Satomi Magae recognizes that memory is as linked to the body as it is to the environment. Since its inception in 2012, awa, the guitarist and singer has seen reflections of herself in the world around her, using empty streets, vacant apartments and barbed wire-wrapped watchtowers as conduits for dark meditations on the passage of time. With soft, acoustic arrangements that barely exceed a whisper, Magae’s work divides the difference between narrative writing and ambient composition, combining aspects of each style into a larger whole. His fourth studio album and first with the American experimental imprint RVNG (in partnership with the Japanese label from Amsterdam Guruguru Brain), Hanazono, draws Magae’s sparse textural approach in a tense and refined mode of composition that does not abandon the inner brilliance of his earlier material.
Magae adopted the nickname Satomimagae – a combination of her first and last names – as a university student in Tokyo, where she studied molecular biology. The moniker, which to English speakers might appear to contain the word “image,” became an apt title for the project as Magae shifted from singer-songwriter confessionalism to something more impressionistic, using her soft, delicate voice as a singular complex ambient landscape texture. Early stars like “Koki” and “Mouf” placed her vocals alongside dusty field recordings and teeming electronics, rising through the mix to retreat under soft layers of white noise. Others, like “Bokusou” and “Hono,” stayed closer to Magae’s folk music roots, using guitar, vocals, and an occasional hum sample to show his versatility as a songwriter.
These delicate house recordings eventually caught the attention of Kranky affiliate producer Chihei Hatakeyama, whose White Paddy Mountain label went on to release Magae’s second and third albums. On 2014 Koko and 2017 Kremi, she returned to narrative writing with new-found precision, enhancing the alternate arrangements with the natural, lush reverberation of the space around her. The albums share a certain affinity with Liz Harris’ early recordings as a Grouper in their oblique approach to the acoustic guitar, breaking away the instrument from its associations with the tradition of singer-songwriters to reaffirm its usefulness in new ways.
Magae’s latest album, Hanazono, draws on contours long present in her work, refining the tone of her writing in a way that feels uniquely cohesive within her catalog. On “Hebisan,” the songwriter returns to a familiar headspace, layering sparse guitar and vocal lines over distant field recordings. Dropping the Japanese lyrics of his first material in favor of English-speaking imagism, Magae describes a wide-eyed snake tightening its grip around the speaker’s body, inducing comfort and security where some might expect fear. . Despite this narrative’s inescapable presence, Magae’s quirky arrangement favors her heart-wrenching voice over lyrics, which function more like a poetic scaffolding than a traditional narrative.
Hanazono is the Japanese word for “flower garden,” and while Magae includes a lot of natural imagery in the album’s lyrics, she’s much more interested in language as an acoustic texture. On “Suiheisen,” a low, scorching field recording gives way to a meditative singing bowl and finger-gripped acoustic guitar as the songwriter builds a dense wall of reverberating spectral harmonies. While the lyrics describe a scenic moment catching bugs before sunset, Magae’s soft, quirky vocal phrasing makes them almost indecipherable, punctuating the mix of occasional imagery that otherwise seems to just artfully drift into the background.
It’s tempting to see the ambient music in terms of a general arc built on moments of tension and resolution, and so much Hanazono might adhere to this tradition on the surface, he feels more committed to refining earlier iterations of the project in search of a new veneer. About 45 seconds after “Uzu,” a steady guitar riff gives way to one of the album’s most singular moments, as Magae’s voice retreats into a soothing hum accompanied by chord changes. It’s the kind of feeling that could have easily gone unnoticed on any of the songwriter’s previous releases, but here it comes with the disappointing weight of a breakthrough. The fact that Magae is still exploring new ideas almost a decade after starting her career is an achievement in itself.
Buy: Rough Trade
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