Jack or Jive‘s Kakugo, released in 2008 by their longtime friends at Prikosnovenie, was their first release after 2006’s 3-CD box set Issin, which closed the circle of their first 18 years. That set featured a vast selection – one CD of unreleased songs each – from JoJ’s three musical streams: (1) Dark: lyrical, ambient and otherworldly; (2) Light: mostly upbeat, often frankly pop; and (3) Outside: flat-out performance art – all categories dissolve in an avant-banshee frenzy.

Kakugo album coverWith Kakugo, Chako and Makoto turn their vision forward, but also close another, larger circle, again spanning their entire career. The lead track is just a brief prelude, but it’s a telling one: harkening back to the opening of their first album, Prayer (1991), a retooled Worry About the Country again sets a serious – not to say grave – mood, by framing a clip from legendary writer Yukio Mishima’s dramatic pre-suicide speech to a captive audience of Japanese soldiers.

Kakugo is a concept from Japanese bushido, the samurai ethos, which advises us to be mindful of death and not perform honorless actions in our everyday life. Chako, invoking her kindred spirit Mishima, seeks to conjure the honorable spirit of Japan’s past as he did. Like him, Chako wants to bring that spirit into the present, not keep it stuffed in a box. Each has done so in a wholly modern way. They are not just citizens of Japan, but of the world. Though sadly ironic, it’s no accident that Jack or Jive are better known in Europe than in their homeland. The music often sounds more European than Japanese, with a French feel particularly evident on the classic Kismet album (2000).

On Kakugo, Chako’s lyrical qualities are all prominent: simple but striking accompaniments, strong drones, beautiful ambiance, brilliantly odd sonic textures and effects, and soaring, heavenly vocal melodies. She can sound like an innocent teenage girl in one song, a world-weary matriarch in another – and anywhere in between. Almost the entire album is in this mode; this tighter focus makes Kakugo easily JoJ’s most unified album and one of their strongest.

Chako in performance 2006In Jack or Jive’s hands, this darkness is exhilarating. The title track’s martial snare drum and rousing string chorus back Chako’s voice in an exhortation to throw off apathy and engage life with honor. I think Mishima would have appreciated this anthem, which would have been right at home on JoJ’s 2004 album Absurdity. Kakugo has three other particularly dramatic tracks: Don’t Burn Down features Chako’s prayer-like vocal over a mutated, overdriven tamboura-like drone, trying to invoke – and save – something irreplaceable. In Look Up At the Sky, Chako’s young girl-like vocal is a stunning contrast against a backdrop of metallic glissandi, hollow synth and wonderfully-evocative piano chords. It Can’t Be Reset is a warning – Chako raises an alarm without making a scene, and so beautifully that one might overlook the danger. Two helix-like voice lines dance around each other, over an ominous synth and a meandering, rising bass.

On the more atmospheric side, again there are four standout songs. Slow piano chords anchor Principle of Positive & Negative, with Chako’s plaintive but hopeful voice floating above some nice string chords on the choruses. This track strongly evokes JoJ’s great 1996 album Kenka. Bodhisattva recalls Leave a Temple from the Issin set, creating a sacred space, with a wonderful breathing, churning drone supporting Chako’s two overlapping, gliding voices. In Five Commandments, Chako is the voice of our conscience, begging and exhorting us to rediscover our best selves. Three vocal parts (two twined, one hovering) over a slow synth progression with a flute-like melody, and double beats on bass and drum, like a slow heartbeat. Immortal Soul closes the album with strong bass and soaring synth drones, occasional dramatic piano chords à la Arvo Pärt, and Chako’s two voices from infinity, flying off together.

Chako in performance 2007Anyone who’s been to a Jack or Jive concert knows of Chako’s keen attention to the visual aspect of performance, which in her hands is alternately diaphanous and earthy. She ascribes the same importance to CD artwork and packaging. As he has for all of JoJ’s Prikosnovenie releases, Seizo Inoue delivers another stunning, visceral cover. Its blood-filled textures can be felt with a glance.

With Kakugo, Jack or Jive, focusing more than ever on their greatest strengths, have produced one of their best albums, attacking what they view as the cultural and spiritual malaise of this age with renewed vigor and unfailing grace. Chako and Makoto thus continue to quietly carry out the mandate of responsible artists, earning the best support we can give them.