Review of Ocean Fire [12k1046]

Squid’s Ear (.COM)

Talk about bringing all your cred to the table; here is a summit meeting of talents comprising arguably the most high-profile release in the 12k catalog. Of the two, Christopher Willits is the “youngster,” having released but a mere handful of full-length recordings since the early 2000s (many of which are collaborative efforts) spread out over diverse labels such as Plop, Fallt, Audiosphere, 12k of course, and more recently Ghostly International, where his star’s on the rise thanks to the avant-glitchpop appeal of last year’s Surf Boundaries. And unless you’ve been in a coma since the late 70s, Ryuichi Sakamoto is a name that belies its electro-pop origins in the seminal Yellow Magic Orchestra, his artistic evolution sweeping across a multi-generational arc of musicians and stylistic cross-pollenations, taking in everything from symphony orchestras and piano-based experimentation to stretching all manners of acoustic and electronic composition across various popular idioms.

Willits doesn’t seem to be the least intimidated by Sakamoto’s prowess — the two complement, challenge and push each other so perfectly throughout Ocean Fire that one might assume they’d been kindred spirits in a previous life. In many ways, this record nestles within and spectates outside the usual 12k purview. Though steeped in the sumptuous ambience and meticulous sound design that is the label’s hallmark, both Willits and Sakamoto shake up the template fairly considerably. Unafraid to trade in noisier climes as the various pieces progress, this ain’t just your stereotypical microsound – contrasts abound, hues are blended, submerged and transmogrified, varying emotional states are charted. If anything, it is patently refreshing to hear Sakamoto in this milieu (though he’s dabbled in similar realms thanks to earlier recordings with Raster-Noton’s Carsten Nicolai), shucking off the cloying classicism that’s rendered many of his past recordings somewhat disingenuous. Here, not only is he energized by Willits’s guitar excoriations, he deftly applies his own polychromatic élan within his partner’s provocative laptop feints.

Ocean Fire both literally and figuratively courts its metaphors, yet what the duo create sonically is an aural bed of tangible contradictions. From the digipak cover’s burning sunset waves to the track titles, Willits and Sakamoto aren’t interested in easy listening. Dualities abound, as on “Toward Water”, which beckons you in slowly, Willits using his customary folding guitar technique to dance limpid pools around the shimmery software tableaux; what starts out languid becomes haunting, almost abrasive, an anti-ambience of battery hum and electrostatic crackle. “Cold Heat” realizes its own innate duality thanks to tonal fuzz that occasionally erupts through the metallic drones resonating across the liquid surface. Who does what is unclear — the synergy that develops between the pair borders on the uncanny — but in converging their talents, Willits and Sakamoto have produced a galvanizing experience that, singularly and collectively, might be their finest work to date – Darren Bergstein

View Release