Essential albums: Tetsu Inoue

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

artist: 
Tetsu Inoue

country of origin: 
Japan

style(s): 
Ambient, environmental, minimalism, chillout

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 recorded on the late Pete Namlook's new-school ambient label Fax Records, it was perhaps the music of the enigmatic Tetsu Inoue that most closely resembled classic Brian Eno. That's in the best possible sense, of course; in his heyday Inoue's music rarely came across as derivative. Eno's pure, fragile, minimal sound and looped motifs were simply a departure point from which Inoue created some highly distinctive environmental ambient albums that stand easily 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 until his disappearance in the late 2000's - but it was Germany's Fax Records that made him a lauded figure in the 90's 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 collaborative series with Fax founder Namlook. The first half is rather short on tonality 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

In the years following World Receiver Inoue grew bored with the landscaped and tonal sounds that found an audience in the 90's with the ambient dance crowd and opted to produce colder, less accessible, more academic electronic music. Most of his albums from this phase of his career move ever deeper into abstraction and experimental sound. Perhaps predictably, this includes digital glitch, that frequent creative dead-end embraced by so many artists in the 2000's who had acquired the shiny new toy known as the laptop computer.

Inland (2007) is an exception from this period, 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 and finds his sampling genius blooming once again.

Disappearance

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

In 2012, his former webpage manager Phonaut broke his silence with a widely shared 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 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 - finally confirmed in 2019 by his American friend Andy Thomas - is that Inoue returned to Japan for family reasons; his father was ailing and he wanted to live closer to his parents. But after that? Nothing. Some believe he died in Japan's 2011 tsunami event, a suggestion first made by his collaborator and label owner Pete Namlook. The reasoning is that Inoue's family lived in the region hardest hit by the disaster and to this day 1000's of people remain missing and unaccounted for. Namlook at the time had for several years been trying to locate Inoue in order to pay him his share of recent CD sales. But Namlook died himself in 2012, his search left unfulfilled.

Whether Inoue is in fact dead, or simply doesn't want to be found, the sad conclusion to this story is the same: his career is now over, and only his music remains.

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