Album Review: Chihei Hatakeyama – Void XX

[white paddy mountain; 2020]

‘Reviewing’ ambient music can be quite the serious challenge. The genre’s music is so based in our own private worlds, so reliant on the ineffable and often vastly differing associations and emotions that it stirs up within each individual, whether intended by the artist, or placed upon it by ourselves.

This perhaps holds particularly true for the work of Chihei Hatakeyama. Undeniably at the very forefront of an endlessly fruitful Japanese ambient scene, the man is also endlessly prolific – indeed, he has released no fewer than five more albums under various guises since Void XX came out in April. He cranks out projects as if he records them in his sleep, which would certainly explain their ability to help even the most restless, anxious among us find some quieted rest.

Of course, to imply ambient is purely useful as sleep aid is just about the most frustrating reduction of the genre imaginable to its followers, and this writer intends to imply no such thing. While ambient and drone can admittedly be simply too subtle for some, the best of it deeply rewards attention, whether rapt or allowing it to fade in and out of focus. Slipping into the gently textured worlds of Hatakeyama can feel akin to wistfully flipping through a faded old photo album, hardly regarding the pictures’ details, too lost in memory and emotion.

While some find the prolific nature of latterday Japanese masters such as Hatakeyama and Tatsuhisa Yamamoto to be either intimidating or choose to assume such a rate of production must lead to tossed-off releases (neither of which, of course, is true), Hatakeyama has both managed to build a consistently evolving world within his ongoing Void series, and crafted each entry to feel all its own, fully-realized and capturing a separate moment in his process and in time.

Void XX, released earlier this year (and followed a mere three months later with Void XXI), retreats from both the urban sprawl and grander natural inspirations of past efforts (mountain sides, forests, sad cityscapes), finding some measure of serenity with pastures and, well, cattle. Both the album art and a central track “Cows on the Hill” draw imagery from the gentle herd animal.

Indeed, given that the uniformly majestic album art of the Void series tends to speak, if inscrutably, to the nature of each, it’s a pleasure to find Hatakeyama finding beauty in the mundane. That being said, why did this writer choose this album, in particular, to highlight? The simple truth is, given the breadth of the ambient master’s yearly discography, this was the one I ended spending the most time with. This isn’t to argue it’s objectively better. You, dear listener, are sure to find your own qualities within each. Such is the personal nature of the best ambient, and such is certainly the nature of Chihei Hatakeyama’s endless exploration. It’s a truly rare, precious thing, to be invited along for such an enduring, fruitful ride.