Eight months to the day after the release of the fantastic collaborative album from PoiL Ueda, a second volume has arrived, entitled Yoshitsune. The initial release is hands down my favourite of 2023, underlined by the two shows I saw on their brief tour around the UK being the most incendiary and brilliant I’ve experienced in years.
What makes these albums so amazing is the unexpected nature of how glorious Junko Ueda’s interpretations of traditional 13th Century Japanese epic storytelling can be when augmented with a visceral noise courtesy of French avant garde alchemists PoiL. The result is a swirling mix of melody, stop-start changes, delicate off-kilter aesthetics, howling angst and authentic Japanese charm, brought to life by Junko’s instrument of choice, the satsuma-biwa, a traditional five-string lute which couldn’t sound more Japanese if it tried.
Somehow the disparate parts have come together to create the perfect backdrop to keep you gripped to these ancient historical tales – even if the words may be elusive, their power and poetic nature has encouraged me to dig deeper into the events that brought them into being in the first place. Before listening to PoiL Ueda, Junko’s style of music – of which she is a master – was a closed book to me, but now a whole new thread has opened up for discovery. Her voice is (as I noted in my original review) “rich, evocative and drenched in the ripples of human experience”, and she brings these pieces to life.
Yoshitsune is an intricate follow-up, cut from similar cloth and extending the stories from the first album, taken from the Heike-Monogatari‘s description of the struggle for control of Japan during the Genpei War of the 1180s. Yoshitsune is a hero who after years of war finally brought victory at the naval battle at Dan-no-Ura bay, but he is forced into exile on pain of assassination after being suspected of conspiring to take over the government himself. This album is definitely a more difficult listen so I would recommend starting with the first album and then moving straight on to this one if you like what you hear. The brevity of that first release left me hungry for more, so the speedy release of this full-length follow-up has been a Godsend.
The two quite different musical styles of PoiL and Junko Ueda shouldn’t sit together easily, but they have managed to craft a soundscape that completely resonates with the stories behind the music; the chaos of battle, the uncertainty of the times and the mystery of the soft-focused lens through which tales from the distant past become fable over time. These collaborations are nothing short of a triumph.
The album opens with the three-part Kumo as Yoshitsune and his faithful servant Benkei encounter a storm at sea. The ghosts of their enemies, killed at Dan-no-Ura, try to pull them under, but they are forced to retreat when Benkei recites a powerful prayer. There’s a mystical tranquillity from the biwa and charismatic multi-layered voices, morphing to an enigmatic serrated soundscape with an increasing tempo, bouncing around on elastic acoustic bass. The apparitions appear in the second part, which takes on a genuinely disturbing feel as Ueda’s gymnastic voice contorts in all kinds of ways. Things are looking bad in the driving third part, the pair’s salvation coming with an abrupt finish. Often frenetically abstract, at its core Ueda stands firm.
After a long journey to Yoshino, Yoshitsune reunites with his mistress, but in the sombre Omine-san he tells her that due to his perilous situation they must be separated once again, the piece dripping with sadness on a slow and mournful theme towards a resonant conclusion. The spikey Yoshino seems to describe the difficult terrain they find themselves in. The album’s longest track, this drawn out and uncompromising centrepiece has real drama within the performance, Ueda at her most imperious as the instrumentation rises into squalls of energetic momentum before falling away to sparse biwa and voice. Ataka continues this theme as a solo piece for Ueda, seeing her at her most theatrical as she describes Yoshitsune and Benkei arriving at a border crossing disguised as Buddhist monks. The guard suspects they may not be what they seem, but Benkei creates a distraction by beating his master Yoshitsune with a heavy stick, and urging him on as if he were a lazy porter. The guard sees through the ruse but is moved by Benkei’s faithful heart and allows them through.
In Kokô, Yoshitsune thanks Benkei for saving his life, and apologises for getting him into this difficult situation. They continue their travels just before dawn on a cold and rainy winter’s day, the evocative music providing details of the arduous journey, but also their resolute determination to prevail.
It’s certainly a more difficult listen than PoiL Ueda, but equally rewarding if you persevere, and the two albums together provide over an hour of epic and adventurous music that fits the gravitas of the original texts. A glorious success in every way.
With full admiration to all involved, I can only hope that this unique project returns to the stage next year to thrill and delight once again – and if they come back to the UK, I’ll be there. Even if you’re not sure about this strange amalgam, you’d do well to experience it live for yourself; it really is something else.
01. Kumo 雲(船弁慶) part 1 (6:10)
02. Kumo 雲(船弁慶) part 2 (4:19)
03. Kumo 雲(船弁慶) part 3 (2:57)
04. Omine-san 大峰山(吉野静) (6:12)
05. Yoshino 吉野(静の和歌) (7:59)
06. Ataka 安宅 (4:44)
07. Kokô 虎口 part 1 (2:49)
08. Kokô 虎口 part 2 (4:46)
Total Time – 39:56
Antoine Arnera – Keyboards, Vocals
Boris Cassone – Guitar, Vocals
Benoit Lecomte – Acoustic Bass
Guilhem Meier – Drums, Vocals
Junko Ueda – Satsuma Biwa, Vocals
Record Label: Dur et Doux
Country of Origin: France/Japan
Date of Release: 3rd November 2023