A philosophical album about loss and perseverence. It's also completely mad.
Kiki Hitomi and Shigeru Ishihara, AKA WaqWaq Kingdom, have taken wildly different paths as musicians. When Hitomi was a member of King Midas Sound, her falsetto was a prominent counterpoint to Kevin Martin's murky productions and Roger Robinson's heartbroken poetry. Ishihara might be best known for having terrorised audiences with 8-bit gabber performed on Game Boys as DJ Scotch Egg. Both artists stand out, but they're also versatile. Hitomi's Black Chow project with Martin, for example, showed a more playful side to her work, while Ishihara proved he wasn't just a Bang Face-ready act when he joined the industrial shoegaze band Seefeel. WaqWaq Kingdom's initial lineup also featured Andrea Belfi, the accomplished percussionist whose recorded work has appeared on Room40 and Latency.
A smoky, dubby quality ran through WaqWaq Kingdom's record, Shinsekai. On their latest full-length, Essaka Hoisa, Hitomi and Ishihara—now without Andrea Belfi—have struck out into a cartoon world of glossy melodies, raucous drums and soda-pop FX, guided by Hitomi's sweet but spooky vocals. When you consider Ishihara's work as Scotch Egg, this maximalist approach isn't surprising. But, even at its wildest, Essaka Hoisa doesn't come off as a complete mess. The careful arrangement on "Doggy Bag," for example, means all its sounds—jerky drums, yelping dogs—have the space to shine.
Hitomi's voice occupies an intriguing space within this clamour. With King Midas Sound, her high-pitched delivery floated above Roger Robinson's croons and the sub-heavy sonics. Here, she's got a lot more competition in the mix. Often, her voice is heavily processed, sometimes pushed right back. That's a surprise considering the themes Essaka Hoisa seems keen to communicate (the promo of the album comes with detailed notes and English translations for each track). It's also a shame because Hitomi's voice is wonderful. But in music this bouncy and busy, it makes sense that her voice becomes another element pinging around.
Switching between Japanese and English lyrics, Hitomi considers the challenges of modern living across the album, especially the loss of loved ones and mankind's attempts to dominate nature. You can sense Hitomi's pain, not least when referring to her late parents, but the music strikes a more defiant tone. As she explains, "We keep on going and shouting 'Essaka Hoisa'"—an archaic term one Japanese friend equated to saying "heave ho"—"together with partners, our kin, friends and people that we walk together… carrying on our life with laughter and tears."
Behind the album's zany production and chirpy mood is a deep commitment to Japanese culture, whether it's showcasing a dialect from the Kawachi region of Osaka, where Hitomi's mother was from, or a scathing critique of the government's handling of the Fukushima disaster (via a reference to Game Of Thrones). It's a lot to take on board, and hard to grasp through a surface listen, but the depth and scope of the album is quite astounding.
If Belfi had previously tempered some of WaqWaq Kingdom's erratic qualities, the wild possibilities given a pass on Essaka Hoisa catapult the group to exciting new places. Saving one more confounding trick for the end, Hitomi and Ishihara change tact entirely to sculpt something of a prog epic on "Medicine Man." From delicate beginnings, the track marches through a suite of dramatic moments orchestrated with a distinctly cinematic bent. It's both overblown and totally compelling.
Tracklist01. Mum Tells Me
02. Doggy Bag
04. Gift From God
05. 3rd Eye
08. Circle Of Life
10. Medicine Man