Serenity like no other

Aoba Ichiko finds her stride on “Windswept Adan”

Sammy Minoza, Guest Writer

As any artist can attest, the hardest thing to do is saying the most with the least.

Understanding how to make every brush stroke count, to make each musical note punch greater than the five before it and every single word the weight of a thousand more is the challenge artists face. Because of this, it seems to be an almost infamous trope now for artists to limit themselves purposefully, forcing constraint in order to build perfection.

But when listening to Aoba Ichiko’s newest album “アダンの風 (Adan no kaze),” or “Windswept Adan,” not once does it feel like she has superimposed structure or bounds to her work. Rather, she simply doesn’t need the same unimaginably large, in your face passion that other artists or records need to attain the level of greatness she has achieved.

Released on Dec. 1, 2020 by Ichiko’s own label Hermine, “Windswept Adan” comes as the sixth record in the proclaimed artists’ career. Learning to play classical guitar at the age of 17, she released her first album “剃刀乙女,” or “Razor Girl,” in 2010. Although her previous works have found clear poise from their minimalist approaches and mastery of her instrument, she has been criticized for her lackluster production and depth of sound.

Despite that, she has over the last decade become a mainstay in the Japanese Folk and Chamber Folk scene with her previous records like “うたびこ (Utabiko),” and “檻髪 (Origami),” characterized by their emphasis on instrumental technique and acoustics, and her mastery of both her voice and classical guitar.

But any questions left by her previous albums are completely foregone at the start, completely blowing any remaining doubt in the minds of listeners as the first song, “Prologue”, begins with stunning, warm and resonant baritone wind instruments, washing over the listeners front to back effortlessly.

The movements and samples of waves crashing against each other continue to round out “Prologue,” as now Aoba’s vocals fill in the gaps on the track. Despite its delicateness, Aoba’s voice contains so much strength and overwhelming power, now paired with the minimalistic and droning piano chords illustrating melancholic and soothing sounds of peace, and wind instruments in the background. As the sounds of birds chirping and water rushing to the shore paint the mind with idyllic and utopian strokes of the imagination, they together weave an illustrious and serene island composed of nature and pure bliss.

Coming into the second and third tracks “Pilgrimage” and “Porcelain” (and continuing with the “P” trend), she allows her voice to blend in and wash away with the instrumental on this track and on the record as a whole. Ichiko’s voice effortlessly flows from passage to passage, rather than overshadowing and seizing the spotlight from the instrumental compositions on the tracks. She hums away with her acoustic guitar, fluttering and rising with arpeggiated chords, as deep resounding, measured thumps of the Timpani and bass drum play against the flying chimes and flutes rising high into the sky, almost as if each is its own animal on the island.

Each string instrument in the production is perfectly balanced between light, percussive pizzicato, and the silky smooth movements of vibrato bow strokes, remaining short and purposeful, containing its majesty such that that each step forward begs for more until it crescendos into a grand moment of peace and breaks the delicate tension developed.

Again, the eloquence of this album comes from  Ichiko recognizing the beauty of her work all unto itself, and the subsequent use of her voice for the instrumentation rather than against it, flowing like water entirely gracefully, as the subtle plucks of string instruments cut through the soft, liquid sonic timbres. The rolling, indiscriminate nature of the compositions on this album let many of the tracks lose their own individuality, moving smoothly and gradually from piece to piece as her fragile vocals guide the movements of the instrumentation.

Throughout the record, she continues to play with strong dynamics of shining and bright production that absolutely sparkle, soaring higher and higher into the atmosphere, along with reserved and resounding plucks away at instruments, with her voice instead serving as one of the main anchor points to the warm and smooth wash of sonic harmonies. Very rarely does she ever find herself overwhelming the listener in any way, rather gradually building small hills of delicate instrumentals and samples of nature vanishing in an instant as the ephemeral moments of grandeur fall away into the waters of the sound itself.

Her pristine vocals on the later sections of the album truly shine, as here  Ichiko comes back to her signature style of classical guitar, this time with each strum and pluck climbing higher and higher, as arpeggiated chords and lilting wind instruments play away now with often no use of rhythmic instrumentation. They float mystically, dancing harmoniously in an elegant waltz that allows  Ichiko’s strength in her vocals, which has been so limited on the record thus far, to shine for bursts and short moments as they ascend into the skies above.

The brilliant shine of the record slowly comes to a close on “Adan no Shima no Tanjyosai,” with  Ichiko’s voice nearly at a whisper, signalling the end with the limited and spaced strums of her guitar, now no longer engaged in the eloquent and building musicality earlier on the album. Even as for a moment other orchestration comes in, it remains incredibly small alongside brief interludes of wind and vocal melodies, quickly dissipating into thin air. Finishing the record,  Ichiko waves goodbye to the listener simply with the sounds of ocean waves, slowly washing in and out, as water crashes beneath our feet, and the sounds of bubbles rising and nature humming fill the air.

The amount of poise and strength demonstrated on this record despite its limited reserve is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Immaculate and intricate harmonies, layered and mastered thoughtfully as to never feel overbearing or composed, completely engulf any listener into the mind and world of  Ichiko’s creation.

There aren’t many albums that manage such majesty, let alone in the reserved and minimalistic manner  Ichiko has. The ethereal and dream-like world  Ichiko has crafted is beyond definition, entirely otherworldly. Nobody else on the planet makes music like this right now.