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There’s no turning back when an artist samples Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima in the first few seconds of a song.
Out of context, the screeching, amplified violins that open Penderecki’s most recognizable piece sound like the metallic scream of a train car applying its brakes.
Fifteen seconds of Penderecki’s Threnody also open up “Tasogare”, the seventh of eight tracks on UA’s sixth studio album, Breathe. By that point, UA has made it perfectly clear pop has little sway on her music nowadays.
But for the Threnody to wash over the minimal robotic beats of the song’s introduction signals UA’s full embrace of the avant-garde.
In the past, she pushed against pop’s boundaries. Now, she’s breaking through them.
UA collaborates on this album with Uchihashi Kazuhisa, a guitarist who’s worked with Elliott Sharp and Otomo Yoshihide. As with her last two studio works, Doroboo and Sun, the music is mostly introspective, freely rhythmic and timbrally adventurous.
But while the general mood of Breathe isn’t far removed from its predecessors, it still possesses its own identity.
Uchihashi and UA go for a more synthetic sound, samples and rhythm machines replacing the live dynamics of a house band.
“The Color of Empty Sky” starts of with a wheezy accompaniment, only to give way to lush strings for the chorus.
Odd samples propel “Moss Stares”, which could have been an outtake from Björk’s Vespertine. (What if UA went completely a capella for her next album, ala Medulla? Something to consider.)
Takuji Aoyogi provides a nice contrast on the duet, “Beacon”, while the repeated motifs of “Mori” feel almost minimalist.
Unlike her last two albums, Breathe clocks in at 39 minutes, which is still somewhat long for eight songs. But even though she remains as experimental as ever, she’s reigned in the expanse of her previous outings.
It’s heartening to witness UA continually challenge herself and her listeners. After unshackling her rock ‘n’ roll potential with AJICO five years ago, she’s become fearless in pursuing new creative outlets.
But it’s hard not to miss the tuneful UA, who brought the world “Kanashimi Johnny”, “Rhythm” and even “Senkoo”.
Aside from a melodic chorus here and there, the songs on Breathe don’t offer anything resembling a single, a point not lost on UA’s label — Speedstar didn’t even precede the album’s release with one.
Breathe is a fascinating, demanding album. But like Sun before it, enjoying it depends on how much you want to work for it.