Async is Ryuichi Sakamoto's first solo album since being diagnosed with throat cancer, which put his career on hold for much of 2014 and 2015. After treatment and a full year of recovery, he composed the acclaimed score to Alejandro G. Iñárritu's film The Revenant (which also featured contributions from Raster-Noton co-founder Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner of the National) before working on this album. He cites nature, everyday objects, and sculptures as influences on async, and its pieces incorporate recordings from various outdoor locations as well as museums, including a sound sculpture designed by Harry Bertoia. In addition to Sakamoto's piano playing and electronic processing, async features intimately recorded acoustic instruments (including a shamisen and a singing bowl), guitar/laptop wizardry from Christian Fennesz, and orchestral elements. The album is focused on combining musical as well as non-musical sounds, and it seems to function as scenes from daily life as well as musical compositions. As the album's title suggests, the individual parts of most of the album's pieces move at different rhythms or intervals, making them seem random at first. "Distintegration" is a prime example of this, beginning with John Cage-inspired prepared pianos and adding a steady high-pitched click, before light, immersive synthesizer washes transform the piece from sounding alien to soothing. As academic and non-emotional as all this might seem, Sakamoto still approaches his work from a human perspective, and there's more melody than there might appear on the surface. The album might be sparse, but it isn't hollow. "Solari" is a dark, hazy cloud of drifting melodies and deep organ tones, which are eventually joined by soft chords that sound like echoes of a faded Beach Boys tune. It's a bit eerie and haunting, but at the same time it's calm, familiar, and even comforting. "Stakra" is centered around a cascading synth sequence, which feels light and heavenly, but it's surrounded by deep bass thumps and fragmented glitches. Two tracks feature spoken poems reflecting on life, dreams, and death. "Life, Life" includes David Sylvian's reading of "And This I Dreamt, and This I Dream" by Arseny Tarkovsky, and "fullmoon" features a collage of several voices reciting Paul Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky" in different languages. Async is certainly not one of Sakamoto's most accessible albums, but if the listener is willing to devote several listens until it all makes sense, it ends up being quite powerful.
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AllMusic Review by Paul Simpson