Music reviewers and internet pundits have keenly observed and identified a number of trends in techno over the last couple of years, such as the rise of minimal, the subsequent mutation/splintering of “minimal”, the return of “the riff” (thank you Alter Ego), the return of acid, and the rise of that woozy-druggy sound currently known as “ketamine house”. Another sound critics have noted is typified by the rise of labels such as Border Community and artists like The MFA, a sound characterized by soaring, euphoric melodies. For want of a better word, people are calling this Neotrance, or Nu-trance.
Tokyo based artist Hiroshi Watanabe, however, has already been doing neotrance for a good five years on the Kompakt label under his Kaito alias. Over the course of five 12”s and two albums Watanabe has bowled listeners over with his fusion of deep house, ambience, and (at a time when it was a dirty word) trance. (Even the Kompakt press release says “it’s trance … but in a good way”). Suddenly, it was okay to like trance again. Now, with “Hundred Million Light Years”, Kaito’s third full-length release on Kompakt, Watanabe seems set to do it all over again.
Watanabe sets the scene and unveils his blueprint for the album with “Color of Feels”, a slightly reworked version of an earlier single. Soft gliding synthlines carry us into the track, soon to be met by a warm muffled four/four beat. A synthline that sounds like a saxophone then begins to take flight as Watanabe brings in other soaring melodies set to propulsive beats, reaching higher and higher as the track progresses. This is music that reaches for the stars, reveling in the euphoric power of flight.
“Natural Source”, the second track, is soft and warm, wrapped up in gauze and cotton wool. Watanabe coats most of the tracks in gauzy textures even while they soar towards the clouds, but make no mistake; this is not an ambient album. Nor is it an album full of the narcotic wooziness of “ketamine house”, or even the warmth of dub. The tracks may be gentle, but they are clear-eyed and designed for dancefloors (preferably around sunrise). Watanabe’s track titles give a clue as to the feelings he hopes to stir in listeners. “Nobody Could Be Alone”, “We Were Born Here”, “Holding A Baby”, “The Universe” … Watanabe seeks to inspire feelings of almost childlike innocence; a wide-eyed joy and wonder at the universe. (It is absolutely no accident that the cover art yet again features Watanabe’s young son, Kaito.)
For the most part the formula works, especially on “Nobody Could Be Alone” which is both the highlight of the album and the perfect encapsulation of Kaito’s sound. Warm gentle synthlines lead the listener in as a four/four beat gradually builds alongside almost melancholic guitar chords. About four minutes in the synths and then the beat drops away as a piano comes in, playing an almost jazzy melody. We’re then surrounded by gently hissing gas as a vaguely horn-like synth begins to rise, and the beats softly begin to fade back in … and then the synths soar majestically as the beat kicks back in, like some sort of ship setting sail, regal and magnificent. If this does not get a dancefloor whooping with sheer joy, a DJ should be able to return this album for a full cash refund.
There are a few moments, however, when Watanabe pushes things a little too far. The melodies in “Holding A Baby” soar higher and higher until they threaten to burst right through the stratosphere and into outer space, or perhaps the top of the listener’s head. Watanabe wisely comes back down to earth (well, perhaps at least the cumulus layer of the clouds) for the final three tracks on the album. Furthermore, some of the tracks overstay their welcome, some running over nine minutes, and none under seven; “Holding a Baby”, in particular, feels as if it’s running on the spot.
However, for those who want to listen to unabashedly euphoric music that is wrapped in gauzy candyfloss, “Hundred Million Light Years” is an absolute treat.
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