Review Summary: Boredom is just a lack of attention
Within the somber opening notes of Crystal Valley
, one can catch a glimpse of the artist’s state of mind, and the set of qualities that will define the upcoming journey. Sheer beauty is the most prominent, but there is also humility, and a very clear sense of direction. The music feels calm, reflective, measured—until, two minutes in, it reinvents itself. Now there is more. The passion that had left its mark on previous records. The spark. It is still there, but its character has changed. It now feels less unhinged, less versatile—and yet, the delivery is incredibly precise, as if every idea had been reduced to its most essential form, leaving only its emotional core intact. After just a minute, the track reverts back to its calmer self. It lingers just long enough to finish telling its story, then it fades.
Next in line is the album’s single Meteor
. This is a song about the search for beauty in modern Japan. It is not an escapist vision; there is no focus on the imaginary. Rather, it is about noticing what is already there—what a distracted mind might dismiss as ordinary, like a row of trees shimmering in the light of the rising sun, or a flock of swans ascending into the air. A changing traffic light. A sea of skyscrapers. A gorgeous canal painted by golden sunlight. It is beauty which hides in plain sight. In the front of a building. In the light reflected off a window indoors. In the sight of a woman looking at her phone. There is so much there if one just pays attention—and yet, it is all tainted by a certain sense of sadness and melancholia that always lingers in the background. It could be a by-product of life in modern society, perhaps made worse by Japan’s draconian working culture. Whatever the case, this feeling is present all throughout the album, and it is precisely this interplay, this duo between the sad and the beautiful, which the music is set out to capture.
In the third and longest track, Kashiwa creates a wholly original, exceedingly pleasant body of sound, composed only of a pair of violins, piano, and drums to back it up. Distortion and samples are all but gone in this second part of the journey. Gone too is the expansive palette of ideas that compete for the listener’s attention. This time, the ambition is more narrow. “Keep things stupid simple” as the artist has put it. As with every track, City in the Lake
tells its own story, an arc that starts off timid, gradually builds into a passionate climax, and eventually ends on a tragic note. The track’s middle section might be the most iconic part of the album, and it works even if taken out of context. Those who are familiar with 88 might recognize this song as the re-interpretation of that record’s closer In the Lake
. Whatever inspired Kashiwa to reuse the idea, he managed to turn it into something far greater than the timid piano-only track it once was.
dives head-first into the nostalgic atmosphere set up by the previous track's final notes. Embodying the saddest part of the journey, this song is most akin to a riddle. It might symbolize every moment that one feels oddly melancholic and vulnerable, but without any apparent cause to grasp. Compositions like these are, in some sense, the reason why art exists in the first place, to capture emotions that slip through our existing palette of terms. With enough attention, each note can be felt like a dagger, digging for wounds to re-open, and it seems to reach deeper and deeper as the track comes to a close.
The experimental and aptly titled Airport
may be the strangest song on the album. Soon the violin will disappear without disappearing—becoming something entirely natural that makes one forget there are even instruments involved, as if the song was not merely describing an idea, but was the literal transformation of the idea into music. One can easily get lost in this track, perhaps drifting close to the edge of sleep, carried away to a place where all that has mattered before will briefly fade into irrelevance.
Many artists try to achieve an effect of this kind. Most of them fail; some might succeed to a point. But rarely does it feel so effortless; rarely is repetition used so masterfully; rarely do the different elements fit together so seamlessly. All of this can and frequently does get lost in translation—many will only ever scratch the surface of what the music offers. But none of the material on this album is actually
weak, uninspired, or produced on auto-pilot. Boredom is just a lack of attention. Even the two-minute long, piano-only interlude Cluster Gear
, a brief and playful statement, will grow over time if given the opportunity.
Three final notes, and at last we dive into the 12+ minute long Subaru
. Named after a cluster of hot blue luminous stars, this song encompasses an immense amount of natural beauty, and there is much to be said about how seamlessly each section flows into the next. However, taking a more dispassionate stance, one can see that this is actually a fairly complex composition, featuring a number of different ideas with invariably excellent transitions. It is, in fact, almost through-composed, though not quite as the song loops back into itself in the end, and some parts feature a subtle reusage of past melodies. However, at no point does it feel rushed or artificial. Each idea presented is given sufficient time to unfold.
While Program Music I seems to be the result of a genius mind running wild, part II is made from a very different place. Rather than throwing every good idea into the mix, it focuses on a carefully selected set of ideas. The resulting product is an album that has lost a certain amount of musical complexity but has gained a degree of emotional depth that was not only absent from part I, but from every other release in the artist’s discography.
When I first came across this album, I only liked tracks two and three and thought of most of the remaining material as pretty but unremarkable. I used to think that Blue Beryl was boring and Subaru filler. But after updating my rating upward, again and again over the course of many months, things have changed. At this point, I consider it to be not just a worthy successor to part I, but an even greater piece of art.
watch the official videos of Meteor and Blue Beryl