Exposé Online banner

If Japan has the equivalent of a Happy the Man, Kenso is it. Their sound encompasses everything, from polished symphonic prog, to fusion, Canterbury, even touches of Japanese traditional music. The music is (with a couple of exceptions) entirely instrumental, melodically rich, highly spirited, and completely energized. They've been together since the late 70s, off and on, and the lineup has changed over time, but has always centered around guitarist Yoshihisa Shimizu. In addition to guitar, the lineup typically features dual keyboards, bass, and drums — and early on included a flautist as well.

by Peter Thelen, Published 1996-03-01

Kenso I coverTheir first album from '81, simply titled Kenso, featured six tracks of varying length, ranging from the pure symphonic prog of tracks like "Umi" to the more delicate "Inei No Fue" ("The Flute in the Shadows") to an all-out avant-garde piece that takes up most of side two. It is also the only Kenso album that features vocals, albeit sparingly. The LP was originally pressed in a limited edition of a few hundred and has never been reissued, so chances of finding a copy are next to nil. Fortunately, the three best instrumental cuts from it were included as bonus tracks on the reissue of Kenso II.

Kenso II coverThe second album showed more movement toward a symphonic fusion style, blending the energy of jazz-rock with the melodic intensity of progressive, not unlike bands like Hatfield or National Health, but Kenso clearly has their own formula for getting there. The third album, Kenso (AKA Kenso III), from 1985 (with an origami bird on the cover, not to be confused with the first album) moves even further in the same direction, more polished and perfected.

Music for Unknown Five Musicians coverKenso's finest moment, though, has to be their fourth album, a double-live titled Music for Unknown Five Musicians from 1986, which includes material from their first three albums and a couple (at that point) new tracks. This shows the band in their finest setting — live on stage. Kenso has released two more studio albums in the years since: Sparta in 1989 features recordings by two different lineups over a four year period, and is their most 'hard-fusion' album of all, while Yume No Oka from 1991 is a more cohesive effort that rivals the spirit of the early years.

After a second live album release, Live 92, the band decided to hang it up for a while, and have only recently become active again.

Sora Ni Hikaru coverIn the meantime, two discs of early live material have been released. The first is Sora Ni Hikaru - Early Live Vol. 1, and it contains live tracks taken from three shows between December '81 and July '83 — in other words around the time of the second album. Live tapes of this period had been floating around in collector circles for years, so it's good to see that finally the best material has been cleaned up and released on disc. The second disc is Inei No Fue - Live Vol.2, which contains material taken from three different shows in '81, '82, and '89. The bulk of the material is from the '82 show, which puts it squarely in the same timeframe as the first disc. There is also a studio track recorded in October '79 by an early four-piece version of the band, pre-dating their first album by two years!

Inei no Fue coverI would normally recommend the double-live album as the best place to start, but it's impossibly hard to find. Barring that, check out Kenso II for a studio release, or Early Live Vol. 1 for a live starter. All of their albums have my highest recommendation.


Filed under: Reissues, Profiles, Issue 9

Related artist(s): Kenso

Latest news

2020-06-14
Keith Tippett RIP – One of the giants of British jazz has left us. Keith Graham Tippetts, known professionally as Keith Tippett, died today at the age of 72. His work from the late 60s into the 70s and beyond includes some of the greatest jazz produced in the UK, and stands as an impressive oevre to this day. » Read more

2020-05-15
Phil May of The Pretty Things RIP – We were saddened to learn that Phil May, lead singer and founding member of The Pretty Things, has died at the age of 75. The band's 1968 album S.F. Sorrow is one of the enduring classics of the psychedelic era, and the group existed in various forms until finally retiring in 2018. » Read more

2020-05-14
Jorge Santana RIP – Jorge Santana, noted guitarist, leader of the band Malo and brother to Carlos Santan, died on May 14 at the age of 68. Jorge and Carlos worked together on a number of occasions, though Jorge's career was centered around Malo, solo work, and with Fania All-Stars. » Read more

2020-05-06
Florian Schneider RIP – Florian Schneider, one of the founders of the pioneering electronic group Kraftwerk, has died at the age of 73. Co-founder Ralf Hütter announced that his bandmate had passed away from cancer after a brief illness. » Read more

2020-04-23
Shindig Festival Goes Lock-Down – Here's what they're saying: It's A Happening Thing! The Shindig! Magazine Lockdown Festival. In our days of no large gatherings of people, maybe it's still possible to have a music festival. Shindig! Magazine is giving it a go with a multi-artist streaming extravaganza on Saturday April 25. » Read more


Previously in Exposé...

World's End Girlfriend - Seven Idiots – Occupying a distinct netherworld where the realms of electronic music, avant garde, post-rock, and modern classical music intersect, World's End Girlfriend (the nom de musique of Katsuhiko Maeda) has...  (2011) » Read more

Yeti Rain - III – Yeti Rain has evolved from a duo (Roger Ebner on sax and wind synth and William Kopecky on bass) into a trio with the addition of drummer Craig Walkner, who introduces himself about two and a half...  (2011) » Read more

The Pineapple Thief - Little Man – UK-based quintet The Pineapple Thief have built a healthy following for their brand of modern, indie-influenced prog rock. Their 2005 release 10 Stories Down sold 5,000 copies and they’ve become...  (2008) » Read more

Netherworld - Mørketid – For some there seems an inseparable bond between sound and place. For the avant and drone practitioner this tie is usually realized through field recordings and subsequent signal re-coding –...  (2008) » Read more

After Crying - Első Évtized – After Crying is a Hungarian band with at least five CDs on the market plus this double CD, which comprises a compilation and a live disc. Surprisingly enough, not much is known about After Crying, but...  (1997) » Read more