Zeuhl. adj. (Kobaïan): celestial.
Kobaïan is the fictional language— elements of Germanic and Slavic languages, with gibberish—created by Christian Vander and used to write all the lyrics for his band, Magma, formed in Paris in 1969.
While many bands—The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, to name just with a few—had been introducing more progressive musical ideas into pop, rock and psychedelia since 1965, one might argue that it was in 1969, with King Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, that progressive rock was born. And for all the eclecticism and eccentricity in progressive rock’s halcyon days of the early seventies, when Rock in Opposition bands rubbed shoulders with twee Canterbury psych-proggers, there was—and still is—no stranger subgenre of it than Zeuhl: a neoclassical, martial, percussive, bass-heavy, hypnotic, psychedelic, jazzy, rock-operatic style of music that somehow—with select bands—treads the lines of both minimalism and maximalism.
Although even now the genre remains synonymous with Magma, there have been a brave few to follow in their footsteps, with homages, heavy nods and even some developments on the style. One of the most exciting of these bands are Kōenjihyakkei, the Tatsuya Yoshida-led (Ruins) collective, who, having formed in Tokyo in 1991, have just “re-released” their third album, Nivraym (2001); a re-recorded, re-sequenced version entitled Nivraym Revisited.
For those unfamiliar with the original, Nivyraym spirals with manic and bipolar shifts between refrain-pounding psychedelia, operatic outbursts and paroxysmal tantrums of electronic jazz. The genre-characteristic repetitive refrains are especially aggressive, and with the odd time-signatures, could liken these pounding motifs to those on the title-track from Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1971 prog classic Tarkus.
No player is left behind, each member feeding off each other; the constant psychedelic warblings of guitars, the endless hardcore jazz drum patterns; and perhaps most impressively, shape-shifting and virtuosic keyboard wizardry. We are occasionally afforded quieter moments with female singing and delicate piano, but these moments are so fleeting your heart rate has hardly time to even begin decreasing before you’re once again thrown into the intense and thematic inter-instrumentality. Later releases Angherr Shisspa and Dhorimvishka would focus very much on the operatic side of things, vocally; here we have the full range: the operatic, the sinister, the hardcore, the surreally militant, the aurally asemic.
Nivraym burnishes the minimalist/maximalist approach so characteristic of Zeuhl, throwing huge-in-scope blasts of rock-orchestral waves in bewildering sequences, explosive Naked City moments, Gentle Giant-esque freneticism, the rhythmic complexity of Dün on their only ever release, the seminal Zeuhl album Eros (1981), RIO avant-gardism, and the use of modes and scales so alien to the more commercial world of rock.
A lot of progressive rock borrows from blues, folk and jazz, and of course, classical, but many groups, only in a structural sense; whilst many symphonic prog bands, of course take from the baroque and the romantic, and in some cases—see Gryphon—the renaissance. Koenjihyakkei’s unmistakable place in the Zeuhl world is that their reference points lend themselves to the more adventurous sides of contemporary classical music—the surreal and avant-garde artists of the early 20th century—sometimes employing the kind of scales one might hear in the folk music of Eastern European and Middle Eastern regions.
Listening to Kōenjihyakkei is the auditory equivalent of watching a chaotic experimental film; look away for a second and you think you’ve—in more than just one way—lost the plot, but of course really, there never was one. Like with so many of their forefathers, semantics, meaning and cohesion are of less interest than is a ferocious attack on the senses. For more hardcore fans the re-arrangements, re-sequencing and bonus three live tracks will be of special interest.
There is no better Zeuhl band today than Kōenjihyakkei, and this revisitation of their classic album Nivraym is just another reminder: ferociously hypnotic, disarmingly tangential, cosmically regal, as divine as it is arresting; outside of metal and noise, you’ll rarely come across a sound this extreme. If you’re looking for background music—look elsewhere.
Nivyram Revisited is out now via Skin Graft Records and can be purchased here.
Words: Rory Hughes