Revisiting the Silent Riptides of Hiroshi Sato

Hiroshi Sato (1947-2012) was a Japanese pop musician who bridged global gaps over the course of his three decade career. ABOVE: Orient (1979)

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Falling asleep during an album does not always signify that the music is of poor standard. Such is the case for Hiroshi Sato’s Awakening (1981). Elements of melodic principle subtly meander from various streams into a vast fluid body. There are waves; but, they do not roar – for the most part they are silent – and, once you find yourself slipping off into the reticent riptide, your plunge into the depths is inevitable. You resurface. You open your eyes. You are back at square one.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, I was jarred awake by Wendy Matthews’ rendition of Blue and Moody Music, the last track on the record. I could not help but think of how the human body is simply a pouch of meat. I woke up with my hand over my heart. It bulged, pulsated, expanded and regressed. I quickly moved my hand to the veins on either side of my temple. After each heartbeat, they, too, bulged, pulsated, expanded and regressed. Sato’s piano ominously acquainted itself with my left ear. I grew frustrated. I was a pouch of pulsing meat; the music in my mind was sinister. I was on the riptide. It was surely carrying me to my slaughter.

Hiroshi Sato’s debut album Orient (1979) is extremely rare, despite a recent reissue. The scarcity of physical and digital copies leads many to believe that his 1981 follow-up Awakening is the first full-length LP in his discography.

But, with pace, the picture grew bigger. The piano meandered its way into a synthesizer. The synthesizer meandered its way into percussion. And by the time each individual riptide congregated within a common concoction – euphoric falsettos, kisslike guitar riffage, and extensive layering all thrown in – I was again consumed by the silent sea, past terrors washed away by the promise of slumber.

Hiroshi Sato did not blitz stage center within his own production; rather, he was everywhere at once. You may have spotted him harmonizing in the shadow of Wendy Matthews, gathering props behind the curtain, meticulously fiddling with the band at stage left, or sitting beside you, incessantly repeating that all was going to be okay. 

Awakening was released in 1981 by an independent Japanese label. Australian-Canadian singer Wendy Matthews is extensively featured on the record, even concluding it with a standalone cover of the opening track.

Born in 1942 on Japan’s southernmost island, Sato took on an early infatuation with music. It was at a local temple frequented by his family that his signature taste for contemporary Western style found its roots: the musician spent his adolescence singing Elvis Presley within its walls, devoting night hours to the multi-track recorder in its storeroom. Sato took up the bass guitar shortly after moving to Kyoto, and at 20, the piano. His first taste of the recording industry came under the wing of Haruomi Hosono, the Japanese pop pioneer who disassociated with Happy End a year prior in 1974.

Sato’s now-rare debut LP Orient (1979) boasted decades of amateur melodic intersectionality, no regard whatsoever allotted to geopolitical divides. Such diversity shines on standout track Songokū (Monkey King). Amidst disco-esque slap-bass tonality (Hosono), key-grounded instrumentation, and hints of French-born electronica, Sato roleplays as the greatest of equalizers, balancing all scales whilst somehow remaining fixed to the background. The album’s limelight was clogged by premiere Japanese talent – Shigero Suzuki on electric guitar, Hiromi Hosono on bass, acclaimed percussionist Pecker on drums – yet in their shadows, Sato thrived. Unlike the common upstart musician with a repertoire as extensive as his own, he declined to command the steering wheel, an open mind to influences intimate and abroad forging for him a unique class of ingenuity.

Haruomi Hosono’s band Happy End broke away from the Beatles clones popular in 1960s Japan by being the first rock band to sing in their native Japanese. Hosono, though not a household name, is credited with popularizing synth as a cornerstone for contemporary pop music.

Hiroshi Sato did not make music as a passageway to fame. Even when, ten years after his retirement, HMV left him out of its top 100 most influential Japanese recording artists to date, he returned to the studio nearly another decade later to record his final album. He died two years later. 

One is forced to question: Was he recording music in pursuit of an elusive breakthrough? Or was it simply for the joy of doing so?      

Though his melodies indicate the former, listen to his Awakening (1981), and the mission behind the lifetime is explicit: it wasn’t about glory. It was about making noises that transcended borders, boundaries, and time. 

For Sato, that was as simple as a silent river. 

The vast fluid body forged by the album’s numerous meandering streams is equalized by Say Goodbye. Sato’s most popular track is a mournful open letter to forlorn faiths gone over the cataract, yet – at the same time – its warm waters beckon towards sunshine to come, somber in dismay, but insistent in belief.

Say Goodbye was a B-side to the above single.

The tide is fronted by a sprinkling of rain. It is the synthesizer. It drizzles down upon the musical stream, each droplet making the riptide cling tighter to its definition. Instruments slowly file in. It all begins to make sense. We are at the edge.

Sato’s voice is suave, resolute in guiding us down the waterfall ahead. He sings of the waters we tread upon; pain, loss, loneliness. 

I can’t say I’m sorry one more time,” he begins. “Let me take my break from this state of mind.” 

We are over the falls. We are submerged in the silent sea. And it is now that Sato begins to drift away from us, further and further down toward the horizon.

I’ll say goodbye,” he yells from beyond. His voice grows quieter by the second. It will soon be absorbed by the silence of the ocean.  

I’m gone / though you tried to own me. I guess there’s no harm done / Hope you won’t be lonely.

As he did on October 26, 2012, Sato floats off into the deep. 

The waves crash. Our ears ring. The noise returns, the tsunami is reborn, and the beasts are awake once more. But everything is OK. 

We are pouches of pulsing meat.   

We are alive again.

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