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Koenjihyakkei

Hundred Sights of Koenji

(Skin Graft; US: 11 Mar 2008; UK: 12 May 2008)

The first thing you’ll probably notice about Hundred Sights of Koenji is the size of its emotions, the grandiose drama of it, the domineering roars and shrieks accentuated by sudden, short soprano passages, the lyrics filled with booming exclamations, the songs that billow across the horizon like ravenous gods. Drums crash, guitars howl, keyboards have fits. It’s not the disc to put on in the background if you’re planning to concentrate on something else. Psychologically, aurally, it takes up a lot of space.


The group is led by the Japanese percussionist Yoshida Tatsuya, who is perhaps better known for his work with Ruins, a two-person group that he co-founded in 1985. Ruins’ music bears witness to Tatsuya’s love of Christian Vander’s French prog band Magma, and this love has carried through into Koenjihyakkei. The music on Hundred Sights, a reissue of Koenjihyakkei’s first album, first released in 1994, is riddled with Magma-esque touches. Those moments of soprano madrigal, for example. And all of the songs but one are sung in an invented language similar to Vander’s Kobaïan. They have titles like, “Yagonahh” and “Ioss”.  A lyrics sheet is provided, but it comes across almost as a kind of tongue-in-cheek joke.


It tells us that in one song they sing:


Sonquahll renning dollove dobbe sobbe lloy
Sonquahll renning dollove dobbe sobbe lloy


and in another


Shlavmi trrai shlavmi dass trrai
Vesse quorre rohbell entzaid


and in another


Zhess zhess zhess zhess zhess zhess!


The singers grab hold of these words and thunder them out as if they were handling Wagner’s Valkyries. The songs are noisy and busy, but only occasionally does this become monotonous. It wasn’t until I found a video of the group in performance that I realised just how carefully orchestrated it was, how meticulously Tatsuya had composed this music that sounds like chaos. The musicians stood on the stage in the shape of a loose horseshoe, and I watched them concentrating on their cues, the singers drawing in their breaths, shouting out in unison, then withdrawing again, listening for the next cue. This had been well rehearsed. After that, I began to appreciate the orchestration of the album itself, the placement of the scream at the beginning of “Gepek”, and the way the keyboard stays at a certain distance below the drums in “Molavena”. The brazen yell of the album changes tone from one song to another, so that in “Yagonahh” it has a candied sound, as if Tatsuya had been watching music videos for Japanese teen-girl bands, whereas in “Sunna Zarioka” it sounds as if he might have been listening to ska, in other places he seems to be channelling classical orchestras, and so on.


Hundred Sights of Koenji is a prog album that defies the criticisms of people who don’t like prog. Where the critic complains that prog is long-winded, meandering, and pretentious, Koenji is brisk, tightly arranged, and, in its own way, pleased to be entertaining, even catchy. For all its musical experiments, the album has the simple appeal of a potboiler novel: it picks up a flag of roaring melodrama and flourishes it rampantly, in triumph.

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