Juno Reactor: Live in Tokyo

Juno Reactor - Live in TokyoSynopsis: In 2005, Juno Reactor their first DVD, Live in Tokyo, featuring selections off of Shango as well as classic Juno Reactor tracks such as “Conga Fury” and “God Is God.” The DVD precisely captured the intensity of Juno Reactor’s live performances: from the mind-expanding music, the acrobatics of Amampondo, right down to the hypnotic lighting effects. Recorded in surround sound, the Live in Tokyo DVD proved that the only thing better than watching was being there.

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Juno Reactor: Live in Tokyo 7.25

eyelights: the dynamic performance. the high intensity techno ear candy.
eyesores: the erratic, incoherent video direction.

Juno Reactor are an electronic music group fronted by Ben Watkins and featuring, through the years, a rotating list of collaborators. Formed in the early nineties, they released their first single in 1993 and have since released a stream of singles and albums. They are particularly well-known for their epic, electronic/world fusion numbers and are frequently found in TV, movie and video game soundtracks.

From 2001 to 2008, I hosted a weekly community radio show called “What the…?”. During that time, I had access to the station’s music library. Although it wasn’t particularly extensive (community station budget + no Top 40 + thefts from volunteers = limited resources), being a music junkie I could spend countless hours digging in the stacks and looking at everything that seemed remotely intriguing.

I discovered Juno Reactor there, likely in 2001-2002. The station had the latest JR album, ‘Shango’, in their Electronic section and I was totally taken with its cover. I was also intrigued by songs such as “Masters of the Universe” and “Nitrogen Part 1” and “Nitrogen Part 2”. So I made a point of copying the disc (as I did with just about everything I wanted to listen to – good thing, too, because they often soon disappeared).

I was really disappointed with it. Aside for a few tracks, I found it lacking. And I didn’t like that it was so heavy on the tribal rhythms – I had hoped for a more pure techno/trance album. So I shelved it. Naturally, this didn’t prevent me from buying it later to give it another chance. By then, I had heard a few more of their tracks on various electronic music-based compilations – most of which were movie soundtracks.

Within a couple of years, they would be featured in the two sequels to ‘The Matrix’, in what would amount to some of their best work ever. Having by then picked up the delicious ‘Bible of Dreams’ (‘Shango’s predecessor) and the single for “Samurai”, I was now a convert: I picked whatever I could find of theirs – a difficult proposal to say the least in my neck of the woods. But there’s always the interwebs, where one can find everything.

Now, Juno Reactor are one of the first artists that I think of when I think of high energy electronic music, when I want something uplifting. What I like about them is that, beyond their techno/trance/goa roots, they delve into all sorts of other influences, incorporating world music into their sound. This blends the earthy and the artificial together, something I like. Plus which they have a penchant for epic soundscapes.

Completing my Juno Reactor collection is a slow-going growth process, but I’m getting there. Recently, I finally tracked down a copy of their ‘Live in Tokyo DVD’ – after eyeing it for years. Naturally, having waited such a long time, I made a point of ramping that one up at the top of my must-watch titles. And, when I started to map out the year’s music DVD schedule, I penciled in an electronic music month just for this.

‘Live in Tokyo’ is a video document of a show Juno Reactor, featuring percussion ensemble Amampondo, did in Tokyo during the Shango Tour, presumably in 2001 (although I could find no precise date in my online searches). The DVD was released in 2005, and it features the full show with a brief edit between the main body of the concert and the encore section. Interestingly, each song has a different director.

The stage set up is fairly simply: Watkins is placed at stage left, behind his keyboards. DJ Alex Paterson is at the back at stage right, pretty much concealed by Amampondo, who are spread across the stage. In total, there are approximately ten performers, which is a lot for an electronic band. They have a large video screen behind them, as well as a green laser above them, both of which are used consistently throughout the show.

(Nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. The Forest: The show begins abruptly with a shot of the band heading onto the stage via a hallway – to the sounds of the choir from Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo Soprano, Two Mixed Choir and Orchestra” in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘. Then we’re in the concert hall, and a CGI image of a lizard fills the screen followed by archival images of a pyramid. A heavy tribal rhythm starts, as Amampondo get the show going, accompanied by a laser light show. Watkins shakes his head while manning his keyboards. Towards the end, there is what could be traditional Japanese male chanting. Not sure. In any case, it’s a pretty epic way to start the show. Nota bene: as far as I know, this track is not available on any album or single. 8.5/8.0

2. Conga Fury: “Conga Fury” was the first single from their fourth album, ‘Bible of Dreams’, and it features Amampondo on percussion. I didn’t like it when I first heard the album (or on the ‘Mortal Kombat: Annihilation’ and ‘The Animatrix’ soundtracks), although the rhythms are delightfully insane. But I enjoy it now – especially in this context (probably because the drums are live). I adore the chants that start this. And listen to that insane drumming! It’s such an amazing kick start to the show; it’s super high speed, intense. There’s a lengthy percussion solo at the end which is terrific. Since the performers are stationary for this one, the highlights are all the graphics inserted into the screen: fish, light blips that move rapidly, and waves. On stage, there’s a laser light show, and  Juno Reactor is written in large letters on the screen behind the band. The camera movement and editing are choppy, erratic, but it moves so much that it doesn’t matter. 8.5/8.0

3. Laughing Gas: This was the first release by Juno Reactor, back in 1993. The song is a little less distinctive, more like generic techno. I believe that they added percussion for the live version (maybe to give Amampondo something to do). Not sure. It loses momentum halfway through for an African wind instrument solo, starting again as electric bloops take over (they sound random, perhaps improvised). Then the song fades abruptly while one of Amampondo’s singers was still going at it. A nearly experimental solo consisting of African horns begins, before the techno part kicks into gear again. As a live act, it’s quite interesting, but I don’t much like the core song. The visuals consist of psychedelic effects, grainy b+w footage, images of oil wells, structures, machinery, and flashes of colour. 7.5/7.5

4. Komit: Another classic from ‘Bible of Dreams’, this one starts with what amounts to waves of techno sounds. There are bird sounds being made by one of the guys in Amampondo, as the electronic pulses grow. Then the beat kicks in. This one rides on beat, bassy pulses and touches of light keys. At one point, Watkins comes out from behind his keyboards for a few distorted notes of guitar while one of the other guys plays jazzy trumpet overtop and electro pulses fill the background. Très cool. The visuals consists of a swirling CGI “eye”, shots of crowds, and a CGI ball in the middle of the picture. And Amampondo are dancing, doing some minimalistic choreography. The crowd is really hopping by this point. 8.5/8.0

5. Vocal and Drums: This is basically a short solo performance by Amampondo. After one of the singers addresses the crowd, they go into a tribal rhythm. There’s lots of dancing and shouting throughout. At the end, they stop and shout at each other. Are they arguing, teasing each other, are just doing this as theatre for the audience? Who knows. The only visuals are kaleidoscopic effects blended into the background. 6.0/7.5

6. Feel the Universe: Taken from ‘Beyond the Infinite’, their second album, this one starts with a man repeating “I feel the universe”, before the song revs up, pulsates, sending electronic waves. Pretty cool stuff. Halfway through, Watkins gets into some jammy electro sounds; I suppose it’s as improvisational as a techno show will get. Overall, the track has a nice groove, but it’s repetitive. The cool bit comes when some of the members of Amampondo started diving over one another on stage; that was fun to watch. It’s during this number that we finally get a sense of the size of the band: there are more long shots of the stage. The visuals consists of inserts of the cover for ‘Shango’, and shots of smoke/clouds in the background. 7.0/8.0

7. God is God: This is the lead single to ‘Bible of Dreams’. I’m kind of tired of it, frankly, but it was awesome the first thousand times I heard it. It’s genius. It starts with an epic intro and a mid-eastern female chant. It’s a groovy number that has a man repeat “God is God” regularly with Natacha Atlas chiming in from time to time. Classic. What’s unfortunate here is that the primary vocalists are all pre-recorded, leaving the guys from Amampondo to dance and shout throughout. To make matters worse, the prerecording sounds thin in a live setting. Really unfortunate, given how amazing this song is. As far as visual go, there’s blue lighting, the laser, and rudimentary CGI effects on the screen. I’ve seen better. I’ve seen worse. 8.0/7.5

8. Hule Lam: Culled from ‘Shango’, this one starts with a chant by Amampondo – it sounds like a call-out song. Then the beats start. It’s super fast percussion; it must be nuts to perform. It’s a very high intensity number. The dancers are shaking their muscles to the rhythm while the crowd is boogieing like crazy. The only visuals are logos/designs on the screen. 8.0/7.5

9. Pistolero: This was the first single from ‘Shango’ and it found its way into the movie and soundtrack for ‘Once Upon a Time in Mexico’. It starts with some gun shots, then a flamenco guitar solo introduces the track before the beat kicks in. It’s rooted in Flamenco guitar licks and an echoy female chant. Having nothing else to do, Amampondo sing in conjunction with the guitar and one of them also makes those bird sounds again. When the song slows down, they try to get the crowd to sing along before it kicks into high gear again. The visuals for this consisted of more kaleidoscopic effects. 8.0/7.5

10. Biot Messiah: I have no idea what the !@#$ a “biot” is, but this is taken from the “God is God” single. Watkins starts it off with some guitar feedback before kicking into the main riff. This is the key drive of the song beyond the beat and electronic sounds. It took me a while to jog my memory, but he lifted the lick from “The Faith Healer”, by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band (although I know it via the covers that Recoil and The Cult did – and Watkins’ take sounds quite like the former). There are nice keyboard passages and pulses too, but this is what stuck out for me. As far as visuals go, the ‘Shango’ art took up the screen and flashy colour shot out from it.  There was also a 3D cube with Juno Reactor artwork on its sides in the middle of the screen. Then the ‘Shango’ cover takes over, pulsates. At the end of this number, the band thanks the crowd and leaves stage. Fade out. 7.5/7.5

11. Insects: Taken from ‘Shango’, this the first part of the four-song encore. We fade in for an intro by a member of Amampondo asking Tokyo if they want Juno Reactor back again. Naturally, they all return. Ben Watkins and the others are introduced, and they all play their instruments a little bit. Then we are treated to pulses, laser effects, sounds of a whip and flute passages. Then African wind instruments and mystical keyboard touches take over. It’s hypnotic and so epic that Amampondo’s loose performance seemed dwarfed by the music, felt inconsequential. 7.5/6.5

12. Guardian Angel: This is the first single and opening track of ‘Beyond the Infinite’, their second album and arguably first really good one. This  has been used and reused in various media over the years. It’s a totally techno track: high energy, vibrant. Unfortunately, it ends abruptly here for some reason. The visuals consists of space travel, digital images, cities, 3D crosses, and a cartoon character. It has a slightly Matrix-y vibe. 8.0/8.0

13. Masters of the Universe: The third single from ‘Shango’, this baby was featured in a number of different movies and other media. The live version seeps in, starting with soft female vocals, followed by the keyboards and beats. It’s high energy, although it slows midway for some guitar feedback. The only notable visuals are monochromatic explosions of feathers/leaves (hard to say given the lack of detail). 8.0/7.5

14. Mars: “Mars” is the closing number from ‘Beyond the Infinite’ and it makes for a decent closer here too. This techno extravaganza blends into the previous track and takes over. It’s all keys and percussion. In fact, we can’t hear anyone else at first, although some shouting by Amampondo bleeds through. At one point, it goes into a slow, distorted, psychedelic passage, gradually booting back up into electronic waves. Not ones to be forgotten, Amampondo contributed bird sounds. For this one, there is some archival footage of fireworks mixed into the picture to embellish things. Then the center of the screen is overtaken by a CGI strobe light thing, which shows a whole bunch of archival footage on its surfaces, some of which disappear, leaving gaps in the picture. Not sure what they were going for. At the end, the band members hug each other and they say goodbye to the crowd. 7.5/7.5

This DVD presentation was a mixed bag for me. Although I adored the music and was grooving to the tunes throughout (I don’t know if I ever once stopped bopping to the beat), I found the presentation tiresome and, after a breezy first 40 minutes, was looking forward to it wrapping up when they broke for the encore; the notion of another 30 minutes of this DVD actually tested my patience.

Truth be told, it’s a jumbled mess: the camerawork is all over the place, so erratic, shaky, that there’s no way to truly savour any moment of the stage performance. Throw in the seemingly random special effects and graphics that the various directors decided to incorporate, and neither the performance nor the video ended being coherent. It’s a video alright, but it’s not a proper concert film.

I know that I’ll play this disc again, however: I already had the audio portion in mp3 format and had been listening to it for the last couple of years. In fact, it may have been a prime motivation to finally get the DVD. So I know that I’ll be playing it again, if only because Juno Reactor sounds awesome on a decent system, and that this concert performance totally lives up to their sound at this juncture.

Unfortunately, the Metropolis DVD advertises a 5.1 surround mix, but it’s nowhere on the disc. JR sounded good in stereo, but I can only imagine how punchier they’d be in 5.1. Dammit. I hate false advertising. I’m going to have to write to Metropolis and ask about the error, because I have read online reviews that refer to the 5.1 mix. Perhaps those were earlier or non-North American pressings?

The lone extra, what they call a “VJ Bonus”, didn’t make up for this oversight one bit. Consisting of all sorts of video graphics, some of which were used during show, it was backed by percussive tribal music and African chants. There is no indication anywhere on the DVD of what this track is but one online listing suggests that it might be “Drums for Tomorrow” by Amampondo. Sounds like it to me but I’m not sure. 8.0/7.5

Honestly, I would love to see an unedited version of this concert with a proper 5.1 mix. Although nothing can be done about the shaky cam and the random direction, at least we’d get some sense of what took place, of what the show was like. As it stand, however, this DVD is pretty much unwatchable in one sitting – it’s best played as a party disc, for the music, while the video is relegated to the background.

Or even switched off.

Nota bene: For anyone even remotely interested in discovering Juno Reactor, I would highly suggest avoiding the singles collection ‘Odyssey 1992-2002’. Not only is it missing some key tracks, but it’s somehow unfulfilling. Instead, I would recommend starting with ‘Inside the Reactor’. It may be a mix, which naturally means remixes instead of album cuts, but it best translates what they’re about. And if you like what you hear there, then get the individual albums.

Date of viewing: September 22, 2014

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