Sound Decision
Maaya Sakamoto, Starship Operators

by Jonathan Mays,

Maaya Sakamoto: Nikopachi —Geneon (April 4)

Pardon the self-indulgence, but writing about Maaya Sakamoto's Nikopachi is sort of surreal for me. Three years ago when I wrote my first so-called column, I opined on three of Sakamoto's songs, and two of them are on this disc. There's a lot more to Nikopachi than Hemisphere and Gravity, and they might not even be the best two tracks, but it is hard not to fixate on them because they give me some perspective. If not for Sakamoto's music, I probably wouldn't be doing this right now.

Anyway, I like Hemisphere and Gravity for the same reasons I did back then: the former for its blend of light pop and classical instruments, and the latter for daring to go a full three minutes in the sensual key of F# minor. With some experience under my belt, I now see Hemisphere has a few of innovative composer Yoko Kanno's trademarks: strikingly fast passages, a blend of strings and electronic sounds, and a wandering identity. It also stacks Sakamoto's vocals in layers and keeps the synthesizer in neutral while the strings take control, traits more common to Kanno's rising rival, Yuki Kajiura. But the most important thing about RaXhephon's opening theme is that it builds momentum from its first note all the way to the fourth minute, when it explodes into another, well, hemisphere. No other anime theme has so spectacular a payoff.

As Hemisphere dashes up, Gravity glides down. Hemisphere breaks through its aural ceiling I think twelve times in the first minute, while Gravity is weighed down by its key and persistent piano chords for the entire song. I don't know Hemisphere's lyrics, and I don't much think they matter, but Gravity's English lines are worth knowing.

Gravity is a beautifully muted song, and maybe Sakamoto's most memorable work. It's not her best; Another Grey Day in The Big Blue World probably relates the same message better, but Gravity finds a sort of perfect melancholy.

As for the rest of Nikopachi, it's pretty good, too. Octave At Dawn is vintage Sakamoto, shamelessly cute, genuine, and in no hurry to conform to a melody. It's sort of a like a two-minute radio drama. Kimidori is has a great syncopated beat, even if its strings are a little too familiar with disco.

Ring is probably the most conventional light pop song of the set, which makes sense since it's the theme of the Escaflowne movie. Sakamoto is soft and smooth in it, and in the Vector guitar ballad, which clearly has shades of Jewel, but she never asserts herself in either song. She also goes just slightly flat from time to time. As unpleasant as it is to write about my favorite anime singer, Sakamoto is yet to show the kind of stage presence she will need to make a lasting impression on anyone who isn't familiar with Escaflowne or Wolf's Rain.

But oh well. There is a lot to be said for vocals that are not overbearing or pretentious. She probably owes a lot to Kanno's writing style, but Sakamoto lets music happen around her, and through her. Recently she has started recording with other artists than Kanno, and as much as I savor the music I discovered three years ago, something new will probably be good for her.

Starship Operators —Geneon (April 4)

Kenji Kawai does a lot of things well, but music for a fluff show is not one of them. The same dense, bottom-heavy style that gave Ghost in the Shell an extra dose of gravitas turns Starship Operators into a lumbering mess, like a sumo wrestler dancing to MMMBop.

If you are patient enough, you will find some solace in No Response and Something Lost, the requisite mournful interludes that are thankfully bereft of overblown drum synthesizers. If you are even more patient, Final Operation will reward you by finally matching strings and earth-shaking bass beats in an epic piece equal to many of Kawai's Patlabor works.

To praise anything else would be to grasp at straws. Raid is a sort of Jaws parody. Was that really necessary? Campus Life is as bland and lazy as it sounds, utterly lacking in the irony that makes such a piece passable in Evangelion. And just when I'd forgotten how those old Sega games used to cope with that pinball machine sound card, Universe network brings it all back.

Incidentally, I think KOTOKO missed the anime theme gravy train a few years ago. Her innocent intoning is reminiscent of superstar Megumi Hayashibara, but these days we expect better songwriting. If you really want her Radiance and On The Earth themes, wait for her album in June. This one only has the short cuts, anyway.

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