I must be getting old, because these days I’m actively seeking calming music to play me off to dreamland in the evenings. I already shared my go-to sleepytime album a few months back, but while checking out related and recommended albums after last month’s review I stumbled onto a release from a tiny German label called Dead Bison. I was intrigued – they’ve got almost no web presence and just three releases through the last three years, I’m not even sure how they popped up aside from Bandcamp’s recommendation algorithms being very, very good. ‘Driving East’ by Natsukashii is one of these three releases, and by halfway through the first track I had experienced a relaxing calm so pure I knew this had to be what I’ve been looking for.
Like a story you might be familiar with from many of our chiptune friends, Natsukashii is a side project, hidden away from and well delineated from the artist’s main body of work. The artist in question here is Luke Sanger, who has been releasing what I will only refer to as “the kind of music I refer to as techno because I’m just south of 30 and wasn’t conscious enough of electronic music in the 90’s and early 2000’s to be able to categorize it better” for the better part of two decades now under a few different pseudonyms. ‘Driving East’ stands apart from his other music – it’s a collection of slow, relaxing, minimalist ballads instead of tracks you’d expect to hear at festivals or in dance halls. ‘Natsukashii’ (なつかしい) is a Japanese term referring to a particular kind of nostalgia – that deep-seated ache you have for, if not how things were, an idealized version of what things were. And don’t get me wrong, ‘Driving East’ is definitely evocative of late 80’s and early 90’s Japanese ambient albums (a deep dive through the socials reveals that Luke has his own playlist to refer to on the subject), but what I appreciate about this album is that it’s ambient music for someone who actually expects an album to go somewhere – or rather, it’s not 45 minutes of a single concept drawn out, but concise snippets packaged into consumable portions. Ambient music for the person on the go, if you will.
‘Dunes’ is aurally intriguing to me because while the bass is steady and sustains through most of the piece, everything else has heavy, heavy amounts of reverb with very long decay times, which gives the effect of the notes just trailing off into space. Combined with very good use of stereo to make the crisp bell tones twinkle all over the 3D soundspace (at least if you’re wearing headphones, anyway), the feeling you get is one of being suspended in space and having the music happen around you, with each note zooming off once it plays its part.
If certain kinds of sounds were ice cream flavors, the scoop that would always be on my cone would be long, rich, sustained and slightly warbly organ notes – and that’s exactly what ‘Bunking Off’ starts and ends with. The build to the staggered descending runs with the occasional twinkly bell note ornamenting them is beautiful, and the sudden key change in the middle happens both so naturally and seamlessly that you almost don’t realize you’ve transitioned to the brief B part of the song. I love when music that you can tell follows a formulaic compositional pattern still finds ways to wow you – working inside of constraints is, of course, what many find as a way to help breed creativity, and while ‘Bunking Off’ is absolutely Ye Standarde ‘ABA+coda’ that we all learn in music theory, the execution is flawless.
Again uncharacteristically of most ambient work, this album is pretty short, so I don’t want to waste too much of your time yammering on about it. Give it a listen, and if you’re like me, you can start incorporating it into your evening relaxation routine until by the time the last track rolls around you’ve nodded off into a peaceful slumber.
And if you’re one of those folks who loves working in DAWs, check out Luke’s website – in addition to a discography of all of his OTHER work (which I believe you’ll enjoy, just for different reasons than this album), he’s also got a few blog posts up about various VSTs he uses and likes. You might learn something!