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Kikagaku Moyo bids Philly a fond, mind-bending farewell

I guess this is eventually going to be a concert review of some form, but first and foremost, it’s a call to action. Not to take action against any of the seemingly countless, soul-crushing existential problems that face the planet, women’s rights, civic discourse, democracy, everyone who doesn’t want to get shot by the next disgruntled 18-year-old white nationalist with a gun vendor within 25 miles, etc….just some humble self-care. By which I really just mean to say “look – Kikagaku Moyo, the Amsterdam-based Japanese psychedelic rock titans responsible for some of the most immersive and thrilling music of the past decade, have already played the one Pennsylvania date of their current farewell tour. There’s nothing you can do about that. But if you’re looking for a life-affirming musical opportunity that will be forever lost to you come 2023, you should do yourself a favor and track down tickets to the fall leg of said tour when the band returns from Europe for their West Coast dates and wraps it all up October 6 in Brooklyn.”

I can say this because I recently had a life-affirming musical experience when Kikagaku rolled into Philadelphia. The last time they’d been in town had been in June 2019 at the 650-capacity Underground Arts, but for this past May 18th they had graduated to Union Transfer, which fits nearly double that number…and they sold that bitch right out. Global pandemic aside, it seems the time since that Underground Arts show had been good to the quintet. All the more impressive is the fact that they didn’t release any proper new albums until May 6 of this year, by which point the venue was already long set and sold out. They doubled their venue size, it seems, through pure hard touring and word of mouth.

And THEN they dropped Kumoyo Island, their studio swan song that just happened to be the most blissfully dreamy LP since probably Avalanches’ good-vibe comeback masterpiece Wild Flower back in 2016. So while the quality of the show was indeed stunning, I’d be lying if I told you it was surprising. When my friends and I crossed Spring Garden Street from Triple Bottom Brewing to the Union Transfer, my expectations were already in the stratosphere.

For a band that generally draws power from slow-building epics and some of the most thrilling loud-soft dynamics since early-‘90s Smashing Pumpkins, they started the show with a neat trick made possible by the lead single from Kumoyo Island, “Cardboard Pile”, which gives the impression of starting right in the middle of a full-blown noise-rock jam. The same held true in its live version, meaning rather than a slow, trippy build, Kikagaku circa 2022 hit the ground running hard. The new album delivers classic-style Kika goods, but one of the most thrilling things about it is how it also contains surprisingly danceable, upbeat numbers like its opening one-two of “Monaka” and “Dancing Blue”, both of which showed up in the second half of the set to the great joy of the Union Transfer crowd. “Monaka”’s stabs of ‘70s cop-show funk guitar connected like musical catnip for the crowd, and when the band stretched out on the churning “Dancing Blue” they showed us how naturally their traditional long-form approach can integrate new styles.

Oh, did I say “long-form”? Longtime fans who have heard the relatively concise songs on the new album or who’ve read the previous paragraph of this article have absolutely zero to fear in terms of whether they can still expect the deep-dive psychedelic explorations the band made its name on. They had my head spinning and my jaw on the floor when “Cardboard Pile” gave way to the night’s oldest song, “Tree Smoke” from the 2013 Kikagaku Moyo EP. Mind you, it wasn’t the leap across the years in song choices that commenced the head spinning – it was the multi-section progression the song went through in its nearly twenty minutes. I knew going into the show that the boys would eventually deliver some shifting jam-band-style improv, but I was so unready for a full-blown odyssey so early that I even mused to a friend that the set (which I thought was at that time about 4 or 5 songs in rather than simply deep into #2) was surprisingly heavy on unfamiliar instrumentals. When the band patiently transitioned back to the distorted “Tree Smoke” riff near the seventeen-minute mark and made it clear what had just taken place, I was floored.

With hulking displays like that in the set, Kikagaku played only twelve songs, but this is a band that knows its catalog and what its fanbase wants. The set gave ample time to Kumoyo Island, which was crucial since those songs didn’t exist on previous tours any more than KM will exist after the current one. But they also worked in classics from throughout their discography, giving us all a chance for one more version of the nimble “Kogarashi”, the band’s go-to live rave-up “Smoke and Mirrors”, and possibly the ultimate Kikagau Moyo song, “Dripping Sun”. Proponents of changing setlists can take heart, too – while at least half of the songs I saw in Philly seem to be showing up every night, the band has been shifting song order and mixing in any number of other deep cut gems to keep the tour fresh, including songs like “White Owl” and “Trad” which are built for similar excursions to what the Union Transfer saw happen with “Tree Smoke”.

So take from this what you will – if you somehow decided to read a lengthy concert review of a show you weren’t at for a band you don’t know, stop reading right now and seek out a Kikagaku Moyo album, STAT. If you’re already among the converted and didn’t make it to the show I just wrote about, you have your mission, too – get thee to that final leg of the tour, which starts on September 14 in Colorado and wraps up in all its swirling glory October 6 in Brooklyn. Or, if that last command sounds great but you’re put off by realizing the entire tour is sold out and ticket prices have risen accordingly….well, there’s always YouTube. Either way, Kikagaku are a generationally gifted psychedelic rock band and anyone who likes the sound of those five words will be doing themselves a huge favor by getting to know them before they take that final curtain call.

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