March 30, 2015
Buy at Bandcamp
Phantasm is the first original album by composer Junya Nakano, released some years after leaving video game music scene. Here Nakano assembles the few tracks released singly prior to the album and fills things out with a couple of new tracks, rounding out the experience. Each track (aside from the first and last) has a unique cover image to help with the imagery conveyed. Drawing much from his work on video games but also moving beyond them, Nakano expertly utilizes synths with some acoustic instruments to craft wonderful ethereal atmospheres.
The album opens with “Signs”, starting with piano and an orbiting synth in a light background atmosphere, which has a melancholic feel thanks to the simple and spaced-out figures on the piano. It isn’t long before a few more sounds come in, like a light guitar and some odd percussion, though the track never loses its core feeling. Around its half-way point oriental instruments come in, playing off of the established harmony. It’s an interesting mix of sound, but Nakano makes it work thanks to careful balancing and attention to detail; sounds fade in and out and move from one ear to another in waves that add up to a stable whole, giving the feel of a constant washing over the listener, steady and not overpowering. Although there isn’t a lot happening in the way of a memorable melody, there are so many layers discernible in the work that it is easy to revisit and get lost in. The rest of the album follows in this vein.
Next Nakano moves to a set of tracks that are less an ocean of sound, but are still detailed and layered works. “Sampo” begins with a base piano line, itself with a distinct and charming bouncy melody. This line is kept in some form throughout the piece as lines of percussion, new melodies on synths, and nature sound effects are built over top of it. It’s a fun and bright piece, and it is reasonably catchy too. Next is the moodier “Blue Cave”, with a simpler repeating pattern for the piano and a drum set that I’m sure Nakano used back on “Guadosalam”. The track has a much lonelier feel even as other elements are layered on, which independently blip and taper off like drops on the surface of water. A very evocative track. The following “Jungle” has a more tropical feel to it, from its bubbling synths to its flavoured percussion. It’s light and pleasant, but also carries the mysterious feel of a jungle.
The apex of the album is “Amagoi”, just shy of seven minutes in length and placed in the dead-centre of the album. It is the most varied of the tracks, never staying on a certain sound for too long. The first half of the track is more or less what we’ve come to expect from the album with some scattered percussion, a couple of synths floating around, echoing instruments, and nature sounds, though it also has an ad-libbing female vocal throughout. It is lacking a central melody in this first half, but the track still effortlessly carries us along with a constant flow of motion. Then, suddenly in the rain is a flash of lightning and thunder, accompanied by the wailing of an electric guitar, leading into the hard-rock half of the track. Even here, there is not much in the way of a leading melody, but the track now has a relentless forward push. When it suddenly gives way to the ambient atmosphere from which it came, it feels like the journey is done. It’s incredible how Nakano was able to put these two very distinct halves together as one coherent piece.
The back half of the album resumes the regular sound of the album. “Missing Links” is a more airy ambient piece, though it gains more melodic focus as it progresses. Not a standout track, but it is nice as a mellower track. “Elfin Dance” brings us back to happier territories with bouncy synths and perhaps Nakano’s most lyrical melody to date. It has a lot of character, capturing its “elfin” feel with cute blips and a bright tone. “Ninigi” is the brightest of the tracks, as suggested by its art which breaks out of the blue-green feel of the other songs. Here a few ad-libbing elements are present, such as a traditional male vocal and the notable violin which gives a beautiful and emotional performance. A truly delightful piece. The closing track of the album is “Phantasm”, a sombre track which opens with just piano and a whirling synth around. It’s all rather sad with a feeling of longing, and the relative emptiness of the track when compared to the others emphasizes this feel. Even as other elements are added on, they are in service to this feeling. After a build, the track ends with a haunting wash of sound that leaves only the piano remaining. It’s one of my favourite tracks on the album, and a wonderful way to end the experience.
Phantasm is a fantastic first album from Junya Nakano, offering everything that we’ve come to expect from the composer, and more. The album is very atmospheric, and offers plenty of layers in the music to latch on to during repeated listens. A couple of tracks have really great melodies, and even the ones that do not are still enjoyable to listen to, as they have plenty of driving motion, and tie the rest of the album together. The album also has a very coherent sound with an ethereal ambience, but Nakano makes sure to vary the soundscape from time to time in order to keep things fresh. Overall is very engaging and moving, and I would recommend it not only to fans of his prior work, but to anyone.
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Posted on April 20, 2016 by Christopher Huynh. Last modified on April 20, 2016.