On Ensemble’s Ume in the Middle
On Ensemble (pronounced “Ohn”) pulls traditional Japanese music up by its roots and replants it in rich soil, fertilized by modern style and sensibility.
The band’s latest album, Ume in the Middle, features a fresh synthesis of east and west and innovation and tradition, that provides the context for On Ensemble to create a sound that blends Japanese drumming and more with electronica, hip-hop, and rock.
The quartet of Masato Baba, Kristofer Bergstrom, Shoji Kameda, and Kelvin Underwood creates music that consists of lush aural textures that glimmer with beautiful, overlaid melodies. Taiko drumming, throat singing, and ambient vocals provide a solid, organic foundation for phrases of yokobue, shamisen, koto, and even turntables to sprout from.
Ume in the Middle kicks off with “Yamasong”. The entrancing track that features Kameda’s throat singing pulls the listener into On Ensemble’s world right away. It introduces the mellifluous atmosphere that will float throughout the entire album. The percussion gradually builds and a surprisingly multifarious composition blossoms.
The album’s second track, “Hisashi” steps in an even more traditional direction. The serene yokobue creates a reverie that is simple yet sublime and the ending accompaniment adds a pleasant warmth.
“Waiting” kicks off with a reminder that On Ensemble isn’t just about Taiko or traditional Japanese music. The song features English-language lyrics sung while instruments dance atop a smooth beat and turntables flicker in and out. “Waiting” and it’s intruiging style introduces Ume in the Middle‘s truly inventive sequence. This succession, which includes tracks like “Hiroya vs. Miniboss”, “Butoh-bot Malfunction”, and “Silverback”, displays On Ensemble’s funky-cool odyssey into a style that is predominately modern yet sports dashes of traditional flavor and inspiration.
“After Rain” and “Bounce Back” flip the afformentioned formula upside down by maintaining a core that consists of traditional instrumentation — namely that of the yokobue — that’s met with some hip, modern flair.
The final track on Ume in the Middle brings things full circle with a remix of the leading track, “Yamasong”. “Yamasong (Campagna Remix)” takes the composition in a fresh direction and while the the orginal song is impressive as is, the Campagna Remix is very cool.
On Ensemble’s blend of new and old is striking, yet many tracks seem to lean more heavily in one direction or the other. The album amounts to a rather cohesive fusion of these elements but it would be nice to hear that amalgamation on a more individual track level.
On Ensemble makes traditional Japanese music even cooler than it already is and that makes it more approachable for listeners who aren’t very familiar with it. The masterful mix is also a breath of fresh air for fans of the traditional and fusion genres.
Watch a live performance of “After Rain”:
Also posted on purple SKY