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Susumu Yokota
Lo Recordings

Album artwork often serves as a symbol, pointing to and participating in the reality of the work at hand. And, indeed, the recent effort from Susumu Yokota, a sculptor who channels gushing ambient currents into steady, controlled canals of soothing calm, is adorned with artwork of just such a character: its pure white backdrop harbors a Polaroid of a painting, itself likely a duplicate, of two Victorian youths with creamy complexions, cranberry red lips, and long ropes of hair, decorated with yellow flower petals. As though itself an offspring of such artwork, Symbol harbors samples — duplicates, if you would — from the likes of Debussy, Mahler, Ravel, and Beethoven, then sprays them with layers of jitterbugging beats and iridescent textures, and rearranges each into vivacious tempos and sprightly moods.

The album is formal, yet fun, with a limber, baroque air bristling about its every movement. Perhaps at no better a place is this evident than in the opener, "Long Long Silk Bridge," when beats splash and pop like rainbow-colored soap bubbles and the voluptuous voice of Meredith Monk soars through Mahler's majestic symphony arrangement like a bird hovering atop the treetops of a thick forest. Similarly, on the ensuing "Purple Rose Minuet," jubilant, lilting strings are treated with a steely, somewhat dissonant clamor of percussion, trickling beads of piano, and the exultant chants of an Arabic singer. The Eastern influence in the percussion and melodies affords the album a distinctive rooting, especially on "Traveler in the Wonderland," with its snake-charmer melody, but Yokota diverges from this route soon thereafter.

All too often, in fact, compositions are befuddled by New Age bravado. Pieces such as "Song of the Sleeping Forest," "Flaming Love of Destiny," and "Symbol of Life, Love, and Aesthetics" are mired by saccharine string arrangements, and made all the more odious for their exaggerated vocal ruminations. In many moments Yokota is also guilty of leaning on his samples, spewing two or three into the soup of a single song, and brewing something of a sweet, altogether distasteful aroma. More often than not, when these samples are left unaided, which is quite often indeed, the work seems antiquarian and, as a result, out of place in today’s milieu. Like its artwork, Symbol is rife with charming sights rarely seen anymore, but sights to be returned to only every now and again, perhaps when one perfunctory moment too many casts a spell of nostalgia for an age never experienced.

by Max Schaefer

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