Tagged: Japan

The Transitive Nightfall of August

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Koji Asano
August is Fall
JAPAN SOLSTICE 049 CD (2013)

I. Koji Asano presents us with a Neapolitan ice-cream of digital concretions, each part of his tricolore an insistent and near-literal manifestation of that vivid phrase ‘An Earworm’ – or, in the original German – Ein Earworm. A delightful image for all to consider and an apt analogy for the hour-long tripartite aural noogie presented here, a symphony in mildly irritating looped mini-noises.

Original sound sources are masked by process and near-focus, but could be in part derived from acoustic phenomena, perhaps breath in the tubes and on the mouthpiece of a brass instrument, traces of room sound or sounds whose scale and intimacy implies a human-scale and intimate architectural setting also remain. (Chamber? Asano’s anonymous cityscapes on the cover, glimpses through windows to rooftops and service staircases, imply empty hotel rooms or flats.) Tiny clicks and the low-key buzzing of a malevolent air-conditioning and giant energy-saving light-bulb. Pause for breath and look out of the window. Manipulate object with hands. Click. Continue buzzing.

Sustained midrange activity over the three tracks or movements utilises distortion but is never harsh, focus is intense but restrained, and Asano is the master of his material, never yielding to the inexorable and anxious logic that demands productivity and regularity of noise; buzzing ceases arbitrarily and momentarily as if half-distracted by a pigeon and an ensuing reverie involving a discarded piece of paper lying just there on the floor. Click. Continue buzzing. The organic logic of breath and the non-linearity of association intercede in the mechanical tendencies of continuous electronic sound that would otherwise threaten inevitability and happily exclude other vectors. Throwing a spanner in the works. Although I get the impression that a spanner is not an ‘Asano’ object, cast your eyes through the back issues of this publication and you may be able to corroborate, however, that Ed once received a Koji Asano-branded ballpoint pen.

II. Asano, entranced, prods and buffs up his 1:72 scale grindings into creamy Milliput sausages, extruding them as rigorously as a tantric douanier towards the pulsating beige centre of his incremental porous topography. Straining ever onwards, but naturally managing to make time to pause for a click or some rustling. I would suggest that next time you wish to imagine that you are a sheet of sandpaper the physicality of these works would be a useful aid in visualisation.

In its seeming arbitrary internal rules Asano positions this sound beyond good and irritating and stakes out a small, honey-combed territory of micro-noise. Merzbow as conceived of by a bluebottle and a pane of glass; a remarkable and oblique dedication to a reduced palette and the economic use of small variations and contrasts within an extended time-canvas of sustained sonic character ekes drama from what may have seemed unlikely sources. Within the severe limits set it utilises effective counterpoints and manages to draw the listener in to its initially unprepossessing or baffling world on its own terms.

Enervating buzz and muted looping static is overlaid with intimate clacks and scrunching punctuated with organic pauses before more long periods of enervating buzz overlaid with intimate clacks and clicks and physically scrunching scrunch as long periods of (momentary) clack and continue buzzing (ring modulated) and muted static click. Buzz. Continue:

III. Some of this review may have appeared wearing, or tortuous; you may have felt you discerned a slow and counter-intuitive progress, a narrow focus, playing haphazardly over minutiae, may also have become aware of repetitions and redundancies – however you may have enjoyed details, or words, become intrigued despite any demands on your patience. In this way I have fiendishly sought to emulate the very character of August is Fall, to further give a rounded impression of that flat and strange music. So, it’s not just an interminable review, honestly.

Also honestly, August is Fall has plenty to offer the curious listener – from deft juxtaposition of a minimal array of quirky sounds and effective counterpoints of those sounds to non-standard arrangements or arrangements that subvert more dominant and readily-disengag-eable 1 forms. Confrontational through use of duration, insistence and palette, though through the use of ‘weak’ or small sounds and clever use of pauses and silence pleasingly spry and canny about it. Also sporting an underlying and fundamental sense of human scale that insists on the concrete and present, what I would term a documentary approach to choice of sounds that I would characterise as one stimulating 21st century extrapolation of music concrète (we will investigate two other albums in a similar light in future reviews) – which in this case is also applied to the digital noise techniques used. An interesting synthesis of elements successfully crafted into an unusual, tedium-flirting, object-manipulating, bit-crushing, forehead-boring, idiosyncratically stimulating whole. Speaking of tedium, I’m finished again. (For now).

  1. An ungainly construction, I know, but by which I mean simply, as stated earlier, that Asano, although he does go on and on over the course of three long-form repetitious pieces, goes on at a incidental level which never allows the listener to relax in the knowledge that they know exactly how exactly the piece is going to progress from moment to moment.

Depths and Heights

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Very fine item (DEPTH SOUND RECORDINGS ADSR005) by Antidröm which arrived 2nd September 2013. This is the work of UK creator Tim Bayley who produces it all using a blend of second-hand and home-made equipment, which I assume is mostly old analogue synths and drum machines; at any rate, he stresses a hands-on approach to making music, and his avowed plan is to avoid any computer-generated sound sources. Good for him, I say! Net result, a very varied album of original tunes (yes, many strong melodies here) and creepy atmospheres emerging from the swirly synth whirlpools. Brevity is a keynote, he has made a friend of the editing scissors, and none of these instrumentals ever outstay their welcome. Not every single one of his fourteen experiments here is an unqualified success; some of them feel a little sketchy and half-made-up; but he is trying to do something different on each track, and when he gets the combination of elements just right, the results pay large dividends. ‘Rashomon’ is one personal favourite, but there’s much to admire overall. For instance, the way he avoids meaningless drone in favour of syncopation and strange, quirky rhythms, inserting his twisted half-phrases into the musical continuum in ways that are slippery and unexpected. He also steers away from aural clichés, not least because of the self-imposed ban on the laptop and the digital soundfile, and while some of his sounds may appear ungainly and lumpy, they are his own original creations, and that raw primitivism is a big part of the appeal. True, the use of spoken word / voice samples (on ‘Fear’ and ‘Holy Mountain’) might seem a little over-familiar, but these are minor glitches. Although there is an avowedly dark tint to the album, it would be a mistake to pigeon-hole it as “cold wave”, “dark ambient”, or any one of these stupid post-Industrial labels. There’s also the excellent artworks, which are monoprints produced by the American visual creator Grady Gordon, and generated using an advanced form of the Rorschach inkblot which is then transformed, Giger-like, into explorations of twisted heads and strange black skeletal forms. Bayley declares his music is intended to “match the aesthetic of the artwork”, so we have an uncommon case of music and sleeve art working in tandem.

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On Green Heights (BASKARU KARU:26), we have a trio of Japanese greats producing a rather strange form of synthetic art music, one that resembles healthy chunks of slimy seaweed served up in a thin vegetable stock, to be consumed by the hungry diner out of perspex octagonal bowls, while futuristic monorails pass by overhead. The lovely Ken Ikeda is here generating gorgeously musical major-key drones with his DX7 synth and his SD404 string decoder, which I assumed was a groovy piece of expensive equipment but which turns out to be a very primitive home-made instrument made from rubber bands and nails. Tomoyoshi Date’s name is new to me, though his 2008 album Human Being for Flyrec looks like an interesting investigation into the interstices between suburban and natural environments, and he brings his toy piano, organ, vibraphone and piano to the picnic, along with some field recordings. The layers of this kelp sandwich are held together by the intense but nearly-invisible jets of feedback which steam from the no-input mixing board of Toshimaru Nakamura. These five variations on the ‘Balcony’ title are all highly enjoyable, verging on the tuneful without ever breaking into a structured melody, and there’s never an unexpected or alarming sound to disrupt the tranquil mood. Maybe a little too tranquil; some of this music, especially the first three tracks, verges on the cloying for me with its saccharine combinations of pleasing tones and faux-naif, dumbed-down playing, particularly from the toy piano of Tomoyoshi Date. However, tracks four and five serve up a bit more in the way of intrigue and mesmerising sound art. ‘Balcony III [gamma]’ contains a long, puzzling stretch of noise which we could interpret as a ghostly walk through a factory, where the mechanical movements have been transformed into harmless, child-like variations. I assume it’s the added layer of field recording here which makes it sound less claustrophobic than the artificial glass bubble of tracks 1-3. ‘Balcony III [delta]’ satisfies this listener on some deeper level because Toshimaru is apparently being allowed more space to do his muscular abstractoid thang, and for a good chunk of its ten minutes this track invites us to discover the aesthetic delights of passing a hoover over the surface of the moon. Things go slightly awry in this lunar domestic scenario when the vacuum-cleaner short-circuits, and agitation lets fly. Despite some moments where we descend into rather tasteful ambient cliché, this track is the winner for me. From 5th September 2013.

Nostalgic Pop

Babi

Babi’s Botanical (NOBLE LABEL NBL-210) defies belief – a lovely album of immaculate “chamber pop” songs crafted with great compositional and studio skills. For starters, this is only her second LP – but it’s so accomplished and polished. The young composer and singer Babi is a child prodigy who apparently started learning the piano at age two and had her first composition written at age five. She learned the craft of multi-tracking at music college, and since then has been stacked out with commercial work, besides finding time for realising her own compositions. For this, a joint release on two labels, she’s done all the composing, singing and programming – it’s fundamentally a keyboard album – with guest musicians brought in to add strings and woodwinds. There’s a number of elements to praise and enjoy – the forthright assurance with which Babi proceeds is commendable, knowing exactly in her mind what the song is about and proceeding directly with a very clean performance, with not an ounce of waste. Then there’s the ultra-lean and lightweight sound, a superbly uncluttered studio production, aided by flawless arrangements with every instrument sitting in the perfect place. Additionally, the compositions themselves are these deceptively simple melodies, cunningly spiked with little twists and curlicues that lead the mind off down multiple pathways at once. The album was mixed and mastered by Toyoaki Mishima, who also works with Cornelius – another Japanese genius of quirkoid avant-pop. With ten short tracks of compressed loveliness, this album amounts to a near-perfect set of electro-pop miniatures, enriched with classical flourishes. Babi could almost be the Japanese Kate Bush, although since I don’t understand Japanese her lyrical content remains a mystery to me. I sense she might not be quite as dark and troubled as my beloved Kate, though, since there’s a generally upbeat tempo to the songs here, and Babi’s rather fluffy singing voice (a factor which might prove a barrier for some listeners) and occasional use of wacky sound effects suggest instead a child-like and fantastic view of the world, with bright colours and strange friendly monsters walking through imaginary landscapes, funfairs, and parks on summer afternoons. Be sure to watch the three-minute “trailer” she’s made for this album on YouTube, with suitably flowery animations. Besides Kate Bush, also recommended to listeners who enjoy Slapp Happy and Dagmar Krause, or Van Dyke Parks. Or that incredible Nora Guthrie single from 1967. Received 8th August 2013.

OhYoko

Not entirely unrelated to above, we have I Love You… (COOKIE 3) by Oh, Yoko released on the Normal Cookie label in Tokyo. This is also an album of pop tunes, but far less upbeat and bouncy than Babi, and aims from the get-go to beguile you with a strange nostalgic feeling. The duo of Rie Mitsutake and Will Long achieve this goal through their small and intimate sound; playing electronic and acoustic instruments together, in a syrupy and sensuous blend; keeping the arrangements simple, and playing everything in a gentle manner; and by filtering all the vocals through wispy pieces of gauze that float by on the breeze on a sunny day in September. Again, sung in Japanese, so specifics elude me, but the abiding emotional keynote here speaks volumes – lots of soppy and fuzzy sentiments, just bordering on the saccharine at times. Recording as Miko in a previous life, Rie did a couple of albums that we know of (Parade and Chandelier, the latter released by Lawrence English’s Room 40 label in Australia), and like Babi above she started out her musical life at a relatively young age – taking piano lessons from age five. Will Long might be remembered by some as Celer, a project which he used to do with his wife Chubby Wolf, and which has released over 100 records of ambient installation droney sound-art music, much of it self-issued. Oh, Yoko certainly work well together here and this a very pleasing combination of soft-focus instrumentation and whispery, heartfelt vocalising, occasionally supplemented by gorgeous background field recordings of crickets a-chirping (or maybe frogs a-croaking). “Something pure for a more simple life,” is their only stated goal with this music, and who can take issue with that ambition? Be sure to look for their 2012 release, Seashore. This one from 8th August 2013.

Floating Dimensions

Feel Beetrr (VETO-RECORDS / EXCHANGE 007) is the latest item from Swiss reedman Christoph Erb and his Veto-Records label, where he’s horning it large with his bass clarinet and tenor as one third of the Bererberg Trio with the Chicago players Josh Berman on cornet and Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello. Ah, no percussion. I’m often very partial to music in the free jazz or improv idioms where there’s no drummer involved; somehow it seems to make the players more comfortable, as regards volume, dynamics, and tempo. The combination of brass, woodwinds and cello continues to create pleasing tastes for the hungry listener who’s tiring of endless corned beef sandwiches or deep-dish pizza, and wants the chance to savour a spot of raw sushi or avant-garde petit-fours wrapped with a mild form of plastic explosive instead of the conventional marzipan. The brew is livened considerably when Fred plays his electric guitar instead of the usual cello on some tracks; it’s especially interesting when he tries to match the plangent tones from the blowing part of the act through means of sustained, bended notes from his Gibson Flying V, until he decides to roughen up the surface with a touch of crazy-paving scrabble-mode riffing. Natch, Erb and Lonberg-Holm are highly familiar to us in these here parts, for example as the duo Screw & Straw or as half of the quartet Sack. Arrived 23 May 2013.

It’s possible at one level to enjoy a record like Feel Beetrr simply as a perfect combination of great sounds from well-played instruments – each player giving unique voice to their chosen “fifth limb”, as most musicians refer to the device that plagues their life so much. We might consider the same line of thought with Le Jardin Bizarre (AN’ARCHIVES AN’06), which features the French guitarist Michel Henritzi pairing his lapsteel and electric guitars along with the violins – both amplified and acoustic – of Japanese wizard Fukuoka Rinji. It’s a beautiful but sad record. Henritzi has long dwelt in melancholic, rain-sodden musical terrains; it’s as though his musical life were a Kurosawa movie. Some of his solo guitar records have more minor keys than the whole of Asia Minor, whatever the heck that means. For the most part here though he is content to provide a strumming / chord backdrop to the keening violin work of Fukuoka Rinji, who effectively captures and distils the voice of a thousand wailing tree spirits in each note produced by his ethereal digits. I often imagine him as a fragile man whose bones are made from brittle clay pipes rather than calcium, and that his flesh would crumple into grey dust if you so much as blew him a kiss. The merest touch of studio echo is added to the record to enhance the overall ambience of the recording, resulting in a very effective portrait of this “strange garden”, subtitled “a garrulous 6 pieces for night garden suite”. Indeed, night bloomers such as the Casablanca Lily and Night Gladiolus would be what I would expect to find in my imaginary time-lapse documentary film that I’m mentally playing as I spin this superbly morose and plangent record. I’m also imagining a picture book by Edward Gorey that was never drawn nor published, but he would have been an exceptionally suitable candidate for delineating this night garden using his dark cross-hatching nib and jet-black ink. Poetic track titles, and equally lyrical artwork – uncredited, but probably screenprinted by Alan Sherry of Siwa Records – complete this delicate hymn to the ipomoea and oenothera biennis. Rinji was the founder of the psychedelic rock band Overhang Party and his wiry, minimal work has graced collaborations with Sachiko and Chie Mukai; he last played with Henritzi on the 2011 PSF release, Outside Darkness. From 16 May 2013.

Another item themed on the idea of “night”, and very coincidentally featuring a Japanese artist is the delightful album The Illuminated Nightingale (NOBLE RECORDS NBL-209) by Motoomi Doi from Osaka. Apparently, he regards this as his first proper album, unless you count his two previous private press releases. One of them, N-N-N, was only available if you sent an email to Motoomi and asked him for a copy; later on, you’d get a parcel in the post. It’s his way of subverting the idea of the free digital download by restoring a tangible product to the equation. The present item comprises ten bouncy songs of electropop with plenty of drum-machine beats, poppy Casio-type melodies played by very busy fingers, and above all the delicate wispy soprano voice of Motoomi himself. He delivers his lyrics with an unaffected simplicity, and great gentleness; for the listener, it’s like being caressed by a large pink marshmallow. There’s also the impression one has of bittersweet emotions; the album is neither really happy nor sad, but floating midstream like a little cork boat on the river. Even the more upbeat songs contain a hint of imminent disappointment, an awareness that the party you’re enjoying so much now will be over the next day. I’m guessing when I say this of course, since it seems all the lyrics are sung in Japanese, but the stated intention is to “portray an entire evening from dusk to dawn” in song, and to allow the listener to “wander through a world where fantasy and reality co-exist…what kind of view will we see from this place where night calls out its end?” Melodic, lyrical, inventive.

Action Vision

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You may recall we reviewed the lovely music of Neil Luck in October 2012, the London composer who gave us Last Wane Days, a truly unique operetta baroque-pop chamber piece – a real surprise for many a powdered wig. He also appeared with one cut on the GoldDust compilation for Slightly Off Kilter records. Luck it was who sent us Songs From Badly-Lit Rooms (SQUIB-BOX NO NUMBER), received here 13 March 2013, and another uniquely somehow very English piece of wailery and squealation it doe bee. As you can tell I am already lapsing into a Jacobean-era style of writing and speaking, a transformation I considereth most appte when hearing these sodden wood-panelled pieces of musicke, as I sitte beside the fire and peepe dartingly out of a small latch window. These airres fitte for the eares of our right royalle King were played by Tom Jackson the clarinettist, with the viola player Benedict Taylor ever by his side. Both are improvisers and performers well respected about the towne, and indeed have likewise found success beyond the seas. For many pieces the players doe buzz and humme at a frantic rate, as though pursued by two tigers from Oriental parts, or else find themselves besette with unwanted small insects crawling about in their nether garments. My advice would be to wear an iron codpiece and so preserve themselves from The Enemy. Also of interest are the different timbres and acoustic qualities, which vary from track to track; perhaps the titles indeed reflect the real-world locations for their performances. If so, most sensitive to the space of a chamber they have proven themselves. No man can listen and remain unmoved at such delicious sounds; barking, crying, hooting and issuing many a plaintive mew, both raising dreadfull clamours to the skies. The duo perform roped together like two sailors on board a shipload of tobacco, and communicate by unseen means that inform their every thought and move. In fine, most high recommendation for this moving and delightful recording. Now I must needs return to gutting my fish from Cheapside market, ere I expire from hunger.

ReverseAge

From 11 March 2013 we received a glorious eccentric and fiery recording of avant-rock solo antics by GR (i.e. Gregory Raimo from France). What an axeman he’s proving himself on these solid high-volume grooves. I’d like to meet his tailor. His A Reverse Age (MEXICAN SUMMER MEX140) is a glorious blast of psychedelic rockabilly noise, the musical fabric cut to shreds by his nasal poison vocalising which mows down eight beds of precious flowers and causes entire trees to wither and die with just one billow from Raimo’s diabolical breath. With his ‘Hymn to Pan’ and his ‘The Primitive Hoodoo’ he owns himself a willing convert to the anti-religion of The Cramps, while his thudding drumming style and raw recording approach fuel the excitement to boiling pitch. The highlight though is his rich and juicy guitar style, often-times heavily psychedelic and reminiscent of Gary Ramon of Modern Art / Sun Dial (or the glorious obscurity Jesse Harper). Fans of Alan Vega and The Fall from circa 1980-1981 should devour this flaming nugget at tremendous speed, using crocodile jaws to chew the slabs of meat. Excessive and flailing adjectives abound on the press release, describing this wild trip as an “argument between myth and reality”, but such unhinged language and frothing praise is quite justifiable in the face of this rockin’ gemuloid.

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Here’s the scrapey improviser Tim Olive with another release on the 845 Audio label sent to us from Kobe in Japan on 21 March 2013. He was carrying a metal pail full of old rusty bolts at the time. On Various Histories (845 AUDIO 845-2) he teams up with Katsura Mouri, a fabulously talented sound artist who works with turntables which are doctored with “prepared records”, percussive objects and pieces of metal. She’s been a member of BusRatch, DOOG, and herviviennestrap, but also performs solo and in 2009 she toured with other contemporary turntable manipulators eRikm, Martin Tetreault and Ignaz Schick; and has assembled a cunning multiple turntable set-up, like Philip Jeck used. This is the first I ever heard of Mouri, but I love her delicate approach; there’s none of the heavy-handedness, violence or sarcasm one sometimes finds with your basic turntabling types – present company excepted, of course – who seem intent on smashing the device, breaking records, or trying to single-handedly destroy the history of recorded music through the symbolic annihilation of this culturally-loaded (as they would see it) machine. Instead she works most sympathetically here with Tim, who plays pieces of metal amplified with guitar pickups, to create five intense pieces of heavily abstracted grey rumbly sound, rich with plenty of low bass grumbles and growls, most of the music hovering gracefully on the twilight zone where it might erupt into vicious anti-social table noise at the turn of a feathered cable. However, it never actually does that, and instead suffuses all emotions into this slowly-bubbling green soup of seething restraint. One listen to this shimmery-abraso beauty and I’m head over heels with Katsura Mouri’s playing style, now tempted to seek out her 2000 and 2002 BusRatch records for PARA discs.

Space, No Oddity

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Tetuzi Akiyama / Jeff Gburek
respect
SPECTROPOL RECORDS SpecT 18 CD (2012)

Precision and restraint are the watchwords for this beguiling release, which teams Japanese guitar guru Tetuzi Akiyama with Polish-American improviser Jeff Gburek for a quartet of long, contemplative duets recorded in 2010 and inspired – perhaps counterintuitively, given the chilly cover art of the CD – by the empty deserts of New Mexico.

Both players are veterans of these types of meetings, and this experience is what makes the record so enjoyable. There’s no showing off or attempting to dominate. Instead collaboration and the exchange of ideas predominate.

Gorgeous and hypnotic, the four pieces have an arresting sense of space and stillness, emphasised by the way in which the two players’ contributions weave and mesh together together, resulting gauzy films of abstract sound. The six and a half minutes of “Respect 4” are a fine example, Akiyama’s broken chords hanging luminously in the air like wire wool as Gburek subtly brings in a whining, fuzzy drone of feedback that swoops around and then enfolds them, as if wrapping them in a warm blanket.

Akiyama focuses exclusively on acoustic guitar throughout, playing with a glacial stillness that demonstrates his expertise in improvising groups small and large. Since forging his improvisational chops in the Madhar group in the late 80’s, he ran a monthly improv session with no-input mixing board maestro Toshimaru Nakamura in the 90s, has played in a duo with Hervé Boghossian since 2006, all the while amassing a comprehensive discography of solo, duo and larger group recordings with all manner of players.

His finesse is demonstrated perfectly in “Respect 3”. On this piece – which, perhaps appropriately my CD player seems to think is the first track on the album – we get a full 30 seconds of silence before Akiyama starts, plucking pinched harmonics followed by a glisteningly melodic line that appears on the horizon, like an iceberg in a freezing sea.

Throughout this fine, meditative record, every note, chord or harmonic Akiyama plays is perfectly placed – not only in relation to the other notes he plays, but also to the space and silence surrounding him. Perhaps this is why the album’s release notes talk about its ‘post-Feldman’ quality…

Gburek, in comparison, brings everything but the kitchen sink, mobilising slide, acoustic and prepared guitar and a raft of unidentified electronics to play with. He’s a well-regarded musician and composer in his own right, who has worked with Keith Rowe, Tom Carter from Charalambides, Eddie Prevost and many other experimentalists.

He dips into his bag of tricks sparingly, though, offsetting his partner’s contributions to great effect. The insistent, Morse-code like tones at the start of “Respect 4” ,for example, anchor Akiyama’s frail guitar melodies perfectly. Midway through “Respect 2”, he plays a high, keening melody, possibly on prepared guitar, making a sound somewhere between a Theremin and pedal steel guitar that curls around the space in a peculiarly feline way. Elsewhere, low rumbles, creaks and chimes bring ghostly touches of colour and texture.

In fact, the more I listen to this album, the more I’m convinced that Gburek brings a fantastically unconventional structure to these pieces. His interventions often blindside the listener, reconfiguring a track in unexpected ways. One-and-half minutes into the pristine quietude of “Respect 2”, a burst of white noise erupts, shattering the calm, followed by a clamour of recorded voices, in French and Polish. It’s as if someone has walked into the recording studio and switched on the radio. It’s weird, but it works.

Then, in “Respect 4”, following a particularly limpid section of guitar and electronics, Gburek unexpectedly summons up a sinister, bruised wave of sound which obliterates everything else. It then dissipates as quickly as it appeared, leaving Akiyama to pluck enigmatic droplets of guitar that shine in the now-empty space.
It might be easy, given all of this stillness and restraint, to fall back on some hackneyed guff about the intrinsically calm and meditative nature of Japanese art. To be sure, this album does have a scent of the Onkyokei about it (although Akiyama is quite capable of playing loud and visceral too, as anyone who heard his playing on 2012’s Satanic Abandoned Rock & Roll Society record, Bloody Imagination will testify.

But more importantly this is a collaboration, not a solo record, one which takes its cue from the wide open, empty sky of the southwest USA, not the Off Site venue in Tokyo. Its distinctive character comes from the inspiration of this landscape, moulded and formed by both Akiyama’s Japanese and Gburek’s Polish-American sensibilities.

In fact this record actually recalls some of Manfred Eicher’s poised productions for ECM. Perhaps this is a more adventurous, abstract and dissonant ECM record than that label is accustomed to, true. And maybe the icy European landscape on the CD case recalls ECM’s distinctive aesthetic more than I should allow it to. But still, there’s a shared sense of the possibilities of space and the calm intimacy of the recording that unites the Munich-based label and this mesmeric album.

Bandcamp page

Folk Songs for an Obscure Race: freaky combination of noise junk industrial and faux naif folk

GRIM

Grim, Folk Songs for an Obscure Race, Haang Niap Records, CD HAANG-002 (2009)

A weirdo industrial junk folk record, this is a compilation of releases and compilation tracks made in the 1980s by the Japanese industrial music project Grim. This band was (maybe still is?) the baby of one Jun Konagaya who sometimes had help from a couple of other noiseniks. This album is very much in the style of industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle, SPK, Z’ev, Einsturzende Neubauten and early Whitehouse: lots of bashing metal rhythms, a harsh declamatory pygmy-Hitler vocal, a screechy high-pitched siren drone, crude rhythms and song structures, and a lo-fi punk sensibility.

The recording switches from early noise-junk industrial to serene soundtrack music to harsh brutal power electronics to delicate acoustic-guitar folk ditties and back again: quite a dizzying range of music styles that bleed into one another can be found here. The contrast between severe uncompromising noise electronics, suggestive of torture, deviant sexuality and compulsive psychotic behaviour, on the one hand and an extreme faux naif innocence in the folk music stylings on the other can be very disturbing. I’m rather reluctantly reminded of some Whitehouse late-1990s releases that had tracks by Peter Sotos where he assembled together spoken dialogue recordings by girls and women who had been sexually abused. On several tracks, Konagaya’s vocal is pained and screechy, far beyond what William Bennett and Phillip Best achieved in their band’s heyday; on some of the later tracks, he could pass for Dalek Caan of the Cult of Skaro from Doctor Who.

What separates Konagaya’s music from his noisician compatriots is strong rhythms throughout the industrial pieces; the quieter folk songs have distinct lullaby melodies. The music is not at all free-flowing and the attitude behind it is very different: it’s often confrontational and hostile to the society from which Grim arises. The folk music pieces can be quite comic in their po-faced blank innocence after all the aggression that’s come before them.

All the music is very good if deranged and the tracks near the end of the album, superficially calm and child-like, are perhaps the most disturbing and freaky of all. They have a Grand Guignol air about them in their careful merry-go-round melodies and rhythms, while in the background something like a Nuremberg rally from the late 1930s might be running. Near the end, dreamy psych-folk songs sung by girl singers who might be evangelising for their particular nut-house religious cult that promises highly sanitised retro-1950s white-picket fence suburban domestic bliss salvation add another level of deranged sensibility. There’s an all-instrumental percussion piece that might have been written for a tap-dancing troupe that rounds off the album and at this point, I shudder to think that our friend Jun has been accepted into his local little trendy avant-garde artist colony that survives on government hand-outs and performance art stunts that try but fail to shock little old ladies and families with small children.

Nevertheless this album is a revelation in that there are actually forgotten Japanese acts that could more than hold their own against the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse, that also didn’t fit into the classic Japanese noise improv mould. What more might there be, that have been overlooked for far too long?

Contact: Haang Niap Records, haangniap@gmail.com

Drift Away

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Marihiko Hara
Flora
DRONE SWEET DRONE RECORDS DSD011 CD / NIGHT CRUISING NCD-02_2013 CD (2013)

Marihiko Hara’s Flora is a collection of calming and ambient sounds that evoke images of his native Japan. Inspired by nature, this is music to relax to and be carried away by.

Far from being bold or provocative, Flora sits very much at the other end of the musical spectrum; providing a reflective and transporting experience that forces you to stop for a while and step away from the stresses and frustrations of everyday life.

Recorded in Kyoto and Takashima City, Hara’s elegant piano and electronic compositions are combined with field recordings to produce a seamless selection of tracks that aim to transport listeners through forests, lakes and oceans, and even all the way up to the moon.

More than anything else, Flora highlights Hara’s talents as a composer and musician; with tracks like ‘Camera’ and ‘Curtain’, in particular, demonstrating his abilities as a classical-style pianist. Occasional electronic touches add a bit of an edge, but the overall feeling remains that of serenity and placidity; like a rippling lake or gentle summer breeze.

The ambient sounds, including twittering birds and buzzing insects, simply provide a subtle background to the Kyoto-based artist’s compositions. In fact, the whole CD almost feels like a soundtrack to nature. Only on one track, ‘Ocean’, does the drone take over from the piano; providing a slight shift in mood and ambience.

On some level, Flora might have benefited from the inclusion of more ambient field recordings (especially on the water-themed tracks), but as Hara himself states, the sounds he has chosen are ones that are close to his heart; and this certainly comes across.

For sheer beauty, ‘Ocean’ and ‘Eclipse’ are probably the standout tracks, but there’s no weak link here, as they all glide effortlessly into one another; each distinct, but no one track overpowering or diminishing the next.

Overall, Flora is an unchallenging, gentle and tranquil experience that allows the listener the chance to experience nature, reinterpreted and enhanced. It is a piece of work very much rooted in Japanese culture and conjures up images of the country’s landscape away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

As such, the best way to appreciate Flora is to lie down, close your eyes and let yourself drift off into Marihiko Hara’s world. Once there, you might find you want to hang around for a while.

Maru Sankaku Shikaku (Circle Triangle Square): long shamanistic rituals of free-form experimentation

BAM3CD7010

Maru Sankaku Shikaku (Circle Triangle Square), self-titled, Bamboo BAM3CD7010 (2013)

Long dormant artifacts from the halcyon days of Seventies Japanese trippy hippy psychedelia, three albums recorded by a group of travelling troubadours Maru Sankaku Shikaku have been bundled into a big set and made available to interested folks beyond the shores of Nippon. Led by Sakuro “Kant” Watanabe, the band travelled around Japan in the early 1970s performing publicly as street performers and dossing down in sleeping bags and tents where need be.

The three discs convey the impression of long shamanistic rituals in which free-form and improvised music dominates. A lot of it sounds direction-less and perhaps it was intended to be. There are sometimes passages where the music seems to coalesce into something definitely rhythmic and acquires focus and purpose. In such sections, the music is surprisingly energetic and joyful, and the performers carry on and on for their lives until they’ve sucked the life out of the groove. Disc 1 in particular feels like the appetiser to the main course and dessert that will follow on succeeding discs: while certainly very active, it has the ambience of the musicians practising warm-up and preparation, and occasionally psyching themselves into their own private trances, in which they engage in mental and psychic space travel, in order to ready themselves for the main rituals. The mood is happy and exploratory, as performers experiment with various objects, some musical and others not so but pressed into service anyway, and play with them for as long as their attention is not distracted by the next toy available.

At this point it should be said that each disc, representing an individual album, is about 30 minutes long with just two tracks (each corresponding to one side of the original vinyl LP release) so it can be assumed that the music was originally intended to be continuous on each album. It could very well be that the albums are excerpts of one continuous jam session. Disc 2 begins rather alarmingly with a woman’s wordless ululations against accompanying drums and a guitar: neither instrument makes any coherent sense and both play against each other. The music is frantic with a restless animated zip: all instruments zing off at tangents and follow their individual journeys in often demented ways. Guitar especially scrabbles through a forest of blues tones and drums knock about constantly. Organ noodles and stutters about. Later a definite guitar melody develops and energy concentrates in the riffing. As on Disc 1, there is plenty of mucking about and curious experimentation for its own sake.

Disc 3 features faster, slightly more structured music as the performers get caught up in the mood of their moment and go for broke while the inspiration powers them. The singing is perhaps the most outstanding aspect here: the disc starts off with a male performer babbling away excitedly while jaunty piano follows him. The troupe is caught up in the vocalist’s mood and garbled, wordless singing continues more or less for the length of the album.

The whole set really is a musical universe unto itself; to say the performers were off with the fairies is an understatement to say the least. Probably the closest contemporary parallel would be the strange fey fairy folk ambient music scene that used to exist in Kyogle in northern New South Wales some years ago. The music takes its inspiration from free-form jazz without appearing jazzy at all. What became of the performers after they recorded their five albums is unknown but if they knew their body of musical work has survived down to the present, they would surely be overjoyed. A new generation of listeners can finally discover the performers’ strange rituals and journeys to another world for themselves.

After forty years, the music remains fresh and as loopy as it must have been at the time. My copy of the set is a digitally remastered one and the hiss and crackle of the original vinyl do not appear.

 

Key Acoustics

The plaintive cry of Loren Connors and Suzanne Langille is I Wish I Didn’t Dream (NORTHERN SPY RECORDS NSCD 031), on a highly opaque CD of intense experimental guitar murk and equally plangent vocalising. These short, clipped poem-songs are exemplary manifestations of the Emily Dickinson approach taken to its post-modern extreme – broken images, unfamiliar emotions, and nascent ideas stumbling into the world scarce half made-up. Who better to delve into these uncharted seas than the two talented Americans in this duo, who singly or collectively have been producing musical puzzles for over thirty years, producing a large body of work that’s proving impossible to decode – and the problem only increases when you have obtuse, distanced and frown-inducing releases such as this one. We last heard from them as two-thirds of Haunted House, a group producing the wonderful Blue Ghost Blues for this same label in 2011, whose hard-rocking and lengthy guitar noodlings may well have struck a chord with all good lovers of avant axe-excess, but this particular sleep-talking mystery bucket of murmurations and unfinished utterances is quite another brisket of bones. The guitar meanders and squeaks, producing icy cold tones from a meat locker situated thirty miles from the studio. The vocalist is closer to hand, her urgent whispers magnified in a small echo chamber, but her cryptical half-sung sketches – fleeting portraits etched on a frozen window pane with a dusty twig – will have you straining to catch the implications behind each intimate gasp. This is blanked-out, impenetrable minimalist art music of the highest water, a more austere version of Annette Peacock and Joni Mitchell running across the snow with the distorted and attenuated guitars of Japanese ghosts in pursuit of their threatened souls. It also comes with a booklet of stark abstract paintings by M P Landis, completing a package that’s guaranteed to confirm everything you ever suspected about the emptiness and futility of life. Gradely! (01/11/2012)

Another American who, I suspect, is no stranger to staring the Gods of futility in the eye is our good friend Nick Hoffman, the sullen and stern genius who utters little while issuing great but perplexing music on his Pilgrim Talk label. One such batch arrived in November 2012. Cockroach Boy (PILGRIM TALK PT22) is a teamup with Satoshi Kanda, one of his many connections in the steaming continent of the East, and they also made a split cassette for this label in 2010. Kanda has been improvising since 2003 using nothing but an electric bass and some empty milk bottles. Well, he certainly delivers the cream on this recording! It’s one of Hoffman’s “play it and guess” recordings where absolutely nothing is explained and it’s up to the listener to decide when the duo have started or ended performing, and whether or not what they are creating can even be called “music”. Ultra-minimal, confusing, yet it’s full of the unbearable tension that these dangerous situations can often create. Soon you too will be drawn into contemplating these strange tones and lengthy silences, and wishing you were nailed inside a coffin at the cemetery in Fukuoka, where this was recorded. The lengthy title to this 40-minute work, if indeed it is a title, compacts references to demons, corpses and Gods and also retains the air of a schlocky horror movie, in keeping with the grotesque Insect-Fear cover art by Hoffman. I love the way this music consistently refuses easy digestion, and all these Pilgrim Talk releases are recommended. (09/11/2012)

The Polish trio Sonda recorded Sonda (AUDIO TONG AT26.2012) in Sopot, a little town abutting the Baltic Sea, performing in an attic space in 2006. Now released on Audio Tong, it’s an engaging set of music played by the drummer Krzysztof Topolski and the guitarist Marcin Dymiter, with vocalist Tomasz Pawlak “Czaszka” joining them with his husky yawps for three tracks. In their endearingly untidy music, the group make a point of confusing musical genres, aiming to indulge their love of “rock, blues, metal, drone, punk, electronics and improvisation”. Two of the seven tracks are a species of obnoxious guitar grindcore racket that should grease the wheels of die-hard Napalm Death fans, while two other tracks are meandery improvisation of the rattle-and-creak variety, with much emphasis on the metallic resonances produced by cymbals and metal-wound strings. Other pieces are just plain impossible to categorise, although the 12-minute ‘Wszystko Dobre, Co Sie Dobrze Konczy’ has a definite vibe of Can threaded into the sinews of its drumming and electronic drone, making snake-like movements across the carpet with the help of the violinist Marek Dybusc. Competent enough performances, but the trio ultimately lack force and conviction, no matter which style they adopt. Lovely deep sea cover art. (02/11/2012)

Strange furry thing from Jüppala Kääpiö, the duo who brought us Spring Promenade in 2010. Despite their Finnish name this band is actually two Japanese musicians Hitoshi and Carole Kojo who live in Belgium. Rewound Grooves (OMNIMOMENTO OM 07) may be a concept record telling the story of the Krampus, a vicious and hairy beast drawn from Alpine mythology who is associated with Winter and may be the enemy of St Nicholas – a sort of early manifestation of the Grinch. The music by Jüppala Kääpiö is however anything but beastly, and comprises four lengthy and limpid drones of ambient swirlery, all created from numerous layers of gentle electronic tones, breathy vocals and endlessly spinning tape loops (probably enhanced by digital means). The album strikes a thoughtful and contemplative pose, and is generally soothing and positive, with only the third track ‘From Veins To Nebulae’ introducing an element of drama or danger. Somewhat diffuse and static music, but there is much craft in the Kojos’ sound-generation technique, and they rarely commit a careless or half-baked statement to tape. Besides the fake fur wrapper, there is also a screenprinted band of card which can be worn like a mask. (29/11/2012)

If you’d prefer drone music with more darkness lurking in the corners, then as ever Sum Of R will satisfy your thirst for all that’s lugubrious and sombre. The sounds on Ride Out The Waves (STORM AS HE WALKS SAHWLP001) are produced mostly by Reto Mäder working in the studio overdubbing his keyboards, bass, electronics and percussion, although Julia Wolf (what a brilliant name for a supernatural horror combo like this one) adds poignant stabs from her fatal guitar at chosen stages on the forest pathway. I tend to remember Sum Of R records as an unbroken feast of thick occluded dark ambience, but Ride Out The Waves has a lot more variety and incident than their usual output, each track quite unlike the last, until the LP becomes the soundtrack to a very disjointed and episodic horror film. Said film, if it exists, is characterised by much bloodshed, sabres, and men on horseback cutting down villagers with a pitiless scowl of contempt. Aye, there is still plenty of the characteristic bubbling black tar music which induces fear and misery, but the heavy metal guitar swipes add a very welcome element of tension, plus the spare percussion will appeal to all you hard-boned stoner freaks – just check out the slowed-down battering effects on ‘Alarming’, the truly apocalyptic nightmare that brings the album crashing down into ruins. I’ve always said Reto Mäder should have made a Black Metal LP, but I feel that genre may sadly be in decline now. Even so, Mader should join forces with MZ.412 some day, and the results would be truly monstrous – they could produce the ultimate “atmospheric dread and cold death” album. The photo shows a promo CD, but the release is vinyl.