Review: PoiL/Ueda – s/t (2023)

PoiL is a French progressive rock band formed in 2014 by trio Antoine Arnera (keyboards/vocals) Boris Cassone (bass/guitar/vocals) and Guilhem Meier (drums/percussion).

PoiL’s 2008 full-length debut L’ire des papes and 2011 EP Dins o Cuol blended jazz, punk and avant-garde progressive rock in a rather unheard-of way. The 2014 release Brossaklitt, which attracted a lot of attention in prog circles, highlighted the avant-prog side of the band in an almost brutal way and coated everything with a saucy sex-tinged humour.

The trio’s most recent album to date, Sus (2019), sung in Occitan, showed a new maturity and stripped the music of its most obvious humour, while still retaining the band’s fundamental mischievous nature. In addition to trio albums, the threesome, which is constantly exploring new directions, has also played in extended formations. Le Grand Sbam, which draws its inspiration from art music, has released two albums (Vaisseau Monde, 2019 and Furvent, 2020), while the math-rock band ni has released an album under the name PinioL (Bran Cou Cou, 2018). These two spin-off bands are an important part of the PoiL saga. Now a collaboration with Japanese artist Junko Ueda adds an important new chapter to the story.

PoiL and Junko Ueda. On the left, Ueda’s Japanese lute satsuma-biwa.

Junko Ueda is a classically trained musician whose career has focused mainly on Japanese traditional music. Ueda began playing the piano at the age of six, but the real stimulus for serious musical study came with the Emerson Lake & Palmer recordings he was introduced to as a teenager. After studying piano playing and composition at the conservatory, Ueda eventually became interested in traditional biwa storytelling and Buddhist shômyô songs. Biwa storytelling is a form of Japanese traditional music that sings epic stories to the accompaniment of a Japanese lute, the biwa. Ueda’s instrument is the Edo-era five-string (five-string is a more modern application, I believe) satsuma-biwa and he has become one of the most respected masters of the instrument in Japan.

I have only heard a few of Ueda’s solo albums and am not very well informed about the origins of the material on those albums, but if this is indeed Japanese traditional music it is quite avant-garde to Western ears; the songs are long (often 15-30 minutes), the vocals are microtonal and the rhythms are often in odd time signatures. When you combine this with Ueda’s ELP roots, it is not as surprising as it might have seemed at first that this traditional musician chose to collaborate with the wild French avant-prog group PoiL. Ueda, who now lives in Europe, met the members of PoiL through a mutual acquaintance. Always looking for new challenges, PoiL was interested in a collaboration that proved fruitful after a short experiment. The result was a joint album and a European tour in spring 2023).

Read also: PoiL – Sus (2019)

The music PoiL and Ueda collaborate on is composed by the PoiL trio and the lyrics (sung by Ueda in Japanese, of course) are mostly from Japanese folk stories (there is one poem by keyboardist Arnera translated into Japanese). Stylistically, however, PoiL clearly draws heavily on Japanese folk music, and the music on the album is not always light years away from the records I’ve heard by Ueda. Of course, the arrangements by Trio take them to completely different spheres. Right up to the orbit! And it’s a good thing too, because at least for these ears Ueda’s traditional music was a bit dull and PoiL’s more dynamic approach is more than welcome. In the same breath, however, it has to be said that the Poil/Ueda album is the most restrained PoiL music to date, but it’s not a sudden change but a natural continuation of the band’s long-standing trend of steadily moving towards more subtle expression.

The album opens with the two-part ”Kujô Shakujô”, whose lyrics are taken from a sutra describing the properties and function of the Buddhist instrument shakujô (a metal rod wielded by a Buddhist monk, with a varying number of clanging and screeching metal rings at its end).

The first part of ”Kujô Shakujô” is a drone-like buzzing piece dominated by a lamenting voice of Ueda that wanders from key to another in a microtonal way. The boys of PoiL largely stay in the background of Ueda’s wailing voice, letting their instruments produce occasional atonal buzzes and warbles. I admit that I found the first part of ”Kujô Shakujô” a bit boring at first, perhaps partly because it was not at all the music I expected the album to offer, but since then, over several listens, it has grown into an impressive and downright hypnotic intro. At seven minutes, the section is a little too long, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it tests the patience of some listeners. At the very end of the first section, the members of PoiL also sing a few words, after which chaotically whirring synthesizers accompany the listener to the next section.

”Kujô Shakujôn Part 2” brings in the percussion for the first time. The music is supported by a snappy rhythm track and rhythmically playing keyboards. Soon the bass guitar starts to rumble in the background. Ueda’s vocals continue to wail over everything almost non-stop. Lasting just over three minutes, Part 2 is in a way just a transition between the intro and the raucous finale. Part 2 also ends like the first part in chaos from which the song explodes then grows to a new level.

At the beginning, Part 3 plays for a while with a relatively gentle clean sound with the keyboard. The guitar pattern reminds for a moment of King Crimson from the 80s. Ueda’s vocals return and Meier’s drums for the first time really take on an active role as he plays a complex, jerky beat, under which guest bassist Benoit Lecomte plays an equally complex bass pattern (Cassone, who usually plays bass on PoiL, plays electric guitar on this album). At this point, the composition already has a more pronounced PoiL style, but the music is still more controlled, restrained and slower than is typical of the band, even if the tempo gradually and insidiously increases towards the end. Shortly before the five minute mark there is a short intense and virtuosic polyrhythmic groove that is really great to listen to.

Lue myös

The two-part ”Dan No Ura” tells the story of an epic naval battle in 1185 in which the Minamoto clan destroyed the army of the Taira clan, who ruled Japan. The Dan No Ura story is part of the larger Heike Monogatari epic about the Taira clan (also known as Heike).

”Dan no Ura” kicks off immediately with an intensely rhythmic sound. Ueda’s satsuma-biwa clicks in the background like a metronome, and Meier’s drums pound briskly against the counterpoint with irregular and unpredictable strikes. Ueda’s voice also has a new intensity and he sings more rhythmically than before. The whole band hits a groove with a truly irresistible, irregular groove around the first couple of minutes. Arnera’s rhythmically darting synths and Lecomte’s thickly roaring bass guitar and Cassone’s metallicly buzzing electric guitar create a truly fertile ground for Ueda’s chanting. According to the album booklet, Lecomte only plays acoustic bass, but it’s a little hard to believe, such is the intensity of the instrument in his hands. At the five-minute mark, the rhythm becomes really jerky as the electric guitar struggles charmingly against the drums. Arnera’s synthesizer slices through Lecomte and Cassone’s lush riffing with a futuristic howl. It’s one of PoiL’s most stunning moments and Ueda’s exotic vocalisation takes it to another level.

Part two begins more quietly, with bell-like clanging voices and Ueda’s vocals. Ueda plucks his satsuma-biwa in a more melodic way than before. Lecomte’s thick bass notes interrupt the music at times. The quartet builds tension with a minimalist sounding soundtrack that leaves Ueda’s anguished vocals floating alone in the void at times. The listener expects a release and a return to the complex riff section of the first movement, but PoiL/Ueda does not offer such an easy solution and the music fades into the void. The ending is apt as the lyrics of the song have the young Emperor Antoku sinking to the bottom of the sea with his army at this point, having lost the sea battle of Dan No Ura.

The main ’flaw’ of Poil/Ueda is its short duration. I’m generally a fan of concise albums, but Poil/Ueda’s mere 31 minutes leaves me hungry. I understand that Poil and Ueda have about an hour’s worth of material together and apparently another joint album is already in the pipeline. I would have loved to have heard some of this music on this debut.

Poil/Ueda is yet another example of PoiL’s capacity for renewal and a surprisingly powerful, yet at the same time natural, combination of Japanese traditional music and modern avant-prog.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Lue myös: Magma – Kãrtëhl (2022)


  1. Kujô Shakujô – Part 1 7:07
  2. Kujô Shakujô – Part 2 3:37
  3. Kujô Shakujô – Part 3 7:22
  4. Dan No Ura 壇ノ浦の戦い – Part 1 8:41
  5. Dan No Ura 壇ノ浦の戦い – Part 2 4:28


Antoine Arnera: keyboards, vocals, Boris Cassone: guitar, vocals, Benoit Lecomte: acoustic bass, Guilhem Meier: drums, vocals, Junko Ueda: satsuma biwa, vocals.

Producer: PoiL, Clément Dupuis
Label: Dur et Doux


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