A Guide to Rei Harakami

Looking back on the music of one of the greats of Japanese electronic music

Rei Harakami passed away on July 27, 2011 at the young age of 40, but I still wonder where his music came from, and where it was headed. When Harakami released his debut album unrest in 1998, a new wave of electronic music producers were emerging from their bedrooms. Up until then in Japan, electronic music was largely geared towards clubs, but a seismic shift was occurring. There were an increasing number of electronic producers creating albums that were to be listened to as whole musical pieces.

In Japan, the independent techno labels that started in the mid-’90s and artists around this scene began to release this new style of electronic music. Labels such as Syzygy, Transonic and Sublime (the label that released Harakami’s unrest), released delicate and subtle electronic records with a distinctive Japanese sound that were in contrast to the world of electronic music that was dominated by acid house and Detroit techno. Labels like Basic Channel from Germany were known for placing as much importance on abstract noises as they did on beats, while the new generation of electronic producers from Japan applied vibrant tones into minimal tracks to create highly stylized song structures.

Rei Harakami - Rho

Harakami was among these artists. And he was also influenced by them. (Most notably early Ken Ishii tracks released under the FLR (Flare) moniker and Tanzmuzik.) Compared to Harakami’s later records, the sonic detailing of unrest resembles techno. Tracks such as “rho,” “code” and “unrest” have the driving rhythms of techno, but the album already hinted at the deep delays and reverbs, extreme panning and smooth pitch bending techniques that became the trademark of his sound.

Rei Harakami - 300ml (Milk)

Harakami’s second album, opaq*, was released in 1999. There were no longer any vestiges of techno to be found on this record, except for the final and epic track “schw schw.” Diverse tones and rhythmic patterns stand out, alongside the more extreme uses of sound processing. Around this time, electronic music from Japan was starting to grab the attention of international audiences. Susumu Yokota, who had been releasing records on Harthouse and Sublime, started his own label. Nobukazu Takemura made his international debut on Mo Wax as DJ Takemura, and created acid jazz/club jazz under the name Spiritual Vibes.

unrest and opaq* were not unaffected by these developments in the Japanese electronic music scene. Harakami and Nobukazu Takemura were friends, and Harakami remixed Takemura’s tracks. Apart from this direct connection, many electronic producers besides Takemura and Susumu Yokota were also exploring new sounds that deviated from existing genres. In the world of electronic music, production methods were also shifting quickly from hardware to software. But not for Harakami. He continued to rely on his Roland SC-88 Pro, crafting a trademark sound.

Rei Harakami - Put Off

In 2001 Harakami released his third album red curb, recorded with the SC-88Pro as his sole sound module and just a few effects, all at a low sampling rate. He used only a limited range of sounds, but the result was a surprisingly colorful soundscape with rhythmic structures more complex than anything he had achieved in the past. The record also included tracks such as “Again” and “Put Off” which abandoned stereotypical beats altogether. These tracks appear towards the end of the record and clock in at a total of 15 minutes combined, pointing to a new direction. (Harakami’s live shows towards the end of his life were based on ambient soundscapes that were devoid of beats.)

Rei Harakami - Owari No Kisetsu

Harakami released records at a constant pace until his fourth album. lust arrived in 2005, after a four year wait. It was well worth it. lust is considered Harakami’s magnum opus. The record was sonically more expansive than his past records, and the details of each of the tones came through clearly, combined with a more dynamic and free rhythmic approach. The album even featured a cover version of Haruomi Hosono’s “Owari No Kisetsu” with Harakami on vocals himself (the first time vocals were ever used on his solo material). It surprisingly sounded natural, as if he had been on the mic for years. The song “come here go there,” meanwhile, featured well-crafted string arrangements.

lust was the last of Harakami’s solo albums, although he did produce “Kurayami No Iro” (which was created for planetariums), and the film soundtrack Tennen Kokekko. The pieces were increasingly abstract, reflecting the music heard at the end of red curb. It was an interesting move, one that left people wondering where he might venture off to next. That’s a question I think of often actually. There are plenty of new artists that have been inspired by his work, however, and I look forward to hearing the music they make.

Translation by Hashim Bharoocha. Read the original version of this article in Japanese here.

By Masaaki Hara on June 7, 2016

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