Rock Of Asia 2021
Hailing from where the sun rises and blessing the horizon, esteemed folk-rock ensemble leave their mark on the ground and fly.
Despite the fact that selected pieces of Japanese rock have been depositing its sediments on the world’s musical landscape for decades, most of such records retained a cult status, being either too ferociously exotic for Western tastes or too close to the Western template, and multi-instrumentalist Nikki Matsumoto knows the state of things all too well – having left his home turf as a teenager to play in LA and returned to Tokyo ten years later. The comeback was a wise move which resulted in a wave of political activism on the artist’s part, including his globe-traveling involvement in Amnesty International and Palestinian cause, so when the veteran established this ensemble in 2009, he envisioned much grander scope for the band than a purely Nippon angle. However, the islands’ folk motifs are given pride of place on the group’s platters and offered here, on the collective’s best tracks, allowing Matsumoto-san to take stock of his trade before turning 60.
Not that Nikki embraced his traditional legacy immediately after forming this team – it took the devastating tsunami of 2011 for Matsumoto to start weaving Japanese lyrics and to sculpt the sad, albeit irresistible, “Funato” which is dedicated to those who lost their lives to the elements and passionately voiced by guest vocalist Matto whose lines are caressed by the ensemble leader’s strum – as previously he used to sing in English, listening to the freshly released arresting ballad “Ocean” on the day the tragedy struck. There’s a strong literary layer to a few of the pieces, the reserved beats and piano of magnificent opener “Lal Dhaga” evoking Akutagawa’s enigmas while spicing the tune with tribal chant and the adventurously delicate shakuhachi, and the crystalline, violin-driven cover of “Kōjō no Tsuki” rendering tranquility immensely intense. Still, some numbers comprise the force of nature that could only emerge from Arabian desert, the light “Belief” – written in the wake of the Iraq war – feeling hot-wind-blown, if quite tangible, and “The Son” – based on Mosab Hassan Yousef’s book – rocking elegantly, if fervently.
Mostly acoustic, these songs – first of all, the softly dramatic, as befits a requiem, “Mikoto” that’s lamenting the fate of Kondō Isami, and the translucent “Vision Led On” that’s crying for John Lennon without proposing a single word – often demonstrate a sharp emotional edge, whereas the sweet “The Parallel” struts its well-nuanced dance in a faux European style, before shamisen and fiddle unfold a different vista, and “Guardian Of The Sea” finds its frisky pop flame in Okinawa’s soulfulness and Nikki’s sanshin. And of course, Matsumoto-san doesn’t fail to raise environmental issues on a couple of cuts, the spectral “Nanimo Shirazu Tada” locating romance in a barely-there refrain and the groovy, biwa-flaunting “The Unsaid” elevating one’s spirits in a brilliantly psychedelic kind of way.
With a delicate shift of sonic panoramas, “Asian Anthology” is a riveting, richly textured tapestry that invites the newly initiated to investigate the ensemble’s entire oeuvre: it’s that alluring.