Japan Underground, May 1999
by Mason Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org)
On the Psych Tip..
On the Psych Tip this time around, I want to start introducing
some of the leaders of Japan's psychedelic assault.
And any discussion of the psych "scene" (I dislike that word, and
it implies too much, but there it is) must start with Tokyo's
legendary P.S.F. Records label. Since its beginnings, P.S.F. has been
associated with the avant-garde, whether it be jazz or folk or, to
the point here, psychedelia. The label's beginnings lie with the
bands High Rise and Fushitsusha. Those bands' leaders, Nanjo Asahito
and Keiji Haino respectively, might be considered the two pillars of the
High Rise grew out of Asahito's participation in Tokyo's underground
in the '70s, during which time he played in a number of obscure rock
bands. Dabbling in free improv and psychedelia, he eventually founded
High Rise as its bass player, with guitarist Narita (drummers have
come and gone a few times, but the two remain the core of High Rise).
Taking some inspiration from the MC5 and turning the volume knob up
threefold, High Rise take off and rarely come down to Earth. The band's
first LP is rightly legendary for both its unstoppable energy and its
amazingly low fidelity (the reason why it hasn't been re-issued). The
fact that the band's rock hits the listener like a tornado despite the
low recording quality is a testament to its power. In the fifteen years
since, the band hasn't slowed down, and last year they played their
first shows outside Japan to the delight of their cult audience over here.
Their latest CD, "Desperado", was released by P.S.F., but some of their
earlier releases are finally available at domestic prices in the U.S.
thanks to Squealer Records.
Asahito's energy doesn't stop with High Rise, however. He's involved in
countless other groups, but some of the highlights include Mainliner
(aka High Rise II), Ohkami no Jikan,
Toho Sara, and Musica Transonic.
Musica Transonic are an intriguing blend of free jazz, psychedelia, and
the previously unknown. A trio with guitarist Makoto Kawabata and
Ruins drummer Tatsuya Yoshida, the group explores some truly mind-bending
sounds on their three albums (including one recently with Fushitsusha
leader Keiji Haino), all released by P.S.F.
Speaking of guitarist Kawabata, he's in the running to become one of
the busiest guys in Japan. From Toho Sara to Musica Transonic, he's
an incredible musical force; sometimes mild and trance-inducing, sometimes
intense to the point of Hendrix-ian peaks. Most recently, he's started
his own label, releasing CD-Rs in editions of 100 copies each; the name
of the label, Acid Mothers Temple, is also the name of another group,
perhaps his most successful. Going under the full name Acid Mothers Temple
and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., their two CDs (from P.S.F., natch) are
among the most brain-folding psych releases in recent memory. The
second, "Pataphisical Freak Out MU!!", is the better in my mind, with
more structure to deceive you into thinking you know what's going on,
before leading you into an alley and beating your brain with a rake.
Keiji Haino's Fushitsusha is, rightly, considered one of the world's leading
"rock" bands by those in the know. Not really rock at all, they are
nonetheless a trio, and indubitably a "power trio". However, their
power is like a solar flare engulfing the Earth compared to almost any
other trio you can name. Whether crafting intensely dark, slowly-moving
clouds of sound or driving spikes into your ears with metal-bending
guitar eruptions, Keiji Haino and his compatriots make some of the
most truly emotional music you're likely to ever find. When you come
down to it, there's really not that much music being made that can
actually make you forget that anything else exists while you listen to it;
but Fushitsusha have recorded more than their share. Either of their
double-CD live releases from P.S.F. (neither has a title, only a
catalog number: 3/4 or 15/16) is an ideal place to start.
I'll have to get into the details of Haino's solo career at another
time, because it's...well, beyond extensive. Whether torturing a
guitar, vocalizing, or playing hurdy-gurdy, his soul always comes
through, and it's a good idea to listen to what it's saying. For the
past 20+ years, he's been a rather awe-inspiring figure in the Tokyo
underground, and the reputation is well-earned.
Perhaps one of the better-known bands from the P.S.F. roster is Ghost,
thanks to their recent hook-up with Chicago's Drag City label.
Their take on psychedelia is more traditional, if that's a word that
should be applied to psychedelia. Using a host of instruments from the
usual (guitar, bass, drums) to the unusual (sitar, banjo, harpsichord,
marimba), they create songs that blend Medieval folk influences
with Eastern (as in Indian, Tibetan, etc) vibrations. Topped with leader
Masaki Batoh's vocals, the songs draw you in with, often, a tender
kind of sadness. At their best, Ghost are a beautiful, dreamy band:
their recent "Snuff Box Immanence", and last year's "Lamarabirabi",
are good places to start. "Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet", which came
out simultaneously with "Snuff Box Immanence", is a rather different
beast; its title track is a half-hour of free-form cacaphony which,
while interesting, is not the best starting point for those unfamiliar
with the band -- save it for later but don't forget about it.
Naturally, P.S.F. is far from being the only label dealing in the
world of Japanese psychedelia. Pataphysique Records in Sapporo is
run by Fukuoka Rinji, and among other excellent releases has several
CDs by his band Overhang Party. Fukuoka's violin takes the band in
elegant, sweeping directions. Try "Overhang Party 4" as a good
introduction. Captain Trip Records was started by Ken Matsutani from
Marble Sheep, a band now following in the footsteps of the Dead a bit
too much for my taste, but their older releases are stunning
examples of power-guitar trippiness. The label, besides Marble Sheep,
also releases Japanese editions of albums by German groups like Neu!
and Amon Duul.
P.S.F. Records home page: NO LONGER VALID
Squealer Records home page: NO LONGER VALID
Drag City Records home page:
Forced Exposure carries many of these releases at
Midheaven mail-order carries many of these releases at
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