Henry Rollins: The Column! Japanese Guitar Freaks From Outer Space
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
I am off the road for a few days, from the tour that never ends. One of the upsides is that I get a chance to listen to a few albums without the pressure of a show waiting for me. I have been making my choices carefully -- I don't have much time before I leave again.
To combat the confusion and depression that assault me when I come off the road in the middle of a tour, I seek the most oblivionated music possible. When it's the "way out there" that I seek, I go right to my stash of amazing music from Japan.
It's just my opinion, but some of the most mind-frying records I have ever heard have been made by Japanese artists. Sure, Jimi Hendrix will always be my favorite guitar player -- after all, I was raised with his music, and those sounds are burned deep into my mind. But picking up the baton and blasting fearlessly into the vast darkness of the unexplored regions of the cosmos are ultimate guitar freaks like Makoto Kawabata of the 10,000-light-years-from-home house band Acid Mothers Temple.
Thankfully, they release a record every few months, it seems. Their music escapes description, besides going from gentle cosmic shifts to the sound of complete volcanic guitar overload. Then there is Kawabata's immense catalog of solo releases, which run the gamut from gorgeous to completely mad. It all sounds good to me.
On a far more scorched plane, perhaps my favorite living guitar player is also from Japan, Keiji Haino. The recordings he made with Fushitsusha, his rock band (I use the term as a loose identifier because most rock music would be incinerated by wandering within 10 miles of this outfit), are some of the heaviest guitar records ever made. The massive sheets of hot steel that come from Haino's speakers on the Live 1 album are completely crushing.
Haino has released dozens of solo recordings that are so heavy, they are at times hard to get through. One of his earliest solo efforts, Watashi Dake, sounds like a man playing guitar while disemboweling himself. This is not easy listening and honestly, I cannot recommend these records, but damn, they work for me!
Perhaps one of the most interesting bands in Japanese music is Les Rallizes Dénudés, featuring the elusive guitarist Takashi Mizutani. To make things all the more confusing, challenging and frustrating, the band didn't really release any records, so what is available are live recordings put out by do-gooder labels that have come into possession of live source material. Some of the recordings come in at quite a cost.
Mizutani's high, bright tone, transcendent playing and reedy, delicate voice are like nothing I have ever heard. Years ago, I got turned on to his music via an LRD bootleg called December's Black Children. I sat on a tour bus listening to this music deep into the night and became a fan immediately.
Julian Cope's absolutely must-read book on Japanese rock music, Japrocksampler: How the Post-War Japanese Blew Their Minds on Rock 'n' Roll, has a chapter on Mizutani and Les Rallizes Dénudés, which sent me into a very deep immersion into the band.
Thankfully, the brave label Phoenix has rereleased a lot of the harder-to-find titles so more people can have access to the music without having to tie themselves into knots of starvation. As I write this, I am listening to the monster five-LP Great White Wonder box set released last year on Phoenix, which seems to issue records that are great but a tough sell at best.
Earlier this evening, I listened to another Phoenix reissue, of the Catch-Wave album by Takehisa Kosugi, recorded in 1974 and released in 1975. An original copy will run you hundreds of dollars, but the reissue is relatively cheap and totally worth it. I first found this after being turned onto a band he was in, called the Taj-Mahal Travellers, who blew my mind when I heard them. The recordings that I know of are all live and all improvised. This is music that is avant-space, if that is at all a category. Excellent, reality-melting jams!
To the more contemporary, there is the phenomenon from Japan known as Boris. I will take full responsibility for this admission: I am a complete and total Boris slut. They have released a ton of records and they all sound great to me. There, I've said it.
I am sure that getting to the core of what makes the musicians from Japan, only the briefest example of whom have we discussed here, tick, is to try to understand the country's entire history.
I have made at least 10 visits to Japan and spent quite a bit of time there. As far as I have been able to understand, the Japanese seem to keep things close to the vest. Friendly but remote and polite to the point of being invisible. It is in the music, literature, film and art that the Japanese really seem to express themselves.
For many years, my favorite director has been the Japanese giant Akira Kurosawa. Perhaps his most well-known lead actor, Toshiro Mifune, whom he used in some of his most famous films, like The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, is my favorite actor. It is not surprising to me that the music would be as rich and easy to return to again and again.
I have now switched to a great Makoto Kawabata solo album, called Private Tapes Vol. 7. It is very late, and music is the best thing there is.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.