Monomusik (Japanese Release); Wayo Records (Western Release)
April 25, 2012; May
Buy at Official Site
I have been a fan of Masashi Hamauzu since I was first introduced to his work in Final Fantasy X. Prior to that I was strictly a Nobuo Uematsu fan, but when I started hearing certain tracks like “End of the Abyss”, “Fleeting Dream”, and “People of the Far North”, I was completely sold. This prompted me to check into his other works and I was surprised to find that he had composed many scores before he worked on Final Fantasy X. I listened to the light and impressionistic SaGa Frontier II score and even its arranged album, which I simply adore for its interesting soundscapes and timbres. The more I digested his music, the more I came to realize that he is quite the master at travelling between the planes of tonality and atonality. Some find his music inaccessible, and due to him joining unsuccessful gaming projects like Unlimited SaGa or Dirge of Cerberus, his music was not presented to the masses and given the credit he deserved. Then Final Fantasy XIII came along and that changed.
Due to this success, Masashi Hamauzu formed a collaboration with vocalist Mina, Imeruat. They dedicate their work to exploring Ainu culture while incorporating contemporary stylings. Their debut album Black Ocean was initially released at Fantasy Rock Fes 2012 and has more recently been given a worldwide commercial release. It features 13 tracks, including remastered versions of the three song initially released in their debut single. The album not only offers a unique listening experience, but also keeps up the high expectations of quality set by Final Fantasy XIII.
The first track of our listening experience shares the title of the album and proves a steady opening. I must admit that I wasn’t a big fan of this song to start, but the more I listen to it, the more I like it. The synthetic nature of the track means it could have been in Final Fantasy XIII-2, while Mina’s voice sounds a soft as water and perfectly blends in with the dark beat of this piece. The composition actually does sound like a black ocean, with the synth effects sometimes creating the impression of the waves washing up on the tide. I must give credit to Hamauzu-san here as he creates a unique opening piece with a beautiful and relaxing soundscape. Moving on, we have all heard Imeruat’s self-titled debut track on both the single, PV, and now the album. No matter how many times I listen to it, I never tire of it. The opening is simply enchanting — the piano and guitar just give me goose bumps as the violin soars over them. The vocal work is solid and, although I did not know it was in English, it is quite magical. Imeruat means “flash of light” or, in essence, it means “lightning” in Ainu. The whole piece sounds organic like it could be set to the Gapra Whitewood in Final Fantasy XIII. Compositionally, there is a lot going on in this one: eighth notes in the guitar, fluttering in the piano, as well as standard Hamauzu chords, busy percussion, the enchanting tonkori, soaring strings, and a deep resonant bass line. It is busy, but it isn’t too busy.
“Cirotto” goes for trademark Hamauzu. Instead of a synthetic sound, this composition uses acoustic instruments such as piano, violin, cello, and an Ainu plucked instrument (similar to the koto) known as the tonkori. The piano starts the piece in a blur of lush chords going from dissonant to consonant. After the opener, it proves so relaxing and contemplative. The violin and cello enter with a droning passage which further adds to the dreamy effect as the visions in my head start to clear. The next section is the best couple minutes due to the fact that the violin and cello exchange the melody between them. Combine this with Mina’s beautiful vocals and this song is simply sublime. After the contemplative “Cirotto”, “Leave Me Alone” starts with a poignant piano ostinato echoing back to the days of Debussy. Mina emulates the staccato piano work and sounds absolutely wonderful. I especially like how she bends her pitch at 1:42. It sounds surprisingly natural along with the legato style being played by both guitar and piano. Speaking of the guitar, I just love how it is implemented. At 0:34, it just pops in as if to steal the show and it quickly leaves. I love the effect!
Reminiscent of SaGa Frontier II, “Giant” is lively and rhythmic. The piano takes on a percussive role by playing syncopated eighth rhythms and the strings layer on top in a deliberate and hurried fashion. This complements the rhythmic verse which leads to the violin melody in which the cello goes in and out of tonality as it plays alongside the lead. The composition itself is complex yet very straightforward. My favorite part has to be the violin melody at both 0:34 and 1:40 along with the cello. It sounds uplifting and majestic. That is what I find so ingenious with this piece is that Hamauzu can create such a grandiose sound using a small ensemble. I had even thought I heard something akin to Joe Hisaishi toward the end (at 3:08). “Morning Plate” adopts more of a relaxing French-inspired sound. With its light guitar and piano passages combined with what sounds like an accordion, I imagine that I am strolling through a Parisian street in the morning as the farmers get their daily wares out to sell. The imagery that this composition creates is soothing, yet with purpose. It manages to not be too busy and Mina’s vocals sound light and happy. In fact, this piece is so fun to hear that I find myself smiling as a result! The shortest track on the entire CD, “Yaysama”, is also one of the most enjoyable. It sounds cute with the piano playing bright and playful. Mina takes on a more childish sound once more, which complements the piano work and fun melody.
With a steady progression and beat with bass pulses and drops, “6Muk” is quite an eclectic mixture. The centerpiece of this composition is mainly the Mukkuri, which is an Ainu instrument that is basically a harp for the mouth; however, the tonkori makes another appearance as well. The mukkuri is played by Mina who provides some interesting vocals that sound ancient and tribal. The style in which she sings might take some getting used to for some, but I find it a nice contrast and adds a unique vibe to the piece. What I found particularly interesting are the effects that Mina is able to achieve with her voice. For example, the fluttering of her tongue while she sings at 2:56 is brilliant. It is simple touches like these that add a level of color and complexity. Overall, “6Muk” is a driving piece that is mystical, ancient, and it even makes me want to dance along with its layered rhythms. In “Little Me”, we get another glimpse of Hamauzu’s ability to fuse styles together. This sound is acoustic, but with a hint of bossa nova with minimal sound effects. The guitar is played wonderfully and the part is relaxing, yet maintains a groove. The piano floats right over this lightly only to dip below the guitars registers from time to time. The parts coalesce and flow well and Mina does nicely. I like that she retains the bossa nova style throughout and the entire composition gives a sense of serenity with a hint of longing. I am constantly reminded of Antonio Carlos-Jobim’s music as the lyrics tend to follow a similar pattern.
After listening to “Left”, it is apparent that Ryuichi Sakamoto is one of Hamauzu’s influences. If you have heard the more experimental side of Sakamoto such as his work on Chasm, then this song will be down your alley. Featuring a catchy electric piano rhythm with mechanical piano overlays that fade in and out, this song starts in a bizarre manner with answering machine noises, messages, and radio wave static; however, I found it to be interesting in combination with the instruments. Two minutes in, the melody becomes more fleshed out and takes a more prominent role. It is catchy and manages to stick in your head. I found myself humming it over the course of a few days! Mina’s voice doesn’t come in until the last half of the song. It sounds like she tries to stay within a certain pitch to give off a monotone effect to match the mechanical style. Overall, this is one of those tracks that may or may not be accessible; however, I appreciate its uniqueness. Another daring experiment was “Haru no Kasumi”. Featuring piano and flute along with some interesting sound effects, it inspires imagery of a rainy morning. Once again perfectly emulating the instruments, Mina’s voice is soft and captures the rains of spring. I am blown away at how she can sing in so many styles and to achieve the effect of rain through her voice is outstanding! This song may sound repetitive, but when you listen deeper and take in the sound effects you will find enough to not be bored.
One thing that I have noticed throughout this entire album is that Hamauzu has been able to make some really interesting rhythms and catchy melodies. “Battaki” is no exception to this. The track opens with just the tambourine which is immediately followed by a groovy piano introduction. The chord structure here is just plain sexy then it gets sexier when the guitar enters along with some more percussion. Mina’s voice is the main melody throughout the entire song and her voice sounds so alluring, inviting and primitive (in a tribal sense). As a matter of fact, I enjoyed this composition so much that I had this song on repeat for most of the day! I hope Hamauzu-san makes more music like this! The finale “Springs” is such a serene piece that has everything a Hamauzu fan would expect. Soft piano passages with flute and violin make for an ethereal and relaxing experience. It is refreshing very much like cooling your face in a spring in a quiet forest after a long run through a mountain pass. Mina’s voice has an airy, yet soothing sound. It fits perfectly with the mystical tone of the composition. The chords in the piano keep the song tethered to a certain path while still managing to sound interesting throughout. The flute part is sublime in the fact that it sounds so beautiful! With such an energetic and emotionally taxing experience we are given this composition to cool down after the musical journey that we have been travelling. A perfect way to end an expertly crafted album!
Overall, I find that this album is a strong entry point for Masashi Hamauzu as a freelancer. He has upped the ante from his past achievements and has provided some melodic, evocative, and harmonically lush music. Some of it leans on the experimental side, but even the most conservative fan of Hamauzu — and even music in general — can find pieces to enjoy. I am quite impressed by how Mina can sing in many different styles. From somber to tribal, from dark to light and airy, she has it all down pat. I must admit that this album is an addictive listening experience and I thoroughly enjoyed every piece (something that does happen very often for me). I highly suggest a purchase if you are a fan of Masashi Hamauzu or are just looking for an original listening experience. I hope that the world is treated with another album by Imeruat, for this is the most entertaining music I have heard this year! Speaking of which, Imeruat is touring all over Europe, Japan, and the States, so it might be worth listening to them live too.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Josh Barron. Last modified on January 22, 2016.