Classic Synth Album Review - Kitarō: Silk Road Vol. I

Immersed as I am in the current synth music scene, I first began to love synth-based music as a kid growing up in the ‘80s. The first synth music I ever heard was on a tape that one of my parents’ friends gave them. It was the Silk Road soundtrack written and performed by Kitarō. I don’t think my parents ever listened to it, but I sure did. I was captivated by the ethereal, powerful sound of the synths as well as the sweeping drama and fantasy in his music.

Kitarō’s music planted the fascination for synthesized music firmly in my head and I can’t let that feeling go to this day. This is the first in a series of reviews of classic synth albums that either shaped my love of synthesized music or influenced the direction that the music has taken. I hope you’ll all enjoy the reviews and maybe gain some insight into what makes me tick when it comes to music.

Before I review the music, I’ll give you a bit of background on Silk Road. The music was written for a documentary entitled “The Silk Road: The Rise And Fall Of Civilizations” that aired in Japan starting in 1980 over a ten-year period. When he took on the soundtrack, Kitarō insisted that it be broadcast in stereo. He composed it mostly on three synths: the Minimoog, Minikorg 700, and Maxikorg DV800. *

Silk Road is an album imbued with intense atmosphere, incredibly beautiful melodic moments and a majestic, ancient feeling that carries the listener away. When I listen to this album, I am transported across vast distances and through majestic landscapes. Silk Road is an ideal fit for the project that it scores and enhances its depth and power.

The atmospheric power of Silk Road is undeniable. Kitarō deploys his synthesizers in a way that produces beautiful mental imagery, painting in tonal colours, textural variations and harmonic contrasts. There are few soundtracks that have the ability to truly produce visuals in the way that Silk Road manages to do it. The end result is an album that viscerally takes hold of the listener and immerses them in the environment of the music.

Silk Road showcases the tremendous talent for melodic writing that Kitarō possesses. Each of his melodies are finely crafted, expressive and clear as they deliver their emotional punch. The way that Kitarō is able to inspire feelings in the listener is superb. He has a sense of just what notes to weave together in order to create the mood which most effectively captures the person experiencing the music. It’s a captivating sensation to listen to this album.

Another aspect of this album that makes it classic for me is Kitarō’s

signature of sonic detail and interaction. Listening to this music, I am struck by the fine nuances of how each element unfolds and interacts. Kitarō clearly considers the musical building blocks that go into crafting each track, thoughtfully layering them to create a lush and intricate whole. I enjoy the way that, even as they hold together, I can pick each separate detail out.

“Silk Road” commences as a lower, mellow synth carries slowly revolving arpeggios while higher, brighter notes descend to create a contrasting texture. Glittering chimes sparkle in the distance before low choral voices rise. The iconic theme soars into the music, carried on a full synth with a resonant, woodwind quality. The melody has the distinct flavour of East Asian scales and is sweeping, but full of plaintive depth. A layer of piano notes create a stronger framework to support the melody.

The melody has the quality of feeling like we know it already, as if it has always existed. Shining, strumming guitar moves along with the spinning arpeggios in the distance. A rapid trickle of round, notes climbs up to lead into an oscillation that ripples as the lead melody thrums with aching emotion. There’s a return to the majesty and elegiac beauty of the “A” section as the piano adds gently arpeggiating notes.

The undulating, hollow note pattern dances delicately while the melody unfolds. After another rippling rise, the main melody calls out and the piano arpeggios whirl. The next melodic segment grows more poignant before the main theme returns. Hollow, flowing notes provide a textural addition as the full nobility in the lead melody is expressed and wind blows across the desert.

Deep, resonant synth intertwines with drifting, distant notes as a solid bass growl moves along with haunted male voices to open “Heavenly Father.” A rising, full synth glow glides along and elevated, gleaming synth flashes out while the twisting vocal sounds feel reverent and timeless. The bass depth is joined by a medium-low, rapid arpeggio and higher volleys of sounds, rising and falling as the bass weight moves.

A secondary layer of slower, string-like notes arpeggiate and mingle while rising synth chords add minor key shadow and lines of climbing, round synth add more texture. This track surges with restrained power as the ancient, strength-filled synth chords and the upwelling of powerful bass underpins the drifting note patterns that have threat and depth.

“The Great Wall of China” starts off as hollow synth weaves a dense, textural tapestry while guzheng*-like notes fall slowly through the track. The notes form a delicate melody coloured by melancholy while a drifting, medium-high, pipe instrument creates a crying background.

A low bass sound creates waves of deep richness that volley back and forth below the other musical elements to contrast with the flowing, airy sounds above it. A medium-high, slightly distorted synth with a plangent feeling carries a wandering melody that sails out over the pulsing, volleying bass.

The melody sighs like a high wind, giving an impression of the desolation one might feel while standing on the Great Wall. This track. The timbre of the lead synth provides desolate, roaming feelings while the brighter notes add shimmer and the hollow textured cascade of synth enriches the whole track. It evokes the ghosts of those who died building and manning the wall

Ethereal, descending arpeggios are carried on round, drifting, piano-like tones as the melody comes in to begin "Silk Road Fantasy.” The melody moves between uplift and more mingled feelings of loss and dreaming while the jangling brightness of the strings takes up the arpeggiating patterns around them.

The piano shifts into a minor key melody trembling with a profound sense of loss as synths evoke a strummed string instrument around it. The thickness of the bass is an underpinning tide throughout the track. The main melody is taken up by a full, round synth that trembles and hopes as it rises majestically above the shining strings.

Wind sweeps, arpeggios whirl and the melody cries out in plaintive notes while a rapid shimmer climbs in the distance. The lead piano melody sings out again, yearning and hurting, while the bright strings strum in behind it and the bass lifts. The trumpeting synth tone rises again, unfolding in a melody that calls to mind some abandoned place, lost in the sand.

“Shimmering Light” opens with thunderous drums throbbing in a primordial, powerful rhythm. The drums are paired with circular, rhythmic patterns carried on a mallet percussion sound. A glowing, slightly nasal synth carries a slowly floating melodic pattern that becomes a mystical melody.

The melody has a detached and roving feeling, journeying with a timeless flow while the primal throb of the drums is trance-inducing, The lead synth takes on a ghostly quality, a haunted cry that bends upwards at the end of each phrase. The music here is full of a feeling of lonely travel through empty space, contrasted with driving drums.

Fragile, sparkling synths fall like starry rain while chimes ring out in shining lines to bring “Westbound” into being. Reverent, open synth rises in a deep resonant line below the higher sparkles. Arpeggios dance slowly while massive synth chords add a triumphant feeling. Light glints from the glittering synths that while open notes arpeggiate and elevated synth slices in with majestic glow.

The warm chords raise it up, carrying out over the chimes that flicker and fade. There’s a lightness and an ease to the music that contrasts with the more triumphant chords as they crescendo.

“Everlasting Road” begins with a twinkling wash of chimes over an undulating wave of hollow, medium-low synth and a quick, sharp arpeggio. The melody calls out on a swelling, full synth with a violin-like character in its mournful tone.

It carries a melody full of profound sadness and loss as it fills the track. The chimes shimmer and the slowly turning arpeggios add shape to the music. The secondary melodic layer mirrors the violin-like synth in a swirling tide of mist.

A trumpeting synth gives a sensation of lonely drifting to the track. A shining synth trembles to add more expression while the elevated chimes gleam distantly. The melody has an epic quality to it, gaining more strength and filling me with sweeping feeling as it climbs and wind hisses through the music. The trumpeting lead helps create that gigantic sensation as a crescendo is reached and the brassy synth cries far above before silence falls.

A cut-glass synth arpeggiates delicately to open “Time” as quick, echoing flashes of bright sound are joined by brassy synth crying out in tightly parallel notes that form a repeating pattern. Crystalline arpeggios rise and fall and a rich, thick blanket of synth waves washes through.

The cosmically floating melody cries out on a broad synth with a resonant quality, feeling like it is journeying across vast distances. The melody climbs high up and glides along, glowing while string-like synths help to elevated it until it fades out.

Silk Road Vol. 1 showcases the way in which I feel that synth-based music can carry the listener on a fantastic sonic journey. It is just as capable of creating emotion and exploring music in a nuanced and powerful manner as any orchestral composition. It’s also the first album that truly drew me towards my current love of synth-based music.

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