Forget microhouse; Ryoji Ikeda’s late 90s masterpiece +/- takes electronic music and examines it on an atomic level. Ikeda uses an incredibly small palette of sounds, many of them nearly beyond the range of human hearing, but the overall effect is hypnotic and physically arresting. There are moments on this album that have made me flinch in surprise; Ikeda draws his listeners in with swiftly repeating beats and establishes a powerful rhythm that makes a shift like the one from “+.” to “+..” all the more shocking.
Though usually listed as 10 tracks, +/- can really be considered three very different pieces. Tracks 1-3 comprise the 10-minute “Headphonics,” an especially groovy opening act to the more reserved title songs that span tracks 4-10. What it lacks in the catchiness and bass beats found on “Headphonics” the “+” section makes up for in sheer motorik intensity, while “-“ acts as the opposite — after the clipping beats of “+,” “-,” the longest section on the album, it provides the perfect come-down from the preceding intensity. The album moves into light speed here as the beats repeat so fast they destroy all sense of rhythm. It becomes one atmospheric unified sound, with a single metronomic beat present like a weakening pulse. The slow burning track builds up to a sort of climax in its final, longest section, until the seams begin to show and the piece breaks down.
In the coda, “+/-,” all that Ikeda leaves us with is a single sine wave, barely recognizable to the human ear. With the wave playing out for that last 60 seconds, it allows the album to end, yet the sounds still literally have a presence in the room. It gives the feeling of hearing something just out of your reach. Ikeda has said that most people really only notice the tone when it is gone. A note that only makes itself known through its absence is a beautiful idea, and Ikeda weaves these rare concepts and sounds into a unique and brilliant album.