Void XXIII by Chihei Hatakeyama (Review)

A collection of richly textured and highly atmospheric pieces composed entirely on guitar.
Void XXIII - Chihei Hatakeyama

Looking at Void XXIII’s artwork, with its monochrome imagery of cloud-enshrouded forest mountains, you might begin bracing yourself for some stark, ominous ambience à la Desiderii Marginis or Raison d’être. But noted ambient composer Chihei Hatakeyama proves himself a master of subtlety, and as a result, these seven compositions — which have titles like “Falling Asleep in the Rain I,” “What a Day II,” and “Sleeping Beauty” — are rich and lovely sonic experiences.

I’m frequently reminded of the gorgeous soundscapes that Robin Guthrie created on Victorialand, aka, the Cocteau Twins’ most ambient album. Hatakeyama’s songs don’t exactly evoke Antarctica’s frozen wilderness, but there is a similar otherworldliness that comes through in his gracefully unfurling drones, chiming, bell-like notes, and effortless tonal shifts. Indeed, these songs are so atmospheric, it’s often hard to believe that they were created with acoustic and electric guitars alone, with nary a synthesizer to be heard in the album’s 56 minutes.

I daresay that thanks to rock n’ roll, the guitar is almost exclusively viewed as an aggressive instrument, an iconic symbol of rebellion, anger, and protest. As a result, it might be difficult to think of it as an instrument of peace and contemplation. And yet, that’s precisely what Hatakeyama presents on Void XXIII. There’s nothing aggressive or angry — or ominous — in these songs. Rather, they exude a sense of insularity and inner calm that’s fitting given that Hatakeyama recorded them while living alone during Japan’s rainy season.

As he writes in the album notes, “There was no one else living in the apartment but me, so in a way it was the best environment. I turned up the volume on my guitar amp and recorded it as if it were a live performance. In the evening, the neighborhood school children were playing around the apartment. I wondered how they felt about the strange sounds leaking from the apartment.” These are very much songs that you listen to when you want to imagine the outside world fading away so that you might better focus on your own inner world.

Thanks to their highly atmospheric and dreamlike nature, Void XXIII’s songs are intangible and illusory. While listening to them, I often feel like I’m this close to comprehending the entire piece, and yet, some essential aspect remains just beyond reach. Each new listen seems to reveal new details, and yet, no matter how much I turn up the volume, I always feel like I’m not hearing everything, but rather, only catching hints and fragments.

That might sound frustrating, which couldn’t be further from the truth thanks to Hatakeyama’s deft, intuitive playing. (For what it’s worth, I experience something similar with the music of Harold Budd and lovesliescrushing.) Rather, I can’t wait to listen to these seven songs again (and again), knowing that even if I catch some more details the next time, there’s still so much more that remains as yet undiscovered.

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