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Kenso, Japan










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Kenso - s/t. 1980 Pam (LP); 1995 Arcangelo (CD)
Kenso - II. 1982 Pam (LP); 1993 King (CD); 2002 Pathograph (CD papersleeve)
Kenso - s/t (aka III). 1985 Nexus (LP; CD); 2011 King (CD papersleeve)
Kenso - Sparta. 1989 Crime (CD); 2009 Pathograph as Sparta Naked (CD)
Kenso - Yume No Oka. 1991 King; 2011 Pathograph (CD papersleeve)
Kenso - Esoptron. 1999 King (CD); 1999 Musea (France CD)
Kenso - Ken-Son-Gu-Su. 2000 Pathograph (CD)
Kenso - Fabulis Mirabilibus De Bombycosi Scriptis. 2002 Nexus (CD); 2002 Vinyl Magic (Italy CD)
Kenso - Utsuroi Yuku Mono. 2006 King (CD)
Kenso - Uchi Naru Koe Ni Kaikiseyo. 2014 King (CD)

There are many other live and archival releases from the band, though I only own Ken-Son-Gu-Su. All the other entries above represent their studio albums. There's also a 14 CD box set on King that contains all their studio albums through 2012, as well as a handful of live recordings.

For a band with so many recordings, and worldwide respect, I do find that Kenso are, surprisingly, a group very much Under the Radar. Reviews are still scarce for such an important band. If you haven't had a chance to explore this wonderful group, there is no better time than now to get started.

----Kenso

Kenso, who have archival recordings going back to 1976, released their first studio album in 1980. It's important to note the music culture that Kenso grew up in to appreciate their debut album. By 1980, and flush with cash, Japan had become somewhat a fanatic nation for all things European - including the 1970s progressive rock movement. Italy, in particular, seemed to fascinate the fan/collector base. And it was common for wealthy Japanese businessmen traveling to Europe to come home with box loads of records to sell to the music shops in Tokyo. It is this market that ultimately propelled progressive rock back into the limelight worldwide - and throughout the 1980s, Japan was looked upon as a leading light for all things progressive rock. While there were certainly local bands trying to capture the spirit of what they were digesting, Kenso may very well have been the most successful. And so we hear an almost encyclopedic knowledge of European progressive rock being brought forth - especially albums with flute - bands as obscure as Rousseau, Asia Minor, Gotic, Ibio, and Dice are all clearly within the minds of a young Kenso. Not only that, but they also brought forth their own Japanese legacy to the table, like their landmark track 'Umi' which successfully mixes a Camel like sound with indigenous melodies. As well, the long piece here, the 15+ minute 'Kagome' demonstrates Kenso's appreciation for Japan's own early 1970s psychedelic past - a sound remnant of acts as diverse as Toshiaki Yokota, Food Brain, Far Out, and in particular George Hirota*. Going forward, they would shed the experimental bits and focus more on their accessible instrumental European progressive sound. As such, this album is looked upon as a bit of a departure and perhaps not up the quality of subsequent efforts. I see it as an equal, though a band still clearly seeking out a signature sound. Be sure to grab the CD, as it features 6 live tracks going back to 1976, of which I believe 5 of them are not represented anywhere else. Essential album if wanting to gain the entire Kenso experience.

* Our good friend Nobuhisa of Marquee (Tokyo) informs me that it is highly unlikely that Kenso would have known these obscure Japanese bands, as they were unknown even to hardcore collectors back then. He states - and most assuredly he's correct, having witnessed the events real time - that basically they came about a similar sound, and he states further "using Japanese motif within the context of western music was a common method for a Japanese musician to make "Japanified Western music" be it modern classical, movie sound tracks, Jazz, Rock / Prog." That makes sense to me as well.

----Kenso II

Kenso II sees the band absorbing from their debut the most European instrumental progressive rock side of their sound. Flute is more dominant, keyboards are confident, and the guitar tones are stronger. The songwriting and melody quotient are off the charts in terms of successful execution. The Asia Minor, Camel, and Rousseau influences that penetrated some of the debut is given more focus, but taken to the next level of intricacy and complexity. And tracks like 'Hyoto' demonstrate that Kenso have not abandoned their Japanese roots and recall the wondrous 'Umi' from the debut. 'Brand Shiko' forecasts their future with its blazing fusion sound. One can see where Kenso may have as well influenced the up and coming talented Hungarian group Solaris. Already by their sophomore work, Kenso were creating beautiful tapestries of sound. This is the definition of instrumental symphonic rock. A magical album.

----Kenso III

As foreshadowed on Kenso II, Kenso's third album goes all-in towards a powerful digital instrumental fusion sound. If there's ever an album that proves that modern technology didn't ruin progressive rock by itself, it's this one. The songwriting once again is top notch, and the compositions are complex yet melodic. The slicker tones do not detract, and everything sounds perfect for the music Kenso are trying to achieve here. As with the earlier Kenso albums, there's a myriad of ideas present within any bar of music, thus keeping the listener attuned at all times. While Kenso III doesn't quite hit the heights of its predecessor, no fan of instrumental symphonic fusion will want to miss this one.

----Sparta

Sparta sees Kenso take their sound even further into digital realms, and the album suffers quite a bit from the sterility. That said, the songwriting is still top notch, and the material has much better representation on their live albums. For my tastes, the plodding and synthesized production makes this album the weakest in the Kenso canon. And even at that, it's still a good album worth discovering.

----Yume No Oka

Yume No Oka, Kenso's 5th studio album, shows the band reflecting back to their more symphonic era of Kenso II, with a strong nod of high gloss fusion that adorned Kenso III. I remember when this was released, and my friends and I were all quite enamored and impressed by the tones and complexity proffered. In the cold reflection of hindsight, perhaps it still has a bit too much of that late 80s and early 90s digitalitis, though overall it's held up well especially amongst its peers. Tracks like 'The Ancient in My Brain', 'Mediterranean and Aryan', 'Alfama', and 'The Fourth Reich' are timeless - and all pack a strong punch. Certainly one of the best pure progressive rock albums from 1991.

----Esoptron

It would be another 8 years before we heard from Kenso in the studio again. Most assuredly they would come back with their patented blend of European instrumental symphonic meets hard hitting fusion sound? Nope. How about Led Zeppelin?(!) Instrumental heavy blues rock with hard rock guitar and even a little flute, and in the case of the latter, one does have to call out Jethro Tull. The two keyboardists here provide synthesized sounds meant to represent the analog sounds of the 70s (i.e. Hammond organ, Mellotron, Mini-Moog (though I think it is actually a Mini-Moog)). The mid 80s fusion of Kenso III are here in abundance as well, though still filtered through a hard rock lens. There's even some hints of turn of the century Shibuyu-kei ('Chishiki o Koete'). Melodically, the music is unmistakably Kenso, despite all the stylistic trimmings. One complaint I do have about the album is the production, not usually an issue when it comes to Kenso - though as stated in earlier reviews, they could be a bit too slick. It's as if this is their response to the over digitized and professional gloss of Sparta and Yume No Oka. So they decided to purposely "muddy things up" a bit. As if to give it an authentic 70s edge. In 2014, many bands have mastered the art of the 1973 production method. In 1999, only a handful really had a grasp on it - and Kenso weren't one of them. So it sounds like a sludgy 90s digital recording failing to capture the spirit of another age. This does distract the listen somewhat. At the time of release, the album didn't quite live up to Kenso's lofty reputation they enjoyed. I have to say, in retrospect, it still doesn't. That isn't the same thing as saying this is a poor effort. Far from it - and is definitely worthy of ownership. To my ears, this is Kenso trying not to be Kenso. So if you're new to the band, don't start here. 

----Ken-Son-Gu-Su

As if the band was responding to the criticism of the 3 previous studio albums, Kenso released the dynamic live album Ken-Son-Gu-Su - showcasing the band's enormous talents at their most raw and energetic. No gloss or production tricks here. Just the band's compositions played live and served up for judgment by a live audience, who appear to be lapping up every minute of it.  Recorded on April 30, 2000 for the band's 25th anniversary at On Air East in Tokyo. Starting with none other than the band's defining track 'Umi' (The Sea) from the debut, Kenso go on to lay the concert hall to waste. This is followed by 'Anasthesia Part 2' (aka Masui), with its devastating keyboard runs and melodic lines, taken from their most arguably progressive album Kenso II.  Following this is the moody and Japanese indigenous sounding 'Hyoto' (Frozen Island), just as it is on the Kenso II album - the two tracks forever linked like Santana's 'Black Magic Woman' and 'Oye Como Va'. Kenso II's opener 'Sora ni Hikaru' (Shining in the Sky) follows, putting the concert goers back on their feet, while engaging their brains in overtime. Moving along in chronological fashion, the fusionesque 'Beginnings' from Kenso III is presented, demonstrating an entirely different sound and outlook from the band. A pretty song in its own right, one very much worth including in this greatest hits live show - as it were. It's nice to see Kenso not shy away from their various style experiments over the years. And now for the first break on the linear curve, as Kenso looks back to their smoldering Kenso II closer usually known as 'Sayanora Proge' (aka Goodbye Prog), but here called by its Premiata Forneria Marconi styled name 'Arrivederci', which is appropriate considering the musical reference. Since the band was rocking out, time to get the audience grooving on their (at the time) new hard rocking and Led Zeppelin influenced Esoptron album with a track they call 'Festivity', which appears to be a much shortened version of the album's opener 'Kojinteki Kikyū'. This is followed by two more progressive, yet no less rocking, fusion cuts 'Gips' and 'Negai Kanaeru Kodomo Tsurete Yukō' from the same album. I was hoping Kenso weren't going to overlook their very fine Yume No Oka album, and of course they don't, playing for the crowd the album's lovely piano laden and expressive guitar closer 'Les Phases de la Lune II' followed by a rousing rendition of the superb 'The Ancient in my Brain', arguably one of Kenso's best compositions to date. After this, the band takes one more shot at their hard rocking current album with 'Zaiya Kara no Kikan'. The concert closes, oddly enough, with the first two tracks from their least rated 1989 album Sparta. If there's ever an album where the live experience will likely improve upon the original, it's Sparta. Both tracks demonstrate the compositions were solid, but that the production castrated the potential. Overall Ken-Son-Gu-Su works as both a fiery live concert and as a greatest hits album - and is an excellent place to start with the band if you're new to them.

----Fabulis Mirabilibus de Bombycosi Scriptis

After some experiments with fusion, new age, and hard rock, Kenso return to symphonic progressive form on Fabulis Mirabilibus de Bombycosi Scriptis, but blasted through the wall as if they suddenly merged with Happy Family. So the songwriting is at the same high level as Kenso II but mixed with a modern ferocity not usually associated with the group. This is an exhilarating album that is at once complex and yet heavy as hell. And melodic. The production is absolutely stellar, something that was hamstringing the group throughout their last three studio albums. If you're looking to start somewhere with Kenso, and like a little muscle to go with your romantic progressive sounds, then be sure to go with this one. A stunner.

----
Utsuroi Yuku Mono

Kenso’s career has taken them to many different styles and genres over the years. Their 8th studio album Utsuroi Yuku Mono sees Kenso consolidate what they do best, and offers up no less than 17 tracks of tightly structured symphonic fusion, where melodies are treated with respect. While perhaps not as exhilarating as Fabulis Mirabilibus de Bombycosi Scriptis, there's no doubting this is Kenso, and their full-on tightly woven progressive rock sound is very much intact. The final 3 part track (entitled 'Codon' parts 1-2-3)  - and totaling only 7 minutes combined - are a complete departure from this album and Kenso's sound in general. They are in fact a rock based interpretation on Flamenco music with its vocal tradition (by a female in this case). Perhaps they should have been labeled as bonus tracks, but then again the cover features a pretty Japanese lady adorned in traditional Andalusian costume, so who knows? Whatever the case, these being the final tracks, I feel they leave a confusing mark on an otherwise typically great Kenso styled instrumental symphonic album. Listen to the first 14 tracks and rate on those before embarking further.

----Uchinaru Koe Ni Kaiki Seyo

And after another lengthy break of 8 years, Kenso returns with their 9th studio album Uchinaru Koe Ni Kaiki Seyo. Breaking tradition, for Kenso that is, the band have returned with an album that is in large part a followup to the previous work. So no major changes in direction here with fusion, hard rock, avant progressive - but rather the band seems to have found a comfy spot on the sofa to sit on. And that sweet spot, as it were, is their patented instrumental symphonic progressive rock that they first put on display so proudly on Kenso II. The flute, however, is sadly long gone and that was a critical component to their early 80s sound. They have also chosen to close with yet another female vocal track, this time in the form of a more classically leaning soprano. The underlying music, though, is unmistakably Kenso (even if there's a bit of funky business, to give us the requisite curve ball). If I were to pick a highlight track, I would go with 'Voice of Sankhara' which represents the album well in concise form. So while Uchinaru Koe Ni Kaiki Seyo doesn't break new ground, or leave one's jaw on the floor, Kenso have definitely delivered yet another solid set of modern instrumental melodic rock tunes. Reliable as they come, Kenso are. Yep.

Last update: October 15, 2016

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