Kenso — Sora Ni Hikaru - Early Live Vol.1
(Belle Antique 9465, 1983/1994, CD)
by Peter Thelen, 1996-03-01:
Their first album from '81, simply titled Kenso, featured six tracks of varying length, ranging from the pure symphonic prog of tracks like "Umi" to the more delicate "Inei No Fue" ("The Flute in the Shadows") to an all-out avant-garde piece that takes up most of side two. It is also the only Kenso album that features vocals, albeit sparingly. The LP was originally pressed in a limited edition of a few hundred and has never been reissued, so chances of finding a copy are next to nil. Fortunately, the three best instrumental cuts from it were included as bonus tracks on the reissue of Kenso II.
The second album showed more movement toward a symphonic fusion style, blending the energy of jazz-rock with the melodic intensity of progressive, not unlike bands like Hatfield or National Health, but Kenso clearly has their own formula for getting there. The third album, Kenso (AKA Kenso III), from 1985 (with an origami bird on the cover, not to be confused with the first album) moves even further in the same direction, more polished and perfected.
Kenso's finest moment, though, has to be their fourth album, a double-live titled Music for Unknown Five Musicians from 1986, which includes material from their first three albums and a couple (at that point) new tracks. This shows the band in their finest setting — live on stage. Kenso has released two more studio albums in the years since: Sparta in 1989 features recordings by two different lineups over a four year period, and is their most 'hard-fusion' album of all, while Yume No Oka from 1991 is a more cohesive effort that rivals the spirit of the early years.
After a second live album release, Live 92, the band decided to hang it up for a while, and have only recently become active again.
In the meantime, two discs of early live material have been released. The first is Sora Ni Hikaru - Early Live Vol. 1, and it contains live tracks taken from three shows between December '81 and July '83 — in other words around the time of the second album. Live tapes of this period had been floating around in collector circles for years, so it's good to see that finally the best material has been cleaned up and released on disc. The second disc is Inei No Fue - Live Vol.2, which contains material taken from three different shows in '81, '82, and '89. The bulk of the material is from the '82 show, which puts it squarely in the same timeframe as the first disc. There is also a studio track recorded in October '79 by an early four-piece version of the band, pre-dating their first album by two years!
I would normally recommend the double-live album as the best place to start, but it's impossibly hard to find. Barring that, check out Kenso II for a studio release, or Early Live Vol. 1 for a live starter. All of their albums have my highest recommendation.
by Mike McLatchey, 1994-10-01:Kenso were perhaps the pinnacle of the great Japanese symphonic rock bands. All too often, where others fell short, Kenso succeeded admirably at many of the things that make a band of this genre great — complexity, originality, melodic development, instrumental talent, interplay, and emotional impact. While over the years this dual keyboard led ensemble went from classic music in a very 70s Italian influenced vein to a more typically straighter and fusion oriented style in the 90s, one thing remained the same, these guys knew how to pull out the stops live. This live compilation of their music, from arguably their peak years between their first two albums (1981 and 83) is testament to this, a compilation of some of Kenso's most dazzling moments. While those who have their Music from 5 Unknown Musicians double live album won't be too surprised here, those unfamiliar with Kenso's progressive hybrid — a combination of Italian progressive (check out the Area riff in the classic "Prelude to Sophia"), Canterbury riffing and breezy Happy the Man like melodic content — would do well to check this disc out. The sound quality is maybe a hair below very good, yet the effect is imminent — this is great music by a killer band in their prime. Bring on Volume 2!
Related artist(s): Kenso
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