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Thursday, April 5, 2012
By IAN MARTIN
Special to The Japan Times
Emerging in the late 1970s out of a swirling maelstrom of techno-pop, punk rock and avant-garde theater, Hikashu have for the past 3½ decades been one of Japan's most distinctive and consistently inventive bands.
Vocalist (also cornet, shakuhachi and theremin player) Koichi Makigami has described his music as " 'pataphysic rock" after the term coined by French avant-garde playwright Alfred Jarry. From the start of "Uragoe," Hikashu takes cues from Jarry, seemingly taking a nonsensical starting point, for example a silly pun on the Japanese words for "wave" and "brush" on "Fude wo Fure, Kanata-kun (Wave the Brush, Mr. Beyond)" and then engineer the song backwards from that via a series of lyrical and musical nonsequiturs.
Throughout "Uragoe," Hikashu remains constantly two steps removed from pop — no more, no less. There is a uniform mirroring back and forth between the more accessible and uncompromising moments of the album, ensuring that merely offbeat segments lead on via their own internal logic to something more alien. "Yuugata no Iesu, Asagata no Noo (Twilight Affirmation, Morning Denial)" builds an eccentric but recognizably pop melody around Kazuto Shimizu's Doors-like organ, then diverts into more free-form, improvisational content before returning to the original theme. The song itself is bracketed by two of the album's most experimental moments, the free-jazz-influenced "Soko wa Ka (Faintly)" and the absurdist scat workout of "Shikotama (Plenty)."
Elsewhere, "Hitori Hokai (Collapsing by Oneself)" might once have heard a distant refrain of The Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together," the title track is a master class in avant-pop songwriting, and "Umaretate no Hana (A Newly Born Flower)" is genuinely lovely.
Parallels can be drawn with the jazz-influenced Canterbury scene and the psychedelic weirdness of Gong or Soft Machine, although Makigami's eclectic range of vocal utterances imbues everything with a character that is distinctly Hikashu. The world of "Uragoe" is pop music first down the rabbit hole and then through the looking glass, but maintaining a consistent distance, almost within touch of reality. It's the sound of a band who have built their own world and are thoroughly confident in it. For those with the will to join them, it's a magical place.
Hikashu play Star Pine's Cafe in Tokyo on April 5 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,600 in advance;  23-2251); La Mama in Shibuya, Tokyo on May 2 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance;  3464-2343); Conpass in Osaka on May 6 (6 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance;  6243-1666); Rag in Kyoto on May 7 (6 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance;  255-7273); Tokuzo in Nagoya on May 8 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance;  733-3709). For more information, visit hikashu.exblog.jp or hikashu-as.blogspot.jp.