After ten years, we finally have an official live album by Ars Nova! Just under fifty minutes long and released very late last year, Across The World is the second release under the Transi imprint, not primary label Made In Japan. For the record, M.I.J. is also home to Ars Nova's male counterpart, Gerard Shingo "Numero" Ueno runs the label and manages both groups. With this release, we've been treated to a decidedly "J-POP" cover design, as the girls pose at various degrees from the camera eye within a multi-hued infinity-diamond sculpture, while wearing inordinately colorful outfits. A quick sidenote: Across The World was included in the limited edition Ars Nova Collector's Box, last year. Now that boxed set, as inviting as it looked, had a mighty intimidating price tag attached to it, so it's nice to see copies of this CD of performances culled from their 2001 World Tour available independently. The Collector's Box contains a second live disc called Official Bootleg Live 1997, recorded at the Silver Elephant, which hasn't been issued separately as of this writing.
By their last proper studio album in 2001, Android Domina, Ars Nova were a trio once again; a couple of years had elapsed since 1996's The Goddess Of Darkness when original bassist Kyoko Kanazawa met one last time with keyboardist Keiko Kumagai and drum goddess Akiko Takahashi at Tokyo's Studio Triade, for a single track on Keyboards Triangle, the late 90s classic-prog tribute album by Ars Nova and Gerard. If you don't already know, Keyboards Triangle boasts mouth-watering covers of tracks by ELP, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, Il Balletto Di Bronzo, Rick Wakeman, Trace and PFM (Kyoko played on Balletto's "Epilogo"). Keiko and Akiko recorded Book Of The Dead (1998) as a duo with guest bassist Ken Ishita, formerly of Deja Vu; for the tour, they brought along second keyboardist Naomi Miura. After that, they found Mika Nakajima, keyboardist for an unsigned prog trio called Triton. Mika found herself in Studio Triade with Keiko and Akiko for the three Keyboards Triangle tracks and the recording of the new studio album. Ken Ishita appeared again, for a bass line on one piece, and so did Mika's husband & bandmate in Triton, Noboru Nakajima. The music produced during the Android Domina sessions marries the best of a retrochronological approach with a modern sensibility, upholding the charter for new, uniformly dynamic progressive music.
Back to the disc in question: boy, do these gals shred! I recall the very first time I heard the title track from Transi in '94 I was blown out of my chair! No, I think I was standing, since I could barely contain myself. It was at once charming and exhilirating to think three very pretty girls were pumping out this sort of bombastic music. They haven't slowed down one bit, and Across The World authenticates the notion that having two keyboardists really can be better than one. Keiko and Mika share lead duties (well, Keiko takes most of them, for the obvious reason), alternately dispensing stacks of sevenths on fat, loud, analog sounds and leads of the lickety-split Wakeman/Fritz variety (the Mini-Moogs and Prophet 600 may or may not be present and accounted for Mika also employs a Clavia Nord Lead). Wicked legato runs the sort of which Vangelis was known for in his heyday, before mining his future in soundtracks? They're here. And that Hammond sound: Keiko records on a Hammond XB2 with Leslie's, and I believe it gets used live. It sure sounds like Jon Lord or Keith Emerson is onstage!. "Android Domina" is very hard-charging twelve-minute set opener, and a nice, short lull is provided in the middle by Mika's vocals. Being a keyboard lover, I can go on and on, but it would be criminal to not mention Akiko's drumming: the rhythmic foundation she lays is what her bandmates build on. Ever since Transi, when she replaced Yumiko Saito, she's grooved, shuffled and slammed with the best of the boys her playing is anything but typical and she outplays almost any other female rock drummer I've heard as of late. When Akiko joined Ars Nova, she was already involved in three other [non-prog] bands and was one band's violinist.
Things get even more frantic, fingers more dexterous, on "Succubus," an uptempo workout and the shortest track, clocking in at only five minutes, twenty seconds; the militaristic opening of the nine-minute-long "Horla Rising" reprises itself between lush, orchestral interludes; "Pairi-Daeza" has exquisite melody lines and playful trade-offs between Keiko and Mika along with the closing track, it is the most cinematic (somebody commission tap these gals to score some music for an IMAX film or major motion picture). Audiences need to taste these sort of engaging, all-enveloping, tumultuous instrumentals, versus vapid incidental music. At barely a minute's length (with audience noise), track five is a piano solo by Mika. It's nice, but it's over before you know it. Because of this, it would've been nice to have a seventh live track round this set out. I believe neither Ars Nova nor Gerard have cracked the fifty-minute barrier on any of their albums, but as they say, quality over quantity.
To close out this fab listening experience, we're presented with a relic from Ars Nova's very first album, Fear and Anxiety; thanks to Mika's presence, this version of "Fata Morgana" is more textured and more flowery than the studio version. And damn, it's good. We can relearn over and over why we never get tired of hearing somebody wail on a Hammond or a Minimoog. Akiko gets time for a short drum solo almost halfway through these thunderous ten minutes; just before Akiko's solo ends, Mika spins another daunting cadence on electronic piano, after which follows one of the album's single best moments: Keiko calls up a primo sawwave patch and thrashes through a hellion of a solo. She doesn't let up, either, hammering out another pleasure/pain organ solo like a true Hammond junkie who needs her fix talk about an inadvertent homage to Ricks van der Linden and Wakeman! For the second and last time, Mika's sultry voice blesses the mix with ninety seconds to go, making for a few brief & unbelievably gratifying bars and what's short is often considered a tease! I relish the fact that Ars Nova is an instrumental group (you'd think Gerard would learn from their example), but now I'd love to hear Mika sing on an entire track or two.
At this time, Ars Nova shows no signs of diminishing their pace. A new studio album called Biogenesis, based on a concept by their manager, Shingo Ueno, should appear sometime in the first third of this year. Some guests turn up on the new album, nobody jaw-dropping (sarcasm intentional), just some names like Arjen Anthony Lucassen, Claudio Simonetti, Gianni Leone, and others.
1. Android Domina
3. Horla Rising
5. [Piano Solo]
6. Fata Morgana