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Teaching of Sphinx: Haruomi Hosono’s 90’s Downtempo and Abstract Electronica

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Downtempo and abstract electronica selections from one of the principal architects of modern Japanese pop music.

It’s virtually impossible to find an individual as prolific and influential as Haruomi Hosono in any country’s pop music history. His discography is encyclopedic and spreads across sounds and genres. This is true not only as an artist but as a band member, songwriter, session player and, perhaps most importantly, a producer. Hosono’s relentless work ethic and obsession with creating new sounds blended perfectly with his deep-seeded interest in advancing technology, especially starting in the 1980s. For Hosono, the possibilities of production became boundless due to the rise of synthesizers and samplers, which propelled him into his most explorative and curious period.

His solo albums from 1982’s Philharmony through 1989’s Omni Sight Seeing might best represent this experimental growth, but we’d like to shed light on a few lesser-known works where he began exploring the realm of downtempo and abstract electronics. This period led to many interesting pairings from fellow Japanese experimentalists Yasuaki Shimizu, Tetsu Inoue, and Miharu Koshi to electronic pioneers Bill Laswell and Mixmaster Morris.

For a deep dive into Hosono’s electronic legacy, we highly recommend checking out our friend Andy Beta’s 2018 exploration into Hosono’s electronic music journey as well as Terre Thaemlitz’s 2003 essay “GLOBULE of NON-STANDARD: An Attempted Clarification Of Globular Identity Politics In Japanese Electronic ‘Sightseeing Music.’” 

Below, we’ve shared a few of our personal favorites from Hosono’s late 80s-90s period and some light insight into how they helped further his idiosyncratic musical world.

Haruomi Hosono – Medicine Compilation from the Quiet Lodge (1993)

“Medicine” has glimpses of what was to come, a sublimely inviting ambient album with touches of acid house, downtempo pop, and ethereal trip-hop. It also contains a memorable rework of his classic Tropical Dandy tune “Honey Moon,” which features a duet vocal with Akiko Yano. Standout “Laughter Meditation” opens it up, which also appeared on his following tech-house record Mental Sport Mixes.

F.O.E. #1 – Sex, Energy and Star (1986)

An earlier Hosono release that also showed a glimpse of his future work is “In My Jungle,” a highlight from his Friends of Earth project’s Sex, Energy and Star. Although the rest of the record focuses on covers, with renditions of James Brown’s Sex Machine and Dr. John’s “Right Place Wrong Time”, “Jungle” explores a jazzy acoustic percussion downtempo groove, thumpy 303 sequenced basslines, and atmospheric pads.  

Haruomi Hosono – N.D.E. (1995)

N.D.E. remains one of our favorites from the post synth-pop Hosono era and was made in collaboration with G. Hotoda (musician and YMO tech guru in the early 90s), the clearly present ambient-dub master Bill Laswell, and Y. Terada (Hosono’s engineer and frequent collaborator), with some added material from acclaimed saxophonist Yasauki Shimizu. Expanding on the “Medicine Compilation” sound, N.D.E is a heady trip into heavy atmospherics and dubbed-out psychedelic rhythms leaning heavily on tabla and arabic instruments. A cover-to-cover psychedelic masterpiece, one hands-down highlight is the extra dubby and spaced-out third track, “Teaching of Sphynx.” This album is sadly not on streaming but you can check a playlist with all the tracks here.

Haruomi Hosono – Good Sport (1995)

The first CD-only release in this list, Good Sport was sold or given out during the Fukuoka 1995 Summer Universiade. The event was held during a tumultuous time where war was raging in many countries around the world and helped to “exhibit the power of sport to build bridges between peoples of all countries and backgrounds.” The title “Good Sport” is obviously a reference from Hosono’s tune “Sportsmen” but is also perfectly fitting for this peaceful sports meetup.

Haruomi Hosono & Bill Laswell – Interpieces Organization (1996)

Hosono reunited with Laswell the following year with 1996’s Interpieces Organization. The record also features Japanese minimalist producer Tetsu Inoue and Miharu Koshi of Parallelisme fame on vocals. The record touches on UK drum & bass, dark dub, and experimental world ambient. It’s certainly a full-listen gem, but one particular standout is the heady intro “Unfinished Screams.”

Divination – Distill (1996)

“Ether Vibes” was included on a CD compiled by “Divination” aka Bill Laswell. The track almost has a techno pulse to it and features field recordings of what sounds like wind, crickets, and some sort of animal call though it’s hard to tell when the natural sounds end and the synthesized sounds begin. Miharu Hoshi is credited here as well.

Mixmaster Morris & Jonah Sharp – Quiet Logic (1998)

A CD-only release on Hosono’s own Daisyworld Discs, Quiet Logic features the YMO legend alongside ‘90s UK electronic legends Mixmaster Morris and Jonah Sharp. Morris, aka the Irresistible Force, made a name for himself opening up for bands including the Orb, Psychic TV, and the Shamen, and would later become a champion of the “chillout” sound that mixed ambient, downtempo, jazz, and lounge music. Sharp had a similar career coming up in the acid house scene, playing chillout rooms and producing experimental electronic albums with jazz and lounge influences. All the tracks here are great, though the Hosono co-composed tracks “Wakarimasen” and “Dr. Gauss / Yakan Hiko (Night Flight)” are certainly highlights.

Haruomi Hosono – Archives Vol.1 (Beyond Good And Evil) (2008)

Archives Vol.1 (Beyond Good And Evil) contains a collection of abstract Hosono tracks from his “Monad” label period along with a few newer tracks dedicated to Hosono’s grandfather Hosono Masabumi, who famously survived the shipwreck of the Titanic. The tracks contain a mixture of Japanese traditional instruments, global percussion, synthesizers, and Hosono’s own voice. Check Track 4 – “Walking Vibration” for that perfect carefree, yet deeply ethereal sound that Hosono is such a master of.

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