‘Ikigai’, in Japanese, means “the reason to wake up in the morning and to live for”. It is also the title of the studio album debut by Italian instrumental progressive rock band Lab X, the band being made up of long-established and high-profile Italian musicians who bring with them an extensive mix of influences and musical styles, from rock to metal and from progressive to jazz. They seem to have woven most of these styles into the nine tracks that make up the album, and as impressive as that is from a technical viewpoint, it can sound like a bit of a patchwork at times. Nevertheless, it does start to make more sense, given time, and so I can highly recommend a listen.
As can be deduced from the track listing, the writing of the album has been inspired by a trip through Japan. I’m not sure you would guess that from just listening to the music, but the vibe is very modern, with respect for tradition, and is full of vibrancy and imagination, which is certainly in tune with my experience of visiting the country.
Opening track The Ronin’s Memories has a stadium rock feel with the rhythm section pounding out a steady beat whilst guitars and keyboards take it in turns to provide the melodic flourishes. There is a nice acoustic guitar break in the middle and some more interplay between the four players to close out the track. It’s a strong opener that bodes well for the rest of the album, clearly the band is tight and the players very accomplished.
Track 2, Duty Against Feelings, opens with a heavier rock theme, built on another strong drum and bass foundation. This time, a tempo change leads to a jazz interlude, carried by the same rhythmic pattern, before the opening salvo is revived. Whether it works, this metal/jazz fusion, is debateable, but the band are clearly open to experimentation, and why not? JY Line is more straightforward jazz-fusion, but played within the constraints of the rock band structure. They still sound like a rock band but the lines are more intricate and, well, jazzy. Moving towards the end of the track there is time for a jazz piano section, a rock guitar solo and finally a drum solo.
It is proving hard to keep up with all that is going on, so the slightly calmer, more measured piece that is Watch Your Step is welcome. The balance on this track seems more appropriate, the virtuoso guitar solos gradually developing from melodic to a bit more extreme and distorted. The arrangement is excellent and this track is probably the best representation so far of the band’s true style.
I say ‘so far’ because with track 5, The Monk, the ante is well and truly upped. It’s the longest track on the album at just over 5 minutes and it is a fascinating journey. I’ll be honest and say that it is almost indescribable, all I can say is that it has many elements, that are somehow pieced together to provide an aural rollercoaster. The listener gets drawn in by a refreshingly simple piano intro that is followed by some melodic guitar. What follows is an amazing display of musicianship and imagination.
Green on Grey is the closest the band get to melodic neo-prog, but the guitar and keyboards continue to be underpinned by the usual incessant basslines and drumbeats. This style of fusion works much better for me than the jazzier efforts showcased on side 1 and the more melodic side to the band is finally brought to the fore in Heart of Horishima. It’s a soundtrack piece that follows a well-trodden anthemic path in epic style. There is more space in this tune than in all the others put together, demonstrating an impressive degree of flexibility in the band’s approach.
By track 8, Lost in Nara, we start to circle back to the feel of the very first track. It’s a rockin’ showcase for all members of the band, and includes some excellent organ work from keyboard maestro Enrico Lorenzini. The final track, Streets of Shibuya, is dense and a shade darker than what has gone before, bringing an extra helping of drama to close the album out.
It’s been an invigorating 38-minutes, a superb example of how to be inventive and imaginative but also concise and focused. Although many of the musical themes and the playing styles have recognisable influences, it is also packed full of new ideas and ways to present them. The band surely had a lot of fun making this record because the excitement and energy hits you from the start and carries through right to the end.
01. The Ronin’s Memories (4:00)
02. Duty Against Feelings (3:31)
03. JY Line (4:27)
04. Watch Your Step (3:49)
05. The Monk (5:05)
06. Green on Gray (3:46)
07. Heart of Hiroshima (4:35)
08. Lost in Nara (3:40)
09. Streets of Shibuya (4:51)
Total Time – 38:44
Alberto Bergonzoni – Guitars
Enrico Lorenzini – Keyboards
Luca Nicolasi – Bass
Giacomo Calabria – Drums
Record Label: EGMUSC Productions
Country of Origin: Italy
Date of Release: 30th March 2023