In the mid-1990s, electronic and new age music composer Pneuma (Satoru Takazawa) unexpectedly shifted gears, leaving a series of tasteful recordings drenched in funereal mysticism, astrology, medievalism and pictorial symbolism. Supported by Akira, Shin Yamazaki (ex-Lacrymosa) and Yuko Suzuki, the formation adopted the unlikely name: Trembling Strain. With the help from other like-minded musicians, Pneuma & Co indulged in exotic exercises of color and space. Their appetite for trans-cultural combinations collated luscious mirages with Asian, Middle Eastern, African, medieval and Brazilian instruments. The results of this concoction are usually more than the sum of the parts and occasionally Trembling Strain added to the shortlist of the most accomplished ethnic atmospherics. At its worst, the band did not avoid the traps of new age noodling.
Falling short of creating a pseudo belief system, the band paid attention to the visual side of its productions. The cover art was peppered with collages made up from slices of Max Ernst, Ingres, Breughel, Melanesian art and naïve fantasism.
The most unusual timbral combination opens the record with Pneuma on bowed psaltery, Daiki Tojima on darabukke andYuko Suzuki on Celtic harp. Pneuma had perfected his arco technique on psaltery reaching eerie resonance with legato bowing. I can recall only one precedent – Fisher fidola employed by Orchestra of the Eight Day in the early 1980s. Darabukke attracts dry, short, swatting echo of a closed space. From this array emerge purgatorial voices and girlish giggles. The spectral glissando quality evokes the most memorable moments of Stephan Micus – another explorer of unique timbral juxtapositions. When acoustic guitar finally etches a pattern, it flows lazily, with little development. Short arpeggios on hammer dulcimer will not change the overall impression.
Towers of Silence
There is nothing to see, or indeed hear in Mumbai’s Towers of Silence. This 17-minute piece does begin with silence. Akira’s hand drums, Tojima’s upright bass and Akira Kawaguchi’s jembe introduce a densely repetitive, mantric rhythm pattern. Against this slap-tone-bass motif, Shin Yamazaki improvises on oud, as if lost in the darkened corner of an empty mosque. Soon, the contour will be affected by reverberating growls, space whisper and ominous howling. The flow is occasionally stripped down to mere hand drums, chimes and saz, strummed uncomfortably by Pneuma. Resurgent shakers are immersed in a heavy echo, but otherwise little happens. It is as if the band was in mid-flight, in a reluctantly improvised mood, waiting for someone to assume leadership – a tin whistle here, a Tibetan gong there. Pneuma saws his low-key morin khuur – a form of Mongolian erhu, but pitched lower than its Chinese counterpart. When the acoustic guitar rhythm swings back, a Syrian flute responds. The track ebbs slowly, back into the silence.
Berimbau, scraped sul tasto gives off a buzzed tone – plated by a thin coating of percussive hypersurface. Then, a highly inadequate call and response begins between an interrogating, mythological symphonium (mouth organ) and bowed psaltery. This is Pneuma’s signature tale, explored on Trembling Strain’s earlier records. For a moment, Pneuma plucks the saz, to bestow on this track a more melodious edge. When the theme matures, additional inputs come from Egyptian tambourine’s blunt jangle and from Tojima’s acoustic bass guitar. Before they exit, the heavy growling returns.
Heaven in a Doze
This is a longer composition in 6 parts. Its first movement (“Stargazer”) opens with a lonesome, sparse hammer dulcimer theme. The Fisher fidola – like texture is back, but some fake bird chirping is thrown into the mix, overcooking the imagery already crowded with summertime wind blowing, percolating water and a cuckoo. Then Tibetan bells begin to tinkle, pre-announcing a wailing mass counterpointed against darabukke’s deftly hand-made echo. Akira’s vocal chords are breathy, guttural, fibrous. Multi-element whistles and slothful Celtic harp ripple into the cavernous interior that envelops the listener. In the next movement, we are thrown into the boundless panorama of heavenly auras, so reminiscent of Popol Vuh’s early records. Between the celestial layers of immobile, sustained chords, the glissandos of various string instruments compete in high pitch and concentration. This is the most static moment of this generally contemplative record. Damned, Dantesque voices plead for our attention from the abyss. Tojima’s dystopic Tibetan horns finally break the mood and Pneuma’s dull cymbals add splashes of overtones. After a less seamless transition, Tomoko Katabami brings along an African metal ballaphone. A simple, mellow figure is synchronous with Javanese angklung, played by Tojima. The unusual interplay of these timbres is magical. Pneuma’s singing bowls join with long, ringing delay. Chimes and tiny bells are counterpoised for detail. This is a scale-invariant piece that unfolds endlessly. Finally, the last movement returns to the hammer dulcimer cum birds “solo”. When it disappears, we are left alone, with crackling twigs.
“Tower” was recorded at the crepuscule of Trembling Strain’s inventiveness. However, I do recommend their earlier recordings. They are often saturnine and bleak, but at the same time refined and magnetic.
VARIOUS ARTISTS: “Lost in Labirynth II” (1994)
TREMBLING STRAIN: “Anthem to Raise the Dead“ (1994)
TREMBLING STRAIN: “Four Pictures“ (1994-1995)
TREMBLING STRAIN: “Bottom of Empty“ (1995-1996)
TREMBLING STRAIN: “Tower“ (1996-1997)
AKIRA & TREMBLING STRAIN: “Dwelling of Telescopefish“ (1997-1999)
Pneuma has appeared on many other recordings, also in duo with his partners from Trembling Strain. Prior to the formation of this band, he had recorded under the moniker Takami. Although Takami’s LPs had their moments, they are better left to the fans of 1970s’ Berlin synthesizer scene. Conversely, Pneuma’s return in trio with Furudate and Arima marked the high-point in contemporary tortured, apocalyptic electronics.
TAKAMI: “Tenshi-kou” (1983)
TAKAMI: “Yume no kirigishi” (1985)
Tetsuo FURUDATE – Sumihisa ARIMA – PNEUMA: “Autrement qu’être“ (1994-1995)
Tetsuo FURUDATE – Sumihisa ARIMA – PNEUMA: “Autrement qu’être, vol.2“(1996-1998)