Footing found

Holy shit.

If “what the fuck” was my reaction to Zazen Boys’ first album, this was my reaction to its follow-up.

Holy shit.

The last time out, I wrote Mukai Shuutoku had a way to go before Zazen Boys possesed a sense of identity. I didn’t think he’d managed to find it in nine months.

With Zazen Boys II, Mukai reclaims the songcraft he eschewed on the band’s self-titled debut. He’s also managed to expand the band’s sound while retaining its distinctiveness, especially compared to his previous work.

Mukai continues to explore the spoken word realm, opting to recite his lengthy verses in his own rhythmic delivery. (He’s smart enough to know he’s not a hip-hop MC.)

The first half of the album is driven by his recitations — “Crazy Days Crazy Feelings”, “No Time”, “Cold Beat”.

He sings a lot more on this album, too, and that’s wonderful — Mukai’s blood-curdling scream and his off-kilter melodies were missed on the last album.

At the same time, he’s incorporated more varied instruments into Zazen Boys’ sound. The “Zazen Bo” interludes are driven not by guitars but by drum machines and synthesizers.

Shiina Ringo’s backing vocals on “Crazy Days Crazy Feelings” and “Amin Bou” offer a welcome contrast to Mukai’s ravings. And the organ on “Amin Bou” is some of the wildest playing on anywhere.

He’s gotten much more sophisticated in his production as well. Drummer Ahito Inazawa towers over “Crazy Days Crazy Feelings” and “Saizensen”, and he positively explodes on “Kuroi Shitagi”, the band’s most frenzied song.

Inazawa’s drumming has become so intrinsic to Mukai’s music, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else powering it. Let’s hope these two stay collaborators for a long time.

Sonic considerations aside, the real selling point for Zazen Boys II is the writing — it’s some of Mukai’s most complex and diverse yet. And amazingly enough, some of his most coherent.

“Cold Beat” is a busy song with a difficult rhythm and a brilliant percussion solo, and it doesn’t sound out of place next to “You Make Me Feel So Bad”, a melodic song on which Mukai brings back his soul man falsetto.

Guitarist Yoshikane Sou goes haywire on “Daigakusei”, and it fits in well with the “delayed brain”-style effects of “Chie Chan’s Landscape”.

“Roppon no Kurutta Hagane no Shindoo” is driven by both a disco beat and some eccentric guitar work, while “My Crazy Feeling” demonstrates Georgia blues can get punk as all get out.

The first Zazen Boys album was a dress rehearsal, a trial run to see how well the band can navigate through Mukai’s evolving songwriting.

Zazen Boys II, though, is the real deal. Mukai has found his footing with this album, staying true to the foundation of his muse while also pushing its limits. Incredible, indeed.