Thursday, November 26, 2015

A History of ROVO (Instrumental Space Rock from Japan!)

Rovo are an instrumental electronic space rock band from Japan. They also describe themselves as Man driven Trance (MDT) .I can’t remember where I first heard of this band but it was some years ago. They have rarely ever played outside of Japan (NYC, a few festivals in Europe) until 2013, when they made a collaboration with System 7 (Steve Hillage and his wife). Few outside of Japan had heard of them. They were formed in 1996 by former Boredoms guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto, Bondage Fruit electric violinist Yuji Katsui, and synthesizer/effects technician Tatsuki Masuko. In addition, they have two drummers ( Yasuhiro Yoshigaki and  Youichi Okabe. The bass player is Jin Harada. The line up has been very stable and the band has developed its own unique style over the years.  This is the first time I have ever written an article describing a bands entire history and music catalog.

            The bands first release Pico (1998), was a quite experimental piece of work with lots of experiments in electronic percussion, space soundscapes, etc. The basis for the direction the band would head later is evident later in the record but this is almost like trance techno but real drums and bass playing a very repetitive Neu like groove over which there is some spacey violin mixed in. Very cool stuff. A 12” record was released prior to the CD with the tracks Vitamin and Cisco on it. I have never seen this in real life.

In 1999, the band released the Imago CD. Horses and Kamara from
this CD were also released on a 12” vinyl. I don’t have it so I do not know if it is the same versions as on the CD but I guess so. The CD starts off with N’Dam, which is quite electronic and spaced out to start and then the drums really take the lead. Horses starts with very intense drums as the synths slowly get a bit louder and the guitar and other instruments work their way into the track and then it ends. Intense under 5mins song. Larva has a trippy beginning but then the drums really hit it hard and fast. I really like the synth line on this track. Yuji is mixed much further in the back on these tracks compared to most of the records but he is still there doing his thing on all the tracks. Cool guitar and bass also on this one. Drums are wild in this even shorter track.  Mattah starts off with some bells. At 3mins the track takes a radical change with a repeated guitar and bass line that slowly evolves as some synths bubble and gurgle in the background. IT devolves into some strange stuff as far as the drums and the mix. Trippy and a long track over 18 mins long.  Numa is a very trippy track with all sorts of strange stuff going on but one very melodic flute like track (violin?) running through it.. The CD ends with Kamara. This is probably the bands most experimental album with some drum and bass like elements.

2000 saw the arrival of the Pyramid CD (you can hear it above). This one starts off with a female voice and then a harmonica, which really catches you off guard a bit and makes you wonder if you have the right CD but then it slowly builds into something completely different and the groove starts to build as the drums start to kick in. The piece takes another twist around 9mins when the drums and harmonica stops again and a drone starts.  Out of the drone, grows a female voice and at 15mins the repeated voice loop is joined by the percussion building up and then the band starts to build things up with the bass, guitar and synths and eventually violin as this piece gets seriously funky but in a very weird and strange way. This is a pretty amazing 40min album. Wow.

The band was pretty active in 2001 with a split release with DCPRG, the new studio album Sai and then TONIC, a really excellent double live CD from 2001 and takes the best songs from their two concerts in New York City. It was mixed by Bill Laswell. The opening track on CD2, Cisko is just amazing space rock and reminds me of my own band, Øresund Space Collective. Sai has 4 tracks in 40mins and starts off quite spacey with some wind, violin but still some intense percussion as it slowly glides and takes form and the lots of spacey sounds shooting around the soundscape as the violin takes the lead on the opening track.. Vida starts with some percussion and then suddenly at about 3mins really kicks in full strength with violin and rest of the band. Great bass playing on this track as it goes through two phases where it comes back to where it started with just percussion. Rano starts with a synthesizer loop and some windy static as some other sounds slowly layer in and get mixed around in the soundscape. The last song Seer, is nearly all percussion based with some really intense cymbal playing and the occasional entrance of some keyboards or guitar or violin.. it is hard to tell but quite experimental.  I never heard the split release with DCPRG, so I can’t tell you about that one..

In 2002 the band released the Flage CD as well as another live CD, Live At Liquid Room 2001.05.16 (I finally managed to get this one!). The band has released at least 5 limited live CDs from their concerts over the years. Anyway, Flage was a long CD with 6 tracks spread over 70mins. It starts off with Canvas as it starts slowly with some beautiful violin and then the drummers kick in and there are some super cool spaced out synthesizer sounds. That track was 14mins. Sukhna has some really amazing violin playing as the band just really build up the track.. Great stuff and cool spacey synths at times also. Canoa is slow and has a lot of funny sounds as a synth line repeats over and over. No intense drumming on this one after that last mindblower.. Spica starts off quite relaxed with some nice violin over the layers of synthesizers. The drums keep a normal slow rhythm until about 2 mins when the bass player kicks in and the track takes a left turn in a totally different direction, almost like dub music but not quite. Na-X is a very slow, relaxing and beautiful track and there are no drums until 6 mins and then a really cool bass line takes the track in a sort of strange funk-dub weirdness direction. It stays pretty spaced out though. Mov is very floating with no drums, just synths, some bass, and the violin comes in around 7mins and around 9 mins it starts to build up and the percussion come into the picture and things get a bit more intense but still not real drums but then it all fades away around 15mins. Overall this album was a bit more relaxed and spacey.

In 2003, the band did not release any studio albums but did release Live At Hibiya-Yaon 2003.05.05 - Man Drive Trance Special double CD.  The CD opens with one of the bands oldest songs, Horses. The drumming and bass is really frantic on this one while the violin and synths are more laid back. Khmara is from Imago and starts with some really intense drum toms and violin before they kick into a groove. He plays this harmonica like sound on violin, which is cool. The track becomes almost like a drum and bass techno with the way the synths are played. Great song. Canvas is next and this is one of those tracks where I think you have to imagine the really cool projections and lightshow that is going on as you can hear the audience scream out a few times. The CD1 ends with Sukhna, which like Canvas were from the bands latest CD at that time, Flage. The 2nd CD starts off very slow and spacey with a track called Warp session and this leads into Woof session, which is basically some of the sections of Pyramid, which was one long trip, which I reviewed above. This lasts for over 10mins and then there is a nearly 10min drum solo battle before they launch into NA-X. While mostly violin driven the synths play a lot of crazy stuff among the intense drumming. The next track is a Japanese symbol and starts quite slowly but about 5mins in really takes off with a quick groove and intense violin. KoNuMu is the last track of this pretty amazing concert.

Then Mon, came out in 2004. This CD had a really cool cover and contained 6 tracks. Urma starts off like a spaced out piano jazz track with the fender Rhodes piano taking the lead, even though one is not listed. Later Yuji takes over with the violin. The track stays quite jazzy but also some spacey sounds mixed in here and there and the drummers also take some solos. Perhaps he is using the Yamaha DX7 for this Fender Rhodes sound? I like the fact that the two synth players list the instruments: Roland SH09, Roland SH100, Juno 106…  Around 5 and half mins it is time for Seiichi to unleash some guitar as well as it really becomes like a jazz improve jam. Cool stuff. Loquix is one of the rare tracks that starts with a guitar but then becomes what I would call the regular high energy Rovo track but then this disintegrates around 5mins into a very spaced out section where the drums and synths are the main focus and then bam, straight back into a high energy piece with floating synths and violin. Haoma starts with a really cool synthesizer, very sci fi movie like. The bass and drums come in next with the violin as the track slowly grows. After a beautiful violin solo the track devolves into an almost tribal drum jam, which is really cool. Nov starts with some delay guitars, intense drumming and bass before a rather short 6min track takes off.  Saraca starts with some almost new age like synthesizers. After a long violin solo the track dies down to just some spaced out sounds and fast drum beats, could be synthesized or real, a bit tribal. It all starts to build again with another violin solo as the rest of the band raises the tempo once again. The track ends gently around 10mins. Reom is the last track and starts with a nice repeated guitar line and then some intense drumming as it takes you on your last journey. A really brilliant CD.

The band came back to Europe in 2004 and played in Belgium and this was released in 2005 as the Live At Magasin 4 - 2004.06.04 Brussels, Belgium CD. This 4 song CD has a quite raw sound but what a massive performance. There is a lot more guitar playing on this live show than nearly anything Rovo have released. Seiichi is just awesome and the 17min version of Cisko that ends the CD just blew my mind. Very powerful and psychedelic!  I highly recommend hunting this one down despite the more raw and less produced sound.

The next studio album was Condor in 2006 in a beautiful digipack format and contained 3 interconnected pieces. The band was now down to a 6 piece after the synthesizer player, Koji left the band. The first piece is called Aires. It starts off with a simply strummed guitar and beautiful violin. A synth slowly makes its appearance with a sort of annoying high pitch that is sustained and then the bass comes in and the synths get really spaced just as the drummer enter the scene. This is a very easy going but beautiful track that slowly builds as all the players come together to create their magic. Some of it is a bit jazzy the way the guitar and keyboards are played over the slow rumbling bass and steady drums, with the violin mostly taking the lead. I like the way the space sound builds towards the end as the track remains very melodic. This track was quite long, nearly 20mins! The 2nd track is n’Popo. This one starts off with the bass taking the lead as some bells ring in, some synths slowly grow from very low in the mix to more dominant and everyone slowly works into their place. I don’t know but I am guessing a lot of their songs are recorded live in the studio with not that many overdubs! At around 3mins it becomes pretty funky but in a very slow way. Cool guitar and bass. Around 7mins the track fades out into space and all sorts of stuff goes on and is experimented with before the track bounces back to life as it leads directly into the 3rd and last track of Condor. This track starts off and is quite relaxed like the opening one and very melodic. A cool album and a very different vibe than Mon. Very different.

Also in 2006 the LIVE at 京大西部講堂 2004.07.18 CD/DVD was released and this was really amazing. This was recorded in a club on a very hot night and featured most of the tracks from the Mon CD as well as two from Flage.. It also has an extra track, one of my favorites, Cisco, from their show in Belgium from 2004.  They for sure improvise live as Seiichi plays a lot more solo guitar that on the records. Sounds is great and it is well filmed but as they use mostly all close ups you don’t get to really appreciate the cool visuals but you can see how much the band is sweating. It looks like it was really hot. Great show.. The video and the sound of the extra track, Cisco from Belgium is quite low quality compared to the dvd and take from the video camera audio and not a mulittrack recording but what a cool and great song.
In 2007 the band made another collaboration and this ended up as the release: Rovo with Alejandro Franov, Fernando Kabusacki, Santiago Vazquez - LIVE at 東京キネマ倶楽部 77 2006 ‎(2xCD) (2007). This CD is just one long track that lasts 39 mins.  The extra musicians are from Argentina. Alejandro plays additional keyboards, sitar, sanshin and Irish flute, while Fernando adds another guitar and Santiago percussion and singing. The piece starts off very slow and building with some wind, percussion and people testing the ground, so to speak. It is remains quite dreamy as the keyboards and violin slowly enter and the drummers creep up behind the others and the first hints of the sitar appear around 4mins. A really cool guitar kicks in around 6 mins and the vibe changes a bit. By 10mins a solid groove is going and around 13mins Santiago starts to sing a bit. Around 20 mins it is like a sort of jazz piece the way the piano is played the interplay with the musicians. Around 30mins, they have this really cool slow groove going with great percussion and Santiago starts to sing again for a while. The track has a slow spacey ending like the beginning. I really enjoyed this CD.

            2008 brought the next studio album, Nuou. This CD comes in a very beautiful digipack. The CD features 5 tracks and some new instruments are introduced. For instance, Jin, the bass player plays didgeridoo, harmonica and kalimba. Yuji plays viola as well. I found it a bit funny that they say all songs written by Rovo, except tracks 1, 3, 4 and 5, where they credit specific musicians in the band. They should just say track 2 written by Rovo and then credit the specific people for all the other tracks.  This is just a funny detail on the difference between English and Japanese. Anyway, Koo starts things off with a simple guitar riff and then some synths start to bubble up here and there as the rest of the band start to join in. It is funky but is a strange way with some cool delays on the violin. This is a really psychedelic track and the funky vibe just increases with the guitar playing while the others just space out. Ouo starts with the keyboard as the drummers slowly appear and other synths sounds bubble up behind. A bit later the guitar comes in an around 3mins Jin plays the harmonica! A very cool groove is going now and this track lasts over 12 mins and slowly fades out of the last minute and directly into the track Melodia. This one is slow, melodic and features some beautiful playing by Yuji. The drums build up to be quite intense as we soon reach the 10min mark, while the melodic beauty of the track is retained. Agora brings back some more intensity but around 4 mins it gets very spacey and quiet and then takes off one last time. Cool dynamics in this track. Cado is the last song on the album and again quite some funk and dub thrown into the mix. There is some really great stuff on this record.

Also in 2009 the band released another DVD from the MDT festival in Japan from May 2008. This is an amazing DVD. They start playing before it is dark at this huge outdoor amphitheater and it slowly get dark and the lights and projections are just amazing for this concert and the band has a great energy. The set is more of a mix of tracks from Nuou and older and nothing from Condor for instance. Great sound on this as well. I like this DVD a lot.

            When 2010 rolled around the band put out the album Ravo. Tanger starts things off with a more intensely mixed synthesizer than normal and a cool smooth mid pace groove. The violin playing is also very melodic and playing into the sounds of the synth. Quite groovy.. About 7mins in there is an intense solo that could be harmonica, violin or guitar depending on how you want to hear it!! At the end of the solos it devolves into a drum-percussion jam and then the violin comes back again. Great track and 13mins long. Eclipse is next and starts quite smooth and with great drumming and playing with the keys, violin and guitar all slowly noodling away and finding the space in the great growing rhythm and it reaches a peak at 5 and half mins and then comes down and changes directions. Baal has an almost techno like synth and Moroccon like violin line and a bass line that is challenging the track to take off. This is a super cool song with many layers. The drums are no so complex and driving the track, letting the other instruments especially the violin move the piece forward. It is not that often there are long keyboard solos in Rovo songs but that was a great solo that followed the violin. I wish there were more guitar solos on the records but he plays more live! Amazing song and you can hear it below. RMD is next and this starts slow and spacey. As the track grows there is a lot of guitar on this track, which is nice and Seiichi takes a long solo with some nice delay guitar. As the track passes the 10min mark, the track is really uptempo with the violin really leading the way but lots of cool spacey synths in the background on this one. Sino+ ends the CD with a slowly repeated bass, guitar and keyboard line as it slowly gets a bit faster and faster. Every record these guys make is pretty interesting.

In 2012, the band released the dub version of Ravo, simply called Ravo Dub. It came in a larger than normal size heavy cardboard sleeve with the CD inside and no booklet or much information. The synthesizer player Tatsuki and violin extrordinare, Yuji, mixed the dub versions of the tracks 1,2 and 5. Guitarist Seiichi mixed tracks 3 and 4 at a different studio. They did a pretty cool job on this and it is pretty psychedelic with a lot of long delays primarily on the percussive instruments and messing about with some of the synths as well.

In 2013, the bands next studio album Phase was released. It
featured 5 tracks in about an hour. They are using some more new age and more modern synths it seems on this record. Did Tatsuki get a new one (Mopho)? The opening track Batis has more synthesized drum sounds mixed with real drums and Yuji is really taking the lead with the violin on this one, while there are two main synth lines, a kind of new age one and a more trippy one running a long. Compass brings back both drummers and starts off with a solo before the others join in. Later there is a real synthesizer solo, which is quite rare for Rovo. I wish the guitar parts were mixed higher on their records as often you can’t really tell there is a guitar but on this track he plays some cool stuff. Amazing track. D.D.E. is next and a very intense track with a fast pace and a repeated theme that just sort of builds tension. MIR, perhaps inspired by the International space station is next and starts with a beautiful guitar line. It is quite slow compared to the last track and just slowly grows with a nice solo by Yuji. This track remains more dreamy and glides in over 12mins. The last track Rezo brings the whole record full circle with a very slow spacey start that slowly grows by 6mins as the drummers push up the intensity and then it is very spacey at the end.

In 2013, the band released a CD single collaboration with Steve Hillage and his wife (System 7), called Hinotori and it featured 5 tracks. Some of it was System 7 remixes of Rovo songs (Hinotori and Eclipse) and others were just Rovo tracks including the edit version of Hinotori as well as the awesome track Batis from the Phase CD, I just reviewed above. The last track on the single is a 3rd version of Hinotori remixed by Evan Marc.  This was not the last of this project though.  In 2014, a full length record called Rovo and System 7- Phoenix Rising was released. As you might expect this album is quite a bit more electronic. It is basically Rovo performing material written by Steve and Miquette except the interpretation of the Mahuvishnu Orchestra track called Meeting of the Spirits. Sometimes there are some techno beats mixed into the live drumming but mostly it is pure Rovo with some additional guitar from Steve and synths from Miquette. I found the CD to be very cool and enjoyed it a lot and yet something fresh and different from the band.
This also saw the band return to play some concerts in Europe and the UK for the first time in many years. I was so unhappy I missed the London show in March 2015.

The band has laid low in 2015 and not released any new albums and played a few shows (see the clip below). There is a video of them performing at the MDT Festival (See below), where the 2008 DVD was filmed and the band has some shows coming up in Japan in December. I am sure they will have a new record in 2016, which I very much look forward to hear.  I would love for my band, Øresund Space Collective, to get a chance to play in Japan with Rovo! On a tour or at their MDT festival in Tokyo! We play all instrumental space rock and I think the fans over there would love it! A good chance for Rovo to turn on their fans to a new band. A dream would come true for me as I love Japan and also Rovo!!

1st 12'EPVITAMIN!/CISCO! (1998)
PICO! CD (1998)
2nd 12'EPHORSES!/KMARA!  (1999)
Imago CD (1999)
ROVO / DCPRG Split CD (2001)
Tonic (2001)
SAI CD (2001)
FLAGE CD (2002)
Live At Liquid Room 2001.05.16 ‎(CD) (2002)
Live At Hibiya-Yaon 2003.05.05 - Man Drive Trance Special- ‎(2xCD/DVD) (2003)
MON CD (2004)
Live At Magasin 4 - 2004.06.04 Brussels, Belgium ‎(CD, Album) (2005)
CONDOR CD (2006)
LIVE at 京大西部講堂 2004.07.18 CD (2006) (Also on DVD)
Rovo with Alejandro Franov, Fernando Kabusacki, Santiago Vazquez - LIVE at 東京キネマ倶楽部 77 2006 ‎(2xCD) (2007)
NUOU CD (2008)
LIVE at 日比谷野音2008.05.05 MDT FESTIVAL DVD (2009)
RAVO CD (2010)
TOKYO session 2009.9.22 (2010)
LIVE at 日比谷野音2007.05.05 MDT FESTIVAL 2007
RAVO DUB CD (2011)
Phase CD (2012)
Rovo And System 7 - Hinotori CD single (2013)
Rovo And System 7 - Phoenix Rising CD (2014)

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