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Shigeto: Full Circle

img  Tobias Fischer

If Ghostly International is indeed like a family to him, then Zack Zaginaw is the Ann-Arbor-based label's music-obsessed son: One could easily imagine his childhood room littered with Hip-Hop-CDs and vintage vinyl copies of classic Fusion-albums, back issues of Downbeat magazine piling up on the floor and and posters of Jazz-legends gracing the walls. While his highschool pals would care for american football and cheerleaders, Zaginaw would hit his drums in six eight time or dream up bewilderingly complex chord progressions in his head – even today, channeled through the lens of Electronica, Downbeat and IDM, these influences are clearly discernible and have turned the first releases under his Shigeto-moniker both into ambitious musical statements as well as diary-like revelations. In a world seemingly saturated with myriads of cross-over-projects, this potent cocktail appeared to have been overlooked: With their blend of urban grit and stimulating against-the-grainness, Semi-Circle and What we held on to, two EP-length overtures published prior to the all-important first full-length, were not just experimental and progressive, but cool, smart and accessible at the same time – and one of the few cases in which instrumental craftsmanship and ingenious beatbuilding actually mutually reinforced each other rather than cancelling each other out.

And yet, already at these early stages, Shigeto was always about more than just music. Dealing with the historical theme of the forced relocation and  internment of Japanese immigrants in 1942 through the inclusion of interview fragments and radio snippets, his first releases suggested an underlying narrative and a plot akin to that of a serialised novel. Expectations for his debut album were accordingly high: Not only was it to take the Shigeto-philosophy to the big screen. It was also going to constitute an apex of sorts, a grand finale, an untying of the knot and the „end of the beginning“. Even considering the fact that Zaginaw already denied a direct continuation of the concept in interviews leading up to Full Circle, the open-ended nature of the EPs nonetheless seemed to demand a resolution and it therefore comes as a surprise that this is not what he has set out to do. In terms of sonic design, attentive listeners may recognise some of the sounds used on previous efforts and on a formal level, the album is still marked by the same ingredients: Slightly irregular, yet irresistible grooves, quirky sequences and garish neon-timbres, heavy bass lines which can take on quasi-motivic functions as well as hypnotically looping melodies played on synths and piano, lending a romantic touch to the otherwise firmly streetwise sound. And yet, at least in terms of songwriting and arrangements, the record represents a break with continuity rather than an extension of proven concepts.

On the one hand, Full Circle introduces a far more pronounced blend of  acoustic and electronic instruments, even though some of the former may actually be drawn from samples and dusty old records: Playful kalimba-patterns add colour and rhythmical propulsion to „Escape from the Incubator“ and the smooth Hip-Hop-groove of „So so lovely“, „Relentless Drag“ opens with a sentimental zither-motive and ritual drums pierce the fabric of „Ann Arbor Part 2“. And while the EPs – dub- and house-inflected What we held on to, particularly -  relied on a dense texture of words and music, the new material focuses far more on a direct and in-your-face production, on the crisp blows of the drums and the thematic action playfully buzzing on on top of them. The press release refers to Semi-Circle and What we held on to as „fragments“, but in actual fact, their combined storyline added up to a far more immersive experience than this full-length mainly composed of short and to the point tracks, from which spoken word contributions and monologues from historical witnesses have been all but banned.

Quite clearly, then, Full Circle works on a different level. By documenting four years of field work, of Zaginaw recording “glasses, chains, breathing, children, family meals, monks singing in cathedrals, walks in the south of France, and good friends offering their musical skill”, it builds on the themes of its predecessors in a world of metaphors, allusions and sonic messages transmitted through the acoustic world around him. Rather than researching big theoretical constructs and decade-long bloodlines, the spotlight is on daily life and routine, expressing itself in tiny sounds which feel familiar and foreign at the same time, and which can take on a purely decorational or downright intimate quality depending on the listener's angle. In any case, the myriads of microscopic events lend an air of subcutaneously bustling activity to the album, of a colourful sonic bazaar stimulating the audience's every senses with the scent of exotic spices, the intense colours of fine fabrics and a wild fusion of voices, noises and music. Hip-Hop and Jazz are still a part of the equation, but they are gradually dissolving into the mix, turning into expressive tools rather than stylistic references.

These sonic connections may initially not seem quite as substantial on a first listen, but are turning out remarkably deep and imaginative after a couple of spins - ultimately, the conscious move into a new direction has opened up a veritable new horizon of sound. Where this will lead is anyone's guess – who knows what CDs were still lying in Zaginaw's childhood room.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Shigeto
Homepage: Ghostly International Records

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