It’s not often you hear someone split the difference between Boz Scaggs, Bryan Ferry, and Nick Cave. It’s not often that you find quite a character like Yokohama-native Akira Terao, and music quite like Atmosphere. Before Mark Hollis discovered Coltrane, before Paul Buchanan decided to soundtrack the sight of Glasgow at 4 a.m., in the year that Sophisti-pop’s Lord and Savior (Roxy Music) discovered Avalon, Akira found his own calling, creating his own type of fantastic Grown-Ass Man music. Stretching out his calling cards – deep, rumbling, bass vocals sung over Jazz-inflected soul music – through a musical trip far more expansive/extensive than what Japanese audiences were expecting at the time, it was Atmosphere that became his epic swan song to a short-lived, but immensely influential musical career.
Akira has always been interested in combining many tastes. It was his taste for the finer things in life along his cavalier “no-shits-given” attitude that propelled him to become the unlikeliest of superstars. Decades removed from his bass work for Japanese garage band The Savages, it wasn’t Reflections his multi-million copies selling debut that had propelled him to fame. From 1979 through 1982, it was his work as an actor portraying a tough-nosed Japanese detective Takeshi Matsuda in the TV series Seibu Keisatsu that introduced him to every Japanese home. Little known to his acting fans, his long, dormant musical career was always something Akira aspired to bring back to life. It would be this new career that would surprisingly make Akira Terao a household name.
It would be Reflections and its surprise hit 寺尾 聰 (Ruby no Yubiwa) that propelled him to an audacious takeover of the Japanese pop charts. There was just something about Akira that was different. In all public appearances he’d appear with his trademark sunglasses and tailored suits. Blissfully unaware, or uncaring, of the expected reverence (or lip service) that many other Japanese musicians had to provide their fans, Akira was refreshingly cool and distant, frequently sprinkling in dark subject matter into his lyrics and interviews. Something about his whole demeanor and music always gave off “serious artist” vibes that allowed him to get away with many things.
No dancing, no techno garb, no forced smiling, Akira was the type of multi-talented moonlighter who was too good at one these other talents for anyone to second-guess his own handling of them all. Songs like “Shadow City” from Reflections making as much sense soundtracking a late-night escape from urban sprawl as they would backing a race track commercial for Yokohama’s “Sexy Road” tire products.
It was a stupidly cold day, in a warehouse, that allowed Akira Terao to take the iconic “Love” photo of Reflections on a smoke break – away from his label’s professionally-appointed photoshoot set. Forget glamour, that’s just how Akira rolled.
Atmosphere translates all this candor directly onto his sophomore release. Rather than succumb to the wishes of his label to create poppier, more easily promotable radio hits, Akira went the opposite direction. In Atmosphere he treats us the listener with luxurious music that puts its faith in musical atmosphere. It’s the kind of music that wouldn’t benefit from brevity. On songs like “砂の迷路”, “砂の迷路”, “回転扉” that stretch beyond the five minute mark, whole musical dramas unfold in the span of a few minutes.
Like spending a fortnight perusing old TWEN magazines, like watching a marathon session of Robert Bresson’s cinematic oeuvre, like spending an evening browsing old RAI Mr. Fantasy music videos, like spending a few hours exploring the works of German Expressionists painters, you might not get everything going on in Akira Terao’s Atmosphere but there is something objectively worthy to yourself that comes from examining these works. Still life of inhabitants of pre-bubble burst economy Japan; feeling the sharp counters that come from running your hands opposite the grain of smooth snakeskin fabric – everyone needs to get some of this feeling, some time.
Akira having successfully made the point he wanted to make after this release, in 1984 returned back to his career in acting. It doesn’t take much wikipedia searching to discover that he’d translate this brilliant artistic vision into his work with Akira Kurosawa culminating with his role playing Akira Kurosawa himself (or at least his dream-like self), in 1990, in Kurosowa’s Dream. It was the role Mr. Terao was born to play. You see, it was only seven years earlier he treated us to this wonderful bit of musical, magical realism. You know, there are dreams occurring even in the darkest parts of the city…