In Romantic Warriors II, Zeitgeist Media's documentary film about the avant-prog Rock in Opposition movement, a concertgoer at the 2011 RIO festival in Carmaux, France, comments enthusiastically about Yugen's ability to reproduce their complex music on the festival stage, as the film's brief excerpt of the Italian band's performance seems to verify. For those who couldn't travel to Carmaux and witness the show first-hand, in late 2012 the AltrOck label released Mirrors, an hourlong CD documenting Yugen's concert. It is, as they say, the next best thing to being there -- or maybe it's better, because it can be experienced repeatedly, an absolute necessity for full appreciation of the group's stunning set. Aside from a powerful version of "Industry" from Henry Cow's Western Culture, Mirrors consists exclusively of compositions by guitarist Francesco Zago previously heard on Labirinto d'Acqua (2006) and Iridule (2010) as studio concoctions featuring nearly every organic/acoustic and synthetic/electric timbre imaginable in a disorienting amalgam of sounds. As Sid Smith writes in Mirrors' liner notes, a studio-recorded Yugen piece might feature as many as 18 musicians, but Yugen played as a septet (guitar, keyboards, piano, reeds, bass, marimba/vibes, drums) at Carmaux, requiring the band to modify its approach significantly. And in those same liner notes, Zago himself says Yugen could have used roughly tenfold the rehearsal time "to get it all perfect."
Well, even a very attentive listener familiar with the compositions here would be hard-pressed to notice any slip-ups, but the live-wire energy and immediacy imbuing these pieces -- often surpassing the original studio versions -- is hard to miss. After all, Yugen were playing at a rock festival, and even in the world of avant-prog, a bit of imperfection can apparently work wonders. The difference between Yugen on-stage and in the studio is evident from the opening minute-long blast of "On the Brink," whose heavy, intermittent pounding theme is accompanied not only by the dissonant high-pitched sustained tone of the version that opens Iridule, but also by a roiling, clattering skronkfest of noisy percussives and who-knows-what. Although "Brachilogia" and "Catacresi," both from Labirinto d'Acqua, are not markedly different in form and length here, they are given a robust attack, the originals' moments of proggy grandeur taking a back seat to sharp, abrasive, and even humorous timbres -- Paolo "Ske" Botta's synth tone sometimes verges on an alien robotic duck quack. Iridule's "Overmurmur" actually loses a few minutes of time here, the better to focus on its herky-jerky smash and bash, although it concludes floating on a sparkling, glistening plateau. But the biggest ear-opener is "Becchime," double the length of Iridule's version at 12 and a half minutes. Here, improvisational-sounding bits squeezed into the interstices of the original fully take over the composition's second half as a collective cacophony tumbles toward funk-jazz-metal, advancing, retreating, and taking the auditorium -- and the listener -- by storm. Mirrors is one of the finest avant-prog albums of 2012 or any other year. ~ Dave Lynch