CAUTION.2/Japan Underground by Mason Jones C A U T I O N

Japan Underground, May 1999

by Mason Jones (mason@charnel.com)

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 psychedelic scene.

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.

Contact info:
P.S.F. Records home page: NO LONGER VALID
Squealer Records home page: NO LONGER VALID
Drag City Records home page: http://www.dragcity.com
Forced Exposure carries many of these releases at http://www.forcedexposure.com
Midheaven mail-order carries many of these releases at http://www.midheaven.com

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