What the fuck?

That was my first reaction when I first played Zazen Boys’ self-titled debut. It’s the reaction I get everytime I play it.

What the fuck?

In the latter days of Number Girl, band leader Mukai Shuutoku started getting more eccentric with his songwriting. Hints of other influences cropped up in unlikely places.

“Tokyo Freeze” featured Mukai in full rap mode. “Num-Ami-Dabutz” was little more than a spoken word piece with a screaming chorus.

After the dissolution of Number Girl, Mukai spent a year experimenting. Performances with hardcore band Panic Smile and a solo acoustic tour influenced him to commandeer a previous alias, Zazen Boys, and to from a new band.

And it’s pretty much a fresh start, as evidenced on Zazen Boys’ self-titled debut album.

The album starts with Mukai doing his creepiest impression of Marvin Gaye on “Fender Telecaster”. From there, he launches into a mostly-spoken word repertoire.

“Usodarake”, “The Days of Nekomachi”, “Yureta Yureta Yureta” — all follow the basic “Num-Ami-Dabutz” template of spoken verses with sung choruses.

“Yureta Yureta Yureta” gets to so frenzied, the only way Mukai grounds it is by giving the song a straight-forward chorus.

The album crashes on the 8-minute, mid-tempo “Kaisenzenya”. The wandering song breaks down, picks up and never really finds a sense of direction.

After that, Zazen Boys ventures into Mukai’s more familiar songwriting — dischordant riffs, screaming vocals, obtuse melodies.

The conclusion of “Kimochi” layers a chaotic guitar solo over a slow beat. “Ikasama Love” chops up a compound meter beyond recognition, while “Whiskey & Unubore” is grounded on some really dissonant melodies.

Zazen Boys finds Mukai Shuutoku at his most creatively daring. He’s thrown out the book about tonality and seeks a tortured mode of expression a few steps shy of avant-garde.

It’s a challenging work. Is it likeable? Not really.

Part of Number Girl’s appeal was a tension between melody and dissonance. You could sing along with Mukai, even though he and guitarist Tabuchi Hisako cared not one whit about staying within a scale.

With Zazen Boys, that tension has dissolved into barely-controlled anarchy. While interesting, it isn’t exactly compelling.

And while Tabuchi’s axework is missing, more so is producer Dave Fridmann’s strong touch. Fridmann captured the full ferocity of Number Girl’s live show in the studio.

Zazen Boys seems to be even more powerful, but that doesn’t come across in the album’s production.

With Zazen Boys, Mukai shakes off a very successful legacy, but there’s a sense he still has a way to go before this new project possesses a clearer sense of identity.