Review of Ocean Fire [12k1046]

Tokafi (.COM)

Not served by superficial mythology: Water as music and sounds as waves.

It’s not hard for me to relate to Ocean Fire. To anyone who has lived almost ten years of his life within walking distance of the sea, it is easy to see why an artist would want to draw attention to the “healing and restauration of our fragile oceans.” Then again, when two established and “serious” sound artists like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Christopher Willits stake that claim, different standards are usually applied. So let’s make it clear from the very beginning: This neither a Beach Boys nor a New Age album.

In fact, it is almost confoundingly not so. Both Sakamoto and Willits have displayed a genuine openness to harmony and sweetness in their oeuvre and never cared for whatever label the press might apply to their work. They have also managed to take this mindset into various collaborational efforts, often juxtaposing synthetical brilliance with their unique brand of emotionality – think of Sakamoto’s cooly shimmering delicacy on top of Alva Noto’s ephemeral digital beats on Raster Noton’s Insen, for example.

The natural impulse would therefore be to expect something of the sort for their first mutual encounter as well. Like many others, I did not take the trouble to wait for the promo copy to arrive before dreaming up a news story about Sakamoto’s “piano drops” lingering on Willits’ “warm guitar drones”. Better be careful about that next time – neither Ocean Fire nor its protagonists are served by superficial mythology. Especially considering the minute attention that has gone into the album in order to turn it into something incomparable and out of the ordinary.

The simple and honest truth is that Ocean Fire is an experimental album which requires several listens until it unfolds its magic completely. It includes short tracks, which abruptly end at their acme (“Umi”), mixtures between swept-away and stripped-down feedback echoes and epic tales of reverb (“Ocean Sky Remains”) as well as static organ tones with superseded rhythmic hiss and cuts (“Cold Heat”). Every moment of mesmerising beauty has its counterpart in broken textures and drastic dynamics, which almost shatter the passages of near-silence.

Naturally, the process of the work’s creation, half live-improvisation and half detailed brickolage, played an important role in this respect. After an inpromptu session in Sakamoto’s New York studio, Willits returned to work on the tracks in the seclusion of his home. Months of conceptualising, editing, rewriting and discarding ensued, in which whatever traces of the original timbres of their instruments might have been there, disappeared all but completely. To Willits, however, this process was entirely “effortless”: “There was so much detail in the recordings”, he now says, “All I really did was guide what was there to a final form.”

What survived, therefore, is a raw and spontaneous recording, even though the graceful majesty of the album’s flow no longer reveals its origin. Instead of cooking up the old cliches, Willits and Sakamoto go beyond the imagery and the sound world of water: Ocean Fire can be seen as an effort of creating all the different characteristics of the sea through sound: Its smoothness, rippled textures, wild agitations and soothing tranquility.

It is an approach in which there is no place for traditional chord progressions and only seldomly for long melodic arches. Instead, samples of water are turning into musical elements and musical motives are coming in waves.

Tracks like “Toward Water”, “Sea Plains” or “Sentience” create a sound that is all surface in the most essential sense of the word – the surface of the oceans they are singing about. It’s like a day at the beach really: The less one searches for the meaning behind their patterns, the more enjoyment one will get out of it. If you go back to the memories of such a day instead of revelling in what you might have expected of this encounter, you will find it easy to relate to Ocean Fire, too. – By Tobias Fischer

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