Reduce, reuse, recycle. Take things that have been reduced to wreckage, rubble, debris and reuse them, recycle them into new forms. New homes from old rubble. New music from old sounds. Create a new future from the debris of the past.
In March 2011, a huge earthquake shook Japan’s northern coast, triggering a tsunami, which flooded 217 square miles of the country, overwhelming towns and cities along the coast and causing a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. In all, more than 18,000 people were killed in the disaster in Japan. Most died by drowning.
When Mike Ward heard saw the devastation caused by the Tsunami on TV, he knew he had to do something. His band, Longstone – who had already released a Japanese-themed record, Kabuki, back in 2009 – put together the album Sakura, with all proceeds going to a charity based in the town of Onagawa.
In 2013, Mike visited Onagawa. Struck by the heroic efforts of local communities to rebuild their lives and towns, the idea for what would become Risaikuru, the third album in an accidental Japanese trilogy, was born.
That idea was to “combine photography with music to highlight the themes of reconstruction, recovery, recycling and positivity that were found in and around Onagawa.”
Having returned to England, Ward and Longstone’s co-founder Mike Cross gathered together a bunch of collaborators and invited them to use Ward’s photos from his trip as points of departure for musical reflections and improvisations.
These became Risaikuru, which is out now in a lovely limited vinyl run from Linear Obsessional records.
There are contributions from Chris Cundy, who uses soprano saxophones and reed organs to mimic the sounds and range of the Sho, the Japanese bamboo flute. Kev Fox plays two guitars built from old cigar boxes. Stuart Wilding squeezes dissonant and percussive sounds from an old piano frame, its strings adorned with all sorts of recovered or disused objects. Mike Ward added location recordings from Onagawa and Mike Cross worked with him to put everything together.
The result is two beautiful long-form pieces that combine ambient music with modern composition, improvisation and clanking rhythmic grooves in a rich and evocative brew. The pieces – named after Onagawa and the nearby island of Enoshima – have an effortless flow, moving through their different styles and moods seamlessly. Melodic, percussive and dissonant elements are integrated harmoniously by a worldview that embraces both darkness and light as constituent parts of one another.
At the start of Onagawa, for example, rusty scrapings and harsh crashes are punctuated by eerie whistling sounds. A slowly unfurling drone sets up a claustrophobic, unsettling vibe. Metallic clanks and atonal plunks seem wrecked, desolate.
Then, out of nowhere, the fearful mood turns carnevalesque as a disembodied electronic groove burbles and crashes. It’s like a robot junkyard jam band playing a tribute to Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene. It’s a fantastic, euphoric thing, with spidery cigar-box chords vying with electronic chirrups and squelches as the percussion fizzes and bumps, even more beguiling for having given us the old switcheroo from the doom and gloom preceding it.
“Please enjoy the text, music and photographs together”, says the rather wonderful PDF booklet, which accompanies Risaikuru. The booklet collects the two photographs used as inspiration by the musicians taking part, as well as several more, and thoughts and reflections from the extended Longstone crew about both their own musical contributions and the project in general.
It’s perhaps rare for music of this genre to have such an openly mimetic purpose. But, although the music works perfectly well without it, the whole package makes for a fascinating experience. The ominous bumps and crashes of Onagawa, for example, take on a different hue when accompanied by a description of the temporary plant that is recycling all of the rubble from the destroyed town. “The debris is sorted, graded, churned and mixed,” it says. “The rhythmic sound of machinery combines with the constant hum of earth movers and trucks, providing the soundtrack of daylight hours.”
Even more effective is the text relating to the gorgeous ambient swirl of Enoshima, perfectly matched to the repeating synths, guitars and field recordings that make up the piece.
“Only a few households have remained or returned since the disaster. Yet there is a flurry of activity on the jetty as the ferry disembarks. Local people, mostly pensioners, are busy cleaning and processing today’s seaweed harvest by hand, a wonderful and colourful display of traditional industry. But this is real life and not a museum or tourist attraction. Other than the hum of the boat, the shuffle of the workers and the random interjection of seagulls, the island seems still and silent.”
There is drama here too, the track’s calm surface disrupted by dissonant chord clusters around three and half minutes in, reminders of the grim destruction that preceded all of this rebuilding work. Yet it is also filled with positive energy, its glassy marimba-style motifs, rubbery bassline and pattering percussion giving it a wonderfully airy feel. It’s like the good-natured sister of In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis. Calm and unhurried, it seems to be locking into some eternal cycle of ebb and flow, death and rebirth, chaos and harmony.
Risaikuru is a wonderful record, and a fine tribute to the indestructible spirit of the people of Onagawa and Enoshima. Its mood is matched perfectly by the compositional aesthetic, and the sound world it creates is engrossing and unique. Stuart Wilding, talking about the wrecked percussion and piano frame he used for this recording, says it best of all:
“Just like the photographs they are full of details, bits and pieces of residual experiences, traces becoming reminders, being reused, to reconstruct an emerging future.”
Risaikuru is available from the Linear Obsessional website, on 12″ vinyl or download. The vinyl includes a professionally printed CDR of the music, and an envelope containing a detailed text from Longstone and the two photographs that were the inspiration for the work.
All photos in this review are by Mike Ward, from the Longstoned website, and are his copyright.