Back in 2019, before the world went all mental and live music disappeared, I was lucky enough to see Japanese band Kōenjihyakkei perform a magnificent set at the Lexington in London. Suffice to say, it was one of the most extraordinary gigs I’ve ever seen.
I’m not even hyperbolating.
Led by drummer extraordinaire Tatsuya Yoshida, probably best known for Ruins but who is constantly playing somewhere in any one of millions of musical setups, Kōenjihyakkei is a band that really should not be. Imagine, if you will, a disastrous practice room triple-booking between a hyperactive yodelling drummer, the chorus of the National Opera of Japan and a happening free jazz combo. After the initial confusion they just get on with it, and upon discovering a shared love of Zeuhl, decide that the results are good. VERY good.
Kōenjihyakkei surfaced in the early 1990s as Yoshida’s tribute to Magma, and there are certainly elements of that band’s sound creeping through on Nivraym, the band’s third album, originally released in 2001. This is particularly apparent during the likes of Medirro Passquirr, where the choral vocal attack more than reminds me of Magma in full flow. But there’s so much more to Kōenjihyakkei than being a mere tribute, and they take their base influence in all sorts of unexpected directions.
As far as the ‘revisiting’ is concerned, there is much. The first three tracks remain in the original order, but from then on it’s musical chairs, culminating with Gassttrumm, which is swapped in the running order with previous closer Vallczeremdoss. The album works a treat in this order, the tracks largely similar to the originals in length, although Maschtervoz is about 30-seconds shorter here. The remastering makes it all shine like a beacon, but there has also been extensive re-recording by the current band, with seemingly few – if any – tracks exempted. The updating is completed by the inclusion of three of the album’s tracks recorded live by the current band in 2020. This timely reissue also sees Nivraym appear on vinyl for the first time.
As for the music, it rampages along at a thousand miles per hour with not a care for convention in a head-wobbling whirl of ideas, delivered with unerring precision. But don’t worry, it’s not all technique over substance and they have ensured that melody – however unorthodox – is present all over the place. It’s just so joyful that you can’t help but be swept up by the excited energy. It’s not Prog of course, but it’s as progressive as can be, and it should be essential listening for anyone with even a passing interest in music that ventures off the beaten path. In fact, this ventures so far off the path that you’d need satellite tracking to find it, and for this we should all be eternally grateful.
The promotional material trumpets the album as “the band’s purest, most uncompromising expression of Zeuhl music to date; blending progressive rock, symphonic rock, fusion and neoclassicism with the energy of hardcore punk, the volume of metal and the attitude of rock in opposition.” It doesn’t lie.
The title track barnstorms in on piano chimes and mystic rhythms. By the time the choir arrives you’ve already been transported to another plane – and it doesn’t let you leave. The melody is angular, voices and sax adding spacey goodness to the pounding rhythms. There’s an early diversion into the unexpected with free jazz yodelling from Mr Yoshida in a language you’ll never understand, but which makes perfect sense here. All the lyrics are reproduced on the sleeve, but I dare anyone to try and sing along – “Lubssi guilpam motstem pilmanzz” indeed! We’re soon heading back towards the stars on a wave of voices as saxophone spirals around. The mix of tightness in voice and rhythm and looseness is sax and spidery keyboards towards the end is extraordinary.
Becttem Pollt continues in a similarly exhilarating vein before diving into Magma chanting. The switches between spiralling and rhythmic knocks you sideways, the voices just sublime. It’s heavy yet light, angular yet melodic, lilting yet with screaming rage, moving through its many section with uncanny ease, all the while Tatsuya thrashing his kit within an inch of its life.
The concise nature of these first two tracks opens out into the album’s longest, Lussesoggi Zomn, from subtle and unsettling mutterings to a raging inferno of voice and back again – like being mugged by a particularly good choir. There are cartoon chase sequences, Hammond organs on steroids, stacked arpeggiating synths, typically Japanese weirdness with hints of Zappa and alt-lounge jazz in one of the album’s most dynamic pieces; a score looking for a particularly disturbing film.
You’ll no doubt need a sit down by this point, but there’s more. Much, much more!
The frantic Mederro Passquirr is like two bands duelling on a rollercoaster, before becoming a lilting Martian singalong, its phrases packaged up into batches of four repetitions before modulating elsewhere – deceptively simple and beautifully done. The intensity ramps up within the same framework before spinning off in unnatural directions.
Bassist Kengo Sakamoto co-wrote the unsettling Maschtervoz, otherwise everything comes from the febrile mind of Tatsuya Yoshida – and that must be a very strange place. I’m always astounded by how music of this complexity comes into anyone’s imagination, let alone makes it to an actual recording. Strident chants mash up to ethereal otherness, with delicious jazzy asides, sweeping straight into a breakneck Axall Hasck. The sax gets an exuberant section that is lifted further by extraordinary vocals, and the extended instrumental passages are a tour de force.
Vissqaguell continues the controlled mayhem as waves of kamikaze vocals dive in from all directions in a gymnastic display of choreography. The tempo doesn’t let up as the repeating phrases of Vallczeremdoss rampage in and dance around each other. Repetition is at the heart of this music but it doesn’t become tedious for a second as nothing stands still for long – the skill of some of the diversions will make your hair stand on end. Finally, a (slightly) more stately Gassttrumm (it’s all relative) brings this magnificent album home in thumping style, featuring some of its highlights even at this late stage.
The live tracks are a welcome addition, revisiting Becttem Pollt, Nivraym and Axall Hasck in dynamic versions that outline the burning power and exemplary technique brought to bear by the most recent line-up. The former is played ‘straight’ (if that’s the right word to use here) while the other two are extended with avant garde wailing and soloing bass respectively.
Innovation built on the shoulders of innovators – All Hail Kōenjihyakkei and all those intrepid souls aboard to put this masterpiece together.
I cannot recommend this revisited version of Nivraym highly enough, it stuns me every time I listen to it. The original album was amazing: this is better. Essential stuff for anyone who likes their music with a healthy does of ‘What the Absolute Fuck?!’
01. Nivraym (5:35)
02. Becttem Pollt (5:17)
03. Lussesoggi Zomn (10:24)
04. Mederro Passquirr (6:19)
05. Maschtervoz (4:06)
06. Axall Hasck (6:30)
07. Vissqaguell (5:26)
08. Vallczeremdoss (4:49)
09. Gassttrumm (9:20)
~ Bonus Tracks:
10. Becttem Pollt [Live] (5:15)
11. Nivraym [Live] (7:45)
12. Axall Hasck [Live] (8:08)
Total Time – 78:54
Yoshida Tatsuya – Drums, Keyboards, Vocals
Sakamoto Kengo – Bass, Vocals
Sagara Nami – Vocals
Harada Jin – Guitars, Vocals
Kenichi Oguchi – Keyboards
Komori Keiko – Soprano Saxophone
Yoshida Tatsuya – Drums (all tracks)
Komori Keiko – Soprano Saxophone (tracks 1,2,5,6 & 7)
Yabuki Taku – Keyboards (tracks 4,5 & 7)
AH – Vocals (tracks 1,2,4,5,6,7 & 9)
Live Tracks (10,11 &12):
Yoshida Tatsuya – Drums, Vocals
Sakamoto Kengo – Bass, Vocals
Keiko Komori – Soprano Sax
Taku Yabuki – Keyboards
Kei Koganemaru – Guitar, Vocals
AH – Vocals
Record Label: Skin Graft Records
Country of Origin: Japan
Date of Release: 24th February 2023 (Originally 2001)