Agatsuma - Beams
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Japan's Agatsuma is a master of the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument of Chinese origin with a sound similar to a banjo or west African n'goni lute. In Agatsuma's hands, the shamisen is taken out of the traditional settings it's most often heard in and takes the lead amid instrumental pieces influenced by jazz, blues, rock and funk. Sounds intriguing enough, but not everything here falls into place. Some of the tracks seem to occupy an uneasy middle ground between generic techno-trance and new age treacle. Agatsuma's playing is superb, never failing to give the shamisen's twangy buzz tones an expertly emotional or festive edge, but the heavily synthesized and drum machine-laden backing tracks don't give adequate support. Thankfully, not every song goes that route. "Solitude" is a very good duet with acoustic piano, "Fun" starts out stately and solemn before living up to its name, and the outstanding "On Bourbon Street" features the shamisen snaking in and out of deep drum rhythms that sound like a cross between Japanese taiko and Jamaican nyabinghi (with an Indian tabla break thrown in). The title of the last track-"Blown Away"-doesn't exactly sum up how you're likely to feel once you've listened to the whole thing, but you probably will want to listen to parts of it repeatedly. That may be enough, but Agatsuma would do well to ditch the digital and go for a warmer sound. The possibilities opened up here sound as though Agatsuma has the potential to make a truly impressive album. Maybe next time. - Tom Orr

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