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Masaki Batoh - Brain Pulse Music

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Artist: Masaki Batoh

Album: Brain Pulse Music

Label: Drag City

Review date: Mar. 29, 2012

Brain Pulse Music’s title is a bit misleading, but given the nature of the album, it’s hard to get too bent out of shape with Masaki Batoh. The Tokyo practitioner of acupuncture and other traditional Japanese medicine (who also used to be in the band Ghost, if you care about that sort of thing) was behind the development of the BPM Machine. The instrument transforms brain waves into audible sound in real time, and is meant not just to make music, but also to treat psychological maladies and mood disorders. Batoh’s original plan was to create an entire album of Brain Pulse Music (BPM), but the process was interrupted by the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. The disaster caused Batoh to change course, and the resulting album is only fleetingly concerned with BPM, despite its moniker. The majority of Brain Pulse Music makes no use of its titular technique, instead mining Japanese musical tradition to create a larger elegy for the victims of the quake and its aftershocks, seismic or otherwise.

Only two of Brain Pulse Music’s seven tracks feature BPM. The rest make use of Japanese folk melodies and instruments in spartan, straightforward adaptations of ritual music. The organ-like chords of the shou drone underneath tinkling bells in “Kumano Codex 1” might not scan immediately as overtly Japanese, but on the shakuhachi-led “Kumano Codex 3” and “Kumano Codex 4,” the music sounds more like it belongs on the Nonesuch Explorer imprint than Drag City. The second and fifth installments in the Kumano Codex series strip things down to percussion only; a gong struck by a revolving cast of nine musicians on the former, and kin (Buddhist bells) on the latter. I can’t begin to conjecture whether the music meets its commemorative and palliative goals with respect to the people of Japan. Batoh has long been a student of traditional Japanese practice, however, and his attempt at healing through music is unquestionably admirable.

But what, you ask, about the Brain Pulse Music? After all, the cover of the album doesn’t feature photos of gongs, bells, or drums; it’s Batoh, rigged up in a contraption that looks straight out of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Even if the BPM tracks are few, they’re unequivocally the album’s big draw. Unfortunately, “Eye Tracking Test” and “Aiki No Okami” are a bit like Tyson/Spinks 1988, in that they leave the audience with only a glimpse of what they’ve come to see (or hear, in this case). “Eye Tracking Test” pairs two BPM machines hooked up to subject Tomoko Hosoi, the twin tones climbing, swooping, and decaying in time-lag tandem. It’s a cool track, sure, but nothing that one couldn’t easily do with some effects pedals.

This is where Brain Pulse Music really hits a wall. There’s no question that the BPM machine is an inventive curiosity, and if Batoh’s claim that BPM can be used to treat cognitive and emotional disorders is correct, then it’s even more impressive. But considered strictly as a musical instrument, the BPM machine is far more unique in it how it interprets the input signal than the sound that results. “Aiki No Okami” adds a plasma theremin and effects to the BPM machines, as well as a Norito (chant). The sounds play across the stereo channels, the chant recorded in such a way that it sometimes sounds like an ancient artifact behind the modernity of the electronics.

“Aiki No Okami” is a fitting end to the album. It’s the most successful at pairing the old and new, melding Batoh’s forward-looking means, both musical and therapeutic, with the tradition to which he studiously adheres, and Brain Pulse Music would benefit from more of this sort of synthesis. Anyone interested in the BPM machine and what it does would learn more from the videos on the Drag City website than this disc, and the unmutated renditions of Japanese ceremonial and folk music, nice as it is, feels like a diversion from the main event.

Far be it from me, a Western hemisphere desk jockey who experienced the earthquake, tsunami and resulting terror largely through internet transmissions, to be an arbiter of Batoh’s success in creating an album to help soothe the souls of those affected by the quake and its subsequent effects. This man, after all, is the professional healer, not me. But, as an album, Brain Pulse Music feels like two things at once, a dichotomous effort in which the nobility of the endeavor is at the core of its biggest aesthetic weakness.

By Adam Strohm

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