Japan has been an important part of the worldwide Progressive music scene pretty much since the beginning. You can trace the history back to seminal live albums like Made in Japan by Deep Purple and Live in Japan by Chicago, both released in 1972. Those were to be followed by other illustrious artists like Pink Floyd, Asia and Steve Hackett, who toured regularly, often playing at the renowned Budokan venue in Tokyo, which was built for the 1964 Olympics and hosted the Beatles in 1966. Of course, the Budokan was immortalised worldwide after the release of Bob Dylan at Budokan in 1978.
However, few Japanese artists have broken through into the mainstream of Progressive rock. My first encounter was with Ryuichi Sakamoto through his performance and musical collaboration in the film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, alongside another actor/musician by the name of David Bowie. Mr Sakamoto’s band The Yellow Magic Orchestra was hugely influential in the development of electronic music in the late ’70s and ’80s. More recently, Ryo Okumoto has been a fixture playing keyboards in Spock’s Beard since the mid-’90s.
Unknown to me – until now – is Tatsuya Yoshida, who is one of the most important and influential drummer/composers to come out of the Japanese alt-rock scene, also from around the mid-’90s. One of Yoshida’s main influences was Christian Vander, drummer and mastermind of the group Magma. His extremely energetic drumming style can only really be compared to Keith Moon in his prime, but he also sites influence from more traditional Prog bands including Gentle Giant, ELP, Genesis and Yes. As well as solo albums, and his house band Ruins, Mr Yoshida’s catalogue includes many collaborations with artists from around the world.
Aqanesuss is a new project formed with Japanese musicians and their self-titled debut album was released in December last year. The breadth of influences is clear, as is the artistry of both the band leader Tatsuya Yoshida and all the other musicians. Underlying it all is a distinct sound that reflects the Japanese scene, but the layering of the instrumentation, the musical direction and the production creates a fascinating blend of East meets West, and a genuinely satisfying prog experience.
Don’t be fooled by the short piano introduction at the start of opening track Soar in the Sky. The characteristic groove that the band soon launch into signals the start of a sequence of three energetic and uncompromising tracks that are powerfully driven by the drums of Mr Yoshida. Drums, bass and guitars provide the backbone of the song with synth flourishes laid over the top. From a prog perspective we also get an organ solo and a quieter bridge section that evolves into a calypso style interlude before the main theme returns. It’s prog Jim, but not as we know it.
It was a surprise to me that all the lyrics on this album are sung in English, although they are difficult to make out without a lyric sheet to hand, and on this first track it seems to me like lead singer Kyoka is singing outside her natural range. In summary, we already have a strange mix of new sounds set in a familiar song structure and although it feels initially like an assault on the senses, it has certainly drawn me in. A bit like the feeling that I had on my first visit to Japan, to be honest.
For track two, Kind Loneliness, we get a mixed bag of avant-garde male and female vocal lines, or chants, interspersed by more melodic synth and saxophone breaks. I can imagine that this is a fun track for the band to play live, but the sum of the parts doesn’t quite make up to a fulfilling whole. Next up is Can’t Wait for Tomorrow and if anything, the pace and tempo seems to increase. Keyboards are to the fore and the sound is distinctly early ’70s prog, reminiscent of Greenslade. The vocals are pitched perfectly this time and despite the frenetic pace of the rhythm section, the song hangs together nicely. Once again there is a short interlude in the middle of the track before the band turn it up to 11 again to close out. It’s fair to say that these first three tracks were a shock to these UK-based ears and have taken more than a few spins to get used to, but it has been worth it, and part of the reward is that the second half of the album provides a bit more variety, including some calmer and more melodic moments.
The opening of Evening Scenery, has piano and violin combining to set up the melody. When the band initially kick in, they pick up the pace and we are briefly back into the familiar sound of driving drum and bass. The drumming on this track is a particular tour de force and after the opening verses the violin returns and we get an extraordinary 21st Century homage to Eddie Jobson. This is a spectacular melding of UK mk.1 stylings and Mr Yoshida’s vision of progression, and for UK fans out there this really is a breath-taking must-listen.
Eternal Light has a more straightforward structure and a more measured contribution for the drums that allows the rest of the band more prominence. The Mellotron-style keyboard breaks maintain the links to the ’70s prog atmosphere and this track is as close to melodic neo-prog that the band gets. It’s another fascinating fusion of styles and sounds and is beautifully crafted.
Artificial Soul is a complete change in direction. It’s essentially a cabaret show tune which switches effortlessly between the traditional and modern. The key to the balance is the drumming which sets the tone as the song develops, combining with atmospheric keyboard and saxophone leads and a strong vocal performance.
Swaying Flowers is a return to the sound and dynamics of the opening tracks, until the song transitions to a vocal harmony section before circling back to the main theme. It feels like a sketch, or an opening riff looking for song. Fortunately, this is not a sign that the band has run out of ideas because up next is Emerald Hearts. This track sees the whole band and all the different aspects heard previously come together. It’s a fluid piece, in the vein of Genesis or Big Big Train, where the instrumentation is layered over the top of a circular melody. There is a hint of jazz fusion mixed in and all the time the drum fills keep coming. This feels like a signature track, encompassing everything about the band at this time.
The closing track, You, is a charming neo-prog ballad with a current day production sound, and an excellent way to finish off the album. It’s melodic and restrained, and refreshingly avoids any of the more obvious historical references of some of the previous songs.
There are many facets to this project but it is in the hands of a master musical director. Coming as it does from the other side of the world, it is unusual and even alien in places, but despite that, and maybe because of it, it is a refreshing and highly inventive merging of cultural and musical stylings. If, like me, you feel like the current UK prog scene can be a bit bland, then I recommend that you dip into some of these more esoteric releases from around the world, they may provide some intriguing insight into the art of the possible.
01. Soar in the Sky (8:19)
02. Kind Loneliness (5:13)
03. Can’t Wait for Tomorrow (5:37)
04. Evening Scenery (6:16)
05. Eternal Light (8:19)
06. Artificial Soul (4:27)
07. Swaying Flowers (6:14)
08. Emerald Hearts (5:59)
09. You (6:00)
Total Time – 56:24
Tatsuya Yoshida – Drums, Vocals, Keyboards
Nobuyuki Ito – Guitar
Jin Kirita – Guitar, Chorus, Lyrics
Tsukada Madoka – Keyboards
Mayumi Shigeto – Bass
Kyoka – Vocals, Lyrics
Imagawa Tengoku – Soprano Saxophone (tracks 2,5 & 8)
Takashi Hayashi – Guitar (tracks 8 & 9)
Akihisa Tsuboy – Violin (track 4)
Record Label: Arcangelo (Disk Union)
Country of Origin: Japan
Date of Release: 21st December 2022