Right from the very beginning there is a palpable sense of inward bleakness that shrouds North Palace. Echoes of musical shapes swirl behind clouds of white noise, stark and slippery, forever sinking away into the formless chasm that surrounds them.
It took me a few listens to get into this record. The use of noise to put distance between the music and its listener is one we’ve become accustomed to in recent years, but rarely do we find this technique pushed to the extremes found on North Palace. What starts as a gentle hiss obscuring the submerged harmonies later becomes so thick as to engulf them completely; the melancholy is so cold that to try and sit down to listen to it purposefully seems woefully pointless. Better instead to wait until accident catches you in just the right mood, and in just the right circumstance. In short, I get the sense that the depths of North Palace are the kind you need to sink into, rather than plunge into.
In the middle of the album – Track III – the smooth top end static of the earlier tracks is replaced by the warmer sound of crackling vinyl. What didn’t occur to me the first few times I listened to it is that all this lo-fi treatment serves a conceptual purpose in addition to its textural one. We hear the click of a record run to the end of its groove but still revolving: the sound that’s left when all other sounds have finished, without anyone there to tell it to stop. This slight recontextualisation of the source sound is what opened the album up for me; the sudden giving way of the formless white to a lonely image – of the abstract to the concrete – making visible what should have been obvious all along: that North Palace is all about pathos. Forgetting for a moment the near motionless minimalism at work here, each track maps out with smudged drones and piano a song of its own, always somewhere on the line between tragedy and optimism.
I’m reminded of the techniques of anamorphosis used by medieval painters: the distortion or stretching of images so that they could only be seen from certain angles or perspectives. The aim was to delay revelation, to force the onlooker to spend time looking for the deeper pictures among the more obvious surface features. This release from Tomonari Nozaki does something I think is similar. Getting inside it is a process of stripping away levels of clutter in the mind, approaching a realisation that this is quite simply a collection of sad, elegant tracks, that they need not be any more than that, and moreover that they are left all the more beautiful by the work required in uncovering them.