Japanese band MIDAS was first formed in 1983. “Beyond the Clear Air” is their debut album, originally released on vinyl in 1988, before they disbanded (reforming again in the early Nineties). Their music is heavily influenced by Japanese folk, and characterised by the presence of the electric violin, played by band leader Eigo Utoh. Midas are still active, at least nominally, and in 2008 celebrated their 25th anniversary.
Midas - 1988/2009 - "Beyond the Clear Air"
(56.07, Musea Records)
1. Sham Noctiluca 8:07
2. The Slough of Despond 15:34
3. Mortuary 4:47
4. Beyond the Clear Air 18:48
5. Green Forest 8:52
Eigo Utoh – vocals; el. violin
Eishyo Lynn – keyboards
Katsuaki Mishima – bass
Kazuo Katayama – ac. & el. drums
Though Midas are often lumped together with the myriad bands of the Symphonic/Neo-Prog persuasion (and doubtlessly in their sound there are enough elements that point to this particular subgenre) their music has a very distinct Eastern flavour, which the band have always been very keen on emphasizing. The influence of traditional Japanese music can be heard in some of the instrumental passages, with their sometimes irregular, exotic rhythm patterns, but even more so in Eigo Utoh’s vocal style – a bit of an acquired taste for sure, but complementing the music in some strange way. What Midas share with many other Japanese prog bands (such as Outer Limits or KBB) is the use of the violin as the main instrument, taking on the usual role of the guitar in rock music. That, coupled with Eisho Lynn’s dazzling keyboard work, lends the band’s music a peculiar imprint that is sure to be highly appreciated by fans of classically-influenced prog. As a matter of fact, the instrumental parts on “Beyond the Clear Air” – in typical Japanese fashion – are first-rate, though they can sometimes come across as somewhat cold and detached. The problem for some listeners might lie in Utoh’s vocals, in a style not uncommon in Japanese prog, and closely related to the traditional singing style of the country, but somewhat tiresome after a while. While all the song titles are in English, the lyrics are exclusively in Japanese – a factor that makes the idiosyncratic vocals a tad easier to take, since they seem oddly suited to the language. Structurally, the five tracks of the album are relatively complex, though always keeping melody and listenability at the forefront. To be perfectly honest, there is nothing here that has not been heard before, though it is presented in very accomplished fashion. The folksy overtones and peculiar vocals assure that the finished product does not sound overly derivative, though the pervasive presence of violin assures a healthy dose of classical flavour – another constant element in Japanese prog. On the whole, the album sounds quite well-rounded, devoid of the somewhat tentative quality of the last four items featured on “25th Anniversary Concert and Early Rare Tracks”. The four songs originally included on the album range from the almost 5 minutes of the vivacious, Baroque-tinged Mortuary (a title very much at odds with the content) to the almost 20 of the title-track. The latter alternates slower and faster sections, dominated by some worthy sparring between violin and keyboards that adds to the symphonic feel of the composition. There are occasional reminiscences of Italian prog (not surprising in a Japanese band), especially in the very melodic singing, as well as classical ones. The other epic on the album, the 15-minute The Slough of Despond, is somehow more interesting, especially on account of the parts where the folk influences can be felt most clearly, in the distinctive rhythm and singing patterns, and frequent time signature shifts. The influence of traditional symphonic prog is instead represented by some Genesis-like synth flights, and the liberal use of a distinctively-toned instrument like the harpsichord complements the violin and other keyboards quite nicely. Genesis references also lurk in opener Sham Noctiluca, with some instances of particularly sleek, classy interplay between violin and keyboards. The bonus track Green Forest, added to the reissue of the album, though composed at a slightly later date fits very comfortably with the rest, and its often airy, majestic sound is also nicely descriptive of its title. As a whole, “Beyond the Clear Air” is highly recommended to those who like to explore the way bands from non-Western countries interpret the classic progressive rock sound. It is to be hoped Midas will come out of hibernation and release some new material in the near future.
Devotees of Japanese prog will be overjoyed by the release of this album and its companion effort, “25th Anniversary Concert and Early Live Tracks”. Though Midas represent the more conservative side of progressive rock in their native country, their undeniable technical proficiency, as well as the distinct Eastern flavour pervading the basic Western fabric of their music, should be enough to keep fans of Symphonic/Neo-Prog satisfied. On the other hand, the peculiar vocal style might spoil the overall effect for some listeners.
Midas - 2009 - "25th Anniversary Concert & Early and Rare Tracks"
(58.35, Musea Records)
1. Line – Line II 11:24
2. Drums Solo – Through My Heart 7:37
3. The Slough of Despond 14:41
4. On the Earth – Gaillarde 3:43
5. La Festa 5:23
6. Toccata 5:46
7. Illusional Landscape 8:21
8. Knights in the Night 5:42
9. Views of My Childhood 5:58
Eigo Utoh – lead vocals; el. violin; guitar
Eisho Lynn – keyboards
Izumi Takeda – bass
Masaro Henmi – drums
Katsuaki Mishima – bass (6, 7, 8, 9)
Kazutomo Fukushima – drums (6, 7)
Kazuo Katayama – drums (8, 9)
Misa Sakano – keyboards (6, 7)
Ikkou Nakajima – guitar (4)
The first five tracks on this album were recorded live in Osaka on 19th October 2008, during a concert celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary. The remaining four tracks, previously unreleased, were instead recorded between 1983 and 1987, before the release of Midas’ debut album, “Beyond the Clear Air”. As oddly organized an album as they come, “25th Anniversary Concert & Rare Early Tracks” is quite unashamedly targeted to Midas fans, since its value for newcomers to the band is debatable to say the least. While the five first tracks belong to different eras of the band, the four ‘rare tracks’ appended to the album present quite a different picture, lacking the band’s trademark electric violin sound – which is what, in my view, makes their sound interesting. One of the first things that might strike the listener (though not unique to this album) is that it does not really sound like a live recording – something that has unfortunately become more and more frequent in recent years. Though we know there is an audience somewhere, it is hardly to be heard, and the band’s interaction with it is barely to be detected either. Some choices appear somewhat puzzling, like the drum solo introducing Through My Heart, or a version of The Slough of Despond (one of the standout tracks of the band’s debut album) shorter by a minute or so than the studio original. As a whole, the 2008 songs are rather standard symphonic/neo prog fare, though definitely enhanced by Eigo Utoh’s violin. His vocals, on the other hand, are as idiosyncratic as ever, perhaps even more so than on Midas’ debut album – not surprising, since the passing of time is rarely very kind to very high-pitched voices. Eisho Lynn’s masterful keyboard work is still very much at the forefront, though the sweeping symphonic textures of the debut (still displayed in The Slough of Despond) are often replaced by Eighties-style, whistling synth flights. The bass is also quite in evidence on all of the tracks, lending them a brisk, well-defined pace. Opener Line – Line II is an overall vivacious tune, with some strong hooks and a rhythmic development that might at times recall Yes’ Owner of a Lonely Heart. On the other hand, both Through My Heart and On the Earth – Gaillarde are more in a poppy, ballad-like vein, though with some good instrumental work to lift them up from mediocrity. The most distinctive item of the album’s first half is certainly the upbeat instrumental La Festa, a lively, uplifting tune punctuated by a meaty bass line, and clearly influenced by both Italian and Irish folk music (the title may also be a homage to PFM’s equally upbeat, iconic E’ Festa). The remaining four tracks are a bit of a mixed bag, and show a version of the band (or, actually, two) whose sound was definitely more immature than it is now. The adaptation of Bach’s legendary Toccata has the cheesy feel of those disco covers of classical music pieces that were rather popular in the Eighties, complete with steady drum beat and pulsating, whistling synths. The same keyboard-fuelled cheesiness can be found in the circus-like overtones of Illusional Landscape, while the remaining two tracks follow a more standard symphonic prog format, with occasional classical references and nods to the likes of Genesis. In spite of the relatively low rating, “25th Anniversary Concert and Early Rare Tracks” is not a bad album, but a rather uninvolving one. On account of its peculiar structure, it also lacks cohesion, and therefore should be considered as an item mainly aimed at completists. Needless to say, “Beyond the Clear Air” represents Midas’ strengths in a much more effective manner than this disc.
“25th Anniversary Concert and Early Rare Tracks” was clearly released with keen followers of the band in mind, since it does not do much to present an organic picture of Midas’ music. Though the quality of the playing is high as usual, the first batch of songs presented here is mostly run-of-the-mill Neo-Prog fare, and as such will appeal mostly to lovers of that particular subgenre; while the second half of the album is standard, classically-influenced symphonic prog. Mainly for fans and collectors.