It finally dawned on me while listening to this fine and fascinating new extended play mini-album by Japanese neo-progressive rock-pop band Jyocho — Let’s Promise to Be Happy — as to why I’ve become so disappointed over the years from some of my heroes of the so called “prog rock” genre. These are artists who have compromised their credibility for obvious quick commercial gain.
Don’t get me wrong, I really do understand the notion that everybody needs to make a buck. But, for an easy low-hanging fruit example, after the massive global success with a group like Asia – the rock supergroup formed by members of Yes, King Crimson and ELP in the early 1980s — one would think that some of those musicians would get back to more serious art. It has been especially disappointing to hear the new music some of those band members have offered up in recent times (some of them are in the current incarnation of Yes).
Consider, in contrast, how prog rock’s arguable godfather Robert Fripp figured out how to establish a wonderful independent business revolving around his group King Crimson — and all its related offshoots — without compromising his musical integrity. This smart energy is clear among next generation groups — such as Steven Wilson, both solo and with his band Porcupine Tree — who are creating amazing new music (and doing good business to boot!).
That said, a newer group from Japan which I’ve just been turned on to — that has actually been around since 2016 — gives me much hope for progressive leaning popular music: Jyocho.
You can hear many influences coming through in Jyocho’s musical recipe. Consider a sound that traverses the grand canyons between Iceland’s Sigur Rós — and their lead singer and main songwriter Jonsi’s first solo album — as well as the more complex neo folk rock confections of Fleet Foxes. Then, mash that up with time and mind bending progressive interlocking sounds ala Porcupine Tree and King Crimson. Spice it all up with a bit of that sort of epic, slow building song structure practiced so magnificently by Massachusett’s post-rock masters Caspian (or Ireland’s much loved rock band The Frames for that matter). Finish it off with mad guitar skills — this side of Pat Metheny, Stanley Jordan, Adrian Legg, Glenn Jones and Ralph Towner — and you have a pretty heady and tasty musical stew!
Revolving around guitarist Daijiro Nakagawa — who wrote and produced Jyocho’s latest release, their sixth in three years — the group blends remarkably simple textures of guitar, bass, drums, flute and tastefully lush keyboards, which belies the complexity of the music within.
Nakagawa is a gifted musician who has clearly mastered many different guitar playing forms, from intricate classical fingerpicking and bravado rock power chording to advanced tapping techniques. The vocals from singer / keyboardist Netako Nekota are simple and childlike on the surface, yet sophisticated and ultimately haunting.
Frank Zappa showed us long ago you can dance to anything you want to if you can connect to the rhythms, no matter how complex they may seem. And that is where Jyocho shines, creating a musical ocean whirlpool that washes over, under and around you, forcing mind and body to ebb and flow with its tides.
Jyocho’s secret sauce skill seems to be a their collective ability to dance around time signatures. There is an illusion which some musicians can pull off, seemingly bending time. Some blues and jazz artists even do this, taking liberty with a phrase, stretching it out a bit around the core rhythms. Multiply this concept by five musicians who have mastered that capability as a tightly knit pop unit and you have a recipe for some very interesting and exciting music.
While driving around San Francisco listening to Let’s Promise to Be Happy I tried counting out time to some of the tunes — unsuccessfully, I’m sure! There were some 4/4 and 3/4 sounding things and then they weren’t! Were they playing those hyper fast gabber-level rhythms over a slow vibe? I don’t know yet. But the point is whatever they are doing its super tight and seamless.
And yet it still swings…
Because all the songs are sung in Japanese I can’t tell you what they mean but overall the album seems to convey a sense of introspection, peace and harmony. Some of the English translations of the song titles I found on their official press release may offer insight to that: “New Reminiscences,” “Gather the Lights,” “The End of Sorrow,” “Measure the Dawn” and “Never Forget.”
Let’s Promise to Be Happy is mostly available as an online listening experience. There is a good sounding CD plus DVD package available only in Japan at this time. I was sent a copy of by the band’s label for this review and it includes a very nice live performance by the band in what looks to be a house concert (in a very nice house!). The production values are simple but solid and well lit. The 48 kHz, 16-bit audio on the standard resolution DVD is pleasant enough and is not harsh on the ears (I would like to hear this group in high resolution surround sound someday!).
If I have any criticisms of Let’s Promise to Be Happy is that it is a very short album, clocking in at just about 25 minutes in length (perfect length for a festival set actually, come to think of it). I do think of it as more of an extended play (“EP”) or mini-album release. Yet, somehow, it feels like the right length for the complexity of this music. Still, I had to let you know, Dear Readers, what to expect, especially if you are considering ordering the CD+DVD package (click here for a link to Amazon Japan. For other outlets like HMV and Tower, click here).
The good instant-gratification news is that you can find several of Jyocho’s albums streaming on Apple Music (click here) which sound quite nice from my initial samples of them. I also found the group’s catalog up on Amazon Music but I have not listened to it there as I don’t have a subscription to that service (click the album title anywhere in this article to jump to that). Sorry but Jyocho doesn’t seem to be on Tidal or Qobuz as of yet…
I plan to be doing more listening to Jyocho and have high hopes for this fine group’s future.
You should check them out. Following are some videos which they have shared online.