Rion’s new album (which translates as Fireflies) is a collaboration that doesn’t always feel like one. Whether that’s a good sign or not probably depends on the nature of the project, but here it most definitely is a positive. Ryo Nakata and Ian Hawgood (see what they did there?) play with the same kind of seamless cohesion of many ambient solo projects, and which also makes many ambient bands sound like the work of one person. Even knowing that Nakata recorded guitar drones while Hawgood handled everything else doesn’t necessarily help that much. Despite parts being recorded separately over two years, the pieces hang together with a serene grace. Patient drones blend together so that it’s near impossible to tell what’s a guitar and what’s a harmonium. Field recordings are slipped in, in most cases, unobtrusively, not asking you to identify their source or interrupting with a burst of noise or anything as defined as a bird’s call, but rolling with the undulations of the drones. “Let Me Sing You a Song of Kindness” is particularly good at this, towards the end becoming a kind of calm call and response, a rising flutter of motion in the recording echoed by a slightly intensifying drone, and so on.
It’s a familiar formula, to be sure. In many ways it does sound like an Ian Hawgood album on Hibernate, albeit with some influences from labelmates – some of the field recording work, especially in its dialogue with the surrounding music, for example, is reminiscent of Wil Bolton. But there is a comfort in that familiarity, and it does not mean that the music is unaccomplished. ‘Hope’, the album’s standout track, is as beautiful and intricate as anything you’re likely to hear from this year. From the flickering taps that open the piece to the more defined melody and rhythm that close it, gesturing gently towards a faded electronica, there is a compelling direction and some of the drones along the way are luscious.
There are, nevertheless, some differences that make Rion more than just familiar friends. One of these is that the album was recorded onto tape and multi-layered without software. This isn’t unusual in itself, but the album makes no big deal of its analogue conception. There is no undue focus on tape hiss or the stereotypical warmth that such recording methods are often supposed to have. This is not to say the album is completely without warmth, but it lacks the fuzziness that might generally be associated with tape recording. This is a good thing indeed!
In a similar way, the field recordings also take some unexpected directions. You’ll hear the sound of fireworks, oddly divested of their usual brightness and joy. Partly, this is because of their quietness and the amount of space in between each explosion, filled with one of the more electronic-sounding ambiences in the album. It is also partly because of the lack of their visual dimension. Instead, they can only be accompanied by the album cover, a photo by Fabio Orsi of a lost-looking man standing in a grey, decayed urban street. At first it seems like a strange choice against the title of the album, because it situates the music firmly in an urban environment. But, it actually makes sense of some of the album’s apparent contradictions (fireworks without festivity, tape without hiss, comforting familiarity with unfamiliar twists). Rion’s musings are filtered through a metropolitan frame, again provided by the rarely ‘natural’ sounds of the field recordings as well as the art, that defamiliarises them – in the same way that Rie Mitsutake’s vocals that close the album are beautiful, and yet cold, wordless, – and changes them. It is not the sound of fireworks and fireflies but of someone in their urban home thinking about them.