It is no secret that the texture of human interactions is as rough or as smooth as the stories that course through them. Great tragedies can be contained in the most plain of everyday exchanges, tragedies that transcend any personal dimension and throw their roots down deeply across centuries of struggles. Junko Ueda is a singer that has dedicated her practice to highlighting said texture, a storyteller in an older understanding of the word, in which history is the past performed before an audience, an epic that aesthetically nurtures learning and knowledge for the present and the future. Specializing also in shômyô chant, a type of sacred music that ties Buddhist scripture to melodies sung in a single breath, Ueda’s work ties story and history to a single bundle of strings that weave in and out of the world of spirituality. In the case of this album, the weaving follows two main threads: a shômyô piece entitled “Kujô-Shakujô” and a fragment from a ca. 13th-century Japanese tale, called the Heiken monogatari, describing a naval battle, “Dan No Ura 壇ノ浦の戦い”.
Ueda is, of course, not alone in this endeavor. She is joined by PoiL, an avant-prog band from France whose sounds can be genealogically situated within Rock in Opposition. It is perhaps far from a coincidence that said movement attempted to wrestle the history of prog away from the fantasy bombast of a well-settled culture industry in the late 1970s. The persistence of its aesthetics speaks to its similarities with Ueda’s efforts not to preserve, but to steal the fire of the past and lit up our current presuppositions. In this sense, PoiL’s work is aggressive, incisive, yet meditatively-oriented; it is not afraid of mixing up atonality with minimalism, nor of leaning into the dissonant qualities of electric instruments for the purpose of breaking down a mind’s resistance to being quiet. If Ueda is working here as a weaver, PoiL is her loom, a complex machine that is far from bereft of agency – if anything, the loom here is also a weapon that makes that bundle of strings burn to the touch.
“Kujô-Shakujô” is a sutra with nine verses that is integral to the Sacred Fire Goma Ceremony of Shingon Buddhism, in which negative experiences, desires, and energies are dispelled through the purifying action of fire, its wisdom the wisdom of the Buddha. Shingon is a predominantly oral tradition, meaning that few texts survive; it depends on the power of the spoken word – or rather, in this case, of song – to persist, and the “Kujô-Shakujô” speaks of hopeful transformation, so that the words of prayer materially impact the world towards virtuousness, aid in times of suffering, and communal enlightenment. In PoiL Ueda’s version of the sutra, music as enabler of trance states, a staple of rituals, follows a distinct path: “Part 1” begins with deepening electronic drones, string noises, and a beautifully contemplative vocal melody, suddenly, but not disruptively, turning into pure electric noise. “Part 2” sways into RIO territory, a modernist approach to prog rock that builds up a minimalist path for the shômyô to occupy – after all, the chant is meant to develop the feeling of experimenting a parallel time and space. It also ultimately blows up into a noisy interlude that “Part 3” picks up with a new, yet similar, path. It is, in other words, the process of transformation realized, the noise as the fiery crackle of the new, not as a radical otherworldly innovation, but as layered continuation of what came before. It is the outgrowth of a textile pattern, a desire mutated by every breath, the tumult and agitation of a long duration only accessible during the ritual moment of leaving oneself behind. The band’s “Kujô-Shakujô” charts the path of a trance in the same way a duodecaphonic piece might, by decentering, by displacing set notions of what ritual music should be like, simultaneously repetitive and infinitely different. A story, a prayer, history, fire, suffering, want… the strings only grow tighter.
By now, the intensity is really set to a million by any system of measurement, and yet, when “Dan No Ura 壇ノ浦の戦い”kicks in, listeners will realize that was just the beginning. The second section of the album, the telling of the battle of Dan-no-ura in the 12th century, is no simple musicalized war story. It is the fall of an entire clan, it is the tragedy pulsing behind every tale of glory, it is the melancholic destiny of all things to come to absolute stillness. This is what PoiL Ueda detonates, the revolving void to which all strings are primordially attached. And it is, to say the least, enthralling. Ueda’s voice twists and turns the lyrics in what I can only describe as grunt-less growls, as groans that have no noise to them – they are melodic, but the sheer struggle to intonate them is palpable. PoiL methodically develop a grueling set around the voice, a series of interventions straight out of the best Upsilon Acrux or early Ahleuchatistas tracks, dissonant and groovy in equal measure. It is easy to imagine, as the cover art suggests, a sea awash with body parts, its waves crashing against history itself, a disaster that births other disasters up until the moment we find ourselves swaying with Ueda’s voice, our bodies urged to action by PoiL’s incessant rhythms. It is the moment when the story becomes its other, when history explodes into a perspective of the whole, and the art and tales of the past burn bright into the here and now, not incompatible with those of the present, but compellingly otherwise. The strings, now as tight as ever, lead us into a million tragedies and hopeful correctives, each and every one an entire history of the world.
To end a bit more lightly, this is a powerful, evocative album, but in a way, I am also glad it is only 31 minutes long.