Acoustic Sounds

Haruomi Hosono




Haruomi Hosono 'N.D.E'

Label: Rush Hour / Victor Japan

Produced By: Haruomi Hosono

Engineered By: Various

Mixed By: Various

Mastered By: Stefan Betke at Scape Mastering

Lacquers Cut By: Stefan Betke at Scape Mastering

By: Malachi Lui

August 2nd, 2023



Haruomi Hosono’s ‘Near Death Experience’ Lives On

The musical polymath’s oft-overlooked 90s gem, now on vinyl

For many pioneers of electronic pop music, the 1990s presented an identity struggle beyond the usual midlife crisis. Synths and drum machines were now widely accessible and ubiquitous: your $4000 synth isn’t so special anymore, your $5000 sequencer that constantly broke down on stage is a relic of the distant past, and any Detroit techno producer, Manchester acid house enthusiast, or some smiling dude from Cornwall could render your entire career obsolete. Past innovators mostly trudged through this era, attempting merely to stay afloat in the market. In 1991, Kraftwerk reworked (you could say ruined) their classics with “modern” digital synths on The Mix, while Brian Eno spent the decade churning out meandering ambient works, reaching his nadir with 1997’s The Drop, a 74-minute CD of him redundantly pressing buttons to produce possibly the most grating sounds imaginable.

In 1993, Yellow Magic Orchestra reunited for Technodon, an ambient house record that unlike their original run of LPs from 1978-1983, found them catching up to everyone half their age instead of breaking new ground. Electronic music was now a full-fledged industry with its own section at your local CD emporium, and styles changed drastically within months. Technodon is better than its reputation suggests, but it downplays the attention to detail and compositional flexibility that made YMO special. The individual members handled the 90s with varying artistic success: Yukihiro Takahashi started the decade with schlocky adult-contemporary balladry before adopting a more current downtempo sound; Ryuichi Sakamoto made some watered-down, guest-heavy pop records until correcting course with bare-bones piano works; Haruomi Hosono’s 90s output is harder to describe in one sentence.

Any pocket of Hosono’s fascinating solo discography is dizzying, yet particularly schizophrenic during this time. Two months before Technodon, Hosono released Medicine Compilation From The Quiet Lodge, a “fourth world”/tribal ambient record showcasing his sense of stylistic exploration. In the liner notes, he said, “I used to often be referred to as a ‘frontier musician’ but these days, I think that the frontier of modern civilization is at the center of our hearts. The frontier = the heart. Isn’t this perhaps the secret to ambient music? […] It’s possible to say that this album is my own clumsy prelude to the changes that are occurring as we enter the 21st century.” “Sight seeing,” or the observation and incorporation of music from around the world, is a recurring thread in Hosono’s work. At a time when “world music” was a reductive catch-all for non-Western-originated music, Hosono created another sort of “world music”: music that incorporated elements from around the world into a singular, unified hybrid accessible from any perspective. His pre-YMO late 70s works Paraiso and Cochin Moon planted the seeds of it, but it truly came to the fore on albums like 1989’s Omni Sight Seeing, 1993’s aforementioned Medicine Compilation, and 1996’s N.D.E, the latter an often overlooked ambient techno gem long out of print and now reissued on vinyl by Amsterdam record shop Rush Hour.

Information about N.D.E, at least in English, is scarce. Maybe Haruomi Hosono had an actual N.D.E.—near-death experience—or maybe it was just an academic fascination of his. The latter wouldn’t be surprising, as Technodon features a spoken sample of John C. Lilly, the scientist who gave acid to dolphins and later first coined the term “near death experience.” Whatever the case, the almost entirely instrumental N.D.E showed Hosono in the stylistic present of 1996 while maintaining and continuing to explore his own musical fascinations. Bassist Bill Laswell, saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, producers François Kevorkian and Goh Hotoda, and others contribute, yet it’s distinctly Hosono in how sharply evocative it is. The entire record sounds like you’re blasted at supersonic speeds through a dark tunnel while simultaneously blinded by a painfully bright light at the end—commonly reported elements of near-death experiences.

You could listen to N.D.E's entire 57 minutes at once or listen one side at a time and be equally rewarded. I prefer it split up, as it’s a bit long, repetitive, and intense, not that that’s a bad thing. “Spinning Spirits” starts the album with hypnotic tablas, followed by the trance-y “Navigations” which features harrowing synth screeches popping in and disappearing seemingly randomly. “Teaching of Sphinx” is especially atmospheric and dubby, while the short “Heliotherapy” has those familiar bubbling 90s synths in the background. Laswell and Shimizu both appear on “Edge Of The End;” that and the preceding “Higher Flyer” are N.D.E’s deepest, most ominous tracks, especially when the massive drums kick in. Closer “Aero” ranks among Hosono’s finest (that’s saying something since there’s a lot to choose from), its ambient drone capturing a feeling of coming back to one’s earthly body yet floating towards a more enlightening place, whatever that is. Like much of Hosono’s 80s and 90s work, it’s about sound images more than structure, which is only a loose frame. There’s a lot of room for that to go wrong (and he’s certainly got his duds), but when he gets it right, as he does in N.D.E’s best moments, it’s magical beyond adequate description.

Rush Hour’s new 2LP vinyl reissue, the first vinyl release with the complete album, is everything a reissue of a 1996 electronic album should be. Newly remastered and cut by Stefan Betke at Scape Mastering, the high frequencies are clean and clear, the midrange vivid, and the bass absolutely punishing. I haven’t heard the album in any other format, but this has the most bass I’ve ever heard of anything and it works. It's truly an audiophile-grade production for more adventurous listeners (it seems like it was originally a digital recording, which for electronic music is perfectly fine).

The original abridged single LP release sold in a stickered DJ sleeve has the bonus track “Rain Dream” that doesn’t seem to appear anywhere else, but I doubt it’s worth paying $100 to hear. The new reissue’s packaging is a simple direct-to-board widespine jacket with black polylined inner sleeves, which is adequate enough for the $30-40 import price. No pressing identifications (maybe R.A.N.D. Muzik in Germany?) but the EU-pressed discs are flat and quiet despite the first LP’s overly tight spindle hole. Weirdly enough, N.D.E was one of Hosono’s few solo works released internationally at the time, though you’ll still have better luck finding this Rush Hour reissue than the original US Antilles CD. I advise anyone seeking an entry into mid-period (post-Emulator, pre-Great American Songbook) Hosono to get this, Omni Sight Seeing, and Medicine Compilation as the essentials. Sony Japan’s Great Tracks imprint did excellent reissues of the latter two in 2020, cut by Bernie Grundman and pressed on absolutely dead quiet vinyl at Sony’s Japanese plant. Be warned that if you take my advice, you’re stumbling into a very expensive rabbit hole that will occupy all of your shelf space and “disposable” income, but it’s worth it!

Music Specifications

Catalog No: RH-Store JPN 10

Speed/RPM: 33 1/3

Weight: 140 grams

Size: 12"

Channels: Stereo

Source: Digital Remaster

Presentation: Multi LP


  • 2023-08-02 10:06:03 PM

    Jonti Davies wrote:

    Excellent review, Malachi. You can never say too much about Hosono.

    And you're right: those Great Tracks pressings of Omni Sight Seeing and Medicine Compilation are incredible achievements. I'd say they're the kinds of record that audio makers should be using to show off their new kit at shows, but the Steely Dan/safe vocal jazz crowd would no doubt frown and tut. [Dons protective helmet]

  • 2023-08-03 05:32:40 AM

    Mark Ward wrote:

    I've loved Sakamoto and YMO for as long as I can remember, but have never explored the solo albums of the other two members. Your review is changing that (and I listened to this youtube video). Amazing stuff! (And I know it's an obvious point, but there are so many moments when I hear echoes of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts) Thanks so much for providing yet another window into some very cool music.

  • 2023-08-03 05:35:11 AM

    Mark Ward wrote:

    And it never ceases to amaze me how many great records Bill Laswell turns up on (or produces).

  • 2023-08-03 10:58:38 AM

    Come on wrote:

    I initially skipped the article due to the 7 music rating, but the comments helped to realize it’s about some of my favorite guys in this genre.

    • 2023-08-05 01:50:48 AM

      Malachi Lui wrote:

      7 is a positive rating for music!