IN REVIEW: 7FO - RYU NO NUKEGARA
Label: EM Records
The music made by 7FO, pronounced ‘nana-ef-oh’, can be hard to pin down with just one genre label. EM Records assure their listeners that, “this is warm, friendly, very relaxed music, ‘understandable’ and yet intriguing, sure to appeal to fans of electronic ambient, dub, and chill-out music”. These genres appear commonly in descriptions of 7FO’s sound, and whilst some listeners may agree, others will find these terms to be inaccurate. Can we call music ‘ambient’ or ‘dub’ when it is rigidly fixed onto obscure mixed metres such as 6/8+7/8? Such ambiguity reflects the nebulous nature of this curious music and its composer from Osaka, Japan, who draws from a range of compositional influences and production techniques to form his unique sound.
2 years after his last full-length album was released, 7FO has returned with a new work that contains 5 of his most engaging compositions to date. Ryu No Nukegara, which translates as ‘dragon’s husk’, sounds sharper and punchier than his previous album, and sees 7FO experiment with new sound materials and rhythmic feels to enrich his very distinct musical voice. There are still some dub sirens and one or two heavily reverbed snares, but otherwise the supposed dub element of 7FO’s sound seems to be less prominent in this album than in his other work. There are, however, many more punchy basses and confidently stated grooves than before. There has been a clear attempt in Ryu to play around with more complex musical ideas and to allow the instruments’ timbres to grow organically with each track. As a result, the pieces on this album are much better developed than in other works, and the greater variation in musical approach makes the album as a whole feel bold and exploratory. 7FO has pushed himself out of his comfort zone and worked towards something that has engaged him musically.
One of the effective features of Ryu is the use of complex, uneven time signatures in open, floating pieces. In the beginning track “泡 Hou”, for example, 7FO’s looped phrase is set into an odd metre with only a few sparsely placed drum samples scattered over the top. The lack of a drum groove overtly stating the pulse means that the listener doesn’t feel the odd time signature as a jarring, forced mechanism. Instead, it allows the piece to feel unusual and strange without losing its soothing, ethereal quality. These drums move on and off the beat as the phrase loops, adding a subtle complexity to the piece, and the uneven loop is grounded by a warm, slightly distorted bass line, which chugs away underneath the airy, ambient sounds. This style of arranging is a clever one, as it allows 7FO to explore more interesting musical elements in his music whilst still appealing to the ambient crowd that follow him. The music’s sophistication isn’t obvious at first but becomes apparent once picked apart.
To balance these more intricate moments on the album, 7FO places some weighty bass lines into metrically even drum patterns on tracks like ‘米 Mi’ and ‘草 Sou’. These grooves are decidedly less understated than in previous works, making the tracks some of the few in this artist’s repertoire that compel the listener to move along to the music rather than float away with it. This might be seen as quite a bold step in a new direction and the contrast works well to keep Ryu feeling fresh whilst also lending a confident air to the album. Even these tracks are never without the quirky sound material that characterises 7FO’s music, an example being the steel drum superimposed onto ‘米 Mi’, which brings an unusual flavour to a piece that pulses with exotic groove.
In general, the pieces on this album grow in a way which 7FO’s music didn’t in the past, taking the listener on a journey through new sections as the material develops almost naturally. In ‘天 Ten’, for example, we have an interesting idea that gets built upon over a few minutes, but the piece doesn’t simply just remove each layer and gradually wind down from there. It finds a way to transition into new ideas that add new depth to the piece, which are allowed to be fully explored before the track finally draws to an end. This makes for a piece of music that feels well considered and engaging to the listener, and marks the difference between a bedroom beat maker and a thoughtful musical composer.
The eponymous track ‘竜のぬけがら Ryu no Nukegara’, which is almost 4 times as long as any of the other tracks on the album, really embodies this compositional style best. Its ideas develop in all kinds of unexpected ways, swapping between light sounds that blend into the ethereal ambience with more exposed, almost jarring ones that bring a original touch to the ambient style. Ideas return, develop and blend into one another, making for a piece that feels exploratory and complete. Unfortunately, there are one or two transitions that are not totally smooth and feel rather abrupt, which slightly takes away from the overall effect of seamlessness that this track strives for in connecting all its musical ideas together. These moments aside, this track demonstrates the strengths of this producer, and hopefully sets the blueprints for more in-depth musical explorations in his future work.
As a side point, 7FO’s promoters should stop being so liberal with the use of the word ‘dub’ to describe his music. There are perhaps some elements of his music that are borrowed from the dub sound-bank but not to the extent that one could really call this dub music. There is an interesting mix of styles that come together here but it seems much more appropriate to see it as an electronic ambient work which employs old school synths, drum machines, well-reverbed guitars as well as some dub processing.
Ryu No Nukegara best demonstrates 7FO’s ambitions as a musician so far. His grappling with complex timings and thoughtful compositional development are welcome additions to his style. It would be nice, however, to hear him break out further from the palette of electronic instruments that are recycled throughout many of his works. That said, 7FO strikes a balance between quirkiness and smooth ambience with the instruments he does use, which forms an intrinsic part of his musical voice and distinguish his original musical style.
If you’re wanting to hear something unusual and interesting that blends the organic with the synthetic, this is definitely an album worth listening to. PM