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Head Pop Up - Tokusen Burari Tabi

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Artist: Head Pop Up

Album: Tokusen Burari Tabi

Label: Poseidon

Review date: Jun. 18, 2003

Quality Prog-Rock from Japan

With two keyboard players, you know this prog-rock band from Japan can mix it up, and so they do on Tokusen Burari Tabi. Hiro Wada and Michi Mayanagi both lay down piano and organ on the title track, while Hisashi Abe's drums and Teruro Mikami's bass provide a level, consistent backbone. It's not until four minutes into the 13-minute piece that Atsushi Iwasawa's guitar comes in, with a searing lead that's actually more restrained than might be expected. The piano work is particularly nice, somewhat showy but not out of hand by any means; and it's either a real piano or a damn good electronic one, because it has a good solid feel that allows it to hold its own against the drums, bass, and guitar. Later in the piece when Iwasawa really cuts loose, his tone is great, cutting and distorted just enough, and instead of the typical prog-rock clean, perfect lines, he's not afraid to just let go – there's emotional content like the best of Mahavishnu.

"Metempsychosis" opens with an interesting horn sample amidst growling bass, before the song suddenly breaks open and chanting vocals come in with a bizarre sort of chorus – reminds me a bit of some Ruins work. The dueling keyboards go insane between piano-backed vocal breaks that seem calm at first, but there's always some weird keyboard or vocal noise happening quietly in the background.

"Summer 90" is a really nice syncopated guitar/vocal/keyboard piece with a pretty memorable hook, though it nearly gets bogged down partway by thick synth-pad symphonics. That's brief, though, and a terrific, dense bass line pulls the song forward from there, with piano notes dancing along the top of it until the guitar, delayed and/or doubled, comes screaming in. Great stuff.

"Soshite" is a short piece combining vocal gymnastics with guitar and rhythm interplay. It's a bit difficult to get a handle on initially, but after a minute the bass kicks off a running rhythm underpinned by organ and dense guitar that harkens back somewhat to the best ’70s keyboard-rock. The song then decompresses and concludes with the same vocal/instrumental goofiness with which it began.

"Night in Roppongi" goes through some heavy shifts, including a center section with some fantastic chugging rhythm, guitar pyrotechnics, and, oddly, a clapping rhythmic counterpoint that actually works. Pretty stellar drumming around a time signature that doesn't make it easy to keep momentum, but they do it with ease. This is some hot shit, and when it peaks about eight minutes in it's probably my favorite segment on Tokusen Burari Tabi.

With the compound name "Toscana - Tsuchiyu Spa - Finger Eurhythmics - Kuma no Oyako" you might figure that the 22-minute finale track is actually a medley of sorts, and that does turn out to be the case. The Gypsy-like feel of the opening even includes Mayanagi taking a turn on accordion (and doing a damn fine job). It then gives way to a somewhat less distinctive mid-tempo segment that opens out into a moment of near-silence before the accordion returns on its own. A quiet, and unfortunately somewhat bland, movement follows, with a plodding rhythm and mild-mannered guitar that is too pleasant to really say much to me. It eventually reaches a more energetic point, then fades out to let the piano take the lead for a moment amidst tinkling cymbal percussion. The song reaches a pretty good peak towards the very end, but it comes off as mild-mannered when compared to the middle of "Night in Roppongi."

Sure, there are some moments of semi-classical synth and showy prog excess on this album, but not much. Instead, the band manages to combine some intriguing avant-garde moments with fine rock energy, and even tosses in some bits of humor without going too far. The players clearly have technical skill to burn, but that's evident just from the solidity of the playing, not from any excess of showboating. Instead, they deliver a set of songs which, while not 100 percent brilliant, have enough superb moments to make the album definitely worth while. And if Head Pop Up’s next album has more material like "Summer 90" and "Night in Roppongi" I'll really be looking forward to it.

By Mason Jones

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