Essential albums: Tetsu Inoue

Of the many artists who have recorded on German new-school ambient label Fax Records, it's perhaps the music of Tetsu Inoue that most closely resembles classic Brian Eno. That's in the best possible sense, of course; Inoue's music rarely comes across as derivative.

Tetsu Inoue

country of origin: 

Ambient, environmental, minimalism

decades active:
90's - 00's

essential releases: 

  • 2350 Broadway [with Pete Namlook] (1993, Fax)
  • Shades Of Orion [with Pete Namlook] (1993, Fax)
  • Ambient Otaku (1994, Fax)
  • Organic Cloud (1995, Fax)
  • 2350 Broadway 3 [with Pete Namlook] (1995, Fax)
  • World Receiver (1996, Instinct)
  • Inland (2007, Fax)

as Datacide:

  • Flowerhead (1995, Asphrodel)

as Zenith:

  • Zenith (1994, Fax)

Reviewed by Mike G

Of the many artists who have recorded on German new-school ambient label Fax Records, it's perhaps the music of the enigmatic Tetsu Inoue that most closely resembles classic Brian Eno. That's in the best possible sense, of course; Inoue's music rarely comes across as derivative. Eno's pure, fragile, minimal sound and looped motifs are simply a departure point from which Inoue created some fine, distinctive ambient albums that stand proud on their own terms.

90's classics

For a long time Inoue was based in the United States - it was here that he recorded most of his albums - but it was Fax Records that made him a lauded figure on the global ambient dance music scene. Shades Of Orion (1993), Ambient Otaku (1994) and Organic Cloud (1995) are all peak period Fax Records releases. Passages of muted bleeps and beats ride on beds of subtle vocal textures, lovely airy chords and synth melodies that gently spin in and out of your consciousness. Alternately beatless and gently rhythmic, if there's such a thing as softcore techno then this is it. Environmental sounds are also woven into the tapestry in a most subtle way, some processed and treated to the point where their source is rendered almost unrecognisable.

2350 Broadway (1993) is his first in a series with Fax founder, the late Pete Namlook. The first half is rather short on tonality and melody but the second disc, consisting of the 70-minute epic "Hands Of Light" is a masterful exercise in deep spacemusic. It's glacial pace varies only marginally between beatless and gently pulsed and its mix of electronic drones, wind effects and melodies is deceptively simple. 2350 Broadway 3 (1995) is the other outstanding entry in the Broadway series and is consistently more melodic then the first. Its unforgettable opening track "Morning Spirit" is an awe-inspiring piece of sunrise ambience, beginning tentatively before slowly expanding and blooming into a warm, enveloping embrace.

World Receiver (1997) sees Inoue on another iconic 90's ambient label - Instinct Records - and takes his gift for sound design to an even higher level of sophistication. Here the lines between music and sound collage have been completely dissolved and the music reveals extraordinary detail with each listen. Musical notes become environment; environment (urban and natural) becomes music. The techniques used sound like a refinement of those on Eno's album On Land (1982), reinterpreted with field recordings sourced from all around the globe.

Rounding off Inoue's best 90's albums are two more collaborations.

The self-titled Zenith (1994) is the sole album he made as a duo with genre-hopping New Yorker Carlos Vivanco. Despite Vivanco's contributions on MIDI guitar, it's not too far away from the classic Inoue sound with its panoramic drones and gorgeous soft-edged bleeps carried by simple pulses and drum loops. “Plexus Solaris” develops into one of the most weepingly pretty chord progressions in ambient electronica, while the beatless “Aura” meddles with the dark side in its long opening section before very gradually turning towards the light. Flowerhead (1995) is his most atypical release of this period, the strongest of several albums he recorded under name Datacide with electronic mischief-maker Atom Heart. Bathed in a slowly shifting purple haze of electronic clouds and urban environmental samples is an enticing mix of vaguely pop-sounding melodies, late 60's-style psychedelic jams, backwards guitar effects and sprinkles of light machine beats.

Beyond 2000

The years following World Receiver find Inoue's albums moving ever deeper into abstraction and experimental sound, often at the expense of accessibility. Those are for his hardcore fans. Inland (2007) is an exception, however, and is highly recommended. It marks his return to the Fax Records and contains his warmest and most tonal music since the mid-90's.

At this point, the Tetsu Inoue story gets weird. Inland turned out to be his last album, after which he completely and mysteriously disappeared.

In 2012, his former web page manager Phonaut broke his silence with a blog post. Previously keeping quiet out of respect for Inoue's apparent privacy, he was now concerned for his welfare. He said that himself, friends and former collaborators had no idea as to his whereabouts, the artist having long ceased all contact with everyone he knew on the music scene, both in the USA and abroad. He wrote: "I have been managing his official homepage for the last decade or so, I would occasionally receive holiday cards, the random CDR showcasing new output, or a random email or note every few months. But all that has come to a complete standstill and what is left is a legacy of outstanding music from the last 20 years and a deafening silence from the man himself."

The most reliable story circulating online - but still unverified - is that Inoue returned to Japan for family reasons, severing all ties with the creative life he left behind. Another rumour has also persisted: that he died in Japan's 2011 tsunami, a suggestion first made by his collaborator Pete Namlook. The reasoning - as it is - is that the region hardest hit by the disaster was apparently where his family lived and 1000's of people remain unaccounted for. Whether he is in fact dead, or simply doesn't want to be found, the conclusion is the same: Inoue's career is over and only his music remains.

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