The good news: Kikagaku Moyo’s new album rules. The bad news: It’s their last one.
Since getting their start busking on the streets of Tokyo a decade ago, Kikagaku Moyo have built up an increasingly vivid discography, given hundreds of acclaimed performances around the world (as documented on various live LPs), and shined a light on a vast constellation of their fellow East Asian psych upstarts via their Guruguru Brain label. Their legacy is already secure, yet it’s a bummer seeing them call it quits at a time when they seem poised to enjoy a more significant explosion in popularity. If they have to end their run, at least they’re putting an exclamation point on it. “We have come to the conclusion that because we have truly achieved our core mission as a band,” the group wrote early this year, “we would love to end this project on the highest note possible.” The new Kumoyo Island lives up to that billing; it rivals 2018’s Masana Temples as the group’s finest album, and it may well be the most fun.
In the mid-2010s, Kikagaku made a name for themselves refining an especially chilled-out version of psychedelia — “an evocative reinterpretation of stoner rock as something more worldly, ambient, and atmospheric,” as Pranav Trewn put it in his essential guide to Guruguru Brain. Even the songs that built to doom-adjacent guitar crunch had a certain scaled-down, meditative quality. In small increments, the band’s albums became more energetic and less impressionistic while maintaining that old peaceful exploratory spirit, climaxing with the tour de force Masana Temples. By then Kikagaku Moyo were based in Amsterdam and regularly running circles around the globe, winning new converts to their legendary live show. But the pandemic put a stop to all that travel and occasioned a return to Tokyo’s Asakusabashi neighborhood, where the band tracked their fifth and final album at the same studio where they laid down their earliest recordings.
If Kumoyo Island was born from a return home, it is by no means a back-to-basics effort. Rather, the band has touted it as a destination they’ve been traveling towards all these years, an abstract magical getaway where one can pause, observe, and reflect. Despite the emphasis on stillness and contemplation, this is the most dynamic Kikagaku Moyo album to date. At its calmest, it bursts with energy and ideas. And as implied by the fiery wind-tunnel joyride that kicks off lead single “Cardboard Pile” — perhaps the closest this band has come to the overwhelming surge of their Japanese psych predecessors Boredoms — it often revs up far beyond its placid baseline.
Opening track “Monaka” exemplifies the album’s complex splendor: named for a Japanese wafer sandwich and inspired by min’yō folk traditions, it weaves an increasingly intense groove from strands of funk bass, a menagerie of percussion, half-whispered vocals, Ryu Kurosawa’s darting sitar, and ’60s-vintage wah-wah fuzz guitar. At just over five minutes, the song is a world unto itself but also a portal into Kumoyo Island’s stunningly varied topography. The sweaty funk vibes continue on “Dancing Blue,” where a droning backdrop and contagious rhythm give way to hypnotic acoustic strums and, eventually, a spotlit guitar/sitar dance.
Loose yet locked-in beats like this abound on this album. I maintain that some rap producer should sample the second half of “Cardboard Pile,” with its tangle of guitars and regal brass; the towering rocker “Yayoi Iyayoi,” with its punchy power chords and hard-slapping drums, could be flipped into a sick breakbeat too. Yet Kumoyo Island is not all so hard-hitting; much of the thrill of the album is hearing Kikagaku Moyo pull off so many different sounds and feelings. The whimsical “Gomugomu” is practically a cartoon. On the interlude “Field Of Tiger Lillies,” a nasty recurring guitar figure hits like a cracking whip. Kikagaku serve up magnificently chill beauty in multiple forms, from the hypnotic ambient folk track “Nap Song” to the subtly epic Erasmos Carlos cover “Meu Mar.” The instrumental “Effe” reminds me of 2000s blog-rock at its dreamiest and most gorgeous, while the softly booming “Daydream Soda” evokes Gold Panda’s liminal-space dance music or an old Radiohead B-side.
In the end, inevitably, Kikagaku Moyo return to the calm. Closer “Maison Silk Road” wraps up this band’s discography with six-plus minutes of eerie glowing synths, plaintive piano, reverb-drenched guitar, and ghostly found sound. It adds up to a monolithic celestial drone, as mesmerizing and serene as any new age recording you’ll find. Consider it the light at the end of the tunnel for a group that is going out in top form, with such a tantalizing collection of music that I wish they’d keep going forever.
Kumoyo Island is out 5/6 on Guruguru Brain.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Arcade Fire’s WE
• Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti
• Sharon Van Etten’s We’ve Been Going About This All Wrong
• Black Star’s No Fear Of Time
• Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s Endless Rooms
• Jack Harlow’s Come Home The Kids Miss You
• Warpaint’s Radiate Like This
• Belle & Sebastian’s A Bit Of Previous
• Terror’s Pain Into Power
• Praise’s All In A Dream
• Hater’s Sincere
• Ibeyi’s Spell 31
• Pink Mountaintops’ Peacock Pools
• !!!’s Let It Be Blue
• Sigrid’s How To Let Go
• Desire’s Escape
• Sunflower Bean’s Headful Of Sugar
• Otoboke Beaver’s Super Champon
• Yawners’ Duplo
• Soft Cell’s *Happiness Not Included
• Three Days Grace’s Explosions
• The Builders And The Butchers’ Hell & High Water
• Sadurn’s Radiator
• Puppy’s Pure Evil
• Silverstein’s Misery Made Me
• Haunter’s Discarnate Ails
• Cliffdiver’s Exercise Your Demons
• Simple Plan’s Harder Than It Looks
• Timothy B. Schmit’s Day By Day
• Saâda Bonaire’s 1992
• Gorgeous Bully’s am i really going to die here
• Haunter’s Disincarnate Ails
• Los Colognes’ The New World
• Halestorm’s Back From The Dead
• Stöner’s Totally…
• Jens Lekman’s reworked version of Night Falls Over Kortedala, The Linden Trees Are Still In Blossom
• Neil Young’s live albums Citizen Kane Jr. Blues 1974, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion 1971, & Royce Hall 1971
• Sheryl Crow’s Sheryl: Music From The Feature Documentary
• Bill Fay’s Still Some Light: Part 2 reissue
• Norma Tanega’s I’m The Sky: Studio And Demo Recordings, 1964–1971
• The Karen Dalton live album Shuckin’ Sugar
• Warthog’s Warthog EP
• Graham Nash’s Graham Nash: Live
• Bryan Ferry’s Love Letters EP
• IDK’s Simple EP
• The Black Crowes’ 1972 EP
• Anna Calvi’s Tommy EP
• Deaf Club’s Bad Songs Forever EP