Artists From Japan #5: An Introduction To Kashiwa Daisuke

Who is Kashiwa Daisuke?

Born in Hiroshima, but transplanted to Tokyo, Kashiwa Daisuke has been working as a solo artist since 2004, releasing his debut album, “April.#02” in 2006. In the decade since, Kashiwa has become sort of household name on internet music forums for his incredibly singular work. Pushing post-rock and neo-classical into the internet age with his scene defining early albums, his way of fusing the emotional and grandiose, with the guttural and electronic has made his work incredibly unique in both Japan and across the world.

From the very beginning, as a member of post-rock band Yodaka, who only ever released a single EP in 2001, Kashiwa has had an affinity for massive compositions, being heavily inspired by western post-rock contemporaries like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Sigur Ros, as well as Japanese post-rockers like Boris, Mono, and World’s End Girlfriend.

Combining that post-rock grounding with his love for melodic modern classical like Ryuichi Sakamoto, and his love for glitch and IDM, Kashiwa stumbled upon something that felt like a reinvention of post-rock. Since that moment he’s been working for almost a decade as an engineer, musician, composer, producer, remixer, and most importantly, as a solo artist under the Kashiwa name, releasing a wealth of music that seems to reinvent itself with every album and every song.

The Essential Album: Program Music 1

1. April.#02 (2006)

It’s rather impressive for an artist to emerge with a fully defined sound, even more so when that sound is as odd, and as unique as Kashiwa’s is. April.#02 was already a mesmerizing display, seamlessly blending electronic and classical music into the sound that would become his trademark. Combining the hard chops and clipping of glitch, the soft synthetic tones of IDM, and the chaotic drum brakes of drum n’ bass, with massive string and piano accompaniment, it initially feels very overwhelming. Almost like an eruption of sounds fighting for your attention, but with time the form of the songs open themselves up, and the interlocking parts click together into huge crescendos, or off kilter grooves.

It manages to evoke feelings of GY!BE in the songs’ size, and power, while simultaneously evoking tinges of Talk Talk in the sweetness, and melancholy of the melodies. Melodies which manage to shine through the layers of distortion, and alteration. It’s a monumental debut effort, not just sonically, but compositionally, with the second track, “April.#02”, running an astounding 27 minutes. A length that feels entirely justified as it flows between moments of ambient, IDM, and crescendo-laden classical that build and release relentlessly.

It’s an album that presented an uncompromising vision to the world, of how to take the stagnating world of third wave post-rock (derogatorily called Crescendo-core), and make it exciting again. It was an album that set out to constantly subvert his audience’s expectations of what was ugly, and what was beautiful, jumping between huge cathartic tracks like “April.#02”, and experimental sound collages like “Airdrop”. It’s by no means a perfect album, but it would set into motion the kind of experiments that Kashiwa would cement into history with his sophomore effort.

2. Program Music 1 (2007)

Program Music 1 is really the definitive Kashiwa album. It’s not only his most consistently satisfying album, but it represents his major breakthrough here in the west, though not a conventional breakout out in any sense. It’s an album almost entirely propagated by internet word of mouth, defying the conventional method of Japanese success in America, which requires finding a western distributor to get the album in the hands of western critics, to get to the shelves of western music nerds.

But Kashiwa’s brand of internet success is a rather fitting fate for an album entirely dedicated to the world of electronics, and emotional disconnect, nestling in perfectly to the world of people finding homes beside their computer screen. It’s classical music made ugly, and hard glitchy electronic music made beautiful. Featuring massive string crescendos, and sinking electronic lows, it’s an album that takes what was only musically interesting on Kashiwa’s first album, and makes it immensely satisfying on an emotional level, as the strings quiver and explode with emotional thrust comparable to Bjork’s Homogenic. Consisting of two tracks, the thirty-five minute long “Stella”, and the twenty-five minute long “Write Once, Run Melos”, Program Music 1 is by no means “easy listening”. Not a surprise considering the namesake program music refers to early classical compositions that attached stories to difficult and abstract music.

Though there is no story attached to Program Music 1,  I’ve heard it suggested that it’s an album about machines discovering music, and through music emotion, a story which is derived from the compositional flow of the first track “Stella”. A song which slowly grows from mechanical, and dissonant beginnings to an emotional and harmonic finale. It’s an explanation which I think accurately captures the emotional marvel of it. For those who are dedicated to fully experiencing the album, they will find that the emotional tax, and significant run times are petty side effects when compared to the incredible scale, and melodic strength that defines the album. It’s a modern masterpiece in its own odd way, rivaling any of the post-rock greats.

3. 5 Dec. (2009)

I don’t really want to use the word “messy”, but this album really is… messy. It’s as if he was looking back on his first two albums and said to himself, “Oh, they want more stuff! Bigger, louder, denser!”. So much goes on during every song that it’s hard to get attached to a single idea. And some of the musical additions are just borderline obnoxious, from the sliced up guitar solos that rip up the melodies, to the wonky baselines that add nothing rhythmically when they rest on layers of drum machines. There are some commendable solo piano melodies, but nothing that wouldn’t go on to be done much better in his followup album.

It’s an album mostly consisting of unnecessary experimentation with more conventional rock sounds, and house music that clash really unpleasantly with his base style. On the surface it seems Kashiwa was struggling with where his music could go, and what forms it could take, as his previous work loomed over his head. Unfortunately these experiments didn’t present him with much of an answer, and the few things worthy of note aren’t really deserving of a full listen, when they’re all greatly overshadowed by the achievements of the albums that precede and follow it.

4. 88 (2011)

After the overly dense follow-up to Program Music 1 that was 5 Dec., it seemed as if Kashiwa Daisuke wanted to strip his songwriting down to the essentials, writing beautiful melodies that fit in seamlessly to grandiose songs. And with 88 he certainly achieved that. It’s an album entirely composed of solo piano, with none of the electronics that Kashiwa had made his name on. The title being a reference to the 88 keys of the piano. 88 was one of Kashiwa’s boldest ventures as an artist, as it is an album that cuts out half of what made people fall in love with his music in the first place, but thankfully, it was simultaneously the greatest refinement of his classical roots he had so far achieved. Creating songs that are aching, and melancholy, but also dreamy and floating.

It was music that you could focus your attention on, tracing the intricacies of the melody as they developed, but also music that could sink into the background, and define the mood of a space. A duality that was much like Brian Eno’s vision of his early ambient series. It’s an earnest, and simple album, and it certainly doesn’t touch the highs of something like Program Music 1, but it was a nice change of pace after the noisy, and chaotic 5 Dec., and it still managed to evoke that uniquely Kashiwa feel, despite the banality of a solo piano album.

5. Re: (2012)

Re: is kinda the “pop” album for Kashiwa, though that means a hell of a different thing to him then it does to me or you. The songs often had conventional-ish structures that clock in around 5 minutes, and occasionally even had genuine lead vocals, ideas that almost seem contradictory to everything Kashiwa stands for, but it’s unmistakably his album, and unmistakably a work of vision beyond his audience’s expectations. From the floating piano melodies to the occasional crunchy glitch effect, it certainly contained some of his trademarks, but not in the context we are used to hearing them in.

Some of these songs sounded like they could have existed on a late 90’s drum n bass record from how brain smashingly hard the drum brakes can be, nothing like the more heady DnB influence on his early albums. And then directly following these, some songs sounded like noir soundtrack-influenced jazz numbers. It’s really a mixbag of things, with varying degrees of interest, but never lacking in creative spirit. Some tracks, like “Something is Lost”, are actually some of the best work he’s every done, using prominent lead vocals over huge and atmospheric synths, topped with the kind of gentle glitch effects you might expect from a mum record.

It paints a cinematic portrait that stands with some of the greatest moments from Program Music 1, all while still maintaining that accessibility, and reasonable song length. The following track “Katambi Dance” however, is a good indicator of the kind of interesting messes that are unfortunately equally common. From the backwards played voice samples, to the gentle piano and strings, to the gut blasting drum breaks, it’s hard to really ever get on board the track before it bucks you off, and it’s not the only song on the album that will do that. Re: is an album as essential as any of Kashiwa’s, but one that might require some slicing and dicing to validate repeated listens.

6. The Garden of Words (Kotonoha no Niwa) Soundtrack (2013)

Before the insane run away success of Your Name., which is now the 4th highest grossing Japanese film of all time, Makoto Shinkai was making moderately successful, meditative animated films. Garden of Words, the follow-up to 5 Centimeters Per Second and Children Who Chase Lost Voices, was at the time his biggest success. A visually stunning film that got him compared to animating legend Hayao Miyazaki, but featured the kind of somber emotional refinement that could have equally warranted a comparison to Sofia Coppola.

It’s a film about fear, self-loathing, and taboo love contained almost entirely in one pavilion, in one park. And to complement this very thoughtful, and personal mood, Kashiwa returned to his 88-era songwriting, creating slow burning piano ballads that constituted some of his strongest solo piano work yet. Some were reworkings of 88-era melodies, and some were original songs, but all of them were sparse and haunting, and well worth a listen in and out of the context of the movie. Running a very brief 15 minutes it’s more of an EP than anything, but the music contained within is essential regardless.

7. 9 Songs (2014)

I almost wanna say 9 Songs isn’t a Kashiwa album, considering it sounds almost nothing like anything else he’s released, but in a way that’s what really defines it as an album by him. The title, much like 88, is an explicit statement about the album itself. All the huge song lengths, grandiose crescendos, and instrumental nature of his past albums are completely forgotten in favor of what I think Kashiwa would call nine conventional pop songs (and one intro and outro song). What I can say is it’s album that goes a lot of places. From the solo piano of the intro track, to the pop rock of “Lilac” and “Faraway”, to the µ-Ziq-esque IDM of “Skyliner”.

“Skyliner” in particular is a standout track, using beatboxing samples to a degree of artfulness that hadn’t been achieved since Bjork’s Medulla. Also the tracks “Where am I going” (sic), and “Travel Under Stars”, which are both immensely pretty songs in their own ways. It is apparent that Kashiwa meant 9 Songs to be not one, but two statements about the album, the first being about the more poppy nature of the album, and the second being the fact that this really is 9 distinct songs, the only universality being the sweet childlike vocals from Naoko Sasaki. Each one follows its own unique path, carving out completely different, and almost universally fulfilling paths. In a way, it’s a brilliant introduction to what Kashiwa is, diverse and accomplished in almost all of his endeavors.

8. Program Music 2 (2016)

Presented as the sequel to Program Music 1, Program Music 2 was a much less experimental, and less electronic album than it’s namesake, being more informed by Kashiwa’s work composing for Garden of Words. It’s cinematic classical music with a focus on soaring melodies and massive, live drum underpinnings. As a sequel to Program Music 1, it was a very immediate disappointment in it’s very restrained demeanour. But like all of his music, his melodic sense is unrivaled, and deeply affecting, and the absence of electronic manipulation does give it its own distinct flair that prevents it from being a generic retread, or a forgettable release, as it certainly sounds like nothing else he’s released. But the greatest shame of all remains, that there isn’t much to say about the latest Kashiwa album. A problem he’s never before had, even in his failures.

9. Yodaka – Betrayal and Reincarnation (2016)

The second album out from Kashiwa Daisuke in 2016, Betrayal and Reincarnation was made as part of his old band Yodaka, and it was by far the darkest work he’s ever been a part of. Full of decaying/fuzzy guitars, reverb-y synths, and dark moods, it was a much bolder release than Program Music 2, and became the much more memorable release for it. In a lot of ways it was like Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside, where talented rock musicians were able to interpret monolithic songs into darker and grittier rock epics. Yodaka cited artists like Sigur Ros and GY!BE as primary influences on their process, and while those influences certainly come to the surface, there’s something very distinctly Kashiwa in how the melodies developed, and in how these tracks seemed to rise to cinematic, bone crushing crescendos.

More importantly, those classic Kashiwa electronic touches were there, like in the weird synth slipping noise at the beginning of “Baobab” that almost sounds like the distorted cries of a child coming in through an ancient radio, it was about the fusion of old and new. The sounds evoke images of abandoned industry, but also digital loneliness, bringing them together into a vaguely dystopian whole. Taking second in our list of the, Betrayalwas a resounding return to form that found Kashiwa evoking the highs of Program Music 1, and possibly exceeding them.

Check out the rest of our articles in our ‘Artists From’ series.

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