"From now on, I will be living with cancer. But, I am hoping to make music for a little longer."
A lot of shit went down lately for Ryuichi, despite the continued brawl with cancer, he’s outlived a fellow mind of the Yellow Magic Orchestra through the passing of Yukihiro Takahashi in the 11th of January of this year. Six days later, 12 (2023, Milan) released. Recorded between March of 2021 and April of the following year, these ambient passages were likely dedicated to his own battles and the wear he has endured over the years. These songs were recorded a few months after a new cancer was found in Ryuichi after the old throat tumour went into remission. In the eyes of the public, however, it couldn’t be more hauntingly timed. This moves with the slowness of the time someone so senior would perceive ever so long ago, minimal as the memories still surviving, cold as a pair of wrinkled hands and the air of what used to be life-long close company. Life ain’t long no longer, life is now lots of longing. Repressed rigamarole.
There are faint hums in the back, the piano trudging along like a slow recollection. This is a legendary volcano approaching dormancy, after all. No matter the interpreted impoliteness, it’s a truth that only Ryuichi knows best. The synthpop merriments of many yesteryears past are now replaced with utter resignation, but an odd calm to boot. Breaths are clearly audible, almost heavy. This album happens to be the documentation of a battle too. Four stages of similar plights. Layers of hell, that bunch. Especially when you witness their manifestation through the breath that makes Robert Wyatt’s Alifib sound like a million-dollar-smile merriment. It all kills away at the listener, doesn’t it? That’s likely where empathy comes into play, or at least, the unique breed of empathy this album provides from the listener to its sole composer. The presence of each key is spectral, cold phantoms having already shaken hands with the ol’ bony reaper himself. Distant commotions no larger than the domestic scope occupy this harrowing headspace as well.
The ambience is so god-awfully drenched in the malaise of Antarctic torrent that the listener may eventually have to put on a coat in the middle of listening. I swear the wind is one of the main residents, the closer I listen. Oddly enough, what is closely listened to happens to be the empty spaces. Suppose that’s just air. The reprieve to his malady. Each note is a frailty physically and a stronghold in emotion. The minimalist soundtrack to finding peace in defeat. A good amount of musical epitaphs tend to occur when the composer is staring death in the face rather than nodding in its general direction in patience, with a corner in their head dedicated to the probability that they might get better. This happens to be the latter, it’s almost hypothermic. It isn’t something that is being avoided and prolonged as much as it is something to live with, to allow it to take as much time as it needs. A long and intriguing life, with an even more intriguing musical catalogue, Ryuichi has spawned. But it’s almost soothing, as if despite this inevitability, there remains peace and resolution to be found. No matter the sparse placements of these keys, they exist as glimpses rather than pretty minimal twinkles. Forget indulging in the celestial, all that astronomical bullshit. This is as honest as a bittersweet album can get.
There are thankfully an infinite array of ways this album speaks for itself in a way words simply don’t suffice in providing, that’s one of the superpowers of music. But there are many observations within the sheer malaise alone that can be deduced and written down with this hour-long celebration of everything that remains. The fifth track in particular reeks of death. Not fate, not the culmination of destiny, just death. It’s the faint glint at the very end of the reaper’s weary eyes, the atmosphere of what is coming rather than what is still here. Brooding ambience, not towering over the listener. Rather, assuming the air at the very back of their neck.
It returns to the minimalist piano eventually thanks to the track that follows it, but there is an impact already left. This album, like a generous amount of other albums, has its chance of becoming immortal. But those breaths show that its creator just ain’t, far from it. This ship’s got leaks, this grand and worthy vessel. There was a time it shined like a star cluster in the face of emptiness. Now? Well, it simply portrays faint sparkles. Its main dialect is no longer in voice, but in air. In the temperature and breath. It is not to be deciphered, only felt, transformed into an infinite batch of interpretations of the painfully obvious. There is very little left of possibly being said, all the words have been ordered in the past in every possible combination. Let the air do the talking. Blowing through you and leaving you nothing but rattled old bones and cold meat, that young mind of yours held hostage by the wise silences of the ever impending. That’s the spirit.
When things get shorter from track eight onwards, it doesn’t necessarily compromise the pacing. Take a look at track eight. The sparse feeling is shed, there’s more confidence. There’s a joy in life being extracted from these moments. No longer is the sickly sickle-donning reaper’s breath causing pure pain and soft hostility. Now it’s the catalyst of a certain drive, a drive to live everything to its fullest with all that you have, a psychological resourcefulness. That very same vigour is very similarly shed and replaced with what preceded it within the following track. This time, a more detectable discordance comes into play. It’s like a slow, methodical coming-to-terms, a resolution so bitter that the sweet has been evicted from the taste buds, premises, and cosmos. These two very different cosmos eventually wed within the following piece as well, a sweet taijitu of pain being built upon, a cathedral built of memories and gust.
Soft tinkers a la chime close out the album with the final track. Imagine it like the Gingerbread Man’s own funeral bell, with its ever femtoscopic size painting a similar scale to whatever confidence and vitality remains, calm reduced to borderline existential apathy. Memories into ashes, ashes into wind, wind into particles, and particles into decay. It’s no friendly listen, just as it should be. It doesn’t need to get busy in sound to show what’s going on. The silences, breaths, soft collapse of the notes, ambience of death that would leave Charlie Kaufman’s darkest occasions envious, the unadulterated tension that lives within the corners of both the listener’s psyche and Ryuichi’s, it’s all sufficient. Make no mistake: this work can be vulnerable to losing momentum, particularly in the first half and its transition into the second half. But outside of that, there isn't all that much to complain about.
Greatness can be questioned, but sufficiency is undeniable within this particular moment. Let’s hope he comes out of this cancer intact. He’s got the massive multi-dimensional worldly vortex of music and its many patrons as company and as support, no matter the fact that he’s proven to have the strength. I had to rummage my way over to a cove full of blistering colds and winds and an okay meal, yet such vitriolic Atlantic shiver remains the second coldest thing I’ve experienced today.
Trajectory of listens past the first: neutral.
Written 3/19/2023, 7:00 - 8:04 PM.