21 in 2021: Organic, ambient & experimental soundscapes from Asia
We celebrate the producers who embraced an alternative headspace in 2021
The ambient and experimental world has expanded greatly into more common and accessible spaces of music, and that same far-leftist approach to one end of the electronic spectrum has caught on in Southeast Asia. Through the surge of music built around ambience this past year, we got to see how impactful the global pandemic has been on the creative process. Whilst Japan had already developed an experimental and ambient scene from the 70s and 80s, which took influence from Germany's Krautrock era and inspired artists like Akira Ito, who we highlight below — there's also been a new wave of cultural, spiritual and metaphysical nuances that are being conceptualised through mind-evoking music. The Asian region and its producers have been responsible for some of those stellar and provocative works of recent.
The introversion that fuels creativity combined with the captivity that forces emotions to the surface are an almost reigning theme throughout most of the ambient and experimental releases we've selected as our most impactful from 2021. There are a few limited and highly sought-after re-releases that we were happy to see rebirth over the last year, as well as a couple of nuggets of Southeast Asian gold created by some of the region's more forward-thinking artists.
Whether you're looking for zen, a trip to the cosmos or just need your mind to unwind from the perils of our drastically-conflicting world; we hope this year's round-up of ambient and experimental works will titillate the dormant nodes in your brain and awaken you to a fascinating and lucid world.
The list below is intended to be in no particular order:
1 Aryo Adhianto ‘Sintaksis’
Artist: Aryo Adhianto
Aryo Adhianto’s background includes having formed Space System together with Jonathan Kusuma, where the duo focused on bridging their punk, jazz and electronica sensibilities through experimenting with synths.
This year, theIndonesian jazz futurist dived deep into introverted exploration for his debut album ‘Sintaksis’. Adhianto sonically extrapolates from Noam Chomsky’s ‘Syntactic Structures’ (1957), where the American philosopher and historian’s breakdown of the syntactic context of the human consciousness, and likens it to a pendulum between two opposite poles: creative and structural. This mindset propelled Aryo Adhianto on an abstract journey to orchestrate a free-flow process that is guided by a minimal structure of rudimentary rules.
2 Pan Daijing 'Jade玉观音'
Artist: Pan Daijing
Born and raised in Guiyang, China, Pan Daijing has been tempering on her storytelling ability across various disciplines and forms ever since she relocated to Berlin in 2016. The self-taught musician is known for her poetic presence oscillating along paradoxical conceptual states. Her inspiration often comes from film and philosophical concepts that grants her powerful yet restrained and subtle aura in her musical creation.
Her recent 2021 album ‘Jade玉观音’ follows through on her distinctive style of layering her ominous vocal with ascetic electronic textures. By incorporating tenacious and anxious-invoking drum-line with buzzy synth and sounds of rippling water, Daijing marvels at her audience with her capability to incorporate somewhat discordant fragments into a tender and delicate sequence. The nourishing wave simply transcends through your mind into your reflective mind.
3 Siamese Twins (VA) - ‘Kāthā’
Label: Siamese Twins
Thailand-based creative and music label Siamese Twins Records curated an eight-track, pan-Asian compilation titled Kāthā, that traversed us into deep and cosmic realms of the lesser known Far East. “Kāthā is the Khmer and Thai name used for chanted sacred mantras and magical incantations that offer protection, charm, or certain influence in life… Its origins stem from "Gāthā", a Sanskrit term referring to any poetic metre commonly used in legends — verses recited in rhythm with the breath as part of mindfulness practice or meditation."
The artists offering their versions of the atmospheric vibrations of the universe include the multi-instrumental Chinese group Ying Shui Di Jiang, Temple Rat (also from China), Khun Fluff from Thailand, Mogambo, Initials B.B from Taiwan, Nic Ford, Fahmi Mursyid from Indonesia and Vice City from Taiwan. The combination of elements such as drones, live instruments and other esoteric textures makes for a heady pool of sound into which one can become submerged.
4 Akira Ito ‘Marine Flowers’
Title: ‘Marine Flowers’
Artist: Akira Ito
Label: Glossy Mistakes
Originally a live performer in the mid-60s, Marine Flowers (Science Fantasies) shows how far Akira Ito has journeyed in music — he used to play in American cover bands alongside the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Jackson Five, Stevie Wonder and James Brown when artists were touring across Japanese military bases. A decade or so later, Akira immersed himself into the developing sounds from ambient and experimental spectrums in Japan during the 1970s and into the 80s, and seemingly takes influence from the German Krautrock movement.The real takeaway from Marine Flowers (Science Fantasies) is the independent structure of every track on the album — while the album itself is fantastically fluid, every track seems to stem from a fresh and original idea. For the album’s 35th Anniversary, Akira Ito’s Marine Flowers (Science Fantasies) will be available in Limited Edition Blue Vinyl, Black Vinyl and CD, as well as merch offerings, and was released on Glossy Mistakes.
5 Meitei ‘Kofū II’
Title: ‘Kofū II’
Label: KITCHEN. LABEL
Heavily influenced by tranquility, the Hiroshima based artist has spent the last few years dissecting the dichotomy of the origins and evolution of Japanese traditions. Meitei has shown through his past works that he sees how Japan’s new and younger generations are fading away from the more humble traditions of society, and what he describes as “the lost Japanese mood”. His goals through music are to reinstate true Japanese aesthetics like tranquility, beauty and sophistication, hence how he dedicated the two-part album series Kofū to his late grandmother, who he admired for her immaculate representation of the aforementioned Japanese traits.
“I want to revive the soul of Japan that still sleeps in the darkness”, says Meitei when pondering about what he presumably considers as social degradation.
6 Flora Yin-Wong 'The Sacrifice'
Title: ‘The Sacrifice’
Artist: Flora Yin-Wong
Label: First Light Records
DJ, producer and journalist Yin-Wong took refuge in an isolated cabin close to Machynlleth, in the ancient valleys of North Wales. From there, she collected field recordings that would provide the basis of folklore-inspired four-track album, 'The Sacrifice'.
Tapping into a now-all-too familiar mood of bizarre times, Flora’s album was commissioned by First Light Records as part of their Unbuilt Sound series – a project centred around acoustic ecology; the relationship between listener and environment.
The album presents as a collage of twisted field recordings set alongside waves of synth work and whispered vocals. ‘The Sacrifice’ flirts between delicate familiarity and dreamlike dissonance in an attempt to inspire a folkloric sense of timeless place that extends across time, with this combination of composed sound and field recordings establishing a dialogue between Yin-Wong and her environment.
7 Alex Ho ‘Move Through It’
Title: ‘Move Through It’
Artist: Alex Ho
Label: Music From Memory
Stardust looming over the Pacific Coast probably best describes Alex Ho’s debut long-player on Jamie Tillier’s Music from Memory imprint. Smooth, suave and cosmically elegant, the LP is Ho’s sonic representation of his hometown of Los Angeles, which is rich with nostalgia and cinematic sensations and is the same source of inspiration that feeds countless creatives. Across the ‘Move Through It’, rhythms are sublime, laid-back and slow with some guitar reverb, saxophone and keyboards — all meant to portray the vivid, yet unhurried city.
While this may be Ho’s first release, the multi-faceted artist has been involved in the Los Angeles dance music scene for a while, throwing musically expansive warehouse events while also playing selector for Moony Habits’ NTS radio show.
8 Bottlemsoker ‘Konser Plantasia’
Title: ‘Konser Plantasia’
Label: Independent Release
Experimental Indonesian electronic duo Bottlesmoker found a way to skirt around the country's lockdown restrictions and host a series of performances… for plants. The green-friendly shows eventually morphed into their fifth album, called ‘Konser Plantasia’.
Their philosophy is truly commendable — “We try to spread the spirit of sharing music! The concept of sharing is very much needed as long as the earth has life in it. Share something you've done with all your heart. Spread music that is meaningful to your life. It's cliché but this is our energy to continue to survive.”
Through research, data and a genuine understanding of plant owners, we highly recommend this unique musical accomplishment and hope to see more artists and music lovers embracing our oneness with nature.
9 Li Yilei ‘之 / OF’
Title: ‘之 / OF’
Artist: Li Yilei
Label: Métron Records.
Entitled, ‘之 / OF’, sound and performance artist Li Yilei’s second full-length album was inspired by horology, the study of the measurement of time.
Though Li had begun to work on ‘之 / OF’ before the pandemic, much of their subsequent work on it was shaped by their experience of migrating back to China, the country of their birth, as the lockdown set in. As their UK visa was about to expire, they managed to get one of the last flights back to China to quarantine for two weeks in a Shanghai hotel.
The overall result is Li’s understanding of how temporal perception is shaped by surroundings was sharpened during their quarantine: “‘之 / OF’ is a word that can be used as a preposition to express the relationship between a part and a whole. It is an unfinished tone, a broken sentence, a start and a whole. It is sustainable, full of potential and longings.
10 Unknown Me 'BISHINTA 美。心。体'
Title: 'BISHINTA 美。心。体'
Artist: Unknown Me
Label: Not Not Fun
Japanese ambient entity Unknown Me has been marvelling audiences with their enchanting ambient since their debut tape/album, ‘Sunday Void’.
‘BISHINTA 美。心。体’ is a cybernetic yet soothing collection specifically produced to be a therapeutic muse, allowing listeners to link body and mind with ease. The 12-track LP is delicately crafted with synthesizer, steel drum and rhythm boxes, all assembled by a crisp mix. Starting off with 8-bit flickering sounds, audiences are greeted by a calming yet robotic voice, which will function as an audio guide as you set foot on the mysterious realm delicately layered with cautiousness.
11 C.R Gillespie 'Tracings In Honey'
Title: 'Tracings In Honey'
Artist: C.R Gillespie
Label: Séance Centre
'Tracings In Honey' is a mystically charmed album of compositions centred around a series of field recordings he captured while travelling through Vietnam with his wife in 2019. Gillespie had prepared a collection of demo recordings at home in advance of his trip which would serve as a bed for the recordings he made throughout the expedition. Armed with a simple hand-held recording device, set about exploring the diverse landscapes of the vibrant southeast Asian nation, cataloguing his experiences in audio form with a view to completing the production upon his return to Canada.
Recording all manner of sonic morsels – from barking street dogs to bustling markets, chattering wildlife to flowing water – he expertly manifested a uniquely personal audio diary of the expedition.
12 Mong Tong 'Taiwan Mystery Art Book Vol. II’
Title: ‘Taiwan Mystery Art Book Vol. II’
Artist: Mong Tong
Label: Karma Detonation Tapes
Several years of research, recording, archiving and creating is what it took for Taiwanese duo Mong Tong to put together two conceptual works — Taiwan Mystery Art Book Vol. I and Taiwan Mystery Art Book Vol. II, released in 2019 and 2021 respectively.
Mong Tong — made up of brothers Hom Yu and Jiun Chi — have been collecting an aesthetic ordered around deep Taiwanese culture and myth, including special temples, purgatory facilities and Buddhist mummies. On the audio side, the album augments the hand-assembled feel with a blend of slow-paced electronic psychedelia mashed with samples from vintage video games and film, where it brings you to a universe where ancient people play their music to you. Detailed artwork based on monastic and purgatory beliefs wrap this vinyl and book release into a depthful package that will sit in the creative archives of Southeast Asia that we hope will stand the test of time for future generations.
13 RAAI ‘Beautiful Moment’
Track: ‘Beautiful Moment’
Label: Extra Noir
In what is truly a beautiful moment, itta and Marqido make up the ambient ensemble known as TENNGER. They are quintessentially, a traveling music family that have honed their soulfully psychedelic sound with itta behind the harmonium, vocals and toy instruments, while Marqido takes charge of an array of analogue synths.
Their son RAAI, born in 2012, was learning to produce by 2018 (at the age of six) and eventually joined the group, making them a family-run electronica band. Fast forward to May 2021, RAAI put out his solo debut album ‘Beautiful Moment’ via Korean label Extra Noir.
A sweet story that delivers incredibly sweet music.
14 Masayoshi Fujita ‘Bird Ambience’
Track: ‘Bird Ambience’
Artist: Masayoshi Fujita
Label: Erased Tapes
Fujita’s evolution from drummer to vibraphonist caught the attention of Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths in 2012 in Berlin. He didn’t just play the instrument, he owned it and showed Robert his ability to uniquely create textures and feeling like no other musician has done — his signature style drifts towards jazz and electronic-influenced compositions.
Given the prolific presence of Fujita’s career, the 2021 album is his seventh collaboration with Erased Tapes, and is a celebration of sound and nature. Recently relocated to the rural Japanese mountain village of Kami-cho, Hyogo, Fujita invested his undying love of mother nature and transcended it into arrays of sounds with drums, percussion, synths, effects, and tape recorder with his superb playing of the marimba.
15 CIFIKA ‘MMCA 라이브 X CIFIKA’
Title: ‘MMCA 라이브 X CIFIKA’
Label: Hosted by Museum of Modern Contemporary Art, Korea
Born in Korea and raised in Los Angeles, conceptual artist CIFIKA dropped her debut album ‘HANA’ in the midst of a global pandemic in 2020. And we loved it. Prior to her album, she was already globally solidifying herself as a notable electronic artist, emanating a tame yet iconic energy through her fluid space of sound.
But it’s all the fascinating works that followed after her 2020 album that kept us mesmerised by her powerful messaging through performance art. There was her Boiler Room x Valentino rooftop sundown set as well as the story behind her debut album HANA with Nowness Asia that kept us hooked.
This latest performance by her together with MMCA (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea), she takes her bilingual skills to new places, blending them through whispers, and words of wisdom and thought, but in a more awkwardly intimate setting of the museum. We look forward to more works and news from CIFIKA as she continues to stamp her spiritual art from Korea to the rest of the world.
16 Akimbo 'Dancheong' Vol 1
Title: ‘Dancheong’ Vol.1
Label: Tonal Unity
Touted as one to watch this year, Akimbo and his neo-traditional take on dance music certainly hit the mark for us with his album drop earlier this year — ‘Dancheong Vol. 1’ is an exquisite hybrid of experimental downtempo beats and traditional Korean instruments, bridging the dimension of ancient Korean court ball dance and modern dance floor antics.
‘Dancheong Vol. 1’ is a six-track album aiming to explore the complexity of Korean instruments while harmonising the frisky sound of the ancient East and contemporary West. Each track has a purposeful theme to explore the correlating elements of Korean history as the names suggest — ‘Four Guardians’ takes its name from the four mythical creatures in Korea’s deep and hefty lore: the azure dragon, the phoenix, the white tiger and black tortoise.
Around the time of the release, Akimbo shared with us, “All tracks utilise Korean instruments. This one is a bit more suited to the dance floor than previous releases, and I’m pumped for it to come out”.
We've been pumping it all year!
17 Ayane Shino 'Sakura'
Artist: Ayane Shino
Label: Mental Groove
Celebrated classical guitarist Ayana Shino released her loving tribute to the late and great Susumu Yokota, with a stunning rendition of tracks selected from his venerated ambient album, 'Sakura'.
Originally released in Japan in 1999, and worldwide the following year, the stunning 12-track album was widely acclaimed by critics, going on to be named as the top electronic release of 2000 by UK music magazine, The Wire.
Shino's delicately beautiful version was released earlier this year in Japan which was followed by a worldwide vinyl release on Mental Grooves. Described by the label as “a love-filled tribute to the late Japanese techno and ambient pioneer Susumu Yokota,” those behind the release hope that the new versions “will please his ever-growing fanbase as well as listeners beyond the electronic music scene.”
18 Yu Su ‘Yellow River Blue’
Title: ‘Yellow River Blue’
Artist: Yu Su
Label: Bie Records
Following the mighty groove behind ‘Watermelon Woman’, Yu Su’s album ‘Yellow River Blue’ is hands down one of our favourite records of the year.
Since then, ‘Preparations for Departure’ EP on Arcane and ‘泉出通川为谷 Roll with the Punches’ EP on Second Circle (via Music From Memory), plus her ‘Aroi Mak Dub’ remix for Mogambo 'जीना (Jeena)' on Siamese Twins Records, have been on loop in the Mixmag Asia office.
‘Yellow River Blue’ dropped as a hybrid release as a Europe-only 12” vinyl package via Amsterdam’s Music From Memory, as well as digital via her own China-based imprint bié Records which she launched at the same time. A huge part of the inspiration was drawn from her 2019 winter tour of Mainland China which took her from the eastern shores of Qingdao across to Xining on the Tibetan plateau, where she immersed herself in various underground scenes. 'Xiu' is the opener of her album 'Yellow River Blue', and she sets you off exactly as intended by her inspirations for the LP. Check out the video to 'Xiu' below.
19 ROLLERS Recordings (Various Artists) ‘Kalab Mixed Myanmar #1’
Title: ‘Kalab Mixed Myanmar #1’
Artist: Various Artists
Label: ROLLERS Recordings
A digger’s delight from Japanese label ROLLERS Recordings.
Music in Myanmar is still heavily rooted in its ancient Burmese history. It has retained its mystery, uniqueness and rural charm that sets the country apart from a largely Westernised perspective and approach to music. That’s not to say electronic and other modern styles of music don’t exist, but they’re still in burgeoning stages — Myanmar only saw their first proper record store open in 2016, the same year festivals cropped up across the country.
Kalab Mixed Myanmar #1 is an eight-track compilation featuring a variety of folk and ancient sounds and music being remixed by a global collective of artists.
Although it features mostly Japanese producers, ROLLERS Recordings made sure to keep their perspective global, enlisting South American artists Barrio Lindo, El Buho, Andi Otto and Barda Barda from the German global music label Shika Shika and experimental and live analogue artist Prabumi from Indonesia.
20 Howie Lee 'Birdy Island'
Title: ‘Birdy Island’
Artist: Howie Lee
Label: Mais Um Discos
Original, organic and certainly dream-inducing, ‘Birdy Island’ is probably one of Howie Lee’s most successful works. Coming off the back of releases on Maloca, SVBKVLT and his own influential label Do Hits, on top of remixes for artists including Lawfawndah, Charlie XCX & Sophie, the album made it clear that Lee made a point of further expanding his musical horizons. The concept behind ‘Birdy Island’ loosely based around Lee’s own idea for a floating theme park inhabited by both birds and ancestral spirits. It has now been built by a Chinese investment company who have asked Lee to produce its soundtrack, the result of which draws on ceremonial Taoist music, Buchla synth experiments and experimental electronic production.
Although released in 2021, the album was produced by the end of 2018. “This album just came very naturally,” says Howie as he nonchalantly explains his approach. “It was all recorded little by little. Layer upon layer. The approach was to just record. I had all these instruments around me and I just thought, I'm gonna play and keep playing.”
‘Birdy Island’ fans should make sure to dive into the follow-up remix album too.
21 Salamanda ‘Sphere’
Label: Small Méasures
Salamanda is the production alias of close friends and creative soul mates, Uman Therma (Sala) and Yetsuby (Manda). The pair compose avant garde sonics encompassing harmonious rhythmic elements, and are inspired by the likes revered American maestro of rhythmic composition, Steve Reich.
Their debut eight-track album 'Sphere' conjures “spherical worlds inspired by bubbles, refracting light and planet earth,” and was released on Métron Records subsidiary, Small Méasures. Rich with delicate percussion and arpeggiated stanzas, the album's mystic synths and expansive soundscapes evoke images of solitary temples perched in vast, open plateaus.