06 May 2009

How I fell in love with the Japanese Musical Subterranean

I have been a fan. Since 1997. It was out of this world, familiar but yet alien. Not alienating though. The form is vaguely recognisable but the delivery, the transmutation of the riff from tried-and-tested chord progressions to white-out outer-space sonic exploration. In other words, what I heard blew my mind. It was a solo album from Keiji Haino, "I said, This is the son of nihilism" on the record label Table of the Elements (a great label but this will be the story for another time). I bought it from Tower Records at Pacific Plaza then (yes it seems like yesteryear...) and I was unable to believe what I heard but yet expecting something this mind-boggling emitting from this man, perpetually clad in black.

Then just like most record collectors and music fanatics I started chasing the dragon - I read voraciously about anything which vaguely mentioned the Japanese underground which Haino emerged from, any album review, any trace of information which could help me have a better glean at this under-known but deeply rich well of musical creativity. The record label PSF, then Alchemy plus a score of other smaller ones became a fixture in my home stereo and discman. Keiji Haino's Fushitsusha, High Rise, Acid Mothers Temple, Ghost, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Hijokaidan, Merzbow, Otomo Yoshihide's Ground Zero, Kousokuya, Kazuki Tomokawa, Boredoms, Kaoru Abe, Masayuki Takanayagi, and the list goes on. The Japanese underground which spans at least three generations by now, cutting across genres and cities in Japan was simply head-spinning.

The Japanese seem to excel in the "borrowing" or "re-imagining" of all the musical forms emanating from the West and through sheer determination and will transform them into something unique and dare I say mutated and distorted from the original source in the execution. Instead of just simply loud three chord guitar and thrumming rhythms, they extend the chords to infinity and stretch the songs from three minutes to an hour.

Yes, the Japanese are known for obsessing over anything they touch to the point of maniacal but this can be a good thing. Art for art's sake anyone? The decadent writers and poets once again? Imagine Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Wilde stalking the streets of Tokyo and Osaka in their leather pants and bangs indulging in their deep seated love for free jazz, punk, rock and everything conceivable under the sun? Blowing their hearts out like how Kaoru Abe practised his saxophone everyday at the sea in the 1970s? Or cramming into the small and dodgy gig spots like Club MINOR to hone their craft, to check out the new experiments put forth by their fellow comrades/rivals-in-music in the outskirt of Tokyo in the late 1970s? How about letting their guitars wail and screech on open air stage in outdoor festivals all over Japan in the late 1960s/early 1970s? Or just simply in deep contemplative mood, sitting in the jazz kissas found in most Japanese cities during the 1970s musing over Coltrane, Rollins, Ayler, Coleman & Taylor?

I know. This sounds like a fan-boy's ode to these little known, unsung Japanese musical freaks but hey, I know for sure that they meant what they are doing and for that I salute them. You should too.

(For those of you who want to know more about music from this amazing country, check out the following sites:

1. http://noise.as/ - an great site dedicated to the history of some of the major "understars" of the Japanese psych/noise scene as well as the even way-underrated New Zealander scene.

2. http://www.psfrecords.com/ - a must-go-to shop for all who are ready to take out your wallet to burn some serious cash to tune in to the real stuff from Psych Japan.

3. http://www.japrocksampler.com/ - The first serious record of the roots of the Japan Psych/heavy rock/experimental scene back in the 1960s/1970s from one of the surviving stars of the UK punk/postpunk scene, Julian Cope: this is the website, the book is actually available still at Kinokuniya, go get it.

4. http://www.thewire.co.uk/articles/2360/ - A online article by Alan Cummings, the ubiquitous Japanese expert of the The Wire on the late 1970s/early 1980s Tokyo Club MINOR scene.

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