PoiL Ueda, photo by Jez Rowden

PoiL Ueda / Lost Crowns

The Lexington, London
Wednesday, 23rd August 2023

A rather fabulous day was commenced with an amble up Hampstead Heath on what for this soggy summer was a rare hot one, cooled at the end of our stroll by a couple of welcome pints. Moseying on over to the pre-gig restaurant, we met up with the rest of our companions for the night, and what a good start to proceedings that was!

Lost Crowns - at least some of them! - photo by Jez Rowden

First up on the compact stage of the upstairs room at The Lexington were Lost Crowns, making a rare appearance for our delectation. Playing a couple of new songs and favourites from their self-titled debut, they set off on their choppy course of bamboozling time signature collisions, tongue-twisting vocal dexterity, and as was noted by a certain alt-famous figure to keyboard player Josh Perl after the gig, a larger than usual dollop of good old dissonance. That combined with the rather rough-edged sound saw Sharron Fortnam straining somewhat, as everything appeared to be more forward in the mix than everything else.

It still worked fine though, and the entangled musical and lyrical incongruities soon put a smile on my careworn boatrace, as they are wont to do. A particularly heightened charge through Sound As Colour had us singing along to the repeated refrains with gusto. There’s something weirdly uplifting about shouting along to “Bent spoons and women sawn in half, you think that’s true, don’t make me laugh.” At one point between songs, keyboardist Rhodri Marsden informed us that “I may look serious, but I’m having a lot of fun, honest”, and that underlines the point that although this music is so complicated and no doubt has to be played with great concentration, it is also tremendous fun. Kudos to drummer “Keepsie” for somehow holding this madness together!

Lost Crowns, photo by Rosamund Tomlins

As this was the first time I had heard the two new songs Et Tu Brute and She Didn’t Want Him To Know, it is hard to give a proper appraisal here. Suffice to say they slot in just so, or as “just so” as a polydodechedron in musical form can fit in anywhere, and bode well for a hopefully soonish-come second album.

To those of us that know the band’s music, the sound issues were minor shortcomings, but to anyone new to this strange but beguiling collision of ideas made real from Richard Larcombe’s febrile imagination, that and the obtuse nature of music together must have made for a, shall we say, challenging proposition! This I know for a fact as my companion, whom I had talked into coming along, wore an expression framed by a slight frown thoughout.

Lost Crowns Setlist
The Star of My Heart [final section]
Sound As Colour
Et Tu Brute
She Saved Me
She Didn’t Want Him to Know
Housemaid’s Knees
Richard Larcombe – Guitar, Vocals, Natty Kecks
Rhodri Marsden – Keyboards, Vocals
Charlie Cawood – Bass
“Keepsie” – Drums (an understatement!)
Sharron Fortnam – Vocals
Nicola Baigent – Clarinet
Josh Perl – Keyboards, Vocals

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After a short break, PoiL Ueda make their way on stage. PoiL are an avant-prog band with definite Zeuhl influences from Lyon, and Ueda is Junko Ueda, a Japanese traditional singer and satsuma-biwa player. An unlikely combination you might think, and you’d be right! My colleague Jez, who was there with me at the gig, has written a splendid review of the PoiL Ueda album, HERE.

Taking the Japanese folk tradition and Buddhist chanting supplied by Ueda, and underpinning it with the hard-hitting acoustic bass-driven sounds of PoiL should not work, but boy, does it – and some! Starting with a piece of music based around a Buddhist chant called Kujô Shakujô, we are thus protected from evil spirits, as Junko delights in telling us from behind her radiant smile. It sure felt like that as the whole experience was to prove uplifting in every way. By the end of the performance this rather dark upstairs room in a North London pub seemed to have taken on a spiritual dimension. The performance was the healing power of music writ very large indeed!

PoiL Ueda - Junko Ueda with Antoine Arnera behind, photo by Rosamund Tomlins

Playing a tom tom resting on its side, drummer Guilhem Meier was able to enhance the driving rhythms with percussive subtleties, enhanced by Antoine Arnera’s programmed keyboards, to produce a curious yet highly effective Oriental-Zeuhl hybrid. The fulcrum of the sound though was Benoit Lecomte’s gut-punching acoustic bass, invested with such physicality as to have the man in a permanent sweat! Threatening to but never quite overpowering Junko’s necessarily powerful vocals. Her expressive range was huge, soul-wrenching, and achingly beautiful.

PoiL Ueda - Benoit Lecomte, photo by Rosamund Tomlins

The second number, following the sequence of the album, was the two-part Dan No Ura, which sees the folk tradition of storytelling as Junko tells us at the start and in the break, the epic tale of a 12th Century sea battle. Haunting atmospheres created by Junko’s satsuma-biwa were enhanced by the keyboards, as the expansive atmosphere builds throughout. This is simply thrilling in a live situation and mere words fail to convey the power of this transformative music. The music on the album is powerful, and I highly recommend it, but live it goes to another level.

PoiL Ueda - Junko Ueda with Antoine Arnera behind, photo by Rosamund Tomlins

Perhaps the most engaging part of the show was Junko’s unaccompanied vocal piece Ataka. So entranced was this audient that taking notes was out of the question, so unfortunately I cannot tell you what this song/chant was about, but it was quite lovely.

Suffice to say, if you get the chance, you simply must see this absolutely stunning musical collective. Oh, and by the way, my “slightly frowning” companion from earlier? She now had the same smile as everyone else. Phew!

Sometimes, music just works.

Kujô Shakujô
Dan No Ura 壇ノ浦の戦い
Omine Sans
Ataka (Junko Ueda solo)

Junko Ueda – Vocals, Satsuma-Biwa
Antoine Arnera – Keyboard, Vocals
Boris Cassone – Guitar, Vocals
Guilhem Meier – Drums, Vocals
Benoit Lecomte – Acoustic Bass

PoiL Ueda – Facebook | Bandcamp

[Photos by Jez Rowden and Rosamund Tomlins]