July 2003 – album reviews – Show-Yen’s ‘Show-Yen’ (“the precision roar of a squad of slick hand-tooled motorcycles”)

30 Jul

An instrumental power trio from Kyoto, Show-Yen attempt a twenty-first century take on complex fusion rock. Balancing earnestly between early ’90s metal heroics and formal ideas drawn from ’70s art-rock and the stiffer end of jazz-rock, Yasuhiro Nishio and his bandmates encounter mixed results in trying to reconcile them. Yasuhiro, the bandleader, leans towards ersatz Joe Satriani guitar skills and facility in his own melodic, theatrical playing. The band as a whole cup the juggernaut blues-metal legacy of Cream in one hand and embrace the stern compressed minimalism of King Crimson’s ‘Red’ with the other, with digressions into classical guitar and Hendrixian sustain. All accomplished; all, still, a little too over-familiar.

In too many respects the album ends up as a classic rock guitarist’s solo project in all but name, with all of the posturing highs and lows of its kind. Drummer Masanobu Tonomura is a cheerful accompanist, and Hiroaki Fujii provides solid fretless bass, often erupting into the kind of chorused slithering which suggests he’s plotting an escape into full-blown jazz-fusion. Yet neither do more than underpin Yasuhiro’s music. The album sinks, swims, but more often flounders over the guitarist’s wavering levels of inspiration and originality.

This is a shame, as Yasuhiro is a fluent and accomplished musician. When he’s on form, he’s several cuts above the clumsy cut’n’paste standards of neo-prog: his blending of sources is smooth and instinctive. Several core Show-Yen pieces will press the buttons of staunch classic rockers. Much of the album offers the precision roar of a squad of slick hand-tooled motorcycles, but some of the other tones and textures involved suggest that someone’s slipped a little acid and a handful of smart-pills into the petrol tank. On the cruising riff of Network Broken, the entire band sounds groovy and assured, with Yasuhiro even inspired to add a little disruption via Frippish yells of burning guitar. Reallusion’s chugging, businesslike metal riff is cut with haughty descending decorations of Crimsonic phrasing; there are breaks for classical arpeggios; and Yasuhiro pulls off a neat compositional trick of cross-cutting into full-blown Gary Moore blues descends crammed with articulate wah-wah wails.

Yet on the other hand pieces like Move Up or the flashy, jolly Ran sound like little more than ambling, melodic instrumental metal cast-offs. Parade, with its neo-classical tones and cute clarion fanfare, might aim to unite Rush flourishes and latterday math-rock precision: the final result sounds more like a listless chew through the pops-orchestra end of classical rock. While Yasuhiro can readily summon a breezy classical-rock style for these moments (not far off what the perpetually underrated Kevin Peek aimed for with Sky) this sits badly with the hard-rock bristle elsewhere.

Attempts at carrying off something weightier – via the five-part piece Asels – results in sixteen minutes of strolling through some over-familiar galleries. In predictable succession Show-Yen offer up an electro-classical guitar study, some Curved Air toccata-rock (with uninspired rhythm parts slogging under distorted lead guitar breaks and flanged bass responses) and a mid-paced trudge through Crimsonic metal. The final destination is a kind of Hoagy Carmichael dinner-jazz, highlighting melodic bass lines and clean, sleepy guitar. Part-way through, Yasuhiro tosses in a solo slice of twirling, gut-strung hammer-ons (echoing Van Halen’s Spanish Fly). The ultimate result is that of a bitty, end-of-term music showcase: not the seamless gelling of unlikely elements that marks the best prog.

Show-Yen’s problem is that whenever they aim for committed musical context, they always end up in a historical echo-chamber. Bouncing around inside prog-fusion consensus, they’re voluble and skilled in their instrumental focus; yet those stylistic limitations they work within so earnestly also render them voiceless. Tellingly, the band pass this debut album off as some kind of conceptual work, yet refuse to provide story, background or even a suggested listening order. They claim that listeners can create their own sequence and story, then immediately contradict themselves by stating that instrumental music renders any narrative composition irrelevant.

A sense of pointless backtracking, of feet being fallen over and ideas imploding under the weight of inverted rock pretensions, is overwhelming. If it is all an oblique joke, it’s particularly annoying given that Show-Yen can obviously think and do more. When they let their inner hairy beast break through the schooling and the canonical salutes – and when they properly churn (rather than simply milk) their technical skills – everything works better.

Driving jazz inflections and visible thinking are all on display in Fu-Ga with its appealing back-and-forth march of mirrored chords. On Ominous Footsteps II, Show-Yen take a tip from the flattened fifth. Their dark flashy rock explorations now not just a showcase for technique but the generator of a pleasing structural puzzle: it’s built on short menacing low-register pulses, from which Hiroaki’s bass guitar gradually escapes as the piece progresses. Lucifer’s Child shows them grabbing their mid-’70s Crimson fetish whole-heartedly, but letting it fire them up. Yasuhiro leads in and out with endpieces of complex Frippish picking (hitting a feverishly cramped pitch), but ultimately slams the band headlong into a crushing, sticky stoner wah-wah riff over which his car-bumping lead phrases crash down. This is where the band really starts to work – where the method meets the moment.

Show-Yen, then. Deserving of being taken seriously, so long as they start taking themselves seriously. How often do you get to say that about a rock band and genuinely mean it?

Musea, FGBG 4406.AR
CD/download album
Released: 22nd July 2003

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One Response to “July 2003 – album reviews – Show-Yen’s ‘Show-Yen’ (“the precision roar of a squad of slick hand-tooled motorcycles”)”

  1. Dann Chinn April 25, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    This was originally written ten years ago (but never used) for ‘Progressive Spiral’, and probably shows it. While I started off covering progressive rock, I’ve never been all that keen on the more straightforward forms of it – especially when it starts bleeding into traditional heavy metal or Brit-blues at the side. Nonetheless, I do quite enjoy delving into the workings of bands like these and seeing what I can bring out. As for Show-Yen, they got better. There’s a review of their second album which will show up here later.

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