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(47.16, Musea Records)
TRACK LIST: 1. L'Oiseau Bleu 8:25 2. Nomad 7:52 3. Sirocco Chase 7:15 4. Col De L'Iseran 8:11 5. Aurora 7:26 6. City 8:07 LINEUP: Ryuji Yonekura – keyboards, claviola; vocals Kenji Imai – flute, soprano recorder; vocals Takayuki Asada – drums; vocals Yukio Iigahama – bass; vocals Katsumi Yoneda – guitars; vocals
Prolusion. TEE (short for The Earth Explorer) was originally formed in 2005 as a cover band of European (mostly Italian) prog acts named Euro Express. After their first live performance in May 2006, they decided to start composing and playing their own material, and therefore changed their name to the current one. Their first recording effort was a live demo, “First Voyage – Crazy Jam”, released at the end of 2007. In November 2008, prior to the release of their debut album, simply called “The Earth Explorer”, TEE were invited to play at the Poseidon Festival, the most famous Japanese progressive rock event.
Analysis. After even a single listen of TEE’s debut album, it will not come as a surprise that the band started its career by playing covers of Italian progressive rock acts. The influence of Italian prog is so pervasive on this album that, if you close your eyes and forget for a couple of minutes that TEE are a Japanese band from the 21st century, you might be forgiven for thinking you are listening to the likes of PFM or Quella Vecchia Locanda. However, this should not be taken to mean that the band are mere imitators of prog giants of the past. In fact, “The Earth Explorer” is a remarkably well-crafted album which, while not exactly innovative (something that is very rare these days, even if many bands or artists would like to pretend otherwise), manages none the less to carve its own niche, and provide a lot of listening pleasure. Like other Japanese albums I have recently come across, “The Earth Explorer” is an almost entirely instrumental offering. This, in my view, is a decidedly positive factor, since the vocals on Japanese prog albums often tend to be somewhat of an acquired taste. Quite surprisingly for a band coming from the Far East, the album – especially in a couple of tracks – displays a clear Middle Eastern flavour, as also pointed out by titles such as Nomad and Sirocco Chase. This, once again, proves the readiness of Japanese progressive rock to assimilate influences coming from the most disparate sources, and work them into their sound in a very personal way. Camel, especially their early Seventies albums, are another unmistakable influence on the sound of TEE. The leading role of the flute, the judiciously distributed jazzy and folksy touches, the natural fluidity of the music cannot but bring to mind the airy, soothing textures of the English outfit’s sound. In fact, there is very little that is jarring or abrasive on “The Earth Explorer”, though its smoothness does not come across as fake or contrived. The interplay between the instruments possesses enough complexity to keep the average prog fan happy, but, at the same time, this is conveyed with subtlety, instead of the in-your-face insistence that can be the downfall of many a band. While the drumming is especially accomplished, it is also never overstated, meshing seamlessly with the neat, precise bass lines. Melody is the name of the game on “The Earth Explorer”, though not in an overly mainstream-friendly fashion. A pastoral mood reminiscent of Camel, as well as some episodes of Focus, can be detected in album opener L’Oiseau Bleu, an excellent introduction to the band’s sound, with flute and keyboards at the forefront, and the guitar providing a tasteful, never overwhelming accompaniment. Middle-Eastern influences surface instead in the brisk, upbeat Nomad and the slower, reflective Sirocco Chase, where the Camel references are at their most evident, and the drumming at its most accomplished. Col De L’Iseran is the only track to feature vocals, a brief chorus where the title is repeated over a brisk-paced tune; while Aurora (aptly subtitled “the death of the Earth”) opens in subdued, almost mournful fashion, with melancholy flute and all the other instruments sounding somewhat muted, then gradually gains momentum, powered by some stately, military-like drumming patterns. Eastern echoes return again in closing track City, an exhilarating, occasionally jazz-tinged cavalcade driven along by guitar and flute, and characterised by frequent changes of pace. Another excellent example of the versatility of the Japanese progressive rock scene, “The Earth Explorer” should also be commended for keeping its running time within the bounds of reason (and attention span). A very rewarding listen – as long as you are not expecting any kind of assertive, aggressive music, or something original at all costs.
Conclusion. “The Earth Explorer” is a very skilfully-crafted, deeply enjoyable proposition by an obviously experienced band. Fans of Camel and Italian progressive rock, as well as flute lovers everywhere, will not fail to find the album to their taste. I would also recommend it to those who appreciate instrumental prog played with both feeling and expertise.
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