Graded on a Curve: KoenjiHyakkei, Dhorimviskha

KoenjiHyakkei (sometimes Koenji Hyakkei) is one of many bands helmed by Japanese drummer-singer-composer Tatsuya Yoshida, and after a break of 13 years the outfit has returned with Dhorimviskha. The recording’s been out on CD and digital since August (a little earlier in Japan, even) but after a successful Kickstarter the 2LP arrives in a gatefold jacket November 2 through Skin Graft. If the prospect of progressive/ symphonic/ math-rocky complexity, avant-jazzy horns, and operatic vocals delivered with the density and intensity of good hardcore, and all meticulously assembled, gives you a sweet shiver of a thrill, well then step right up to this one.

Here are a few recurring bits of faulty wisdom regarding ‘70s popular music: disco was a fad (that by extension, sucked), jazz fusion was stylistic dead-end that all but killed America’s greatest artform, soft-rock was craven milquetoast commercialism, and a double whammy, that punk rock was essentially a dead-end instigated by a bunch of young cretins who couldn’t play their instruments, and yet was a cul-de-sac that was wholly necessary in order to save the world from all of the above, but most crucially, the pompous and intellectually fraudulent ambitions spewed forth by the prog rock brigade.

Sure, crummy prog can be considerably harder to handle than the lousiness of your standard rudimentary garage band, particularly if you subscribe to the belief that the former is a betrayal of rock’s ethos and the latter just well-intentioned error, but progressive rock is ultimately only worse than the dregs of any other genre if you choose to focus your attention exclusively on the form’s rottenest practitioners (this logic pertains to any genre, actually). I admittedly held a somewhat different viewpoint 30 years ago, but with time and experience comes enlightenment.

Prog rock doth endure however, and a cool twist is how a fair amount of the form’s underground units (old and new) can be appealingly weird. Unsurprisingly, some of the weirdest come from Japan, and that a list of them would include the numerous activities of Tatsuya Yoshida is assured; the only question is how to rank them.

If the method is size of profile, at the top would be Ruins, a project dating from the mid-’80s with Yoshida the only constant member either in duo with a bassist (there have been four), saxophonist Ono Ryoko (Sax Ruins) or by himself (Ruins Alone), and it suffices to say that the combination of discipline, angularity, sheer power, and the unorthodox was just the sort of thing to excite both Mark Kramer (musician and owner-operator of Shimmy Disc, the label that “broke” Ruins in the US) and John Zorn (one of the duo’s multiple collaborators and also a sponsor via his fertile Tzadik imprint).

Amongst other bands and projects, Yoshida has been a part of Zeni Geva (with guitarist KK Null), Acid Mothers Temple, YBO², Korekyojinn, the Swedish band Samla Mammas Manna, The Gerogerigegege, Painkiller, and Knead (with guitarist Keiji Haino), but due to his leadership role, the other group that sticks out in his biography is KoenjiHyakkei, with their first record Hundred Sights Of Koenji (a translation of the band’s name, taken from a 1939 novel by Osamu Dazai) arriving in 1994, followed by Viva Koenji! in ’97, Nivraymin in ’01, and Angherr Shisspa in ’05.

Yoshida’s prog roots are easy to discern, mainly because he has no particular interest in disguising them. For one big example, both Ruins and KoenjiHyakkei utilize an invented tongue that’s clearly linked to the French unit Magma and its leader Christian Vander’s construction of the language Kobaïan. With this said, much of the singing on Dhorimviskha by female vocalist Ah registers as effectively wordless in a way that can alternately remind me of an opera belter’s hearty throated heave, the exuberant flow of scat-jazz, and when the other members of the band join in, even a slight touch of the Swingle Singers.

The other current members of KoenjiHyakkei are bassist Sakamoto Kengo, guitarist Koganemaru Ke, saxophonist-clarinetist Komori Keiko, and keyboardist Yabuki Taku. Yoshida and Kango are indispensable to the heaviness of the sound of course, while being adept enough barrel forth and rapidly change direction when called for, and it’s called for quite often across the set’s seven tracks (there is an eighth vinyl-only version of album standout “Levhorm” that I haven’t heard).

Naturally, Yoshida wouldn’t compose a set of music for drums he himself couldn’t play, but there’s still a palpable feeling of the artist pushing himself (and his bandmates), which isn’t the same thing as showing off or noodling tiresomely on themes swiped from European longhair music, with the punk/ metal/ math-rock punch (as you might guess, the guitar plays a big role here) blending well with recognizable elements of Soft Machine, King Crimson, early Mahavishnu Orchestra, Zappa, and the general non-pomposity of the Rock in Opposition bands.

There are also spots that are just fun, like the brief out-of-nowhere funky guitar in opener “Vleztemtraiv,” some downright soulful singing in “Levhorn,” assorted spots where Taku’s keyboard recalls ’70s prog-rock’s commercial heyday (particularly in “Vleztemtraiv” and the closing title-track), and oodles of distinctive horn blowing, this last aspect likely elevating this recording to top-tier for me.

I mentioned weirdness above, but what’s important is KoenjiHyakkei never sound as if they’re forcing the issue. They can occasionally come off a bit like some of the more out-there but rock-tangible entries in the Ipecac Records discography (via Ruins, there is a connection), but the levels of prog ingenuity are high enough that they could draw in some old-school lovers of the style through what might initially seem like orchestrated mayhem. Overall, Dhorimviskha is an utter delight from the place where seemingly inexhaustible imagination and unfaltering technique intersect.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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