If this trio of all female musicians was a pop group, I doubt if anyone would think twice, but in the testosterone driven underground of PROG, the idea is practically a novelty (at least for symphonic rock oriented groups.) Therefore, Arsnova, at least on their first album seemed to gain quite a reputation at least for the photos of the ladies.
"Transi" is their second release and the ELP/Italian (Trip-Le Orme-Alluminogeni) styled trio have a new drummer (doubling on violin) to back up Keiko Kumagai's project. One thing is for sure - she's a brilliant keyboard player, armed with a massive menagerie of digital and sampled analog keys. Her favorite sound seems to be the Hammond XB2 which routed through a Leslie makes for a real crunchy near-Atomic Rooster type sound.
This is an absolutely brilliant album for this style; Kumagai's classically influenced style gives her an arsenal of themes and chops that change as often as her sounds and makes what could be a typically dull album into what may be one of the years very best - especially for a format that ELP dominated for many years.
It's hard to forget that this trio is female (especially with the alluring photography inside the booklet), but irregardless, Arsnova is head and tails above most of the symphonic anesthesia these days This is probably the best Japanese symphonic album in many years. Highly recommended to fans of dramatic instrumental rock - just save yourself the headache and don't try to figure it out.
(Originally published in Exposé #6, p. 30, Edited for Gnosis 8/24/01)
This, the second album from the Japanese keyboard-led trio Ars Nova, comes as perhaps the biggest surprise of the year. It would be all too easy to rest that statement on the fact that this is a trio of all female musicians but to do so would only reinforce the strong stereotypes of women in the prog field. The real surprise is how far they have grown between albums, and how wickedly complex and intense keyboardist Keiko Kumagai's writing is. Bandmates Kyoko Kanazawa (Rickenbacker bass) and Akiko Takahashi (drums) work under the keyboards in a very ELP-ish manner, but with plenty of modern fire and flair that ELP has left far behind. The 6 all-instrumental tracks are stylistically very consistent, with plenty of themes and interwoven ideas, all spurned forth from both digital and analog keys. The whole album, in fact, sounds very '70s but has the glossiness of a '90s production. Keyboard enthusiasts shouldn't miss this rich palette: pipe organ, Hammond XB-2, Solina, Moog and Oberheim-type leads. Comparisons to Dave Gryder's Covenant are plausible, but this has a solid band feel and relentlessness to drive it home with surprising power. If you crave guitar, you won't find any here but Transi holds together very well without it, solely because of the ever-changing keyboard timbres. A very solid effort, highly recommended (despite the hilariously cheesy packaging).
(Originally published in Expose #6, p. 30, Edited for Gnosis 8/11/02)
Transi is the second release from this Japanese trio, fronted by talented keyboardist Keiko Kumagai. Writing all the music and commanding an arsenal of analog and digital keys, she leads the group through 40 minutes of dark, intense, and dynamic prog. The music is full of abrupt metrical shifts and changes in feel, never dwelling on one theme for very long. In that sense it is probably most reminiscent of Covenant, though Ars Nova uses dynamics and intensity changes much better. Though there are some digital synths and samplers used, the sound is exclusively analog, and Kumagai uses the variety of timbres at her disposal to come up with some creative orchestrations. This, combined with the complexity and mood of the music may also bring to mind the more intense moments of Anglagard, albeit with a much stronger keyboard presence.
Bassist Kyoko Kanazawa and drummer/violinist Akiko Takahashi are both solid players, and compliment and support Kumagai's impressive keyboard skills well. The only major drawback to this music is that for all its complexity and thoughtful timbral orchestration, there is little in the way of thematic development or unifying musical ideas within a piece. For this reason the longer tracks come off as a bit meandering and aimless, though certainly not boring. All in all this is a very good CD, better than much of the prog released in the '90s, though a step or two below the best of the new Japanese progressive bands.
(Originally published in Expose #6, p. 30, Edited for Gnosis 8/11/02)
|The Hammer||7-August-2001||The Book of the Dead|
Ars Nova is a Japanese keyboards/bass/drums trio that is very much influenced by ELP and Il Balletto Di Bronzo (two influences that would be confessed on the Keyboards Triangle tribute album that they appeared on). Similar to Gerard, Ars Nova plays an aggressive brand of symphonic rock that will either delight you or irritate you.
This album sees the departure of bassist Kyoko Kanazawa, temporarily replaced with Ken Ishita (ex-Deja Vu). While this ruins the band's previous standing as a "female trio", the change has little overall effect to the band's sound, as keyboardist Keiko Kumagai remains the constant center of attention. She certainly has more chops than she knows what to do with. Unfortunately, that's the problem: she often doesn't know what to do with them. As the sole composer of the group, Kumagai's writing is too centered on being flashy and fast, and not focused enough on developing some of the (often rather good) themes that she flies through.
Sometimes, however, Kumagai manages to get it right. The highlight of this album is "Field of Iaru", a nearly 11 minute piece that dispenses with the head-pounding sledgehammer tactics and smoothly builds from stripped down piano/drum sections to a number of delightful synth climaxes. Even this piece, however, occasionally seems to lack direction.
Kumagai makes a rather novel attempt at breaking up the sonic assaults, however. In-between every song is an interlude, each approximately 1:00 long and usually resembling either traditional Japanese or Middle-Eastern music (I'm not familiar enough with either to make a more specific assessment). While I can't say that I don't like the interludes, I would much rather see these musical styles appear in the main compositions themselves. It would really help keep them from being both too aggressive and too "samey".
In the end, The Book of the Dead suffers from being too one-dimensional. While Kumagai can write something interesting when she puts her mind to it, it seems that she is rather content to stick to warp-speed bursts for the most part. For some people, however, this will be keyboard prog nirvana. Fans of ELP and Mastermind might want to check this out. Others might be better served looking into Motoi Sakuraba's work instead, as he offers a more varied take on this style.
1998, Musea, FGBG 4255.AR
1. (Prologue): Re - 1:35
Keiko Kumagai - Keyboards
The Japanese band Ars Nova plays heavy symphonic progressive in the keyboards-bass-drums format. As expected, there are obvious nods to ELP, but Ars Nova make up for it with good compositions, a very energetic playing style and avoiding those irritating, whimpy ELP songs like "Are You Ready Eddy." While Ars Nova may get a bit bombastic at times, I am amazed that they manage to avoid this typical cheesy, sterile sound that spoils most of the keyboard oriented bands of the 90's. Just like the Swedish band Änglagård, Ars Nova use a well-balanced mix of digital and analog keyboards to good effect. Additionally, Ars Nova add a more dramatic, ominous touch to their music, which sets them apart a bit more from ELP. This "horror movie" aspect in their music may evoke comparisons to Goblin or even Il Balletto di Bronzo. All albums I have heard so far are interesting, but the later albums (The Book of the Dead and The Goddess of Darkness) sound a bit more mature.
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