KISHI BASHI

Kantos
(Joyful Noise)
Add date: 8.27.2024
Release date: 8.23.2024




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The latest full-length from Kishi Bashi, Kantos is a work of exquisite duality: a party album about the possible end of humanity as we know it, at turns deeply unsettling and sublimely joyful. In a sonic departure from the symphonic folk of his critically lauded 2019 LP Omoiyari—a career-defining body of work born from his intensive meditation on the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II—the Seattle-born singer/songwriter/producer’s fifth studio album encompasses everything from Brazilian jazz and ’70s funk to orchestral rock and city pop (a Japanese genre that peaked in the mid-’80s). Informed by an equally kaleidoscopic mix of inspirations—the cult-classic sci-fi novel series Hyperion Cantos, the writings of 18th century enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, a revelatory trip to ancient ruins on the island of Crete—Kantos ultimately serves as an unbridled exaltation of the human spirit and all its wild complexities.

“At a time when so many people had begun to panic about AI and what it might mean for our future, I started working on this record as a way to explore the concept of grounding ourselves in our humanity,” says the Santa Cruz, California-based multi-instrumentalist otherwise known as Kaoru Ishibashi. “The album title is a nod to Hyperion Cantos and to Immanuel Kant, but it also refers to ‘canto’ meaning ‘I sing’ in Spanish. The idea is that even with so much technological advancement, songs are still something we very much rely on to connect with other people.”

The follow-up to his bluegrass-infused 2021 EP Emigrant, Kantos marks Kishi Bashi’s first full-length since Omoiyari—an album accompanied by a feature-length documentary film and praised by such outlets as NPR, who hailed it as “another sure-footed surprise from an artist who never stops seeking new ways to engage, connect and delight.” During the earliest stages of creating songs for Kantos, Ishibashi’s main intent was to return to his highly eclectic musical roots, in part by tapping into his jazz background and by delving into the dance-rock-leaning sensibilities he previously embraced as co-founder of Brooklyn-bred indie band Jupiter One. But not too long into the songwriting process, he stumbled upon an AI-equipped website capable of composing catchy song hooks based on a prompt—a turn of events that quickly catalyzed the existential inquiry at the heart of Kantos. “On the one hand I’m very intrigued by the possibilities of AI: it’s extremely powerful, and has the potential to solve a lot of important problems,” says Ishibashi. “But there’s also a great deal of value in human innovation, and I’m worried about what happens if we lose sight of that. Because if we don’t value our humanity, what are we valuing at all?”

Produced by Kishi Bashi and mixed by Tucan (Hot Chip, Jungle, Aluna), Kantos unfolds with a potent and palpable energy that has much to do with his revisiting of the dance-punk acts who infiltrated the zeitgeist back in his Jupiter One days. “Being immersed in that whole scene in New York in the 2000s was very formative for me, and a lot of this record was heavily influenced by bands like The Rapture and LCD Soundsystem,” notes Ishibashi, whose past experience also includes touring and recording as a violinist for Regina Spektor. At the same time, the album partly draws its galvanizing power from his lockdown-era infatuation with electric guitar. “During the pandemic I got a Fender Strat and got really excited about the tone,” he says. “It reminded me of the stuff Nile Rodgers was making with Chic in the ’70s, and I made a conscious decision to build the demos around the guitar and all these cool drums loops I was playing around with.” When it came time to record Kantos, Ishibashi headed to Chase Park Transduction (a studio in his former home of Athens, Georgia) and joined forces with long time collaborator, engineer Drew Vandenberg (Faye Webster of Montreal, Toro y Moi), and a group of British musicians, Sweet Loretta, he’d met on tour in Europe in summer 2023. “The structure of the songs didn’t really change from the demo version, but the feel of everything completely transformed,” he says. “It was definitely an affirmation of how working with live musicians can add a real element of purpose to the track.”

Not only a showcase for the sophisticated musicianship Kishi Bashi has displayed since his acclaimed 2012 debut 151a, Kantos endlessly embodies a certain ineffable quality that sets it worlds apart from artificially generated art: an infectious effervescence that echoes the playful sense of discovery that fueled every step of its creation. To that end, side A offers up a series of love songs shaped by a spontaneous shift in his vocal approach, including the euphoric and otherworldly “Chiba Funk” and the dizzyingly epic “Colorful State.” “With ‘Chiba Funk’ I was singing in Japanese and really enjoyed what it brought out of me as a vocalist, which gave me the idea to create English lyrics that I could sing in that same throaty style,” Ishibashi explains. “With a lot of these songs I allowed myself the luxury of experimenting with my vocals, almost as if I were pretending to be some other kind of singer.” Meanwhile, on “Icarus IV,” Kantos takes on a stratospheric intensity as Kishi Bashi shares a glittering and groove-driven track sparked from his reading of Madeline Miller’s Circe (a 2018 novel set in the Greek Heroic Age) and by his journey to the site of Icarus and Daedalus’ mythical flight from Crete. “It was incredible to visit a place you’ve only known from a myth,” he points out. “Reading Circe and seeing those myths challenged from a feminist perspective led me to write ‘Icarus IV,’ which is essentially a classic tale of human hubris.”

All throughout side B of Kantos, Kishi Bashi pushes further into the album’s genre-bending abandon and untamed imagination, enlisting several guest musicians to add unexpected color and texture to his sonic explorations. Featuring the spellbinding vocals of Zorina Andall and frenetic saxophone work of Augie Bello, “Lilliputian Chop” arrives as an exuberant dance song capturing what Ishibashi sums up as “that breezy feeling of new love.” On “Analógico Brasil,” Pip The Pansy lends her lush flute melodies to a gorgeously ethereal piece inspired by George Duke’s 1980 jazz-fusion classic Brazilian Love Affair. (“It’s a song about love and desire, like a lot of the songs on this record, but the word ‘analógico’ refers to how producers tend to romanticize analog gear from the ’60s and ’70s,” Ishibashi reveals.) With its bass-heavy grooves and soulful guitar tones, the R&B-flavored “Make Believe” finds activist/rapper Linqua Franqa dropping in for a guest verse that immediately magnifies the track’s electrifying impact. And after the melancholy reverie of “Call It Off,” Kantos closes out with Kishi Bashi’s cover of the titular theme song to the early-’90s Japanese mini-series Tokyo Love Story, ending the album on a moment of dreamlike surrender.

In bringing Kantos to life, Ishibashi found a wealth of inspiration in his partner Kimberly Dill, a philosophy professor at Santa Clara University. Along with sharing his love of Hyperion Cantos (a series set in a future in which humans uneasily coexist with AI civilization in colony worlds throughout the galaxy), Dill introduced Ishibashi to the work of Immanuel Kant (who emphasized “reason above all else”) and illuminated him on the evolution of human thought—including the potentially disastrous consequences of the transhumanist movement espoused by the likes of Elon Musk. “Those who subscribe to transhumanism are looking toward a distant future where humans exist on the mainframe, as if that’s a form of enlightenment,” says Ishibashi. “In many ways that’s fascinating to me, but I think runaway futurism becomes dangerous when we devalue the living. When you put reason above all else, it’s another way of detaching from humanity.” 

Although his ruminations on AI, transhumanism, and humanity’s troubled fate indelibly guided the making of Kantos, Ishibashi nonetheless views the album as “less of a warning about this kind of hubris but more a celebration of the very characteristics that make us human: desire, passion, empathy, and love.” “If there’s anything I want people to come away with when they hear this record, it’s a feeling of excitement about the possibilities of human-created art,” he says. “Even as we’re learning more about all the amazing things AI can do, I think humans will always be one step ahead in terms of our creativity and innovation. There’s still no limit to what we have to offer.”