Weird of the Day: Laktating Yak, “Tsak of the Yak”

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Happy 2019, Weirdlings! Did you enjoy your holidays? Drink lots of eggnog? Well, if you did, turns out you were doing it wrong. You should have been drinking yak milk. So say Houston avant-prog-rockers Laktating Yak on their freaky debut album, Origin of the Yak, which I’m really regretting not putting on my Christmas list.

According to the good people of Laktating Yak, the mere smell of yak milk “replenishes spiritual vitality as well as erectile disfunction,” which is either bad grammar or means that if your erection is getting a little too functional, those musky yak milk fumes will have you flaccid again in no time. But you won’t care, because once you’ve actually ingested the aforementioned yak milk, “it chemically interacts with human anatomy in a similar fashion to adrenaline.” It’s like steroids you can pour on your Corn Flakes! Which you’ll be eating alone because of your erectile dysfunction, but hey, at least you’ll be pumped.

Yak mythologies aside, Origin of the Yak, is great stuff, with lots of noodly guitar and violin and saxophone, deploying riffs that lock horn like — do yaks lock horns? If they did, I’m sure it would sound like the instrumental throwdown that is “Tsak of the Yak.”

If you like that, you can check out the rest of Origin of the Yak on Bandcamp. Oh, and I saved my favorite thing about Laktating Yak for last: They are a self-described Zeuhl band, meaning they take instrumental (and possibly cosmological) inspiration from French prog-rock pioneers and Zeuhl progenitors Magma. The world really needs more Zeuhl bands, I think. Even though if you cornered me at a prog-rock concert and asked me to explain what “Zeuhl” is, I would probably point and yell “Is that Mike Portnoy?” and then run away because I still have no idea. Prog-rock that’s more about the psychedelic vibes than the whole “watch me shred for 10 minutes” thing, maybe? Yeah, I think it’s something like that.

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Koenjihyakkei

Koenjihyakkei

Way back in 2009, when we were still a little ankle-biter of a blog, we wrote a post about a French band called Magma that spawned (the band, not the post) an entire genre of hyper-bizarre prog-rock/space-jazz/freak-fusion called Zeuhl. “Next time you hear a bunch of French dudes chanting nonsense lyrics over music that sounds sort of like Pat Metheny on acid,” we wrote, with that casual air of snark that only comes from having no idea what the fuck you’re talking about, “you’re probably listening to a Zeuhl band.”

Well, it’s taken us four years, but we’ve finally a.) admitted that, to this very day, we often have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about and b.) gotten around to writing about another Zeuhl band. Except this bunch is neither French nor, entirely, dudes. They’re from Japan and they’re a coed ensemble by the name of Koenjihyakkei, which translates to something like “The Hundred Sights of Koenji.” Koenji is a neighborhood in Tokyo, but does it really have a hundred sights? Beats me. Like I said, we often have no idea what the fuck we’re talking about.

Here’s what little we do know: Koenjihyakkei (also sometimes transliterated as “Koenji Hyakkei”) was started in the early ’90s by a drummer named Tatsuya Yoshida, whose previous band, Ruins, did a pretty fair approximation of Magma’s original Zeuhl insanity rendered down to just a bass/drums duo. Having apparently exhausted that format, Yoshida expanded his list of collaborators with Koenjihyakkei, adding a rotating cast of musicians to an increasingly epic and noisy take on Magma-esque jazz-prog mayhem. The band’s most recent lineup, seen in the above photo, features a lady who just goes by AH on vocals, Keiko Komori on reeds, Kengo Sakamoto on bass and Taku Yabuki on keys.

We also know that, sadly, the band appears to have been pretty inactive since about 2010 or so. Yoshida has been more focused on various new incarnations of Ruins: Ruins Alone, which is just him with a drum kit and electronics, and Sax Ruins, which is him with (you’ll never guess) a sax player. He’s also got a guitar/bass/drums power trio called Korekyojinn and a growing online photo archive called Stones of the World. Not pictures of international Rolling Stones cover bands—though that would indeed be awesome—but just pictures of interesting rock formations, made by both humans and nature. Worth a look, especially if you’re into stony things. Did I just make a really lame pot joke? Why, yes, yes I did. Thanks for noticing.

Koenjihyakkei’s music is difficult to describe, even for us. Is it Magma by way of Naked City? Boredoms by way of Shibushirazu Orchestra? Japanese show tunes as performed by “something so far off Broadway it’s on the moon”? (We didn’t come up with that last one, but it kinda sounds like something we would’ve written in 2009.) Whatever it is, it’s more overtly jazz-based than Magma or Ruins, but still prone to going off on the sort of crazy tangents that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Mike Patton side project.

We’ll leave you with two videos that should give you a sense of Koenjihyakkei’s full range of musical lunacy. The first is taken from their 2010 DVD Live at Koenji High and really showcases them (especially vocalist AH) as a sort of a jazz quintet from Mars. The oddly jaunty gang vocals at 2:50 are my favorite part. Also the part where she growls like a demon over some serious ’70s-style prog-rock synth runs. I’m not telling you where to find that part; you’ll just have to listen to the whole goddamned thing yourself.

Next: We would be remiss if we didn’t include the track that MVR (Most Valuable Reader) Stuart Johnson sent our way to introduce us to the awesomeness that is Koenjihyakkei. Thanks, Stuart! For a band that owes much of its existence to a single other band (i.e. Magma), Koenjihyakkei are about as original as it gets.

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Magma

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How is it possible that we have yet to write about a prog-rock band on TWBITW? Clearly, we’ve been slacking! Let’s fix that right now.

Like any weird band worth their salt, France’s Magma don’t really fit neatly into any one genre; they just get called prog-rock because they share a lot of prog bands’ fondness for long, meandering instrumental passages, weird time signatures and sci-fi imagery. But musically, they probably owe more to Sun Ra and Carl Orff and David Axelrod than they do to, say, King Crimson. Led by drummer, singer and all-around freakazoid Christian Vander, the band has been around in one form or another, off and on, since 1970, and continues to tour and release new material to this day, although most of their more recent output has been in the form of live albums and DVDs.

What really pushes the band into full-blown Weirdland, however, is the incredibly elaborate mythology Vander has built up around the group. All of Magma’s music tells various stories of the planet Kobaïa, which is settled by refugees from Earth in some distant future. And most of it is sung in a made-up language called Kobaïan, which fans of Magma have actually learned to decipher and speak to one another the way Trekkies speak Klingon. Magma’s music and Vander’s Kobaïan language have even inspired their own sub-genre of music, called “Zeuhl,” which is Kobaïan for “celestial.” Next time you hear a bunch of French dudes chanting nonsense lyrics over music that sounds sort of like Pat Metheny on acid, you’re probably listening to a Zeuhl band.

Here’s some great video of Magma performing in their heyday back in 1977, when this stuff probably didn’t sound quite so weird. It was the decade of Yes and Jethro Tull, after all. That’s Vander behind the drum kit—all kidding aside, you can see why a lot of other drummers worship the guy. Oh, and don’t skip the user comments, in which the Magma faithful offer up their translations of the lyrics. Apparently, it’s all secretly religious music.

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