getting into the band lol)

luci
June 18th 2019


11317 Comments


really like 0% but didn't get into this on the first few spins. looks like I need to revisit

ramon.
Contributing Reviewer
June 19th 2019


3157 Comments


Great record. Curious to know how strong it is lyrically. Fantastic review man, you are pumping out absolute gold ridiculously consistently!

NOTINTHEFACE
June 19th 2019


1806 Comments


The lyrics are honestly one of the main reasons I love this album so much. Every song has so many memorable lines and beautiful allegories.

Azertherion
June 19th 2019


507 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

What a great record. A shame I can't dive into the lyrics.

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
June 19th 2019


15555 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Here's an alright one for iam POD: https://kimonobeat.tumblr.com/post/92354074268/aoba-ichiko-lyrics-i-am-pod0

Not a huge fan of the style of English used (I think it's meant to be elegantly sparse but seems kinda prosaic), especially in this line "You always seem/To make the sweetness of the dark echo" which is kinda ambiguous English and doesn't get the full sense of "naraseru you ni" imo (NOTINTHEFACE, any thoughts?). It does the job though, and no shade on kimono beat; that page has a load of helpful translations

NOTINTHEFACE
June 19th 2019


1806 Comments


Yeah I agree with that assessment. Some Russian author said at one point something like "poetry translated is poetry ruined" and reading kimono beat's translation really makes that apparent. It's more than good enough to get the sense of the lyrics and the prose being used, though, so I'd still encourage everyone to use a translation as they listen.

I'd translate "kurayami no amasa wo naraseru you ni" as a simple "may the sweetness of the darkness always cry out" or some dangling idea like that instead of trying to force it into a complete thought, but in this context it's mostly down to personal preference.

JohnnyoftheWell
Contributing Reviewer
June 26th 2019


15555 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Haru Natsu Aki Fuyu is such a beautiful closer it breaks me (and it's not even her strongest closer...)



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