Keiko Higuchi “Vertical Language”

For ages, I’ve been fascinated by Keiko Higuchi’s incredible voice. She is much more than a vocalist, of course, but it’s that voice that always grabs ahold of me. Vertical Language comes on the heels of last year’s collaboration with Manuel Knapp and has quickly become one of my favorites of her albums. Her range is endless and transfixing. Across eight pieces, Higuchi jumps from ferocious to fragile to another world entirely, shifting from wordless exultations to narrative bellows without pause.

Vertical Language has a physicality to it that heightens the connection between one’s body and sound. There’s this intense cycle happening throughout where Higuchi stretches her breath to a breaking point, pushing her voice outward with an almost supernatural force that it takes on a tangible form and becomes an extension of her physical being. While Higuchi’s voice has a transcendent ability to fill any and every expanse, the way she lets quiet moments and negative space breathe imbues her music with a primeval power. Vertical Language is ageless.

“scenery one,” the longest track on the album, opens Vertical Language with a purpose. Delicate whispers and twinkling piano notes perch on the edge of a vast nothingness. Echoes hang still in the air as Higuchi presses on and lets her wordless incantations color in the lines between the void. She spreads out, the power beginning to glow in each mournful passage while the piano arrangement shifts into a pensive exclamation. The minimal reflections give way to triumphant chord arrangements and swift, labyrinthine runs. Layered vocals become a discordant choir that overwhelms the sense before disappearing in a flash. Higuchi dials things back into an intimate simmer, etching the operatic feast into hardened skin.

With just the opening song, Vertical Language is a success. The trail the rest of the album follows is unpredictable, at times alone, dangling in the night sky like melting stars (“scenery three”) and in others inventing an entangled, upside down experimental jazz-infused cabaret (the four-part suite with bassist Louis Inage that closes the album). In the latter, Higuchi howls in English as her vocal range becomes saturated with arcane energy as if it’s coming from some mystical cavern deep within. “I feel like a motherless child,” she scowls over bass and piano, twisting into an unrecognizable form dragging us all into the underworld.

I am floored by the visceral delivery Higuchi gives at every moment on Vertical Language. On the minute-long a capella “the still 01,” it’s as though her spirit takes over completely and the sounds we hear aren’t of this world. This is a special album from a special artist.

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