Kukangendai. PIC: Katayama Tatsuki.

Music, Stage

Kukangendai review (Melbourne International Arts Festival)

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Japanese avant-garde rock trio Kukangendai make their Australian debut with Organ, an hour-long musical piece that transports audiences and subverts the senses. Through unexpected manipulation of the simple guitar, bass and drums, they played one continuous song that voyaged from feedback to funk grooves to distorted noise and back again.

The band fall into the math rock genre, a style of indie rock that’s characterised by unusual rhythms, dissonant chords and complex arrangements. Having collaborated with noted composer Ryuichi Sakamoto in recent years, their tracks are created by incorporating deliberate error and recording glitches. The trio’s experimental live shows take this approach even further.

Newport’s Substation seemed a fitting venue for a contemporary performance that at times felt industrial. With Junya Noguchi on guitar and vocals, Keisuke Koyano on bass and Hideaki Yamada on drums, the three walked on stage and quietly took up their instruments before it went dark.

In Organ, time moved slowly and quickly all at once.

The show began with Yamada’s heavy, irregular drumming to the tune of reverberating silence. Was he warming up or was this part of the show? This was a common thread throughout the entire set. Their impromptu style made it difficult to know whether the piece was entirely improvised or completely calculated.

But that was all part of the fun. With pulsating blue lights and instrumental sounds slowly building on top of each other, the onus was on the audience to feel and form the rhythm.

The build was so gradual that it seemed like we had transported. The lights changed from blue to green, red and yellow and were shimmering downwards like raindrops. As if lulled into a hypnotic state, members of the seated crowd closed their eyes and undulated to the music.

It was fascinating to see the melody take form. Different lights purposefully created different moods, and the song moved through genres including minimal rock, jazz, funk, tribal and noise with vocals in between.

A highlight was when the show morphed into something that resembled a game of tennis. The bassist would strum solo, then lift the neck of the guitar to signal to the drummer that it was his turn. The solo would pass over to the guitarist, then back to the drummer and bassist again, creating a back-and-forth routine that increased in tempo and was cued by an intuitive jerk of their guitars.

Another highlight came when the lights turned to face the band. Giant shadows were cast upon the red-brick wall and velvet curtains behind them, and they became spooky shadow puppets starring in their very own Tim Burton rock horror.

In Organ, time moved slowly and quickly all at once. Lights and distorted noise destabilised the senses, and the song was simple, minimal and quiet until it was suddenly complex, layered and loud. Though little time seemed to pass in between, I was constantly anticipating what was coming next and got the sense the music reached a point where it was cycling backwards.

When the song was over, we were plonked back in Melbourne’s west on a Friday night. Kukangendai are a band you have to see live to “get”. A listen on Spotify may not leave an impression, but their all-encompassing show was a surreal experience that left me reeling.

Kukangendai played as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival October 16 – 18.

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