Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Time for a Break

With the year-end flurry of film festivals, new theatrical releases and backlot of unwrapped Blu-rays to write on, I will be taking a break from posting music reviews to focus on film reviews until further notice.  Thanks for your support!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Full Moon Story (1979) - Kitaro

Review #26

Artiste:  Kitaro
Year:  1979
Genre:  New Age
Duration:  48 mins
Label:  Polydor
Format:  CD

  1. ‘Krpa’ – 5:07
  2. ‘Aurora’ – 3:40
  3. ‘Hikari No Mai’ – 5:47
  4. ‘Fuji’ – 3:47
  5. ‘Full Moon’ – 4:46
  6. ‘Resurrection’ – 4:52
  7. ‘From Astral’ – 3:48
  8. ‘Heavenly Illusion’ – 6:18
  9. ‘New Lights’ – 8:21

Kitaro’s second album, after the success of Astral Voyage (1978), an auspicious debut for one of new age music’s undisputed masters, is a continuation of his experimentation with highly melodic synthesizer music that characterized his late ‘70s and early ‘80s work. 

Full Moon Story is an album of warm an rich electronic sounds, accompanied by an array of organic instruments like drums and the sitar, all performed by Kitaro.  Together with Astral Voyage, Oasis (1979), and his score to Queen Millennia (1981), Full Moon Story can be regarded as part of his ‘space music’ oeuvre, which he would ground with earthlier, historical images via his famous collaboration with NHK to produce music for the ‘Silk Road’ series. 

In one continuous stream of music from one track to the next, Kitaro has created a travelogue soundscape that is both unique and transcendent.  Some of my favourite tracks are highlighted below, but a notable track is ‘Hikari No Mai’—its arrangement with drums and melody would later form the structural basis of such brilliant pieces as ‘Eternal Spring’ in Silk Road Vol. 2 (1980) and ‘Lord of the Sand’ in Dunhuang (1981). 

Another track of note is ‘Fuji’, giving us beautiful, spectral images of Mount Fuji in a foggy night, and its beautiful transition into ‘Full Moon’ as the wind blows the fog away.

‘Aurora’ – One of Kitaro’s most pleasurable tracks from his early years, with basic chord changes, light acoustic guitar accompaniment, and a sweet melody on the synthesizer that is a precursor to some of his more famous tracks in his later ‘Silk Road’ albums in the ‘80s.

‘Full Moon’ – A very beautiful, meditative piece that, as its title says, gives us a musical evocation of what it is like to behold and contemplate the full moon, and its perfect, heavenly reflection on the still water.  The use of the synthesized pitch bend, a trademark of Kitaro’s music till today, is perhaps used extensively for the first time as a lower pitch accompaniment, producing the 'mirroring' effect of the full moon over water.

‘Resurrection’ – An excellent piece with space-like sounds in the beginning.  When the main rhythm kicks in, together with the synthesized melody (and yes, that low pitch-bend thing), it does feel like a resurrection of souls as they are freed from their earthly bodies, and projected into a never-ending space. 

Reviewed on Luxman Stereo Integrated Amplifier A-383, Marantz Compact Disc Player CD-63SE, and a pair of 1973 New Advent Loudspeakers.

Sound Quality:  Outstanding recording


Friday, August 5, 2016

Beyond the Circle (1996) - Osamu Kitajima

Review #25

Artiste:  Osamu Kitajima
Year:  1996
Genre:  New Age / Oriental
Duration:  51 mins
Label:  East Quest Records
Format:  CD

  1. ‘Beyond the Circle’ – 5:17
  2. ‘Mind Thieves’ – 4:44
  3. ‘Darkness Desired’ – 5:15
  4. ‘Blue Fire’ – 5:23
  5. ‘Evening Privilege’ – 5:14
  6. ‘The Bush Warbler’ – 6:00
  7. ‘Fading Sky’ – 3:50
  8. ‘Bonito Moxie’ – 5:03
  9. ‘Goldfish Lingo’ – 4:46
  10. ‘Distant Episode’ – 5:03
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/3DY5us8IQIDV5hKJQxu4nS

In the early ‘90s, the sound of ‘Osamu’ reached its musical peak with his masterful albums Mandala (1991) and Behind the Light (1992).  A four-year hiatus followed, but in 1996, Osamu Kitajima returned with an album that charted a brand new direction and expanded his musical sensibilities as an artist. 

Beyond the Circle is a fusion album of East (organic Japanese instruments with traditional Geisha-esque voice-work) and West (modern synthesized layerings and rhythms).  The result is no doubt fascinating, in particular the album’s fresh arrangements that seem to suggest unlimited possibilities for East-West fusion compositions in the genre of new-age and electronic music.  Put yourself in 1996, and this album would begin to feel radical.

In fact, it almost straddles into dance and trance music territory, without the cookie-cutter artifice.  Each track has its own unique properties, yet musically, the album has a consistent new sound.  Kitajima would try to replicate that ‘sound’ again in the album Two Bridges Crossing (2008), in itself an interesting hybrid album, but executed less successfully. 

‘Beyond the Circle’ – The title track is also my favourite.  Starts off with percussion, shamisen, and a groovy electronic rhythm, before a synth flute melody comes into play.  Throughout the piece, we are treated to superb arrangements of electronic layers and koto.  Traditional Japanese voice-work also punctuates the music playfully.  No matter how long this is on repeat, it doesn’t get tiring. 

‘Mind Thieves’ – Strong rhythms keep this track lively.  The melody is performed on koto, while some of the most invigorating voice-work of the album comes in the chorus of this track. 

‘The Bush Warbler’ – A deep-synth instrument and voice-work begin the track.  There’s no distinctive melody here, but there’s a range of instruments used, including shakuhachi, electric guitar, and a myriad of electronic layerings.  At about 2:40, there’s a bridging section with beautiful vocalization and taiko drumming, possibly the most memorable moment of the album. 

Reviewed on Luxman Stereo Integrated Amplifier A-383, Marantz Compact Disc Player CD-63SE, and a pair of 1973 New Advent Loudspeakers.

Sound Quality:  Superb recording 


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Interstellar OST (2014) - Hans Zimmer

Review #24

Artiste:  Hans Zimmer
Year:  2014
Genre:  Soundtrack
Duration:  72 mins
Label:  WaterTower Music
Format:  CD

  1. ‘Dreaming of the Crash’ – 3:55
  2. ‘Cornfield Chase’ – 2:07
  3. ‘Dust’ – 5:41
  4. ‘Day One’ – 3:19
  5. ‘Stay’ – 6:52
  6. ‘Message from Home’ – 1:40
  7. ‘The Wormhole’ – 1:30
  8. ‘Mountains’ – 3:39
  9. ‘Afraid of Time’ – 2:32
  10. ‘A Place Among the Stars’ – 3:27
  11. ‘Running Out’ – 1:57
  12. ‘I’m Going Home’ – 5:48
  13. ‘Coward’ – 8:26
  14. ‘Detach’ – 6:42
  15. ‘S.T.A.Y.’ – 6:23
  16. ‘Where We’re Going’ – 7:41
Listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/7a78GiEowpaCa7ZJs44xUU

Composer Hans Zimmer and director Christopher Nolan has been a match in heaven since the duo’s first collaboration on Batman Begins in 2005.  Since then, we had amazing music to behold from the rest of the ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy (2008 & 2012), Inception (2010), and Interstellar.  He is also scoring Nolan’s upcoming war epic Dunkirk (2017). 

Zimmer’s work on Interstellar takes a less bombastic shift into more haunting and evocative territory, perhaps in a bid to capture the film’s themes of time, memory and vast uncertainty.  The church organ is especially noticeable in the score, alluding to the spirituality of connection through time and space.  Overall, the music is fantastic to behold.

But… the standard album doesn’t include the full selection of tracks (available only digitally in the deluxe edition) used in the film, particularly suspenseful tracks like ‘Imperfect Lock’ and ‘No Time for Caution’, the latter being one of Zimmer’s most stunning compositions.  Much of the album may seem bereft of ‘action’ tracks, with quieter, atmospheric music selected instead.  This is probably the only downer in an otherwise excellent album.  I would give the Deluxe Edition 4.5 stars instead.

‘Cornfield Chase’ – Features the score’s most fascinating theme, a kind of rumination on the ephemeral and mysterious nature of time.  Breathtaking is the word. 

‘Dust’ – Captures the dark uncertainty of space, with a feeling of glowing light in the opening couple of minutes.  It then segues into one of the score’s more ominous melodies, performed with deep, beautiful strings.

‘Mountains’ – Astonishing music on show here, one of the score’s throwback to Zimmer’s trademark bombast.  Starts off soft with a ticking clock rhythm, and explodes into life as if we are witnessing the birth of the universe.  Performed masterfully with the church organ and synths. 

‘Detach’ – My favourite track.  With a recurring deep bass that sets the pacing, the music builds up with great force, only to settle for a moment of solitude.  It then picks up with one of the most emotional cues Zimmer has ever written, a sort of epiphany and realization that you are welcomed, in all of its majesty, to another world. 

Reviewed on Luxman Stereo Integrated Amplifier A-383, Marantz Compact Disc Player CD-63SE, and a pair of 1973 New Advent Loudspeakers.

Sound Quality:  As with most albums by Hans Zimmer, the bass is stronger than usual, so do listen with caution.  The audio balancing can be a bit frustrating—when it’s soft, it’s really soft; when it’s loud, it’s really loud.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Behind the Mask (1995) - Ron Korb

Review #23

Artiste:  Ron Korb
Year:  1995
Genre:  World / Instrumental
Duration:  58min
Label:  Humble Dragon Entertainment
Format:  CD

  1. ‘Fields of Home’ – 2:23
  2. ‘Behind the Mask’ – 3:39
  3. ‘Dark Eyes’ – 5:25
  4. ‘Shadow Puppets’ – 3:42
  5. ‘Caravan’ – 4:30
  6. ‘Faith’ – 4:49
  7. ‘Mirage’ – 4:42
  8. ‘Shadow Dance’ – 3:52
  9. ‘Desert Night’ – 4:01
  10. ‘The Longing’ – 3:15
  11. ‘Golden Robes’ – 5:34
  12. ‘Journey Home’ – 4:42
  13. ‘Voices in the Sky’ – 2:31
  14. ‘Shadow Dance Reprise’ – 1:44
  15. ‘Fields of Home Reprise’ – 2:56
Listen on Spotify: 

Ron Korb may not be as famous as other new age musicians like Kitaro or Vangelis, but his prowess with almost every kind of flute imaginable (one has to listen to the album Flute Traveller (1994), where he samples in solo format sixteen different kinds of flutes) has seen him regarded as a master of the instrument. 

The ‘Prince of Flutes’, as many have called him, detours into a more world music-styled album for Behind the Mask, with influences from Indonesian (e.g. ‘Voices in the Sky’), Chinese (e.g. ‘Fields of Home’ and ‘Journey Home’), and Spanish (e.g. ‘Dark Eyes’) music.  This comes after his superb new-age debut Tear of the Sun (1990) and the Japanese-influenced Japanese Mysteries (1993). 

Because of the eclectic makeup of Behind the Mask, it may feel unfocused with music across different cultures and styles.  It’s what I call a buffet album—each track is different from another and there’s a lack of thematic consistency. 

Still, Korb’s brilliant performances on a range of flutes (e.g. bamboo flute, silver flute, alto flute, dizi, suling, kecak and even the didgeridoo), plus some great work by accompanying musicians who play a host of traditional instruments like the koto, anklung, gamelan, Celtic harp, and Latin and Chinese percussion, give the album many moments of harmonious and joyous sounds.

‘Behind the Mask’ – A sense of mystery and adventure is built as a myriad of percussion instruments comes into play, creating a strong rhythm.  Korb plays a soaring melody on a type of flute (I’m not a flute expert, so I can’t tell what flute it is), with accompanying plucked strings.  One of the album’s most energetic pieces.

‘Mirage’ – A companion piece to ‘Desert Night’, and a prelude to the more vibrant ‘Golden Robes’, which shares the same main melody.  This is an easy listening track performed on flute and piano that has a tinge of melancholy and a sense of yearning for happy memories.

‘Desert Night’ – A beautiful piece on flute, with a subtle touch of accordion behind it, plus accompanying steel string guitar and harp.  There’s a feeling of tranquillity as the warm desert night sets in. 

‘Journey Home’ – One of Korb’s most well-known tunes, a piece heavily inspired by Chinese music that is performed largely on the dizi (Chinese flute) and erhu (Chinese violin), with great bridging rhythms between the main melodies. 

Reviewed on Luxman Stereo Integrated Amplifier A-383, Marantz Compact Disc Player CD-63SE, and a pair of 1973 New Advent Loudspeakers.

Sound Quality:  Good, sharp recording


Friday, June 17, 2016

Over the Brink (2013) - Osamu Kitajima

Review #22

Artiste:  Osamu Kitajima
Year:  2013
Genre:  New Age / Oriental
Duration:  45min
Label:  East Quest Records
Format:  CD

1.       ‘In Every Step’ – 9:46
2.       ‘Axial Rotation’ – 4:58
3.       ‘Crossroads’ – 4:12
4.       ‘Wadachi in Its Wake’ – 13:06
5.       ‘Evening Wings’ – 4:07
6.       ‘A Narrow Way to the Hill’ – 9:00

Listen on Spotify: 

A masterful return to the new age meditative music that he is most well-known for, Osamu Kitajima's Over the Brink is a cause for celebration, among fans of his that is.  Kitajima has been one of the most underrated musicians in the realm of oriental new age and east-west hybrid electronic music over the last forty years—he even predates Kitaro, his more prolific Japanese counterpart who has largely overshadowed him.

Over the Brink is one of Kitajima's finest achievements to date, and in my opinion, one of the top three albums of his discography.  Possessing a modern touch but retaining the artiste's trademark sound and arrangements, the album is an inspired musical extension of two of his most beloved recordings—Mandala (1991) and Behind the Light (1992). 

Each of the six tracks are fantastic to listen.  Apart from the highlights below, ‘Axial Rotation’ is an intriguing piece with a very strong bass line, as if something is constantly turning, while ‘Evening Wings’ sees Kitajima at his straightforward best.  ‘A Narrow Way to the Hill’ combines some ethereal voice work with more meditative stylings.  It feels like a spiritual trek up a steep hill, never stopping, and always flowing.  There’s a jazz-inspired midsection, perhaps alluding to a heavenly rendezvous with a few celestial nymphs. 

‘In Every Step’ – At nearly ten minutes long, this echoes elements from the title track in Mandala.  The airy sounds of the shakuhachi floats with freedom, as if spiraling the listener up into the clouds.

‘Crossroads’ – Also an unmistakable Kitajima piece with intense soundscapes and a flowing, journeyistic melody.  There's a brilliant bridging midsection with cymbals and a loose impression of the rhythm of 'Pure Land in the West', also from the album Mandala.  My personal favourite of the lot.

‘Wadachi in Its Wake’ – Kitajima is no stranger to lengthy tracks, and this is one of his best.  Thoroughly engaging with the use of traditional Japanese instruments and percussion, this piece is made up of a recurring set of energetic melodies with several bridges performed solo separately on koto, shamisen and biwa.  Quite a modern throwback to the arrangements of his earlier albums like Masterless Samurai (1980) and The Source (1984).

Reviewed on Luxman Stereo Integrated Amplifier A-383, Marantz Compact Disc Player CD-63SE, and a pair of 1973 New Advent Loudspeakers.

Sound Quality:  Excellent, dynamic recording


Friday, June 3, 2016

Maya (2012) - Chris Spheeris

Review #21

Artiste:  Chris Spheeris
Year:  2012
Genre:  World / New Age
Duration:  57min
Label:  Essence Records
Format:  CD

  1. ‘Ghali’ – 7:14
  2. ‘Lanilei’ – 5:20
  3. ‘Sadoor’ – 5:48
  4. ‘Narabi’ – 9:55
  5. ‘Kradeesh’ – 3:44
  6. ‘Soulana’ – 2:51
  7. ‘Bata’ – 8:48
  8. ‘Shasti’ – 12:35

Listen on Spotify: 

After Brio (2002), fans of Chris Spheeris had to wait for almost a decade for a new, original recording.  Entitled Maya (And the Eight Illusions), this is one of his best albums, incorporating a strong world music spirit that is reminiscent of his 1996 album Mystic Traveller.  While Mystic Traveller is more journeyistic, even spiritual, Maya is like a melding of some of Spheeris’ signature arrangements and styles, but infused with ethnic qualities, particularly from India and the Middle East. 

‘Shasti’, a 12-minute piece that closes the album is an ambient track featuring a Middle Eastern flute and solo guitar—this is in the tradition of Spheeris’ more meditative albums like Passage (1994) and Respect (2014), though they are largely suffused with electronic layering and sounds.  Tracks such as ‘Kradeesh’ and ‘Soulana’ feature refreshing rhythms and superb work on the guitar, an instrument that Spheeris has mastered for three decades. 

Some have chided Spheeris for an album that is not really part of his musical DNA, thus alienating fans of his earlier works.  I beg to differ—this is quintessential stuff, an album that shows that he is still at the height of his composition powers, and who is bold enough to explore new sounds amid familiar arrangements.  The album is largely extraordinary, impeccably arranged and full of vitality and power.

‘Ghali’ – An Indian music-inspired piece with an opening solo on sarod (a North Indian lute-like stringed instrument), which then develops into a full-blown sonic experience of ethnic percussion, bass, guitars and violin.

‘Narabi’ – This is possibly the most ‘Chris Spheeris’ sounding track of the album, a beautiful concoction of piano, violin, cello, guitar and synths.  A melody inspired by North African rhythms and arrangements recurs throughout this 10-minute piece.

‘Bata’ – An unassuming chillout piece largely performed on the piano in free-flowing style with a low-key percussive rhythm that builds into something truly hypnotic with accompanying guitars.

Reviewed on Luxman Stereo Integrated Amplifier A-383, Marantz Compact Disc Player CD-63SE, and a pair of 1973 New Advent Loudspeakers.

Sound Quality: Superb recording, though the mixing of the solo guitar in ‘Shasti’ isn’t that perfect—the layering is rather obvious.