Discipline Reviews: Ryuichi Sakamoto - Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto (1978)

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Artist: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Released in: 1978
Genre: Progressive Electronic
Label: Better Days, Columbia
Producer: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Length: 45:33
Tracks: 6
Best Track: Thousand Knives

TRACKS: 1) Thousand Knives; 2) Island of Woods; 3) Grasshoppers; 4) Das Neue Japanische Elektronische Volkslied; 5) Plastic Bamboo; 6) The End of Asia

I already talked a bit about Yellow Magic Orchestra, the influential yet oft-forgotten synthpop band that formed in Japan in 1976 and dropped their first album not long after Kraftwerk would invent synthpop with The Man-Machine. Unlike Kraftwerk, YMO have pioneered half a dozen styles within 6 years (1978-1983), exploring a new genre with each record, whether they're sampling computer sounds and video games in their self-titled debut, exploring ambience and the use of drum machines in BGM, experimenting with loops and samples in Technodelic or making a heavenly new wave atmosphere in Naughty Boys. Their success may have been modest outside of Japan, but they were ahead of their time, their influence across the electronic scene lasting up until the 90's, having inspired groups like The Orb. I mean, hell, Solid State Survivor had a chiptune track and a song that Michael Jackson covered and could have almost put in Thriller, that's how hardcore YMO were in their peak.

It's no surprise that all three of its members would branch out into their own solo careers, but one of these three is much more talked about than the rest. I'm referring to keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto, who, to be fair, has a lot going for him: he collaborated with ex-Japan (the group) art rock mini-legend David Sylvian on the hit single "Forbidden Colors", and explored tons of different uses to his keyboard skills, including reinventing himself as a modern classical pianist, showing on albums such as 1996 or 05 that he knows how to shred that piano. He's also had the chance of putting out his solo debut a month before YMO's own official debut (the group's actual first album, 6 months earlier, was under the name Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band) and having one of its songs re-appear on one of the group's subequent records.

Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto begins, somewhat fittingly, with "Thousand Knives". Any seasoned YMO listener will notice (if not already know) that a song of the same name was on the group's 1981 record BGM: yep, it's the same song, except that this prototype version is a lot longer, not as punchy, maybe even a notch worse, but still just as interesting. It doesn't feel overlong either, as these 9 minutes also include a 90-second "synthesized vocal solo" (it's actually a vocoded Sakamoto reading a poem) in the beginning, and an extra guitar line courtesy of Kazumi Watanabe (who shows both on here and in the closer that he can -- pardon my French -- shred a mean riff). It's also got a bit of Japanese folk feel to it, and in terms of mood, it's a lot more relaxed than the nervous BGM version, which makes it a very good alternate take.

The rest of the material doesn't quite measure up to this opener, but a good thing is that each track does something different, exploring the capabilities of Sakamoto's electronic equipment in one interesting way or another. Well, half the album does that, at the very least: "Thousand Knives", "Plastic Bamboo" and "The End of Asia" make use of this same "proto-YMO" style. Fortunately, the latter two are located on the far end of the album, closing out the three, more experimental numbers in the middle: "Plastic Bamboo" is my favorite of those two last songs, due to its slight techno feel, though the latter (which would re-appear in another Sakamoto solo record, and the YMO EP X∞Multiplies) is no slouch either, thanks to its more overt Japanese Folk tones and the cool 40-second synth section that closes out the album. These two songs, with enough listens, do end up wearing thin, however.

I'm also not that big on "Island of Woods"; it's cool in the context of the entire record, but there's no way I'd listen to it on its own. It starts off like it would be a minimalistic, ambient-ish song, but a minute in, a Tron-like synth line appears and disappears a minute later, giving way to the background effects again. After a while, all sorts of synthesizer tones pop up, and around the second half, the song proper develops, consisting of a chaotic mesh of sounds and a somewhat imperialistic main melody. I do get the feel of flying over an island, with the birds, the waves and all of the animals on it, presumably reaching civilization at the second half, but its execution, along with the lack of any particularly memorable part, makes it more like interesting background noise than it does a legitimate song proper. Something can be said for the fact that it does evoke an island, though; props for that regard.

There is also, most hilariously, "Das Neue Japanische Elektronische Volkslied". If you ever had any doubt in your mind the members of YMO knew about Kraftwerk, then you can throw that out the window, because this is clearly a pastiche of their style: as expected, it's just as solid as the rest of the material on here, as they mix the German group's robotic sound with Sakamoto's more progressive style and knack for folk elements (his vocoded voice comes back also, but it's almost unintelligible, so...). There is little more I can say for that song, however, as its 8-minute length works for the same reasons as with the title track or the two closing numbers: good pacing.

The other song you should definitely listen to out of all six (the first being "Thousand Knives", of course) is "Grasshoppers", as it foreshadows the Ryuichi Sakamoto you'd hear in 1996 in... 1996. There was no doubt he was a talented keyboard player from the first two songs, but in this one, he takes up an actual piano, with the help of Yuji Takahashi and pulls off an excellent number. The very beginning and end, which feature the "main" melody that's backed by a synthesizer, are hardly the best part, though: instead, keep an ear out for the 1:08 mark, because that's where Sakamoto and Yuji develop an amazing duet with a subdued bass line in the background. That part is so good I'm almost kind of disappointed when the track goes back to the main melody.

These six songs make up, in the end, a very good album, but one that hardly holds up to the material that Yellow Magic Orchestra proper would make in the following years. Take it this way, though: it might be a good extra curiosity for someone who went over all the YMO essentials, but it's definitely an essential Ryuichi Sakamoto album, with good reason, since it both foreshadows the experimental/progressive direction of both his solo career (in parts) and the group, and gives us a peek at his talent as a non-electronic pianist. The one main issue is that what's explored on here has been better explored in these subsequent YMO and Sakamoto records, which means you absolutely should not listen to it multiple times within two days like I did, because the record is obviously going to wear thin (save for tracks 1 and 3) that way.


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