Reviews in this issue:
- Mutyumu – Mutyumu
- Accept - Silver Moon
- Butzmetz LingerieZ - Somewhere Between
- Lone Empty Bed - Lone Empty Bed
- Shinsekai - Shinsekai
- Ain Soph - Studio Live Tracks 80's and '05
Over the years we at DPRP have covered a number of releases from Vital Records, a sub-division of Japan's Poseidon Records, and I have to say in general it is a mixed bag. The releases are seldom mediocre, quite often dreadful, but every now and again there are little gems to be found, as Gerald and I discovered in this recent batch from the land of the rising sun. Now for those not familiar with Vital Records - their output is normally in the form of CDRs,
with minimal artwork and information. Poseidon through Vital Records offers it's
distribution network to un-signed Japanese artists. The first four albums
reviewed here are from the Vital label with the rest from the Poseidon /Musea
Mutyumu – Mutyumu
Tracklist: Koku (5:29), Zantetsu (4:45), Kronos Kairos (5:46), Fujyo Kouhuku Sanka (6:15), Sonzai No Kakuritsu (3:18), Madouin Mousou Tenshi Kyoku (4:56), Tetsu No Hanataba (8:53), Syosou Kuka Gengai No Sirabe (4:31), Rakuen (12:45), Mumu No Renzokukousa (1:41), Hakugoku No Yume (4:47), Tata (4:26)
I’m always reluctant to use what will be my opening statement about this album, because, honestly, it could be true to a degree of any album. But it must be said: I’ve never heard anything like this before, and nor have you, I’d wager. Quoting an unnamed “media” source in Japan, the letter accompanying this CD-R said that their work has been described as “Healing music of the hell” – and you know? That’s as good a place as any to start.
Mutyumu is a four-piece band (guitar, vocals, drums, and keyboards) with a fifth member providing “support” on bass and violin. But that list of instruments can’t give you any idea of the range or variety of sounds to be found on this album. The tracks range from soothing new-age ambient tunes (some with, but some distinctly without, a clear Japanese influence) to, well, something very much like black metal. Yes, I said black metal, as in blast-beat drums, and thrashing guitars, and ethereal female backing vocals, though with merely bizarre rather than shrieking lead vocals. Check out the middle section of Kronos Kairos, the beginning of Fujyo Kouhuku Sanka, and Madouin Mousou Tenshi Kyoku in its entirety to to hear the best of the black-metal bits on the album.
Between those extremes (surely it’s fair to call ambient and black metal “extremes”?) there’s a lot of other interesting stuff going on – so much (and at such length – check out the song timings!) that my one real criticism of this album is that it’s a bit of a jumble, more a collection of many styles than a coherent sequence of songs. For example, the ominous repeated bass-drum pattern of Tetsu No Hanataba might remind you a bit of The Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot; and dammit if the piano in Syosou Kuka Gengai No Sirabe (I wish I knew what these titles meant!) isn’t an homage to (or perhaps a borrowing from?) Tubular Bells. Other tracks are almost jazzy (almost but not quite); most, it’s true, would best be categorized as ambient, but few of them don’t feature a number of styles one after another.
And predictably I suppose, the album’s longest track, the almost-thirteen-minute Rakuen, is a microcosm of the album’s stylistic variety, featuring snippets of those blast beats, entire sections with only single notes picked out quietly on piano, and (I’m not making this up) a long introductory passage that sounds like slow, mellow cowboy campfire music, with what I can only assume is a synthesized harmonica! “Eclectic” is a word used far too often these days, but I’m going to use it for this group’s work.
Will you like it? I think the answer depends on your tolerance for wildly disparate kinds of music; your patience for long and perhaps self-indulgent (though always melodic) mostly instrumental compositions; and, probably, your mood when you put this disc into your CD player. I’m going to recommend it not only because of the band’s bravery and talent but also because, wildly divergent though the styles on this album are, the whole thing is interesting, even beguiling. Just be warned that you’re in for a unique experience.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Accept - Silver Moon
Tracklist: [Unacceptable part-3] (6:57), The Contact (6:13), Spring (3:52), Silver Moon (7:01), Between Rreality And Fantasy (8:50), Beginning (2:46), Swallowed (0:51), Kaleidoscope (2:06), Tell Me How (5:24), Silver Water (4:59), "Look Up!" (1:11), [Puer Aeternus] (9:12)
Now as I have no comprehension of the Japanese language the information regarding Accept may be a little inaccurate as it is based solely on the scant information available in the CD cover. Although presented as a band release this album is principally the work of Tai who is responsible for the whole concept of the Accept project and Hisa (guitar, bass, rhythm programming, vocals as well as "composition and lyrics"). Finally we have Izu who adds the female vocals for the opening two tracks. The sleeve notes also suggest that the album has had a long gestation period dating from 1990-2007.
Musically Silver Moon also marks a change for Vital as the music is heavily symphonic in nature rather than their usual digest of avant-garde and jazz/fusion offerings. In fact Silver Moon is a lush and lavishly arranged affair that incorporates a varied palette of keyboard sounds along with lashings of tasteful electric and acoustic guitar. Izu's gentle voice blends well with the music, cutting through the warm textured sound, although I'm at a bit of a loss as to why she only appears on the first two tracks though. I can only attribute this to her vocals being sung in Japanese and that it might detract from getting across the albums concept. There may also be financial motivations, deeming that an album sung entirely in Japanese would have little appeal outside their native country. Either way the remaining vocals from the album are sung (in English) by Hisa... personally I might have taken the risk with Izu.
As mentioned Silver Moon is a rich and lush album with vast washes of keyboards and nicely textured guitar evoking comparisons to Barclay James Harvest and The Moody Blues in the instrumentation, although not so with the vocalising. And for me it is the contrast between the lavish keyboard sections and the spacey layered instrumentals that make this album pleasurable to listen to. The guitar work is strong and often reminiscent in a melodic sense to Dave Gilmour. Along with this the classical guitar work gives the music a real prog edge. The keyboard sounds are also pleasing to the ears with wispish and airy synth lines, whilst the chordal backgrounds utilise a varied array of textures and timbres.
Where the album falls down is in the pedestrian nature of much of the music, definitely taken from the Pink Floyd book of tempo. Coupled with with the numerous lengthy instrumental sections and laid back atmospheric nature of the music my attention did wander. Certainly this allows the huge washes of keyboards and melodic guitar to flow effortlessly but for just over an hour it did become a little tedious.
However if you are looking for something that isn't too demanding, sits nicely in the background and with a gentle swathing nature then this may well fit the bill. In many respects this album marks a departure from the usual Vital releases as it is not a CDR, but is properly mastered CD, and comes complete with artwork (albeit fairly basic). Hopefully a sign for the future - certainly worth checking if any audio samples become available.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Butzmetz LingerieZ - Somewhere Between
Tracklist: Theme Of Potassium Hydroxide (12:32), Octavia (11:50), A Night In Xiamen (8:57), Somewhere Between (10:36), Fisherman's Blues (11:55)
Next up in this selection is Somewhere Between, the second release from Butzmetz LingerieZ, a Japanese trio comprising of Koh "Guts" Yoneyama (guitar), Nobuyuki Shiori (bass) and Wataru Endo (drums) and here joined by guest musician Hiroo Takano (saxophone & flute). Reading the scant sleeve notes we gather that the album was recorded "live" in two sessions, one in late 2005 and the second in mid 2006.
Musically this is grooving, progressive jazz fusion with inclinations towards the Canterbury scene. The five lengthy tracks display the craftsmanship of each of the players, however what set this aside for me was that the pieces remained tight, concentrating on ensemble playing rather than flights of musically whimsy. Rhythmically the structures do vary but always within a pre-determined framework - so the drums are busy and the bass is percolating whilst held within a pulsing and driving groove. Yoneyama's guitar provides the cohesion between the rhythm section and the "top line", often taking a secondary role although he does cut loose during A Night In Xiamen. However it is guest musician Hiroo Takano who takes up the lion's share of the improvisations - noteworthy is his flute work which effortlessly floats over the busy arrangements especially in the title track.
Although the separation between the instruments is fine and the mixing is complementary to the music, the audio quality isn't wonderful - lacking that mastering polish that we have come to expect. Granted the ears do attune to the dullness of the audio and some correction can be made to the sound, however it did tend to cause listening fatigue.
Interesting if not essential...
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10
Lone Empty Bed - Lone Empty Bed
Tracklist: Last Exit To Blooklyn (5:15), Les Paradis Artificial (6:17), Breakfast Of Champions (4:38), Slaughter-House Five [Live at Ebisu Milk] (10:40), The Martian Chronicles [Live at Ebisu Milk] (11:33), L'appareil-Photo [Live at Ebisu Milk] (11:09)
Sadly this album may well be of interest to some, but it certainly isn't to me. Consisting of Junichi Shiratori (tenor sax), Tomonori Iizuka (trombone), Takafumi Sakuma (guitar), Dai Otake (drums), Yuki Nishiyama (bass) and Takumi Higashi (keyboards on the live tracks) - Lone Empty Bed fall distinctly into the jazz camp, owing little allegiance to the progressive market.
Musically these are all very competent players and the material is well performed, however my interest started to dwindle very early in the proceedings. I should qualify this by saying that I'm not much of a brass man and possibly my least favourite brass instrument is the trombone. When taken into the field of improvised jazz, as it is here, then these instruments quickly became an irritant. By the time we reached the live tracks, which coincidentally are almost inaudible, and Junichi Shiratori moved into screeching and squawking sax mode I had had enough. Along with this Tomonori Iizuka trombone did little to change my opinion of this instrument - in fact it probably put it further off the scale. OK some of the initial melodies and refrains are pleasant, but they are short lived.
Of no interest and definitely not essential... (to me!)
Shinsekai - Shinsekai
Tracklist: I Talk To The Door (0:36) 1000 Days Before (Part One) (4:39) Shinsekai (7:03) OCAT (6:49) All Or Nothing (3:15) Riviere Of Life Part One (5:10) Riviere Of Life Part Two (3:29) Nishinari Skidrow (6:17)
I got a bit of a surprise with this one, as most of the offerings from Poseidon are in a Jazz/Fusion vein, but this short (at 37 minutes) but sweet offering from Shinsekai eschews said style for an all instrumental brew which takes major inspiration from King Crimson but creates its own sound and style which should appeal to many Progheads.
Information on the web is scant and, of what there is, most is in Japanese, but as far as I can tell Shinsekai were founded by composer/keyboardist Yu Shimoda, a talented Video Game soundtrack artist. I was under the impression that this was a new release, but it seems to have been out since 2005 and there is now a second CD available (Alice Through The Looking Glass).
The King Crimson elements are evident in the way these compositions frequently and dramatically shift between furious riffs and calmer sections, and also in the prominent use of Mellotron. The first track proper (the opener is only a few seconds of a ghostly chiming sound) opens with frantic guitar and screeching synths, with a riff which will surely remind you of Schizoid Man and the like, but merely a minute in and the Mellotron asserts itself in commanding fashion. I’ve always loved the early Crimson stuff for its liberal use of Mellotron, and I always prick up my ears when I hear of bands that employ the majestic instrument. Be assured, this CD is absolutely crammed full of the stuff, and you’ve just got to hear how they use it on OCAT, where it takes a lead role with a pulsing melody which is a MelloManiac’s wet dream.
Although the KC influences are prominent, Shinsekai also are capable of originality. The eponymous track, which is also the longest on the disc, is unlike anything else I’ve heard, being a schizophrenic collision between a bluesy harmonica-driven waltz and a hard edged and hyper-driven riff, topped off with a nonchalant drawl of a guitar solo. It sounds like it would make a great theme for something; god knows what it would fit, but still…
For me, the last track loses the plot a bit in the middle, where they amble a touch too far into free form territory (as indeed Crimson before them were wont to do occasionally) but for the most part this is melodic and tuneful stuff.
Overall, this is an enjoyable collection of progressive instrumentals, and a must hear for all Mellotron/ early King Crimson fans.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Ain Soph - Studio Live Tracks 80's and '05
Tracklist: Flight (2:13), Oddessa (10:32), Pipe Dream (7:37), Swan Lake (5:25), Magic Carpet (7:26), Hat And Field (10:02), Natural Selection (7:13), Triple Sequence (7:45)
As I searched the internet for information on this band, I could find no samples or website - the only available info being in Japanese at the Poseidon Records site or located in our reviews of Marine Menagerie and 5 or 9 (Five Evolved From Nine) from last year. I did, however, discover that the phrase 'Ain Soph' is actually an ancient Hebrew description of the underlying oneness of the universe... a fittingly bombastic name for a band in a sometimes bombastic genre.
The vast majority of this album consists of recordings of performances in 1985 and 1988, some of it from a small back catalogue. The phrase 'studio live' is used on the CD insert - leading me to confusion. These tracks were recorded live for sure. On the one hand, there is no sound of an audience, but on the other the sound quality is pretty poor for any recording studio, even in the 80's. So I just take it as a live recording.
This stuff is all instrumental, billed by Musea as "Canterbury School Progressive". Indeed, most of this music emerged during or just after the heyday of artists like Camel, Gong, and Happy The Man and it bears some similarities to them. Like those peers, most of Ain Soph's tracks on this release are built around compelling and catchy themes, played by the standard drums-bass-keyboards-guitars ensemble. Other, more jazz oriented outfits from the 80's, like Special FX and Steps Ahead, had this quality also. The bottom line being that if you never heard Ain Soph in the 80's, it seems they were a very solid Japanese version of that Canterbury-Jazz-Prog-Fusion wave, and well worth checking out.
Now I was thinking, OK this is a pretty good retrospective, and a useful introduction to a band that pretty much flew under the radar in the Anglo-Saxon world of prog. But there is one more track added at the end, the one recorded in 2005 - Brand New Tune, First Version! - apparently heralding the return of Ain Soph. It is different from the others, attempting to mark off a more improvisational jazzy sound. Unfortunately it bears more resemblance to Spinal Tap's similar change in direction in 1980 ("This was Derek's idea!") than to any real artist I can think of. But maybe in the real world of music the new direction won't crash and burn.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10