The infinite voids of time and space paint the thematic backdrop for Nowhere, Masaki Batoh’s fourth solo album. Conceptually rich and a common port to dock for musicians seeking inspiration, just how to approach such an enigmatic idea is the first point of diversion. Some see it as grand and complex and make music to reflect that, while others respond with minimalism and understatement, shrinking in the face of such a vast idea. Japanese cult hero Masaki Batoh—whose 20 years heading up psychedelic experimental vagabonds Ghost has earned him a loyal troupe of acolytes around the world—opts for the simple in the face of infinity. Recorded live in the studio with just two mics and the odd flourish thrown in post as deemed necessary, the result is a deeply intimate work that both highlights Batoh’s talent and creativity and relegates its significance against the larger concepts he deals with.
It’s always tempting to try to draw links to a perceived cultural background within a nation’s contemporary music scene, Japan proving particularly vulnerable to such exotic perceptions, but those seeking some deeper heritage may be left wanting. Not to say Nowhere lacks those characteristics, and the presence of a shamisen in “Dum Spiro Spero” is a lovely touch, but it plays out more as the musings of a wandering bard drawing on folk traditions than anything else. Indeed it’s at its best the more it does. “There is nowhere to go back, we came from nowhere,” Batoh’s breathy falsetto sings over a crisp but gentle plucked guitar motif on the opening title track. It signposts the remainder of our 45 minutes with Batoh, time that’s best spent in the presence of Batoh’s nimble guitar work and gentle melodies.
It can almost be taken as a concept record in terms of mood, the ethereal and otherworldly acoustic patterns and shifting vocals building a world within which Batoh’s ideas can dwell. It’s when he veers into the experimental nature of his previous work that the record loses that suspension of disbelief. The harsh strums and strained vocals that follow a gorgeous fingerpicked introduction in the sprawling “Tower of the Silence” are ultimately too jarring in the context of the surrounding prettiness, an effect Batoh goes for without success a couple of times. But on the whole Nowhere is a gorgeous realization of the themes he seeks to explore. Batoh sings in his native Japanese, English and even Latin throughout the record, a distant drum pattern enters “Sundown” adding a welcome sense of depth, while the beautiful and meandering 16-minute closer “Boi Taull” highlights his guitar skills to stirring catharsis. For a concept as big as this, Batoh strikes the balance between intimacy and enormity and creates an album of shifting and breathless beauty.