Speaking of the influence of the technological, economic and political state of 1980s Japan on the development of the postmodern, science-fiction literary movement of cyberpunk, William Gibson, pioneer and “noir prophet” of the genre, stated, “modern Japan simply was cyberpunk”. Indeed, the overrepresentation of cyberpunk in Japanese art compared to other nations’ media can likely be pinned down to how closely the country’s major cities resemble the movement’s aesthetic, and with so many of cyberpunk’s most defining cinematic portrayals originating from Japan and being set in its futuristic metropolises, such as Ghost in the Shell and Psycho-Pass, it can be hard not to think of cyberpunk’s cityscapes and Tokyo’s nightlife as one and the same. Rather fittingly, just as ATAVISM, the latest studio album from Japanese electronic musician Yoshimi Hishida, is somewhat of a reflection on Hishida’s native city of Tokyo, the beautifully dark soundscapes featured on the record evoke the dystopian, sci-fi landscapes of cyberpunk. With cyberpunk being a literary style built entirely on a dichotomy — that being the juxtaposition of prosperous technological advancements and fruitful scientific achievements with societal breakdown and political authoritarianism, described by Gibson as “a combination of lowlife and high tech” — it’s apt that ATAVISM should be founded on dichotomies of its own. The last album from Hishida, who records simply under the name of YOSHIMI, Tokyo Restricted Area, was unequivocally inspired by the Japanese capital in a similar fashion to its successor, but, with its ever-present and pervasive industrial edge, Tokyo Restricted Area picked apart the city as an entity comprised of cold stone and hard steel. ATAVISM, however, seemingly transcends the physical world in its underlying themes, with the album’s celestial ambiance existing as a direct counterpoint to its industrial elements, such as the hammering taiko percussion and the unsettling grumbles of bass, creating a stark contrast of dark and light, night and day, and the material and the spiritual. In this sense, if Tokyo Restricted Area is the musical equivalent of cyberpunk, then ATAVISM is that of cyberpunk’s supernatural subsidiary, dreampunk.
Indeed, whilst ATAVISM retains a definite industrial hue, pulling from electronic and ambient music’s dingiest crevices and staying true to Hishida’s self-described “Japanese Hell Trap” style, the general tone of the record is notably more diverse and balanced than Tokyo Restricted Area, primarily courtesy of the inclusion of stylistic principles from a broader pool of genres across the tracklisting. Particularly, vapourwave and a selection of its derivative forms, such as vapourtrap, seem to act as stylistic touchstones for YOSHIMI on ATAVISM, just as hardvapour, vapourwave’s inverted sister genre, and its associated influences of trap, techno and industrial music, played a prevalent part in shaping the soundscapes of the artist’s previous material. Ultimately, therefore, ATAVISM seems to significantly progress from its precursor in substantial ways, being more textured and stylistically varied, just as it is more thematically driven by futuristic and metaphysical concepts. This is made abundantly clear from the album’s very first breaths on the track Floating World, whose title is presumably a reference to the Japanese art genre of ukiyo-e (English: picture[s] of a floating world), which not only spawned Japan’s most widely-recognised piece of artwork, Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, but also the masterful woodcut prints of Hiroshige. Hiroshige’s most distinguished works are noted for their serene and atmospheric landscapes, so it’s easy to see how the ukiyo-e savant’s general aesthetic sensibilities could have influenced Floating World, and much of ATAVISM as a whole. The futuristic bleeps and airy, looming electronics of this opening cut could certainly be described as calm, but also as chilling, as there is most definitely a subtle tension lurking amidst the nocturnal textures, predominantly arising from the distant grumbles and hits of percussion, as well as the overlapping synth tones that lead to notes occasionally clashing. Similar classical allusions appear on Mountain People, with there, once again, being a considerable amount of artistic connotations to unpack from the track’s title alone. The association of the Yamabito (English: mountain people) in Japanese folklore to the introduction of Kamikakushi (literal English: hidden by gods, but often referred to as the act of being “spirited away”) into Japanese popular culture is reason enough to suspect that Mountain People was intended to reference this source of folk traditions. The female vocal sample that has been cut up and rearranged throughout the mix perhaps mirrors the connection between young girls and Kamikakushi, most notably through Hayao Miyazaki’s definitive film Spirited Away, but also with the general concept of being hidden by a god or spirit being traced back to a story of a girl playing under a pear tree one evening, before vanishing without a trace. The points of folklorish reference shared between ATAVISM and Miyazaki’s beloved classic is especially felicitous given my earlier comparison of the album to the literary style of dreampunk, as not only does Spirited Away itself evoke imagery associated with the genre, but the film has routinely been compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, perhaps the defining literary work to be cited as an example of dreampunk. Indeed, the deep cultural and artistic roots of YOSHIMI’s compositions add an immense degree of aesthetic weight to ATAVISM, to the point that the album plays out almost like a film, with its dramatic and capricious soundscapes painting vivid pictures of the landscapes that surely inspired this work.
Undoubtedly, ATAVISM is quite the rabbit hole of arcane artistic allusions, but this should not overshadow the fact that it also boasts some of the most detailed, well-textured and generally luscious soundscapes to have featured on any ambient or electronic record I have heard this year. What’s more, the album’s rich sonic palette is employed incredibly effectively by Hishida as to reflect the core concepts and dichotomies of past and present, rural and urban, nature and technology, or light and dark. Take the suspenseful, brooding, harmonic ambience of Between Mountains and the Sea, for instance, which sees the dark but tranquil atmosphere of the track intermittently interrupted by rapidly escalating crescendos of ethereal electronics that never allow the otherwise soothing piece to quite escape the looming sense of tension. On the following track, Possession and Occurring, the semblances of serenity to be found on its predecessor are completely abandoned, replaced with a trudging techno beat, industrial clangours and outbreaks of screeching white noise and growling sub-bass, which are skillfully interlaced amidst the hypnotic, bubbling melodies and searing synth leads. The industrial tones of ATAVISM take a more twisted but subtle turn on the next cut, Lost Pillow Words, which is centred around a distorted, incomprehensible, warbled groan that sounds neither entirely human nor entirely mechanical. In contrast, the unsettling, yet tame, underlying atmosphere of Old River flows like a stream of water, meaning that the bursts of glitchy noise disturb the stillness as if they were a stone cast into the river. Indeed, Hishida’s ability to craft atmospheres that somehow manage to be calming and tense at the same time keeps the listener constantly on edge in a way that significantly heightens their level of engagement with the album. As a result, even the spellbinding chimes of the closing track Non Experienced Past, which are never shattered by sudden eruptions of electronic growls or anything of the sort, find the listener highly strung, simply because they have been so used to the album’s ghostly placidity being abruptly broken up until this point.
In meeting allusions to esoteric concepts that are deeply ingrained within Japanese art, media and popular culture with an expansive and almost cinematic electronic sound on ATAVISM, YOSHIMI has conceived an album that is as rich culturally as it is sonically. What’s more, such an animated and lucid picture is painted in the listener’s mind as a result that it really requires no effort at all for them to be completely swept away in the waves of luscious, nocturnal sounds. The grand textures of electronics loom over the brooding ambience below, like a neon skyscraper towering above a dark night’s thick fog in some future dystopia, with the end product being as concrete and industrial as it is spiritual and ghostly.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10