What is music for?
What should it be about? Should it be about anything, and does it matter if it isn’t? Of course it doesn’t, as long as it finds listeners who can be affected by it and be delivered to a place of enjoyment.
Music can take many forms, and since the earliest days it has served many purposes. The power of devotional music has been revered for millennia, and song has been a method of passing history and wisdom through the generations for probably even longer. This brings us to Junko Ueda and her background in traditional Japanese music, bringing together elements of shômyô chanting and biwa epic storytelling. Junko’s voice is rich, evocative and drenched in the ripples of human experience, and as part of her presentation she plays the satsuma-biwa, a traditional Japanese five-string lute, played with a large fan-shaped plectrum.
From Lyon in France, PoiL have been following their own track since 2005, bringing an avant garde ‘anything goes’ aesthetic into their music across four albums. PoiL Ueda sees an (on paper, at least) unexpected collaboration between PoiL and Ueda that opens up whole new vistas of wonder. It is, in many ways, different from the band’s previous work, whilst still exhibiting the right amount of PoiL-ness. Based on the Thirteenth Century Japanese epic tale Heike-Monogatari, the album is a magnificent melding of styles that really shouldn’t sit very easily together – if at all – but somehow they manage to pull off a mystical triumph that embraces the diverse skills of the two diametrically opposed entities involved.
The first of the two suites presented, Kujô Shakujô, comes from a shômyô chant used by Buddhist monks to ward off evil spirits. The melody patterns are sung with one breath, shaped to produce enigmatic motion in the vocal line that offers an unusual concept of time and space.
Over a drone backdrop, it’s the commanding voice of Junko Ueda that sets the tone, rich with tradition as it stretches out the elongated notes with deliberate care. The drone springs the odd surprise, a moveable introduction of layered control and suggestion, floating as if held by magnets as Ueda sings in a voice carved from the very Earth itself. The intensity gradually grows, the drone becoming alive with possibilities, threatening to subsume the voice, but Ueda’s strength keeps it at bay in a sedate and undulating dance for the duration of the suite’s first part – it’s simply fascinating. Toward the end, the lone voice briefly moves to a choral setting before being obliterated by a wave of near-industrial noise that explodes into the second part.
Here there is more definition around the central vocal theme. Keyboards pick out an insistent line, repeating as Junko is swept away by emotion, bass picking out a complementary pattern. The mix of minimalism and devotional chanting is particularly powerful. Again, a choral motif marks the transition to the next phase, prefaced by a percussion-led battering in a swirl of electronics.
The picked guitar opening of the third part is reminiscent of King Crimson, with swooping fretless bass and driving yet intricate drums. The suite comes full circle here, realising its potential as it flows like mercury. It’s elegant and intense without being demanding, the holistic beauty of Ueda’s voice central to everything. There is much going on within a structure that remains intact, the intensity of PoiL much more than a backing for the fruits of another culture as the two forms work together, producing a sound that makes the contributing parts even more powerful. I simply cannot wait to hear/see this music being performed at the live dates lined up for next month.
It ramps up… and up… and up some more, becoming a frenetic romp before releasing with an angular breakdown, Junko’s serenity shifting into a more animated persona. The singers join together again for a more extended period, creating a sound that Magma would understand. It’s elegant, natural and fluid as changes are worked through and tempos modified, the satsuma-biwa adding tones that couldn’t be more Japanese, before everything drops away to leave Junko intoning over sparse electronics to close, an ending so fitting as to be almost perfect.
At this point it’s worth pausing. That eighteen or so minutes has seen quite a journey, flying by in no time at all; East and West, ancient and modern, telling a story both brand new and centuries in the making, Junko adding exquisite control to the more erratic tendencies of the gentlemen of PoiL, whose dynamic interplay frequently takes the breath away.
The second suite, Dan No Ura, comprises two parts over thirteen minutes. Its textures are different to Kujô Shakujô and it sees the group exploring biwa, the title coming from a Twelfth Century sea battle that took place off the southern tip of Honshu during the Genpei War.
From the scratching intro, the satsuma-biwa is more prominent, as are the drums, to the fore and picking out accents. It’s a raging vortex within which Junko’s voice describes the events of the battle. The band stalk through the supporting sections, breaking out during the instrumental parts. This is the piece to which I would first direct the uninitiated. Like Magma, it relates ancient tales in a language most of us cannot understand and in futuristic fashion. It’s an extraordinary blitz of buzzing guitar, elastic bass and bell-like gamelan keyboards that occasionally explode before being drawn back to the most simplistic setting of Junko’s voice against the satsuma-biwa. From traditional to sci fi with blasts of off-kilter rhythm, it blazes a fascinating trail. ‘Verse-chorus-middle eight’ it ain’t, but that shouldn’t bother anyone willing to immerse themselves in the visceral roar. The later stages feature woozy rhythms that sweep you off your feet with breaking waves of intensity, Junko serene in the midst of the squall.
The second part starts in a dark place, shaped by the first and haunted by the ghosts of the battle as they sink into the deep, a spectre of ancient events that only live on in song, wraith-like visions of a past turned to legend. It’s sparse and brooding, the surprising depth of Junko’s voice imperious as events are relayed to listeners unable to envisage the realities of the scenes depicted. It’s emotional and wrenching as she manipulates the melodies and phrases with devout reverence, slowing and fading to the final broken notes of the satsuma-biwa.
I really can’t get enough of this.
At a little over half-an-hour, this enthralling release is a triumph that continues to inspire time after time, a monument to the power of experimentation.
[PoiL Ueda play the Lexington in London on 23rd August (with Lost Crowns), the Jam Jar in Bristol on 24th, the Shambala Festival in Northampton on 25th, the Cornish Bank in Falmouth on 26th and the Invisible Wind Factory in Liverpool on 23rd.]
01. Kujô Shakujô – Part 1 (7:07)
02. Kujô Shakujô – Part 2 (3:37)
03. Kujô Shakujô – Part 3 (7:22)
04. Dan No Ura 壇ノ浦の戦い – Part 1 (8:41)
05. Dan No Ura 壇ノ浦の戦い – Part 2 (4:28)
Total Time – 31:15
Junko Ueda – Vocals, Satsuma-Biwa
Antoine Arnera – Keyboard, Vocals
Boris Cassone – Guitar, Vocals
Guilhem Meier – Drums, Vocals
Benoit Lecomte – Acoustic Bass
Record Label: Dur et Doux
Country of Origin: France / Japan
Date of Release: 3rd March 2023