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Agora - Ichinen CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

3.59 | 22 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
3 stars 'Ichinen' - Agora (61/100)

I've really been getting into Agora lately. if asked a week ago, I probably would have dismissed them as just another one of the countless obscure prog and fusion bands I probably would never have the time to listen ton. In any case, it was a great thing I did stumble across them; even though they only released a Live in Montreux performance recording and one studio album 2, the chemistry and compelling atmosphere on those albums made Agora a rare find for me, one I've since been introducing to friends and fans of fusion with enthusiasm. While an 'unreleased materials' album made available nearly four decades after a band's last activity wouldn't normally strike my interest save for the most hyped cases, my existing Agora kick had me excited to check out Ichinen. Though not a 'real' full-length by any means, this collection of recordings would hopefully provide 2 with some shade of the in-studio follow-up it deserved. More than that, I read that it would give some indication as to the band's current incarnation. While it's clear that their chemistry and musicianship hasn't faltered over the years, I'm finding myself fairly disappointed by the compilation. While there is a sampling of the lively 'Agora sound' I loved in their classic '70's output, Agora seem to have distanced themselves from progressive fusion. Instead, their newer recordings veer towards sleepy background smooth jazz, the sort of innocuous wallpaper jazz that would sooner put me to sleep than inspire me as a listener. As capably as they perform it, it doesn't do much for me.

Ichinen is the Japanese word for 'persistence' (Yes, I looked it up!) and in the case of a compilation of recordings mustered over the course of decades, it seems a fitting title. I was really wondering listening to the fantastic chemistry of their first two albums why Agora would have ever seen fit to break up. It turns out they were just working undercover, albeit intermittently. True to expectation, Ichinen is terribly inconsistent, both in style and direction. Generally speaking however, the offerings included on Ichinen can be separated into two categories. The first (and most prevalent) is this unplugged smooth jazz approach. Agora have never been strangers to the use of acoustic guitars, melody or reservation in their music, but those elements were balanced out with complex interplay and variety. Although Agora's acoustic smooth jazz is perfectly listenable, it feels like a big part of the reasons I loved the band (or jazz in general) have been emancipated. Rather then the directed explorations of Live in Montreux and 2, Agora have written songs built around middle-of-the-road melodies and the apparent aim of fostering easy listening. There is enjoyment to be had with this newer incarnation of Agora ("Sensei" is great for melody, "Oceano" is a great piano piece) and I don't think there are any clearcut weaknesses, but it may only be because Agora have played it incredibly safe with this acoustic guitar stuff. There's probably a market out there for this sort of tasteful jazz, but it's clearly not for me. All I can think of when I'm hearing it is the Mall Tycoon soundtrack.

It takes over half the album to get there, but once Agora get to their other, 'proggy' side, things start to really heat up. For what it lacks in creative naming, "Progressive Suite" is a total highlight, and sounds like what the Agora follow-up I was hoping for should have sounded like. Prog was always an undercurrent running behind Agora's jazz and rock blend, but the latter half of Ichinen makes a concerted effort to bring that side out front and centre. There's time signature fuckery, Zeuhl-ish female vocalizations and echoes of Zappa in the guitar work; best of all, I can hear the band chemistry more clearly than with the innocuous acoustic material. Possibly in some gesture of compromise, the compilation's final track "Piramide Di Domani, Cavalcata Solare" mixes elements of the prog with the laid-back acoustic guitar, reimagining a pair of classic period tracks as a single would-be finale. Surprisingly, it turns out to be just as satisfying a listen as "Progressive Suite". Gianni Perri's cello is a great touch to this closing piece, and it probably doesn't hurt that "Piraide Di Domani" was one of my favourite cuts from 2 either!

I feel mixed about this one. It seems like Agora are at a tentative crossroads, and regardless of what years these tracks were recorded in, Ichinen is a reflection of that. It's difficult to say I'm really optimistic about a new Agora album, if chances are high it's going to sound like the first half of this one. Hopefully (just hopefully!) Agora will look at the latter 'proggy' side of this compilation not as a historical note, but as a foundation with which to build amazing things in the future. Whatever the future holds for Agora, I will eagerly anticipate the release of another album.

Conor Fynes | 3/5 |


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