Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Thousand Knives, Ruyichi Sakamoto
“…Suddenly a thousand knives, suddenly a thousand brilliant scythes of light set in lightning, huge enough to level whole forests, violently start slicing up space from top to bottom with gigantic slashes, with amazingly rapid slashes that I have to keep up with, inwardly, painfully… and when will it end… will it ever end?”
While at work on his first solo record in 1978, the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto encountered this famous passage by poet Henri Michaux, writing on his own experimental mescaline usage. Sakamoto recorded “One Thousand Knives” over an intense, 500-hour period in which he often went whole days without sleeping. The music itself seems to resonate with this same ramped-up, wired state of consciousness.
In 1978, Sakamoto had just earned his master’s degree in music from Tokyo University and was merely at the threshold of his lifelong artistic journey. A member in the rising pop group called Yellow Magic Orchestra, Sakamoto found himself among the very first musicians to experiment with synthesizers and digital recording technology. Mythology actually holds Sakamoto’s “One Thousand Knives” as the first track to ever use the famous Roland TR-808 drum machine. The work of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sakamoto in this era would eventually turn on a whole generation to the synthesizer sound and lay seminal groundwork for decades of electronic music to come.
For a composer whose expansive repertoire would later address everything from bossa nova to ambient music, “One Thousand Knives” actually serves a surprisingly thorough primer to the work of Sakamoto. Here we discover a young genius who is situated at the historic frontier of electronic music, free to pursue his limitless stylistic whims. It’s the brink of a new, digital age and you are in the fever dream of a great composer.
“One Thousand Knives” boldly fuses Sakamoto’s academic tastes for classical piano with bubbly dancefloor grooves and bizarre soundscapes. The opening title track gloriously encapsulates this whole vision. The thumping drum machines equal parts night club and folk dance…the playful, ever-shifting palette of synthesizers… the ebbing and flowing between harmonic anxiety and ecstasy. It is a profoundly intellectual recording yet totally danceable. Over the course of its nearly ten-minute runtime, it recycles a set of disparate themes, visiting and revisiting them in a sort of mesmerizing loop. “One Thousand Knives” is a revelation from the gospel of whacky synthpop.
Elsewhere, “Island of Woods” moodily employs synth arpeggios amongst scattered field recordings of oceans and urban crowds. Here, Sakamoto manipulates his synthesizers into the sound of birds and conducts a warped chorus of chirping. In the bouncy, bucolic, “Grasshoppers,” he demonstrates his sheer prowess on the keys with a purer, jazz-inflected sound. And the pieces on side two like “The End of Asia” and “Das Neue Japanische Elektronische Volkslied” seamlessly integrate melodic motifs and textures from traditional eastern folk music into his psychedelic cauldron. Sakamoto’s vision simply refuses to erect walls.
Sakamoto’s intense concentration and fascination with his work is apparent from simply listening. You can almost picture the young man alone in the studio, laboring for hours without sleep. The compositions follow suite in their long-winded and utterly unpredictable nature. Just when Sakamoto hints at a thematic resolution in a piece, he shifts and poses another lucid riddle. Over the course of the record, he richly develops this style, straddling beauty and dissatisfaction. Like Michaux, the music seems to ask, “When will it end? Will it ever end?”