What a perfect image. Even William Blake must be blushing at Masumi Hara’s otherworldly portrait for Yoko Ueno’s Voices. Feminine angels (bearing more than just their souls), perfectly trapezing on man-made wires, as ever darkening skies, grow ever more, endlessly, on some barren land. Mystical and philosophical, through one image Yoko Ueno’s Voices had its frame. Inside the frame, musical portraiture of Yoko Ueno’s own creative growth is bared through the entirety of personal eccentricities, ingenuity, and histories. Each song in Voices is named after a woman, in Voices (more importantly) each song was written, produced, and performed entirely by this woman.
It’s not often you encounter an artist that quite literally has a claim to a name in the stars. Under the group Zabadak, Yoko Ueno provided the profound vocals and electronic arrangements that transformed what could have been a pastiche project — a lesser Klannad than a higher Pygmalion — into something that crossed two unlikely borders, seamlessly. The work of Zabadak remixed the ideas of English neo-folk and prog into something that could be transmogrified by the modern digital form of Japanese music. If Kate Bush had parallel brethren (and if Klannad had truly utilized Enya to her potential), surely the work of Zabadak would be its closest kin — no faint praise coming from me, for sure.
Under the tutelage of the recently departed Tomohiko Kira, together they split duties in crafting Zabadak’s sonic world. Under Zabadak, Yoko became the face and voice of the group, lending her very ethereal, floating vocals to the composition. Decidedly English in affectation, it was her voice that reminded me of Elizabeth Frasier’s or Sally Oldfield’s meeting of Anglican chant with neopsychedelic melisma. For every interesting electro-acoustic bit of electro-folk, without Yoko’s singing one would forget how lovely there songs could truly be. I won’t belabor you with more of their history, since Zabadak’s story will be one I’ll round back and come back to later, what’s important to know is that Yoko had grown increasingly inspired to fully take her influences further. Unable to do so within Zabadak, Yoko struck out on her own.
Inspired by European chorale chant, Frippertronics, and heavily female-fronted English neoclassical music of the past, Yoko took it upon herself to create an album that is both more faithful to her non-Japanese influences yet sounds the most of her own, special world. Not to compare them because they’re both females, but it’s closest spiritual sonic brethren can be found in the similar-minded Voices by Claire Hamill. Both used the full expanse of their available technology to supplant and accentuate whatever “folk” tradition existed in their hearts/mind, to bring it forth unto a contemporary world which could stand to have these ideas reworked/remodeled. That’s where the comparisons begin and Yoko’s own territory forms this newer boundary.
“Aoife” stakes a sonic territory. Grumbling ambient sonics, get subsumed by Yoko’s multiple overdubbed and somewhat pitch-shifted singing, then, as intricate digital blips slide in, Voices begins to set you on her journey. “Susanna” transposes flutes into sinusoidal ethereality that harken back to the gorgeous Frippery of your favorite forgotten, ethereal bits of unclassifiable prog (for me, hints of the Italian electro-prog of Lucio Battisti tap on my brain). Operatic — in a silent way — it’s remarkable territory to sketch by herself. Each song staking its horizon, moved by the names women around the world, each song quietly different than the other.
Rather than steer you through the whole album, I’ll end by signaling out my personal favorite. A movement of what sounds like acoustic guitar, overdubbed, backward slide guitar, and multi-track Yoko vocals, “Amanda” is just beyond words — so I won’t bother painting the picture. Timeless, floating, and fragile, a sketch for winter, it builds from little to something far grander than its beginning. For now, I just step back and let the music play.
Who knew Yoko had all of this in her?