Satomi Magae recognizes that memory is as bound up in the body as it is in the surroundings. Since her 2012 debut, awa, the guitarist and vocalist has seen reflections of herself in the world around her, using empty streets, vacant apartments, and barbed-wire-wrapped watchtowers as conduits for somber meditations on the passage of time. With soft, acoustic arrangements that barely rise above a whisper, Magae’s work splits the difference between narrative songwriting and ambient composition, combining aspects of each style into a greater whole. Her fourth studio album and first with the American experimental imprint RVNG (in partnership with Amsterdam-based Japanese label Guruguru Brain), Hanazono, draws Magae’s sparse, textural approach into a mode of taut and refined composition that doesn’t abandon the inner brilliance of her earlier material.
Magae adopted the Satomimagae moniker—a combination of her first and last names—as a university student in Tokyo, where she studied molecular biology. The moniker, which to English speakers might appear to contain the word “image,” became a fitting title for the project as Magae shifted away from singer-songwriter confessionalism toward something more impressionistic, using her hushed, delicate voice as a singular texture within an intricate ambient landscape. Early standouts like “Koki” and “Mouf” placed her voice alongside dusty field recordings and skittering electronics, rising through the mix only to retreat beneath gentle layers of white noise. Others, like “Bokusou” and “Hono,” stayed closer to Magae’s folk music roots, using guitar, voice, and an occasional droning sample to showcase her versatility as a songwriter.
These delicate home recordings eventually caught the ear of Kranky-affiliated producer Chihei Hatakeyama, whose label White Paddy Mountain went on to release Magae’s second and third albums. On 2014’s Koko and 2017’s Kremi, she returned to narrative songwriting with newfound precision, enhancing the spare arrangements with the lush, natural reverb of the space around her. The albums share a certain affinity with Liz Harris’ early recordings as Grouper in their oblique approach to acoustic guitar, detaching the instrument from its associations with the singer-songwriter tradition only to reassert its utility in new ways.
Magae’s latest album, Hanazono, builds on contours long present in her work, refining the tone of her songwriting in ways that feel uniquely cohesive within her catalog. On “Hebisan,” the songwriter returns to a familiar headspace, layering sparse guitar and vocal lines over distant field recordings. Abandoning the Japanese lyrics of her earliest material in favor of English-language imagism, Magae describes a wide-eyed snake tightening its grip around the speaker’s body, inducing comfort and security where some might expect fear. Despite the inescapable presence of this narrative, Magae’s off-kilter arrangement favors her heartbreaking vocals over the lyrics, which function more as poetic scaffolding than traditional narrative.
Hanazono is the Japanese word for “flower garden,” and while Magae includes numerous natural images within the album’s lyrics, she is much more interested in language as an acoustic texture. On “Suiheisen,” a smoldering, low-end field recording gives way to a meditative singing bowl and finger-picked acoustic guitar as the songwriter constructs a dense wall of spectral, reverb-drenched harmonies. While the lyrics describe a scenic moment catching insects before sunset, Magae’s soft and staggered vocal phrasing renders them nearly indecipherable, punctuating the mix with occasional images that seem otherwise content to drift artfully in the background.
It’s tempting to view ambient music in terms of a general arc built on moments of tension and resolution, and as much as Hanazono might adhere to this tradition on the surface, it feels more committed to refining earlier iterations of the project in pursuit of a new polish. About 45 seconds into “Uzu,” a steady guitar riff gives way to one of the more singular moments on the album, as Magae’s voice recedes into a soothing hum accompanied by changing chords. It’s the kind of sentiment that could have easily gone unnoticed on any of the songwriter’s earlier releases, but here it arrives with the sobering weight of a breakthrough. The fact that Magae is still exploring new ideas nearly a decade into her career feels like an achievement in itself.
Buy: Rough Trade
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