With 2016's Goto No Yoniwa, or "garden in the night," Sugai Ken examined the same boundary with a different approach. It was a synthetic recreation of his local riverbank, whose nocturnal thrum of insect chirps he remodelled electronically. On his latest album, UkabazUmorezU, themes of nature and nighttime become strange abstractions. Its 11 tracks represent landscapes, folk traditions and daily routines connected to Kanagawa, where he lives. "Sawariyanagi" depicts a yokai, or monster spirit, with odd a capella loops, which drift into Steve Reich-like forms. Other tracks, like "Okera," use sound as scene-setting cues. Something—possibly a fan, or sandalled feet—gently beats the ground. Synths hum solemnly. Bells and gongs flicker like candlelight. "Okera" seems ceremonial, but the mood is informal and friendly.
Other tracks seem less like portals to Kanagawa than vivid sound hallucinations. In "Wochikaeri To Uzume," a dense arrangement of water sounds, marimbas, throat noises, guiro scrapes, cello and woodwind sends fantasy and reality spinning down the whirlpool together. In all the commotion, a Japanese term for confusion or surprise—"nani?"—rings out. "Ganoubyoshi"'s two main elements—unsteady drum rolls and a "hoarsely voice of the elderly"—go back and forth as though they're arguing. The album's eccentric personality is never more obvious than in Sugai Ken's use of childhood-associated sounds. Cartoonish orchestral jingles and slapstick effects, audible on "Katsura," "Doujiri" and "Wochikaeri To Uzume," add surreal layers to his colourful world.
Sugai Ken's past albums have been more conventionally satisfying. ToKiShiNe's instrumentation, rich with chimes, mallets, bells and synths, lay over soothing ripples of water and birdsong. Last year's On The Quakefish introduced ideas more fully formed here, but still drew from the same blend of ambient and modern classical as composers like Midori Takada. UkabazUmorezU, on the other hand, takes occasional cues from more unlikely sources. In the fluorescent collage of "Katsura," where sighing vocal synths mingle with funny animal samples, the LP echoes James Ferraro and, especially, Hudson Mohawke.
UkabazUmorezU is otherwise remote from recognisable musical traditions or landmarks, even the ones it claims to represent. It's often hard to make out Kanagawa's "exquisite mountains, rivers and seas," as the national tourist board describes them, in music as off-the-wall as this. UkabazUmorezU is a largely interior world, a dream from which we're roused only once. "Shinobine" begins with a croak, and then dulling stillness. As a bedside clock ticks, birds sing and cars pass, probably on the other side of a window. If the blinds were drawn, you'd see dawn breaking.