ranquility is a deceptive word. It conjures images of unbroken water, untrammeled snow, and untouched wilderness. It neglects the gold-scaled fish swimming in the depths, the white rabbits huddled beneath the powder-heavy branches of evergreens, and the bears stomping in the bush. It evokes total stillness and erases life from the picture. Most musicians who try to recreate tranquility use this errant definition.
Minamo does them one better. The Japanese quartet—composed of Keichi Sugimoto (Fourcolor, Fonica) on guitars and computers, Yuichiro Iwashita on acoustic guitar, Namiko Sasamoto on keyboards, and Tetsuro Yasunaga on computers—plays music that evokes the tranquility of real spaces. Shining sounds like a grassy field pumped through headphones. The crickets chirp madly, prairie dogs burrow dark labyrinths, dragonflies chase each other like dog-fighting experimental aircraft, and all manner of creatures, shelled and scaled, scurry through the underbrush every hour of the day. Yet it all sounds so peaceful, likely because the music doesn’t seek to manipulate the listener. It merely exists in the air—a living, breathing thing birthed from the belly of the laptop.
Shining sounds so organic because it comes from Minamo’s improvisational live shows. Indeed all of Minamo’s albums use improvisation as input and inspiration. That’s not to say that Shining is a live album. The live shows are just a step of the compositional process. After a live recording, the band enters the studio to edit, reorganize, and experiment for releases. As a result this album sounds decidedly digital, but the sparse guitars retain the immediacy and impact of an improvisation, and the tracks avoid the control-freak tendencies of most digital performers. While Shining could have been a staid, academic affair, instead it balances on a delicate gossamer thread between structure and spontaneity.
The 13-mintue opener “Crumbling” looms over the album. It begins with a quivering metallic, pitch-shifting drone periodically broken by twanging rubber-band bursts before gentle off-white noise sprays over the track. Static stutters an introduction to a few plaintive keyboard notes that are then digitally sourced and laced in the shimmering background as gorgeous echoes of themselves. Finally the keyboard becomes entangled in the laptop’s hardware, surfacing as a repetitive cut-up of a nervous pianist drumming two fingers over a few keys before a performance. Glistening tones rise birdlike, and digital effects tinkle like scattered rain on a tin roof. The track attains physical depth as it progresses. Listening to it, I feel that I have entered a dark, peaceful room, and just as I reach the back wall, it retreats a little further back, over and over again, until the little room has become a glorious cathedral, its walls dripping traces of sounds long dead.
Though “Crumbling” is an epic, the remaining tracks don’t pale in comparison. “Stay Still” in particular reaches the same heights. Here, bubbles of bell-like sound pop behind the whirring of passing insects, and the keyboard again strikes a thoughtful note. Cicada squeals and distant delicate crackles pierce the air. Halfway through, the mood, once somber, becomes urgent with the arrival of frantic glitches and a squall of low-volume noise. The acoustic guitar sounds a strangled folk tune and the scrape of the strings is sourced and dragged through the track. The individual talents of Minamo shine most brightly in “Stay Still,” but an impressive group dynamic is maintained.
Shining doesn’t have lot to criticize. The group consistently creates beautiful music with compositional daring and instrumental aplomb. If you adjust your ear to Minamo’s peace and quiet, you’ll discover a whole world of bustling sound. So sit in that field and listen.
Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2005-04-22