One can only imagine what kind of presence this duo has in person.
À Qui Avec Gabriel is a Japanese accordionist whose professional name pays tribute to her instrument. “À Qui” (“To Whom”) is her stage name, as it were, while Gabriel is the name of her accordion. The conceit puts distance between her persona and her intensely personal music. Koyonaku, a duet album with guitarist Michel Henritzi (a veteran of much noisier music), is a raw take on Japanese enka that suggests a pair of avant-buskers who reinvent Japanese folk and American blues to make music that would have fit perfectly at the Bang Bang Bar on “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
Opener “The End of the Desert” is at first dominated by pizzicato strings and Henritzi’s piercing, staccato lead, an eerie interpretation of Japanese music that evokes an electrified, neon-drenched temple. À Qui’s accordion comes in like the leader of a mournful tango, and when her breathy voice starts nearly four minutes into the six-minute track, it’s the sound of a captive emerging from her prison. These are startling textures, only lightly amplified but heavy with mood.
Henritzi cranks up the distortion on “Poron Poron,” a spare echoing figure and a sound like rushing wind suggesting a dreamlike spaghetti Western. Tracks with such evocative titles as “Rainy Hill” and “Walking in the Shadow” continue in this vein, conjuring an intensely moody avant-surf music. À Qui and Henritzi build a simmering tension, mournful and at times frightening, throughout the album.
Their label accurately describes this music as “deconstructed abstract blues,” but it’s not as forbidding as that might sound. Despite pacing that cam seem dirge like, raw textures and patient rhythms carry over the spare melodies of À Qui’s vocals.
The album’s final two tracks read like defiance converted to lamentation: “I’m Not Similar to Anyone Else” and “How Come I’m Like This.” On the closer, À Qui’s whispery, dramatic vocals feature organ accompaniment that sounds like the duo emerging from a country churchyard. With six tracks in 42 minutes, this efficient service in some ways feels like an EP, a mere sketch of what the duo can accomplish. Perhaps more would be too intense.
Coming from much harsher musical collaborations than her own music suggests, À Qui has performed with such extreme noise makers as Kawabata Makoto of Acid Mothers Temple and Keiji Haino. Yet despite these outré associations, her own striking and dramatic music is quite gentle. Her 2001 album Utsuho, released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label, was a charming kind of avant-cabaret, that was unusually restrained for that imprint.
Such restraint does not make this easy music. With its deceptively alluring patterns, Koyonakuinvites the listener to witness the luxurious sound of tragedy, which peaks on the seven and a half minute “Rainy Hill.” This extended cry pairs Henritzi’s distorted slashes with a flamenco-like guitar, À Qui Avec Gabriel emitting accordion drones that mimic slow, labored breathing, building to a climax in which the singer lets out persistent sobs. It’s a stunning performance, and one can only imagine what kind of presence this duo has in person.