Japanese underground music has yet to make any serious inroads in this country. Only the Boredoms ever gained any notoriety here, playing with Nirvana and opening Lollapalooza shows in the mid-'90s. But the era's alternative audiences were ill-suited to digest their particularly uncompromising brand of musical exploration.
Enter ROVO, a sextet of heavyweights from the Japanese avant-garde jazz scene, poised to take a stab at the U.S. market. Led by onetime Boredoms guitarist Yamamoto Seiichi and electric violinist Katsui Yuji, ROVO describes its music as "man-driven trance." And while it covers an essentially trance/techno terrain, the group draws the bulk of its inspiration from '70s prog groups like Can and King Crimson rather than modern electronica, serving up hypnotic layers of sound with a foundation of energetic and spontaneous live improvisation.
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Though only just released in the United States, ROVO's "new" album is actually two years old. Imago originally bowed on Sony Japan in 1999 and remained unnoticed on these shores until a copy made its way to a college radio station in San Francisco. KUSF and its listeners took such an immediate and passionate liking to Imago that it became that station's second most played album of the year. Demand for ROVO was so great, in fact, that a new label, Incidental Music, was formed specifically to release the disc in the United States.
Does ROVO live up to its cult status? Well, yes and no. There is nothing on Imago even remotely danceable, nor can it claim any memorable melodies or lyrics (the music is entirely instrumental). Like the Boredoms, ROVO features two drummers (Yoshigaki Yasuhiro and Okabe Youichi) and reams of frenzied improvisation. But where the Boredoms offered a wild, screaming front man and large slabs of pure noise to help focus uninitiated ears, ROVO's sonic environment is much more austere. To be sure, albums like this one -- full of free-form psychedelic freak-out jamming -- are an acquired taste. While individual songs are designated, with titles like "Mattah," "Kmara" and "N'Dam," the album essentially functions as a whole, with very little to distinguish one track from the next aside from subtle changes in volume or tempo -- an approach that, at times, makes for fairly tedious listening.
However, for more adventurous ears, there are rewards aplenty. The compositions alternate hypnotic passages employing traditional percussion and wind instruments with frenetic sections of dub-effected drumming and electronics (supplied by Masuko Tatsuki), building to stunning, complex polyrhythmic climaxes. The group's unique blend of fierce hot primalism and cold digital cerebralism is startlingly beautiful and at times breathtaking. The musicianship on Imago is equally impeccable, but more than anything else, it's the intelligence of the material that puts ROVO over. The earnestness of the group's approach and clear-headedness of the execution keeps the listener engaged, immersed and, above all, curious. There is a sparseness at work on Imago, too, an organization principle that never allows the presentation to become muddled or obtuse.
The underground is teeming these days with bands working to destroy the boundaries between jazz, rock and techno music. Like the best of them, ROVO abounds with creative resourcefulness and a strong sense of purpose. This won't save the group from obscurity, but it will certainly endear it to those eagerly poised on experimental music's cutting edge.