Review Summary: Precious revival of a unique New Ager
The artist known as Dream Dolphin is/was a Japanese electronic musician active from 1995 to 2003. Okay. She started her music career aged 16 when her debut single got her signed to Haruomi Hosono’s now-defunct FOA Records, and she ended it eight years later having churned out more than double
that number of full-lengths and a slew of compilations. Luckier artists might have found themselves swept up into the cult canon at this point, but for Dream Dolphin the upshot was more like total obscurity - blame this on diminishing sales, the pre-digital market leaving most of her output trapped within dusty CD cases, or just the unfortunate post-90s zeitgeist shrugoff that relegated two of her stylistic cornerstones (new age and acid trance) to an anathema-grade state of volatile uncoolness.
This is far from the fate any self-respecting artist would dream of, and more importantly not one Dream Dolphin deserved: her discography is not without its slow patches, but she brought a distinct voice to every style she touched and covered a staggering amount of ground across her mammoth discography. This entails everything from the kind of ultra-soothing ambient that has quite literally been played in hospitals to incensed breakbeat hardcore in step with the most aggravated offerings brewed up by the Prodigy or even Atari Teenage Riot at that time. Dream Dolphin’s innovations were many and it is hard to pin her ‘true forte’ on any given genre. This has its drawbacks - her work requires its audience to play pick ‘n’ mix between separate releases before they establish what exactly they want from it - and yet it’s hard to overstate the full breadth of her appeal.
This is the foundation for the first and only serious critique to be landed on Music From Memory’s newly released career-spanning compilation Gaia: Selected Ambient & Downtempo Works (1996-2003)
. For all intents and purposes, this is Dream Dolphin’s re-introduction to the world beyond the spangled non-network of people who discovered her through happy accidents with YouTube algorithms or niche genre trawlings. Music From Memory had already paved the way for this with their inclusion of her Eno-esque ambient meander “Take no Michi” on their compilation Heisei no Oto
in 2021, which catalysed a slow revival of online interest in her wider discography. This, in turn, has enjoyed a two-year gestation and is very much in need of a more succinct, representative centre of gravity than any individual Dream Dolphin offering provides (though for what it’s worth, her under-discussed 1999 pseudo-compilation Cloudy Sky, Rain and the Rainbow
deserves a look in here). Her discography is positively begging for a ultra-colourful stylistic cross section via Best Of, and in this sense it’s a tad disappointing that the label chose to forego the majority chunk of the Dream Dolphin discography occupied with breakbeat, techno or upbeat trance, instead focusing exclusively on, well, the Ambient & Downtempo Works
is the order of the day here, and Downtempo
is to be viewed entirely within its shadow; nothing adjacent to breakbeat or trip-hop makes the selection as such, with the minor exceptions of the buoyant synth-rap lullaby of early gem “Cosmic Blue” and the glacial loop “Tour 5 Modern Blue Asia…” from her final record (both instant highlights). This does comes at the expense of certain career highlights*, but there’s easily enough (near-)beatless ethereal material in Dream Dolphin’s corpus to support this decision - and with that out of the way, Music From Memory and co-compiler Eiji Taniguchi have done a thoroughly comprehensive job here. They show Dream Dolphin’s take on ambient in all its forms from new age mantras (“Daiichi No Uta”) to spoken word synth voyages (“Love Ate Alien”) to playful ambient techno (“Iruka Tachi To Asonda Kioku”) to a sparse vision of nature as a relatively dehumanised habitat (“Rain”). They dish out deep cuts as per the perky “Image-Respect-Love…”, from a mid-career odds-and-ends compilation, and the delicate reverie of “Gaia (Ethereal Fantasy)” itself, from a 2002 collaborative work, supporting these with a cogent proportion of cornerstone pieces in “Kaze No Fuku Tani No Mukoude”, “Cosmic Blue”, “Love Eat Alien”, and everything from 1996’s Atmospheric Healing
. As a full-spectrum breakdown of this particular arm of Dream Dolphin’s work, Gaia…
feels entirely definitive throughout its oceanic two-hour runtime.
In fact, the compilation is so worthy of its brief that it equips even an open-minded first-timer to pose (and answer!) more meaningful questions than of the source material’s mere representation - namely, where Dream Dolphin’s chief talents lay with regard to ambient, and how successfully she realised these. Out with the archivist, in with the critic: the main draw to these songs can be mapped at any given point on a spectrum between Personality and Atmosphere, and by this I mean that the Production is at best a robust support for compositions that would fare well on any terms (“Cosmic Blue”, “Daiichi no Uta”), and at worst a tad amateurish in its simplicity, specifically with regard to percussion (“Voyage (Dive To The Future Sight)”). These songs have survived and been revived not for their sophistication nor, I wager, for their value as '90s time capsules, but for how uncommonly well they capture a very particular naive-benevolent-romanticised spirituality, perfectly disposed towards that all-central atmospheric healing experience (something the '00s psybient movement would later fall short of, for all the good it did achieve).
To which end, let’s talk about Atmospheric Healing
, Dream Dolphin’s oddball ambient triumph. Let’s talk about that album’s masterful bookending duo “Stars” and “Island Humming”, both featured here. The former has a strong claim to Dream Dolphin's very best track, its gorgeous daydream motif the kind of thing that might have been rearranged as a grandiose theme tune for an indie romance flick, yet here it finds itself rendered with such fragility, cycled from tone to tone, octave to octave as though it might disintegrate entirely on each iteration. Dream Dolphin’s hypnotic whisperings are themselves constantly on the verge of disappearance; she and her motif cycle each other with spellbindingly awkward intimacy, forever opening the space for the other to revive itself, forever too shy to build to more than a hush. “Island Humming” interprets the format more evasively still, its motif hung on borderline immaterial vocal inflections, its instrumental foreground painstakingly nebulous from start to finish, the kind of ‘hook’ that beckons the listener to lean further and further into apparent nothingness to make out even its faintest outline. The rest of the song only encloses them deeper in its embrace the closer they get.
These tracks are exquisitely delicate and profoundly moving, though not instantaneously so - both took me whole months to appreciate beyond their new age kitsch, but this in turn opened up to some of the most cleansing and beautiful encounters I have had with any music of any kind. While “Stars” and “Island Humming” are hardly immune to the retro allure of a bygone sound palette or the exoticism so easily attached to an obscure Japanese artist with an unapologetically quirky name, neither of these appeals is sufficient to carry these songs, or any on this compilation, beyond the patience, open heartedness and peaceful temperament that they are so clearly constructed to reward. This is the one great advantage to ambient being chosen over dance music for Dream Dolphin's apparent canon: they demand a more earnest engagement and shrug away the risk that her work will fall into the brand of cult classic synonymous with novelty artist
. As easy as a callous audience may find it to dismiss their new age ponderances and translucent aesthetics, there is something unmistakably pure to these songs’ psychosomatic engagement with the natural world, lyrically and otherwise. Dream Dolphin’s own earnestness elevates them above their genre field, vindicating her ever-effusive Japanophone "find yourself"s through the obvious authenticity of intention behind her delivery. That’s not quite all that matters, but it is ultimately what makes Dream Dolphin so worthy of enshrinement as something more than the zany common denominator beneath a specific cohort of random listeners’ random discoveries. Gaia…
ticks every box on that front; the rest is in the hands of a now-timeless real one.
*most significantly, “Ichiban Tsumetaku, Ichiban Yasashii Umi” (from 1996’s Atmospheric Healing
) and “White Sea: The Selectual Eclipse” (from 1999’s Angel 13: From the Hyper Speed Forest
The only other omission that I’d quibble would be “Under the Water and I Love You”, the gorgeous closer from 1998’s The Sun Always Shines
, and perhaps something from 2000’s new age Forest Songs
. Otherwise, this compilation has ambient Dream Dolphin on lock.