Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Erise no me“ ****


Recorded 2001


Even before the unprepared listener has a chance to delve into the symbolism of Tomokawa’s lyrics, s/he is bound to be elegantly nudged off balance by the singer’s oxymoronic style.  Zestful melancholia, brusque intimacy and abrasive pastoralism bite softly from his violent ballads.  And yes, he makes all this possible. 


Over the years, Tomokawa maintained the unique character of his art while transforming and adapting his musical persona.  He managed to steer away from the mainstream yet seems to be aware of the changes that must have – and did – affect his audience.  From an underground singer songwriter of early 1970s, Tomokawa re-emerged as a progressive acid folk bard of the late 1970s, and acoustic poet of the 1980 and an avant-folk cabaret star of the 1990s.  Since the beginning of this century, he further expanded his activity into film making and bolder promotion of his charmingly emotional, primitivist paintings. 


Operating predominantly in the acoustic realm since the mid-1980s, Tomokawa has been fortunate enough to attract heavyweights of Japan’s improvised, jazz and avant-folk scenes.  Bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa appeared on several of his recordings in the 1990s.  Keiji Haino, Chihiro S of Lacrymosa, Toshiaki Ishizuka of Cinorama and Vajra, and Takero Sekijima of Compostela have all recorded with Tomokawa.  He replaced the earlier trio of acoustic guitar, bass and percussion with a particularly rewarding guitar-piano-percussion format, relying heavily on Masato Nagahata, one of his most loyal collaborators.


Tomokawa has been a keen interpreter of works penned in the 1920s by symbolist and dada poet Chuya Nakahara.  Considered the Rimbaud of Japanese literature, Nakahara is highly regarded for the musical quality he apportioned to the rhythmic syllabism of Japanese language.  Tomokawa often appears to have captured Nakahara’s spirit in his own hyperbolic 5- and 7-syllable liners. 


Seldom does Tomokawa seem to be perfectly satisfied with his records.  Oftentimes, he returns repeatedly to some of his flagship themes, usually with satisfying results. 


Swimming with ease between the general indifference and devoted cult following, he has crafted for himself a lasting niche. 



tomokawaJean Genet ni kike

A chromite tryad welcomes us to the spangling fretwork of high pitched mandolin (Masato Nagahata), acoustic guitar (Tomokawa) and drums (Toshiaki Ishizuka).  Cracking melodic lozenges into airborne confetti, the trio imposes its lustrous effervescence evoking the most irradiant Stormy Six circa “Cliché”.  Nagahata’s brisé style rushes hasty variations bordering on mini-fantasias.  Not unlike Jean-Paul Sartre, Tomokawa refers to Jean Genet as a ‘saint’.  But whereas Sartre focused openly on his character’s homosexuality, taste for betrayal and quest for evil, Tomokawa remains oblique and discrete in the banal enumeration of daily chores and equally banal midnight phantoms.  This emphasis on extreme contrast is reflected in the parsimony of acoustic tools.  The snare runs may evoke a 1940s march, but they waddle in the resplendence of pristine Mediterranean, not the urban grime of George Grosz or Otto Dix. 


Erise no me

Nagahata’s accordion swells with robust sustain, stepping down seamlessly along a gracious diminuendo.  Tomokawa adopts here his trademark gi’en (chanted recitation) style, remaining in full dynamic control.  Taroh Kanai joins the band on his lithe, alluvial nylon string guitar.  His instrument makes some tight-lipped commentaries on Tomokawa’s verse.  The singer’s command of self-style vowel contraction may require a closer study of the attached lyric sheet, but Tomokawa’s diction allows him to cram much more into each line than any metrical form would normally accommodate.  The lyrics betray the failed attempt to freeze a memorable moment “Ichibu shiju mite ita nowa erise no me” – forever contemplated eyes of Erise… 


Suichû megane
This music has been composed to a deeply sensorial poem by Masato Katoo.  Tomokawa draws vivid images of a beach and breaking surf.  Kanai’s guitar exudes fireplace warmth and teams up with Nagahata’s searing mandolin.  The narration exploits sudden juxtapositions of emotionally conflictive imagery.


Bô suru hi
There are many modes fitting for a waltz – the pathos of grande valse, macabresque abandon, Groundhog-day type circularity.  Tomokawa opts for a comedian’s waltz and chokes with his clandestine shriek at the end of each stanza.  His self-gagged style is dutifully accompanied by accordion, woodblocks and acoustic guitar.  In its circumambulation, the band turns up the volume, but remains disciplined under the rattle of alpine-sounding spoons.  The composition of the poem betrays reliance on free association. 


Do fish sleep in the sea?” – asks Tomokawa, before sending us on a gallop jaunt with piano arpeggios and guitar chords.  Engineer Takeshi Yoshida turned here the instrumental interludes into veritable orchestral cocktails of free electric guitar and abstract, taut bongos, with results reminiscent of the fibrous seams laid down by Francis Gorgé (Birgé-Gorgé-Shiroc) and Lee Underwood (Tim Buckley).  The entire band swells again when the refrain comes back, with mandolin bisbigliandos, free piano and chromatic drums galore.  The intensity of these improvised instrumentals mimics Tomokawa-the-singer’s dynamic extremes.  His polar approach has long deleted the inelastic and conformist dynamic middle. 


Fuyu no chômonkyo
Chuya Nakahara’s poem is introduced by a very ‘De Falla’-inspired Spanish guitar.  The lattice of siliceous notes is sunny, cayenne, supple.  “Samui samui hi nari ki” – a cold, very cold day is coming.  Tomokawa’s basic chords on regular guitar are no match for the dolce plucking of Kanai’s nylon strings. 


Tomokawa’s modified haikus retain 7-syllable and 5-syllable verses, but squish them into frequently overboiling emotionalism which is at the antipodes of the detached, spiritual suggestiveness of the genre.  This text, with its references to Jim Morrison, is a rather average folk rock trade with two guitars and an accordion. 



This tongue-in-cheek political statement could appeal to young Japanese, long disaffected by the purely notional character of the country’s democracy.  Tomokawa “proposes” foundation of a new party for the rich and poor alike – named humorously Public Chief Liberty Democratic Guarantee Party, or something to this effect.


Ranke kokkara mai
The preceding two tracks have disturbed the flow of this collection, but the three closing compositions are the record’s saving grace.  On “Ranke…”, Keiji Haino incinerates cobwebs of mystery, single-handedly plunging Tomokawa’s combo into a much roomier, yet invariably claustrophobic space.  The singer’s acoustic guitar merely functions here as a rump percussion, while Haino’s liquid, annealing style is redolent of his most anguished of spells (e.g. “Mazu wa iro wo nakusoo”).  Someone plays harmonica as Tomokawa pukes his increasingly dramatic lines against Haino’s soaring lines of karmic beauty.  A descend from these heights leads down an open, inanimate, deserted slope – with skeletal acoustic guitar as our only companion. 


Ikyo no tori
Only a handful of singer-songwriters managed to fuse their percussive piano style with a lasting sense of personal drama – Brel, Grechuta, Alvaro come to mind.  Tomokawa’s melodramatic exposé doubles the tension with the use of a march-like drum, which releases the acoustic keyboard into a concerto scale resonance.  Fluent slide touch from Kanai on his Spanish guitar again enriches this tight metric with a measure of improvised individualism.  This interplay of Nagahata’s grand dramatism on the piano with the cozy guitar whispers is mediated by the excellent stick work on slash cymbal work by Ishizuka.  “At the bifurcation of the skies (…), the vividness lasts forever”. 


Chichi o kau

The finale takes us into a supermundane territory.  On this track, Haino’s guitar work moves closer to his Fushitsusha nights – awash with drilling thrusts and throttles.  Free, lateral drumming and spasmodic recitation of an agonizingly patrilineal text by Yutaka Kikuchi transform this piece into a stormy tide of seething avant-rock.  In this mostly atonal environment, Tomokawa privileges chaos, allowing Ishizuka to deploy his panoply of tools in an aperiodic, vector-free fashion.  Tomokawa strangles the tortured strings of his acoustic guitar with abandon worthy of Kan Mikami.  Against the background of Haino’s brutal guitar malice, Tomokawa’s screams gravitate – unusually for him – towards the lower register.  Ishizuka’s colorful use of cymbals avoids any interaction with the waves of guitar feedback.  Haino ends this epic chapter with an impromptu staccato. 






Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Yatto ichimaime” (1975)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Nikusei” (1976)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Ore no uchi de nariymanai uta, Nakamura Chuya sakuhinshû” (1978)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Inu – Akita Concert Live” (1978)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Senbazuru wo kuchi ni kuwaeta hibi“ (1979)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Sakura no kuni no chiru naka wo” (1980)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Umi shizuka, koe wa yami” (1981)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Muzan no bi” (1985)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Hanabana no kashitsu” (1992)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Live Manda-La Special” (1993)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Maboroshi to asobu” (1994)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Hitori bon-odori” (1995)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA & Kan MIKAMI: “Go-en. Live In Nihon Seinenkan“ (1995)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Shibuya Apia Document” (1993-95)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Zeiniku No Asa” (1996)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Yume Wa Hibi Genki Ni Shinde Yuku” (1998)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Sora no Sakana” (1999)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Akai Polyan” (2000)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Erise no me” (2001)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Kenshin no Ichigeki” (2002)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Itsuka toku mite ta” (2004)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Satoru” (2005)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Live 2005 Osaka Banana Hall” (2005)

Kazuki TOMOKAWA: “Aoi mizu, akai mizu” (2007)


There are also several compilations, and collections of previously published, but rearranged works.  Tomokawa’s earliest singles (solo and with Downtown Boogiewoogie Band) can be found Toshiba sampler “Neko ga nemutte iru“ (1974).  He also appears on compilation “International Sad Hits Volume 1”.


For those who wish to step into his fascinating world, I particularly recommend the CDs recorded in the 1990s, even though the artistic breakthrough probably came with “Muzan no bi”, whose title song could be one of Tomokawa’s best compositions ever. 


Since the beginning of this century, Tomokawa has benefitted from increased name recognition and most of his recent output consists of re-recorded earlier material and live documents.  He also plunged into collaboration with filmmakers (Koji Wakamatsu, Takashi Miike and Rokuro Mochizuki), inevitably leading to slowdown in his activity as a composer of new material.

Published in: on November 6, 2008 at 10:51 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,

GAP: “Gap” ***

Recorded 1976-77



Gap, the trio of Masami Tada, Kiyohiko Sano and Takashi Soga is often associated with the dominant school of Japanese improvisation.  Erroneously, pundits usually line up Gap in a single sentence with the likes of Taj Mahal Travellers and East Bionic Symphonia.  Even though Masami Tada participated in the sessions that resulted in East Bionic’s LP, there is little that connects it, musically, with Gap.  East Bionic inherited from Taj Mahal Travellers the predilection for pelagic timelessness and spaceleness of resonant loops, propelled by phase lags and sprinkled with capricious tunings.  To this day, those legendary recordings inundate the listener with a sense of mystical experience.


Gap, active between 1974 and 1979, could not be more dissimilar.  The trio programmatically avoided any trace of interactionism or self-organization which dominated group improvisation in non-aleatoric formats.  Tada & Co steered towards emotionless essentialism, which was not only abstract and nonmetric, but entirely stripped down to absolute basics.  There is no velocity, no continuity, no patterning.  Articulation seems suppressed even throughout considerable dynamic changes.  It is a disorienting experience and no pathways are provided for our perceptual map. 


Their only record appeared on Yukio Kojima’s Alm Records and comprises two live documents, different enough to fend off any accusation of homomorphism.  Halfway through this period, Masami Tada participated in Takehisa Kosugi’s workshops at ART school.  He was also involved in the establishment of a music school for children and later ensconced himself on the gallery circuit. 


He returned 20 years later as member of Kazuo Imai’s Marginal Consort – a sublime improvisational collective that successfully resumed the lessons of the 1970s, incorporating both the mystical and anti-formalist traditions of Japanese free form playing.




1977.11.30. Chuo University 203 Room.

Jabs of sharp electric organ clusters squeeze a wedge between a squeaking trumpet and a fibrous electronic drone.  The trumpet is muted down to hoarseness, protesting with self-styled kisses.  Imperceptibly, the drone is leaching into lower regions, oblivious to the trumpet’s muffled advances.  The brass instrument wheezes, as if dragged on a rough surface.  A Sun Ra-style ‘rocksichord’ drone becomes more organic and intensional.  A percussive element appears, initially in a non-ascriptive role.  Then it suddenly begins to apportion discrete packets of sketchy, wooden clutter.  In a backfill effect, some metal sheets are disturbed with microtonal scratches.  A pre-conceptual contrast is building up between tiny woodblock skitter up front and deep installation noise in the background.  Soon after that a real drum catalyzes the party, although bird-like whistles will temper the reign of low register.  Gap is now a trio of metal boxes, a large drum and whistles – sonic aspects that remain elusive, almost noetic in their distaste for organization.  The shadowy acceleration of these elements progresses in a most non-parametric manner.  The effect is almost sequential – central percussive factors gain prominence, while the whistles languish.  Later, the scampering whistles usurp the terrain with minor vibrato and a large, loose membrane reverberates somewhere with a restraint of a retired shaman.  Unannounced, summertime insect buzz ionizes an environmentally friendly toy xylophone.  In the most mechanistic passage yet, xylophone and metal percussion absolutize total stasis.  Ceramic guitar glissandos – soon to be popularized by Chas Smith – are a distant, foreign guest, lost among triangles, Japanese percussion and undulating electronics.  More personalized guitar clangs are blotted out by melodica’s sustained notes and a chanchiki drum.  This fragment is semi-stationary, speckled with non-referential, percussive parariddles.  Circular grinding noise stumbles against coincidental guitar twangs and paralytic shakuhachi moods.  The mortar churn advances apace until an apparent dispute opens between the sound objects.  Their plastic, leather, wood and stone forms speak at various intervals.  If extended, this fragment could compete with Fred Frith’s soundtrack to a documentary on Andy Goldsworthy.


1976.12.3. Ars Nova Studio

From a slow fade-in, a short-breathed melodica maneuvers in a longitudinal fashion against a determined, dry percussion clank.  Heavy gongs and electronic feedback provide a more comforting background than the deafening silence of the previous track.  The texture is rounder and more exoteric, even though the sound quality is rather muffled.  An isostatic harmonica (?) competes with the melodica, while context-independent dull clang of invariant resonance hides behind a corner.  Unexpectedly, pathogenic piano chords peer into the fray, cut off repeatedly by an ungainly caesura, smudged with some brown noise.  Not surprisingly, the player must have listened to Yuji Takahashi’s recordings, and delineates his originality through unlikely, almost atmospheric de-biasing.  Electro-milling is sintered by nervous piano arpeggios and – admittedly jarring – sawtooth repetitions on infantile melodica.  Slowly, the strikingly divergent piano populates the space.  It is anti-melodic but served without Cecil Taylor’s frantic physicalism.  Sustained organ chords of ‘rocksichord-type’ and the mortar burr make their return, making the overall performance a notch denser.  Piano clusters and strewing notes proliferate, almost sidetracking us into believing that this build-up would eventually lead to a climax.  Muri desu yo.  Instead, amplified bass stutters like a schizophrenic, tying together bridge trestles for the next section of scrape, whistle and feedback.  No sooner do we overhear a distant conversation than the level of dynamics falls to stethoscopic levels.  A curiously suppressed recorder pilots clumsily amidst the clutter.  Although the live microphones capture clacking at various distances, the output does not induce dichotic listening.  The vocabulary is abstruse, scattered, non-objective and if the message was textual, we could not decipher its semantic content due to print losses.  The closing fragment is dominated by shifting tempos of rattling spokes, operated with a mechanistic imprecision of Jean Tinguely’s sculptures.  Eventually, the tempo rises, enhanced by humanly powered percussion and impotent flutes.  The clutter of spokes reverses and pauses.  The performance tails off. 





EAST BIONIC SYMPHONIA: “East Bionic Symphonia” (1976)

GAP: “Gap” (1976-77)

MARGINAL CONSORT: “Collective Improvisation” (1997)

MARGINAL CONSORT: “Marginal Consort” 4CD (2003-04)


Masami Tada has issued many CDs from various gallery performances.  My knowledge of these recordings is poor. 


Published in: on October 12, 2008 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Keiji HAINO & Tatsuya YOSHIDA: “Mizu ga honô wo tsukamu made” ****

Recorded 2000



The earliest sign of recorded collaboration between these two giants of Japanese avant-garde go back to Keiji Haino’s guest appearance on Musica Transonic’s “Gashô keshin”, also known as “Incubation”.  This was in 1997, and little at that time indicated that the shock of titans, mediated by Makoto Kawabata and Asahito Nanjo was anything more than accidental. 


Instinctively, Yoshida’s topological drumming technique should not sit comfortably with radical mood swings that Haino had been infusing with quanta of kinetic energy for nearly three decades.  And yet, when the legends met again in 2000, sparks flew. 


Whereas in other duet formats, Yoshida tends to dominate the proceedings thanks to his intuitively mathematical memory, in his collaboration with Haino, the distribution of outcomes suggests equal repartition of rights and duties.  Despite moments of premeditated asynchrony, the musicians achieve a measure of multi-climactic exaltation.  They never seek full symbiosis, but nor are they content with mere cohabitation.  Instead, we witness metathesis and occasional cross-mutation of ideas.  And what does bring these very different souls together is the essentially haptic nature of their musical practice. 


In the trio format, their collaborations are more than the sum of the three.  Haino’s gitara picaresca transfers the center of gravity, turning the polymetric Gordian knots into veritable jewels of avant-rock.  As Knead, they were joined by bassist Hisashi Sasaki, formerly of Ruins.  On Sanhedolin, Sasaki was replaced by Mitsuru Nasuno. 


As a duo, Haino and Yoshida often go beyond the electric assault and roam unplugged, bringing back the memories of itinerant troubadours, equipped with acoustic string and membrane instruments from Hindustani, Bengali and Berber traditions.


Please note that the record described here, originally published in Hong Kong, is also known under English and Cantonese titles: “Until Water Grasps Flame” and “Deng shui zhua dao huo wei zhi”, respectively.


Yoi sareru wa seishinbunseki no chimayoi

Thunderclaps of blitz guitar crash in before Yoshida’s multi-directional impetus disturbs the distant discharges and drag the guitar distortion much closer into an echo-less, closed space.  Haino’s axe transforms his a-melodic shrapnels into heavily infused, compressed, pyroxenic seams.  It is Yoshida’s feet that rule here, jabbing the low-pitched drums with determined rolls.  His busy cymbal work is disactivated whenever the guitar fizz evaporates.


Nadaraka na shiyôgo no ketsui

A very different duo of the same pair of hands.  Haino appears first on a wonderfully sentimental Mughal sarod.  Yoshida joins the misty sunset scene on darbouka.  Haino’s irreverent glissandos turn his sarod into a mantric oasis of short cycles, but his hedonistic style will take a while before accelerating.  Yoshida handles a multi-effect Korg X5D, here in liquid bass role, but with a trousseau full of other percussive sounds: glockenspiels, cog rattles and flexatones.  As the effects accumulate, the atmosphere becomes very dense.  The clamor of the electro-bass has almost distracted us from Haino’s riffing race to nirvana. 


Yokka to yutta to tan

A more familiar setting of chuckling jazz guitar and brushed percussion.  Haino, who had played with Derek Bailey four years before, hesitates here between the master’s non-speculative anti-documentarism and a peculiar stutter perfected by Davey Williams.  Although Haino does sound less angular and more rounded than either, he does not fall into the full-bodied, leathery nostalgia of his duets with Loren Mazzacane Connors.  Or perhaps, Yoshida just would not allow him to.  The track progresses by fits and starts, with aptly mobile drumwork evolving in parallel, and never in competition with the guitar.  This is rock improvisation for jazz sounds.  In the dry, clipped “rock” context, Haino’s sound is closer to Sonny Sharrock’s than Eddy Marron’s.  After another swell of nonmetric drum patterns, Haino desists again, contenting himself to punctuating Yoshida’s most defining beats.  Eventually, an eruption does arrive, embodied in higher riffing gear and more constructive buttressing from the drumkit. 


5Hz e no kansha no in

Here Haino picks up guembri, a three string lute of Berber origin.  He will exploit the instrument’s vascular, hollow sound with restrained, kindly pentatonic plucking.  Yoshida’s skin rumble is perfectly adjusted, color-wise.  The duo achieves a tribal asabiyya even before Haino hurls his first howl.  Yoshida’s bass drum rejoins, balancing the contributions adequately.  Soft drum rolls coarsen whenever Haino’s howling masks the delicate articulation on guembri.


Setten wo yowayowashiku shite shimau itteki

High pitched, wailing notes from Haino’s guitar are quickly corrected by Yoshida’s multiplicative drumming.  Henceforth, Haino is reduced to playing some combinations of quarter notes and 8ths, with irregularly interposed rests.  Their junctures create unexpected filling effects. 


Tokku ni kanatte iru hazu no LHNZ to iu kekka na no ni

Haino is credited here as playing “gothan”, a low-resonance string instrument of unusual tuning.  His strikes (probably plectrum) recall false, additive raga accelerations.  Yoshida operates mostly on brushes, mixed deep, but with very short reverb, and a clearly audible large tomtom on the right.  When silence falls, Haino intones an East Asian-sounding “melody” from his instrument – a slowly flourishing dance with bizarre dragon interjections and shouts.


‘Mochiron kare dake no tame’ to iiwake wo suru

Deep, tunnel-like echo buries the unlikely duo of bowed esraj and Korg X5D.  The esraj, a fretted Bengali instrument related to sarangi, gives off an eerie, heterotropic image.  No temple possesses such long-decay acoustics as applied here, but the atmosphere certainly is one of meditative concentration.  Yoshida’s clicking electro-rhythm does not distract, but the gesture of his rhythm-keeping differs radically from his physical drumming.  This is a novelty and a plus.  Later, the Korg’s bass function is switched off.  Scrapers, graters and microtonal rattling correlate nicely with an angrier accumulation of distorted meend from the esraj.  When Yoshida elicits vitruous effects from the low-end rumble, memories of classic Jon Hassell flow back. 


Owatta shôko misetagaru seimon

Although the track begins with Haino’s stammering guitar technique, so perfectly displayed on his first Aihiyô recording, it later settles into a more familiar, almost ‘jazzy’ mode.  At various intervals, the narrative sequence recurs: presentation, silence, resolution and release.


Kioku wo tadotta toki ni nankai ka atama ni ukabu akarasama to no sôiten

This is mostly Yoshida’s show.  He opens with his cocky vocal retributions, strongly in the improvised Zamla tradition, not nasal enough to be truly ‘tongue in cheek’.  The guitar sound is warm, welcoming, running scraps of medieval scales.  The drumming is unabashedly aperiodic.  When Yoshida defaults into his falsetto, Haino’s guitar veers off into a herbal, fruity terrain.  Quite unexpectedly, we are confronted with one of the more intriguing moments on this record.  From the fragrant orchard emerges an attempt at ‘melody’.  Granted, it is a mere “attempt”, but sustained as a perennial promise, not frustrated by an abstract collapse or a cacophonic break-out.  Instead, the promise is being subsidized with a conclusive dialogue between the two musicians, each caressing his miraculously sonic object.


Sabetsu to mitomerareta anna fun’inki

A duo of two darboukas.  Haino does well by not trying to compete with the world’s best drummer, but nor does he fall into non-pitched melodism of his percussion solos.  Rather his fingers nimbly send hurricanes across the darbouka’s membrane, keeping up with the vertiginous pace posited by the master.  Yoshida’s excitement is noticeable when his trademark vocalizing fuses with nonsensical glossolalia.  They rush through these minutes, barely touching the ground. 


‘Masaka’ to omotta toki no naka ni fukumareru  natsukashisa wa nan paasento?

The record culminates here with over 12 minutes of determined guitar and drum mayhem, not unlike Fushitsusha’s mid-period volcanism.  Chord progressions repeat but each time at different length.  Some guitar incisions sound almost groovy (or is Haino poking fun at Kurihara?).  The drumming is also more obviously ‘rock’: Yoshida’s avalanches of irreversible tremors are nothing short of impressive.  He perfects his craft whenever Haino’s riffing goes free.  And when Haino returns to his staccatos, Yoshida’s drumming suddenly becomes regularized.  It is Yoshida who takes the lead to pull the duo each time off the edge of repetition.  Haino’s anthemic moments are short-lived.  His guitar suffocates with a mere droplet of fuzzing pathos.  Then a brief, abstract section follows, filled by drumming in search of perfect architecture.  But it is a riff galore that will end the track.


Kiete yuku kono yôna kanashimi hô

Haino meows surreptitiously to Yoshida’s Korg and an astonishingly simple meter.  As if unaware, a detuned string instrument (banjo?) rambles on with a corrugated effect.  There are surprises – the Korg imitates tabla’s left-hand drum with a deeper, variable pitch.  The ‘banjo’ melodically shadows the polyrhythm.  Haino swoons into monosyllabic chanting, peaking mid-phrase (here’s the regularity) and varying the release (here’s lack thereof).  




For a bold listener in search of avant-rock improvisation, there are excellent moments on each of the recordings listed below.  My favorites remain 1 and 2.  I have never heard position 4.  Material on 7 and 8 partly overlaps. 


1. Keiji HAINO & Tatsuya YOSHIDA: “Mizu ga honô wo tsukamu made” (2000)

2. KNEAD: “Tokete shimaeru shiyawase mo.  Melting Happiness” (2001)

3. KNEAD: “Knead” (2002)

4. Keiji HAINO, Tatsuya YOSHIDA, Mitsuru NATSUNO, BUS RATCH: “Live at Cafe Independants” (2004)

5. Keiji HAINO & Tatsuya YOSHIDA: “New Rap” (2005)

6. SANHEDOLIN: “Majoicchi wa mukô” (2005)

7. Keiji HAINO & Tatsuya YOSHIDA: “Uhrfasudhasdd” (2007)

8. Keiji HAINO & Tatsuya YOSHIDA: “Hauenfiomiume” (2008)

Published in: on September 7, 2008 at 3:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Opera Yokoo Tadanori wo utau” ******

Recorded 1968-1969



In the 1950s and 1960s, several Japanese composers developed strong connections with American avant-garde scene.  It is during these years that Toshi Ichiyanagi studied in the US with John Cage, participated in dada-inspired Fluxus movement and got involved with contemporary theater music.  Although Ichiyanagi initially focused on composing chamber music and scores with Japanese traditional instruments, the interface with the messiah of indeterminacy fertilized his budding taste for experimentation. 


Married to multimedia artist and fellow Flexus member Yoko Ono, Ichiyanagi experienced a creative breakthrough after his return to Japan.  He soon ventured into vintage live electronics and physicalism – performances in which sounds were activated by musicians’ movements.  Not all of these forays were entirely self-induced.  Already in 1961, his path had crossed with improvising pioneers Group Ongaku, led by Shiomi Mizuno, Yasunao Tone and Takehisa Kosugi. 


Yet contacts with US academic institutions continued.  This was the period when an entire generation of youthful musicians shuttled between America and Japan: Takehisa Kosugi, Masahiko Satoh and Stomu Yamashita among others.  In 1967, Ichiyanagi returned to New York to perfect his skills in electronic sound creation.  He experimented with tape manipulation and ring modulators.  As his sonic ventures coincided with the second wave of Japonism, his work attracted considerable attention in the West. 


Upon return to Japan, Ichiyanagi plunged into the country’s nascent psychedelic scene, combining the inchoate acid rock with musique concrète.  These experiments were unabashedly greedy; Ichiyanagi utilized a posse of theoretically incompatible sources – enka songs, kayookyoku popsike jingles, archival recordings, and indeterminate radio manipulation.  The “Opera” dedicated to Tadanori Yokoo’s visual art stems from this fertile period of bold syncretism.


Drawing from Japanese modernism and Roy Liechtenstein’s brand of Pop Art, Tadanori Yokoo’s posters gained recognition for his proto-psychedelic mysticism.  Although not directly portraying the music scene, Yokoo’s striking visuals were to Japan’s rediscovery of fully bloodied color contrasts what Hapshash and the Coloured Hat were to London’s LSD scene (in fact, his work for rock artists dates only from the 1970s).  Since the mid-1960s, Yokoo had been obsessed with the traditional red sun ray motif, by then disgorged from Japanese symbolism and considered highly risqué internationally.  It could be that Yokoo was influenced by Mishima’s nationalistic stance prior to the latter’s suicide in 1970.


The “Opera” was a multi-media affair, well ahead of its time.  The importance attached to the visual side of the production was unprecedented – years before picture discs and multiple gatefold LPs became commonplace.  The attention to detail in both the sonic and visual side of the undertaking was as meticulous as only Japanese traditional arts and crafts can be.  This was also Ichiyanagi’s last large scale composition before his contributions to Expo’70 in Osaka. 



The “Opera” is a monument of 20th century avant-garde.  Ichiyanagi’s self-declared objective was to achieve multiplicity that is so characteristic of nature, rather than bequeath fruits of human concentration.  If there was ever one such record in the history of rock avant-garde, “Opera” fulfills this task. 




Side A:

1.Aria ichi. Aria: 1 – Japanese Ballad

An aura of melancholy emanates from the opening “aria”, which is little more than a traditional Japanese ballad performed by a subdued female voice.  This opening is highly misleading.  Such intimate nostalgia will return on this record, but never again in this form… 


2.Erektrikku chanto. Electric Chant.

Electric hiss, rather than chant, grows oppressive and passionately synthetic.  The second, echoplexed tone disrupts prominence ordering and almost instantly affects the dynamic variety.  With the accumulation of decibels, the electronic squall becomes strident, but when it recedes, the effect is spacious and planar.  From this abiotic slurry there emerges a figurative, yet barely recognizable form – a marching brass band of a bygone era.  Its chorus is patriotic, fanfaric, enraptured in its pre-war swagger.  The tragic hindsight corrodes our unconscious as soon as the magic words emerge – “Tenno Heika” (the Emperor)…  This documentary character of this chorus is treated with exemplary irreverence – snubbed by sadistic electro-glissandi…  Yet the overall effect remains confusingly nostalgic…


3.Otoko no junjô. Man’s Pure Heart.

A story of incompleteness begins with distant noises, sound of footsteps and archetypal girlish laughter.  Up front, a man sings to gauche piano intonation.  Despite encouragements, the singer appears troubled by the keys.  All along, children’s voices are still audible, as if the piano were placed within a short distance of a gymnastics hall.  Against such skeletal accompaniment, the singer’s quavering voice tries hard to continue: “the golden stars passing, shimmering…”.  We are perplexed.  Is it for real?  Is it an offtake?  Whenever we are beguiled into believing that the final version of the increasingly jarring song eventually materializes, it all collapses again.  The two insidious characters burst into suppressed laughter…  The singer stammers on the quasi-liturgical melody, stressing the syllabic quality of the nasal sound, à la japonaise.  They complain about the piano when they realize the environing silence.  “Everybody’s gone – nobody is watching, but should we continue when there is no one?”  Finally, devoid of any background noise, the song is delivered in full. 


Ichiyanagi once compared music to Japanese garden design – meticulous and painfully orderly, yet always interacting with indeterminate elements: moisture, light and wind.  Were the children’s voices an unplanned accident?  And more generally, how much of this “Opera” was captured, rather than pre-conceived? 


This side ends with demented screams, contrasted with a woman’s frightened whisper.  The fury of huffing and puffing is unnerving – as if someone was breaking through the barricades.  She is sobbing in fear.  Finally the ‘siege’ is over.  A low-flying aircraft passes above Haneda airport…    



Side B:

4.Uchida Yûya to za furawaazu. The Flowers. 


Next to Le Stelle di Mario Schiffano (1967), Citizens for Interplanetary Activity (1967) and Red Crayola’s “The Parable of Arable Land” (1967), this 27-minute long track qualifies as one of the earliest psychedelic freak out forms.  It is performed by the Flowers, a predecessor of Flower Travellin’ Band – a solid hard rock act active in the early 1970s.  The Flowers here were Susumu Oku on guitar, Katsuhiko Kobayashi on pedal steel guitar, Ken Hashimoto on bass, Joji Wada on drums Hideki Ishima on guitar and leader Yuya Uchida.  The original plans to juxtapose the Flowers with a symphony orchestra were, fortunately, abandoned and Ichiyanagi gave them free hand.  Amazingly, the NHK studio engineers (Shigeyuki Okuyama?) let the recording tape run at half-speed.  The resulting shock wave of guitar-led dissonant turmoil was the official Big Bang for Japanese rock avant-garde. 


It all starts with an oversize riff berthed in perennial slap-echo.  Hashimoto’s bass bubbles with quasi-Turkic flips and a rapid-fire cymbal rattles (at double speed, as most of the band here).  This intro is stately, premonitory, narcissistic and wrenching.  The use of Hawaiian guitar is destabilizing, rather than purely decorative.  In these introductory chords the band remains purely abstract, way ahead of its time.  With its indolent, lateral moves, the bass makes the first pre-announcements of what is to come.  The accents from the Hawaiian guitar become garbled.  The cymbal and hi-hat work is highly tensile, taut and suspenseful.  Finally, the scalding fuzz guitar invites the drums, but the acoustic piano calls off the alarm and allows for some meter-planning by the drummer.  It lasts way longer than any drummer’s typical crowd-pleaser.  The drumsticks hit, and hit, and hit and nothing much happens.  This metronomic intro finally instantiates a French-style, tightly cropped wah-wah guitar (Mahjun, Komintern, Red Noise).  The full spaceship is now taking off – Ishima’s highly pitched, combustible guitar blasts at speed of light, later copied by Kimio Mizutani on Hiro  Yanagida’s second LP.  The bass remains very loyal, despite the freedom bestowed by Kobayashi’s rhythmic mantle (his Hawaiian guitar etches accents at every second beat).  There is nothing analytic in the instinctive interplay between the Hendrixy wah-fuzz, the piano and overload guitar injections.  The cooperation is certainly enflaming, vicious, bristling, stentorian, but never stereotyped. 


After a short lapse, the bass clutches on the colorful configurations planted by the Hawaiian guitar.  Then the second guitar (Oku?) crossdresses as a mining jackleg drill.  When it defects, the basic components are back – the bass, drums played with Nick Mason-ish mallets, a stately, hymn-building guitar, and ever-squirming Ishima with his scalpel-sharp axe incisions.  Uchida’s vocal interjections further coarsen the mayhem of guitars in total overdrive.  This manic superposition of grimy guitar walls leads to another climax, but piano arpeggios steer away (again) from any conclusion.  The beat is determined by quasi-looped wah-wah, with the pungent lead guitar meandering pointlessly.  Occasional voices make their holophrastic observations with the band in a supersonic flight, not unlike the electronic zooms crafted by maestro Ichiyanagi himself. 


The cut is so sudden, that it leaves us half-deaf.



Side C:

5.Uchida Yûya to za furawaazu. The Flowers.


The cut was necessary.  In the 1960s, few vinyl record grooves extended beyond 25 minutes.  We are, therefore, back with the Flowers and their totalistic skullduggery.  Several cowbell clinks later the bass will again host the melodic development.  The band turns into a 12-handed percussion machine.  There is tapping, patting and clacking of anything with everything – spoons, sticks, pens.  The wah-wah guitar descends into obscurity, ever less distinct, in a long goodbye.  There will be one more return of the wild guitar drill sound, enveloped in acoustic piano, indifferent coughing and electronic twitch.  


These 27 minutes of absolute bedlam remain a grand classic of psychedelic avant-garde rock.  The legendary rock freak-out re-appeared later under the title “I’m Dead”, in reference to Tadanori Yokoo’s famous painting reproduced on the back of the gatefold LP sleeve. 


6.Nyûuyôku no uta. Song of New York.


A Chinese-sounding intonation introduces a poem recited in Edo-jidai Japanese.  But then, a very contemporary dialogue ensues.  An actor impersonates two roles – in a tantalizing exchange facing human destiny:

“ (…) will I recover?

         sure you will.

         But mother died of the same disease…

         No.  You are in good shape.  You are still young.

         Will I get better?

         Sure you will. 

         But why does a human need to die?  I want to live.  Even 1000 years.  Even 10’000 years.  (…)”

Even without the sinuous violin legato, I find this existentialist dialogue chilling, desperate in its message of protest. 


A short monogatari follows, couched in vernacular shamisen chords.  This is soon replaced by a frivolous dance as if calqued from some absurdist, drunken matsuri.  A crowded festival should be the right place to obliterate from memory that Kierkegaardian dialogue…


7.Kayo myuzhikare. Kayo Musicale


This absolutely hilarious medley of radio snippets, commercials, random commentaries, and not so random musique concrète reappraisals is one of the highlights of the “Opera”.  Although no sub-sections are indicated on the original, there are several distinctive parts here.


It begins with a nonsensical, goofy and farcical jingle halfway between popsike bubble bee sounds and advertising clips from “Tonmontagen”, collected by Peter Roehr barely two years earlier. 


Next comes what is audibly an excerpt from a film (I do not have the CD version of the “Opera”, where the exact sources are probably made explicit).  An adult scolds an initially recalcitrant, but ultimately pliant young woman for accepting something from a stranger.  The scene develops close to the beach, as we infer from the dialogue and from the sound of waves lapping against the shore. 


And then the notorious jingle: “chokoreeto – chokoreeto“ – a well known 1960s Group Sounds-era commercial, still remembered in Japan today.  Its cheesy organ colluding with piano, drum and bass were probably the product of Kyotoite band Tigers, led by androgynous Julie Sawada.  As illustrated on the diagram above, such juxtaposition of extremes – saccharine inanity next to brazen stress induction – leaves the listener emotionally drained.  Evidently, coexistence in diversity was Ichiyanagi’s recipe for unity.


This is followed by the halting regularity of church bells – slow, but double-time, ineluctable like cloudy skies.  When a stratum of subterranean bass blends in to compete with the increasingly inarticulate bell sequence, the section begins to recall Current 93, rather than Don Wherry’s church bell recordings. 


In the next section, we hear harpsichord in J.S.Bach’s repertoire, but deconstructed, scrubbed, overlaid, looped, echoed.  The sound quality shifts, suggesting unsuccessful tuning to a radio station.  Church bells then return, morose, somber and poorly additive.  The bass figure swells, oblivious to these European accents. 


For all his admittedly aleatoric proceedings, Ichiyanagi is also an accidental emotionalist.  In this last section of “Kayo Musicale”, he welcomes the listener with a smudged, sweeping drapery of electronic whirr.  Then we hear explosions; they are too close and too crisp to be merely (familiar) thunderstorms.  These explosions are manmade.  And the whirr, as we slowly and reluctantly begin to understand, is the sound of bombers turning Tokyo into a fireball of charred civilian bodies.  This realism is unbearable. 


The animality of xenocide is universal.  I do not recommend this record to anyone for whom war is a personal memory, rather than sofa entertainment.



Side D:

8.Uta 1969. Love Blinded Ballad (Enka 1969).


The concluding side of “Opera” makes the transitions, co-occurrences, juxtapositions and articulations even denser than the sequential conveyor belt of inputs lumped together but permitted to breathe each with its own material. 


In the first section, we hear a Chinese-tinged melody, a mandolin, bluegrass, archival announcements, patriotic songs, marching fanfares, speeches, choruses, classical violin, Chinese erhu, and military songs.  All this appears and reappears intermixing in curvilinear fashion with neutering glissandos.  As a review of Japan’s tragic history 80 years ago it is at least as powerful as Georg Katzer’s testimony to 1930’s Germany. 


From the public space, we then step into the private sphere.  It is like walking away from Tokyo’s main thoroughfares into back alleys singularly resilient to the centuries of modernization, earthquakes, typhoons and bombings.  Early Showa-era songs compete here for auralscape with the sounds of a noisy market.  An insistent hawker tries to attract customers, distracting us from the leading ballad.  All of these elements are equally alluring and play an equal – and equally disorienting – role.  Their ebbing and flowing is, however, highly frustrating for their siren-like beauty beckons, only to push us away. 


Another of those marching songs romps through with accordion and trumpets.  Some fragments sound distinctly archival, others seem modern.  Orchestral tuning, operatic female voices, several choruses, comical elements – all bring back memories of the calamitous 1930s and 1940s, but the resurgent dynamic is too explosive to detect specifics. 


Frogs croak and waterfowl cackles amidst fluttering rivulets.  Echoes of patriotic choruses are eerily distant, pushed into the fading memory and only unearthed by misfits squatting around isolated bonfires.  Sepulchral crows crow.  Japan has long understood.  Will China ever do?


Within each of these subsections, the various layers seem to advance independently of each other.  If this is musique concrète, then we are light years ahead of “Variations pour la porte et le soupir”.  Light years, not four years. 


9.Uta 1969. Spite Song (Onka 1969)


Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is being subjected to discordant squeaking.  As it turns out – this is again the AM radio tuning, in and out of the romantic cliché…  At its most climactic, the hissing and burring is becoming indigestible.  The drama is augmented by the ear-bending chaos and distortion of the higher notes…  A siren – bomb alert! 


10.Takakura Ken, Tadanori Yokoo wo utau. Ken Takakura sings on Tadanori Yokoo.


In 1969, Ken Takakura was still virtually unknown outside Japan but had already attracted cult following among the shufu for his roles in multiple yakuza movies.  In this closing moment of the “Opera”, Takakura sings a traditional bossa nova uta, arranged by Masao Yagi, with lyrics by Juro Tô and Kazuro Mizugi.  The choice of Takakura – portrayed on the fourth side of the double LP – was not accidental.  Tadanori Yokoo had been employed to provide commercial posters for several of Takakura’s gangster movies.  The actor’s dry, virile style contrasts with Yagi’s sweet guitar, ‘chicken’ organ and an overtly polite 1960s vibe.  Not surprisingly, the idyllic pastels are trampled by the schizophrenic gloom of the verses:


“the dream burns in deep red,

I am watching myself

I will make this name dance through the world”




I usually do not dwell on the visual side of musical products.  Since the advent of CDs, cover art has been not only miniaturized, it has been marginalized.  The mp3 phenomenon has now made music simply intangible, a step too far in my opinion. 


It was all different in the late 1960s.  After a decade of sterile LP cover productions in pop, jazz and contemporary music, the kaleidoscopic rendition of hallucinogenic illusions indelibly stamped the visual canon aimed at enhancing the appeal of adventurous, innovative music.  As last year’s exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum testified in its celebration of 40 years since ‘the summer of love’, some of these artifacts have how grown to become the classics of 20th century visual art.  Tadanori Yokoo’s posters and Ichiyanagi’s “Opera” LP belong to this shortlist.  Without permission, I reproduce here the palpable beauty of this historical object. 







Ichiyanagi is a highly prolific composer and the list below is by no means exhaustive.  In addition to the sessions described here, I particularly recommend the lengthy “Improvisation” from September 1975 – an achievement on a par with the intense documents of Takehisa Kosugi’s Taj Mahal Travellers and Michael Ranta’s Wired.


Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Music for Tinguely” (1963, 1967, 1969)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Opera Yokoo Tadanori wo utau” 2LP (1968-69)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI / Maki ISHII: “Music for Living Process / Cho-etsu” (1973)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI-Michael RANTA-Takehisa KOSUGI: “Improvisation Sep 75” (1975)

Toshi ICHIYANAGI: “Cosmos” (1984)


Ichiyanagi’s early compositions from 1967-1969 can also be found on compilations “Extended Voices” and “Oto no hajimari wo motomete – Shigeru Sato Work”.  On this last CD, the composition entitled “Tokyo 1969” seems to have been recorded soon after the “Opera” sessions.  It exemplifies a very similar collage style and is a perfect companion to the classic album.


Flowers’ contribution on sides B and C was later made available on a separate LP which also featured a number of their (inferior) cover tracks from LP “Challenge”:


FLOWER TRAVELLIN’ BAND: “From Pussies to Death in 10’000 Years of Freak Out!” (1968)



SEVENTH SEAL: “Seventh Seal” *****

Recorded 1997


Seventh Seal were one of Asahito Nanjo’s projects in the 1990s.  Rather than a separate band, Seventh Seal were a mutation of his ongoing project known as Ohkami no jikan (‘time for wolves’, or ‘wolf era’).  This constellation’s variable line-up strayed on the more mystical side of Tokyo’s ‘psychedelic’ scene, an approach which would flourish when in the mid-1990s Makoto Kawabata joined the sessions.  Around that time the two musicians also appeared in (perennially disappointing) organized noise-rock supergroup Musica Transonic. 


Having grown up on the Fugs, Godz and European soundtracks, Asahito Nanjo first plunged into the anti-virtuosic punk scene in the late 1970s.  After a stint at Kosoukuya, he co-founded the hyper-fast Psychedelic Speed Freaks, which later gained fame as High Rise.  The heraldic band constituted an important chapter in the multi-linear history of spontaneous speed-noise, and is correlated with the rise of Ikeezumi’s PSF label in Mejiro.  Nanjo continued the format later in Mainliner.


But it is his interest in the more spiritual, mantric side of rocking hysteresis that must have led to Seventh Seal’s sessions.  Nanjo’s experience with Keiji Haino in Nijiumu could have been one of the contributing factors.  Using very basic, circular guitar and organ structures, Seventh Seal successfully generated hallucinatory impressions of timelessness and spacelessness.  Transposing the rhythm structures from sufi music onto aural afterimages created ruminative, yet enrapturing rituals.  Nanjo and Kawabata continued the adventure in a more acoustic and admittedly ‘shamanistic’ vein as Toho Sara.


Meanwhile, Ohkami no jikan continued to perform, progressively moving towards heavier, darker realms, reminiscent of mid-period Fushitsusha.



Spiritual Spring’s Slavering with Circling

Anatolian guitar greets us with an update on John Weinzierl’s early Amon Düül II twang, whirling majestically upon a ritualistic Mevlevi dance.  Earthy cymbals pinpoint the full closure of each circle, leaving the full pivot to thundering mallets.  Mineko Itakura vocalizes from deep inside the well of truth.  Her voice resounds ethereally, seeking that perfect Djong Yun moment, but never attempting to emulate that pristine coloratura.  Rather, Mineko’s voice soars like an eagle swooning around with a lot of time on its claws.  In a classic redshift, longer wavelengths ooze when her voice recedes – an auditory version of motion parallax…  Kawabata’s weaving is fluent and appropriate, but never flashy.  Itakura’s bass trots loyally when Nanjo commences his chant from deep inside the tunnel, with a 3-3-3-3 syllable structure – rather non-standard for a Japanese waka.  The effect is mesmerizing nonetheless – as any circulating, hypnotic, homomorphic repetition would be.

Then all of a sudden, the band abandons the mantra and takes off on the back of a stilted, angular bass form almost directly lifted from Amon Düül II’s clumsy time signature transition.  It is as charming as a child’s error in holophrastic stage, but you would politely suppress a chuckle if an adult committed it.  Soon, Kawabata plunges into his pyrotechnic West Coast style, still miles away from his later Acid Mothers Temple exhibitionism.  He guides us through the entire panoply of phrasing modules, allowing bass and drums to pick up speed until the freaking out band crashes against the wall of cymbals.

Undaunted, the caravan sets out again.  In a reprise of the initial intro, the vocalize returns.  Hajime Koizumi’s stately drumming conjures up images of the dervishes’ vertigo-less worship.  Guitar and vocal now circle like two predators in search of a prey.  Against the steady, periodic tempo, Kawabata sizzles and frizzles, splashing dirty overdrive on the way, but always remains melodic and measured.  Finally, slowly, very slowly the band cools off.



A fast, uplifting track, where fuzz-less guitar (again that John Weinzierl or Conny Veit timbre) sews at ultra-speed a theme that could become a dance from some mountainous corner of the old continent sheltering a forgotten ethnic minority.  It is impossible to tell if Kawabata had pre-cognitive visions of his Occitan experiences, or whether the beat owes more to the classic Munich band’s own borrowings.  In any case, Koizumi and Itakura’s rhythm section barely catches up.  Another transition appears to be, yet again, a dig to those charmingly clumsy, fractured bridges with which Amon Düül II shifted keys and tempos. 


The Fifth Substance and Four Elements

Despite the apparent subdivision of this track into four elements (Air, Fire, Earth, Water), there is not much of Third Ear Band relevance here and those who seek a neoclassical (or orientalist) parallel, are better served by resorting to the first two Toho Sara records.  “The Fifth Substance” sounds like a mere excerpt from a longer timbral exploration, opening with a meowing, somnambulant, bowed viola and beaded cymbal work.  Deep echo and agonizing murmur send a salute to the venerable Taj Mahal Travellers school.  Discrete, yet tonally effective organ envelops this intricate, ornamental embroidery of a highly resonant, pensive percussion, courtesy Nobuko Emi.  Somewhere between the immanent shimmer of sarangi, viola and organ, gurgles underlie tensile squeals and groans crater under soggy splatter.  Finally, unexpected plosive effects drag the band from this mind-blinding atmosphere, halfway between vintage Pink Floyd and early Sonde.  But for several minutes at least, the quintet has successfully suspended temporality. 




SEVENTH SEAL: “Live 1995” (1995)

SEVENTH SEAL: “Seventh Seal” (1997)


The material on the earlier recording partly overlaps with the LP described above.  Several cassettes have also been issued but I have not heard them. 


Many of Nanjo’s bands explored other musical pastures and do not have to be mentioned in the context Seventh Seal.  The positions listed below bear at least some relevance to the sound of Seventh Seal, if not in orchestration and attitude, then certainly in an attempt to generate a mood of spiritual blissout.  Splendor Mystic Solis was a simplified version of Seventh Seal and occasionally included Kawabata.  The most Seventh Seal-like recordings of Ohkami no jikan were made in the early 1990s, as showcased on the compilation “Tokyo Flashback 2”, but could also be expected on some of the earlier cassettes, which I have not heard.  Toho Sara’s third CD was a disappointment.


TOHO SARA: “Toho Sara” (1995)

TOHO SARA: “Meijou tansho, part 1-5” (1998)

SPLENDOR MYSTIC SOLIS: “Mystic 1 & 2” (1999)

SPLENDOR MYSTIC SOLIS: “Heavy Acid Blowout Tensions Live” (1999)

OHKAMI NO JIKAN: “Mort nuit” (2001)

TOHO SARA: “Horouurin” (2004)

NANJO, ASAHITO GROUP MUSICA: Contemporary Kagura-Metaphysics (2006)

Published in: on July 30, 2008 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

PUNGO: “1980-81” ****

Recorded 1980-81


Nobody remembers Pungo.  Tolerance?  Certainly.  Nord?  Yes.  Tenno?  Yes.  Inryofuen?  Maybe.  But Pungo?   No. 


Rewind.  Tokyo 1980-81.  The long-forgotten era of Prime Minister Suzuki, the Pope’s visit to Japan, Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” and Chiyonofuji’s nascent dominance in sumo.  This was still a pre-bubble economy, fast diversifying after the second oil shock. 


Frequent attraction at Shinjuku’s ABC Hall, Pungo were essentially an idea of Yuriko Mukôjima (then Yuriko Kamba) and her friends, with Masami Shinoda among them.  Unshackled by requirements of musical virtuosity and critical of the stubbornly conservative Japanese society, they easily co-opted like minded amateurs.  Musically this implied the creation of austere, anthemic amalgams delivered in an egalitarian, colloquial fashion, amusingly covered up by genuine counter-culture convictions.  The predilection for makeshift pathos of revolutionary hymns corresponded, belatedly, to European left-wing sensibilities, as evinced by Stormy Six or Sogennantes Linksradikales Blasorchester.  But their musical idealism was informed by anti-aesthetics of post-punk. 


Akihiro Ishiwatari and Pungo’s engineer Ken’ichi Takeda went on to launch an even more straightforwardly leftist A-Musik.  They invited Shinoda.  Pungo’s subversive spirit lived a little longer in the poorly documented supergroup Fake which co-opted the likes of Tenko, Chie Mukai and Keiji Haino.  Sadly, Yuriko Mukôjima’s musical traces after 1981 were sporadic at best (Che Shizu, Lars Hollmer).  The late Masami Shinoda continued on his folk-jazz and anti-jazz pathway.  His art was to Tokyo what Curlew were to New York and Goebbels-Harth to Frankfurt.  





After a curtain-raising sleigh bells jingle, accordion and bass intone a triste anthem.  The melody emerges slowly like revolutionaries from their conspiratorial gathering.  Painstakingly, Takashi Satô unearths his tympani meter.  Masami Shinoda’s weathered, proletarian alto saxophone carries the burden of a somber, urban ballad.  Yukio Satô’s ischaemic electric guitar fuzzes its way out of muck with adhesive anonymity. 



In one of collective hallmarks, Pungo launches into kabuki-like melismas ingeniously followed by galloping drumstick work.  Saxophone and guitar skronk jump in, setting the stage for Yuriko Kamba’s excoriating exclamations.  Two female dancers apparently participated in this live show.  It could be a French passepied, dependent on guitar and saxophone in latter-day Mahjun style.  But the parenthesis does not last and the band quickly reverts to the very Shintoist ascetism of howl’n’drum.  After a short silence, unconventional kabuki-like barking snaps at a cheaply romantic ballroom acoustic piano (Yuriko).  The final belongs to the shaggy, contrarian guitar.


Mikai no tango

Yuriko Kamba’s singing adjusts to Meguo Hisashita’s tangoed drumming.  The effort founders, torpefied by sudden hardcore blitz.  Yuriko yells the text against a raucous band led by Shinoda.  When the tango section returns, it does so in splashy, sloppy guitar chords.  Shinoda’s aylerian alto improvises lacrimoso over the choppy dance from Richueala’s shores.  Jirô Imai’s bass and Yuriko’s acoustic piano trudge wearily forward, but not for long. 



Rather than “playing”, Yuriko drums piano keys in a rashly muted mode reminiscent of early Reportaz (NB, the recording is of equally poor sound quality).  The performance is dramatic, barren and lackluster.  Imai’s bass landslide selectively stresses the beat.  After several austere repetitions, Shinoda intones the melody, but is quickly contested by the piano.  A rather disjointed percussion duo of Akihiro Ishiwatari and Takashi Satô scuttles around with amateurish, chronically offbeat drumming.  The racket keeps Shinoda’s lead from becoming too fluent and jazzy, but his hoarse manner continues to weave in the background, flanked by Yuriko’s irate shouting.  Satô’s minimal, truncated guitar shales evoke the Contortionists’ Jody Harris from around the same time. 



The now familiar kabuki howling is on this track exclusively female and less audacious than previously.  When tribal drumming and bass fall into the groove, Shinoda improvises freely.  The demoniac wailing vaticinates Kwaidan imagery, unaffected by unsophisticated bass ostinato and rather basic four-handed drumming.  This is programmatically incompetent naïvism at its very best.



This memorable musical o-bento opens with a funky bass line and rotoreflective cymbal.  The chorus will swing from branches, aping an echoing, loony line: “ouah-ouah-ouah”.  A reggae-like guitar and a Pogues-type accordion give this bolero a very passé complexion.  As usual, the saxophone is more agile than the rest of the skittery band.  Yukiko keeps admonishing that we must not (“Ikenai”).  An unexpected countdown – “one-two-three-four” – and a counterblast of saxophone, guitar and violin rises from this ash heap like a step pyramid.  The band quickly returns to the funky groove, with the innocuously half-baked “ouha-ouah-ouah” and piano tremolos.  But the countdown returns – and so does the tidal wall.  The “reggae” guitar exits the scale and nothing appears in place anymore.  The alternation between the “song” and the Sun Ra-like cacophonous ziggurats in increasingly rash and unpredictable.  With each iteration, the band further purifies its exercise of deconstruction. 



This is Pungo pared down to the co-leaders.  Yuriko’s accordion is tuning in slowly, abandoned in the environment of daily crackle, chores and voices.  Then, two saxophones and accordion deliver a harsh fanfare, through which Yuriko’s girly voice barely penetrates.  This track was recorded live in Kyoto and Shinoda appears to be playing on two saxophones at the same time, Roland Kirk-way.   An ocean of accordion harmonics waves gently, buoying the girly vocal.  Until Shinoda’s squeal drowns out everything else. 



After this duet, we have 14 taiko players rattling in this ingeniously entitled “New Theme”.  We can detect discrete shamisen, but before the jumpy “new” theme becomes just another Okinawa song, a megaton wind orchestra swamps it – covering a range from piccolo to tuba.  The guzzling big band emboldens the large chorus to sloganeer in the good old tradition etched in by the previous generation (early Tokyo Kid Brothers).  When the wind instruments wilter, solo chanting and piano will dominate for a moment.  The typhoon of taiko drumming and the crowded chorus wander on with their festive cheer about a traditional festival, tongue in cheek.  Pungo assembled here an incredible array of talent for mere cameo appearances – several bass players, dancers and violinists, including Chihiro Saito from avant-prog anti-melodists Lacrymosa.  This certainly was not the unique occasion.  We know that Phew also sang live with expanded Pungo.



More of Iradier than Bizet, this is a farewell dance for saxophone and drum in slow, inevitable decay. 




PUNGO: “1981-82” (1981-82)


A-Musik remains the closest in the spirit to Pungo.  Shinoda’s later career blazed the trails of philosophical folk-jazz, but never lost its porous, unsettling quality.  Pidgin Combo were an international effort with Tom Cora.


A MUSIK: “E ku iroju” (1983)

Takuya NISHIMURA – Masami SHINODA: “Duo” (1986)

PIDGIN COMBO: “Long Vacation” (1988-89)

COMPOSTELA: “Compostela” (1990)

COMPOSTELA: “Wadachi” (1991-92)


For Shinoda completists, his scraggy, prismatic alto can also be found on. 


Kumiko SUYAMA: “Yume no hajimari” (1986)

CHE SHIZU: “Nazareth Live shû 1” (1983-1992)

MAHER SHALAL HASH BAZ: “From a Summer to Another Summer” (1985, 1989)

CASSIBER: “Live in Tokyo” (1992)


Yoshihide Otomo was Compostela’s fan.  His Ground Zero also sampled Shinoda’s alto saxophone with Cassiber on the unforgettable classic “Kakumei Kyôgeki”:


GROUND ZERO: “Kakumei kyôgeki” (1995-96)

Published in: on July 12, 2008 at 9:10 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,


Recorded 1996-1997.


In the mid-1990s, electronic and new age music composer Pneuma (Satoru Takazawa) unexpectedly shifted gears, leaving a series of tasteful recordings drenched in funereal mysticism, astrology, medievalism and pictorial symbolism.  Supported by Akira, Shin Yamazaki (ex-Lacrymosa) and Yuko Suzuki, the formation adopted the unlikely name: Trembling Strain.  With the help from other like-minded musicians, Pneuma & Co indulged in exotic exercises of color and space.  Their appetite for trans-cultural combinations collated luscious mirages with Asian, Middle Eastern, African, medieval and Brazilian instruments.  The results of this concoction are usually more than the sum of the parts and occasionally Trembling Strain added to the shortlist of the most accomplished ethnic atmospherics.  At its worst, the band did not avoid the traps of new age noodling. 


Falling short of creating a pseudo belief system, the band paid attention to the visual side of its productions.  The cover art was peppered with collages made up from slices of Max Ernst, Ingres, Breughel, Melanesian art and naïve fantasism. 



Farewell Song at Waterside

The most unusual timbral combination opens the record with Pneuma on bowed psaltery, Daiki Tojima on darabukke andYuko Suzuki on Celtic harp.  Pneuma had perfected his arco technique on psaltery reaching eerie resonance with legato bowing.  I can recall only one precedent – Fisher fidola employed by Orchestra of the Eight Day in the early 1980s.  Darabukke attracts dry, short, swatting echo of a closed space.  From this array emerge purgatorial voices and girlish giggles.  The spectral glissando quality evokes the most memorable moments of Stephan Micus – another explorer of unique timbral juxtapositions.  When acoustic guitar finally etches a pattern, it flows lazily, with little development.  Short arpeggios on hammer dulcimer will not change the overall impression. 


Towers of Silence

There is nothing to see, or indeed hear in Mumbai’s Towers of Silence.  This 17-minute piece does begin with silence.  Akira’s hand drums, Tojima’s upright bass and Akira Kawaguchi’s jembe introduce a densely repetitive, mantric rhythm pattern.  Against this slap-tone-bass motif, Shin Yamazaki improvises on oud, as if lost in the darkened corner of an empty mosque.  Soon, the contour will be affected by reverberating growls, space whisper and ominous howling.  The flow is occasionally stripped down to mere hand drums, chimes and saz, strummed uncomfortably by Pneuma.  Resurgent shakers are immersed in a heavy echo, but otherwise little happens.  It is as if the band was in mid-flight, in a reluctantly improvised mood, waiting for someone to assume leadership – a tin whistle here, a Tibetan gong there.  Pneuma saws his low-key morin khuur – a form of Mongolian erhu, but pitched lower than its Chinese counterpart.  When the acoustic guitar rhythm swings back, a Syrian flute responds.  The track ebbs slowly, back into the silence. 


Moon-Shadow Play

Berimbau, scraped sul tasto gives off a buzzed tone – plated by a thin coating of percussive hypersurface.  Then, a highly inadequate call and response begins between an interrogating, mythological symphonium (mouth organ) and bowed psaltery.  This is Pneuma’s signature tale, explored on Trembling Strain’s earlier records.  For a moment, Pneuma plucks the saz, to bestow on this track a more melodious edge.  When the theme matures, additional inputs come from Egyptian tambourine’s blunt jangle and from Tojima’s acoustic bass guitar.  Before they exit, the heavy growling returns. 


Heaven in a Doze

This is a longer composition in 6 parts.  Its first movement (“Stargazer”) opens with a lonesome, sparse hammer dulcimer theme.  The Fisher fidola – like texture is back, but some fake bird chirping is thrown into the mix, overcooking the imagery already crowded with summertime wind blowing, percolating water and a cuckoo.  Then Tibetan bells begin to tinkle, pre-announcing a wailing mass counterpointed against darabukke’s deftly hand-made echo.  Akira’s vocal chords are breathy, guttural, fibrous.  Multi-element whistles and slothful Celtic harp ripple into the cavernous interior that envelops the listener.  In the next movement, we are thrown into the boundless panorama of heavenly auras, so reminiscent of Popol Vuh’s early records.  Between the celestial layers of immobile, sustained chords, the glissandos of various string instruments compete in high pitch and concentration.  This is the most static moment of this generally contemplative record.  Damned, Dantesque voices plead for our attention from the abyss.  Tojima’s dystopic Tibetan horns finally break the mood and Pneuma’s dull cymbals add splashes of overtones.  After a less seamless transition, Tomoko Katabami brings along an African metal ballaphone.  A simple, mellow figure is synchronous with Javanese angklung, played by Tojima.  The unusual interplay of these timbres is magical.  Pneuma’s singing bowls join with long, ringing delay.  Chimes and tiny bells are counterpoised for detail.  This is a scale-invariant piece that unfolds endlessly.  Finally, the last movement returns to the hammer dulcimer cum birds “solo”.  When it disappears, we are left alone, with crackling twigs. 




“Tower” was recorded at the crepuscule of Trembling Strain’s inventiveness.  However, I do recommend their earlier recordings.  They are often saturnine and bleak, but at the same time refined and magnetic. 


VARIOUS ARTISTS: “Lost in Labirynth II” (1994)

TREMBLING STRAIN: “Anthem to Raise the Dead“ (1994)

TREMBLING STRAIN: “Four Pictures“ (1994-1995)

TREMBLING STRAIN: “Bottom of Empty“ (1995-1996)

TREMBLING STRAIN: “Tower“ (1996-1997)

AKIRA & TREMBLING STRAIN: “Dwelling of Telescopefish“ (1997-1999)


Pneuma has appeared on many other recordings, also in duo with his partners from Trembling Strain.  Prior to the formation of this band, he had recorded under the moniker Takami.  Although Takami’s LPs had their moments, they are better left to the fans of 1970s’ Berlin synthesizer scene.  Conversely, Pneuma’s return in trio with Furudate and Arima marked the high-point in contemporary tortured, apocalyptic electronics. 


TAKAMI: “Tenshi-kou” (1983)

TAKAMI: “Yume no kirigishi” (1985)

Tetsuo FURUDATE – Sumihisa ARIMA – PNEUMA: “Autrement qu’être“ (1994-1995)

Tetsuo FURUDATE – Sumihisa ARIMA – PNEUMA: “Autrement qu’être, vol.2“(1996-1998)



Published in: on June 15, 2008 at 8:33 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , ,

GUERNICA: “Shinseiki e no unga” ******


Recorded 1983.


Guernica was a result of Koji Ueno’s lucid imagination.  In partnership with lyricist Keiichi Ohta and pop-chanteuse Jun Togawa, Ueno produced a series of unforgettable recordings in the early 1980s.  Adopting a moniker from Picasso’s largest canvas, Ueno’s art focused on tongue-in-cheek modernist revival, the praise of machinery, speed and technological progress.  However, contrary to the then reigning coryphées of industrialism, Guernica’s music is eternally optimistic, vivacious, euphoric.  Jun Togawa’s über-versatile voice mauls any pretence of seriousness even for those who cannot understand Ohta’s ironic lyrics.  Togawa shifts effortlessly between malice and hysteria, between operatic arias and coquettish winks.


These modernist manifestos and art-deco stylistics could have been a worn-out pander to a retro wave, but for rock avant-garde, they were a terra nova, soon abandoned like Greenland’s first settlements.  No one has ventured there since.  Jun Togawa pursued her career as an overly eccentric TV personality and became widely disliked by Japan’s mainstream public. 


As we are nearing the end of the oil era, the outside world has yet to discover these inspired and refined statements from a quarter of a century ago.




A jolting, uptempo chamber orchestra welcomes us to the phantasmagoric world of 1920s.  Conducted by Hiroshi Kumagai and programmed by Tatsuya Satoh, the aerodynamic string nonet includes six violins, two violas and a double bass, deftly propelled by Takayoshi Matsunaga’s dexterous fingers.  Masao Yoshikawa bombards the combo with his tympani runs and Koji Ueno adds some surface treatment on a synthesizer.  That’s all we know after the first several seconds.  And then Jun Togawa’s comic operetta swoons on us with her nervous, taut, insoluble histrionics about… the astonishing forces of a magnet.  The gravity of the subject is adequately underlined by the grand piano and some synthesizer color.  It turns and twists, excited like electro-magnetic forces that this song is devoted to. 


Shûdan nôjô no aki

A definite bow to early Soviet modernism.  The 50-piece orchestra forcefully rolls out a passionate Russian dance, complete with balalaika (Yuzo Murayama).  Togawa’s voice is over the top, spewing tractor and samovar stories at hyperspeed.  In slower, romanticizing moments, her manner evokes Donella del Monaco.  Kazuyoshi Utsunomiya on mandolin further approximates this other pole of modernism.  The incredible rondo ends on a high note. 



A more lyrical respite.  Togawa’s strained, wistful voice is cheerless and disconsolate.  The orchestral strings are clearly illustrative, retrofitted with Chinese zheng strings (Jiang Xiaoqing).  A six-piece wind section of flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bass trombone and tuba niftily apportions sinified pentatonic bridges that anchor our rhizomatic imagination strongly in mainland East Asia. 



“200 days” opens with a classic orchestral overture.  A soaring crescendo ushers in the dramatic persona of Togawa who cloaks, more than reveals, an uncertain melodic line.  The piece sensitizes us to an impending drama with Hitchcockian string arrangements.  Togawa returns; first marauding with her baby voice and then with jarring, unpolished complaints of a brat.  The full orchestra closes with a salvo from an unusual horn section, including Michiya Koide on 19th c. octavin in addition to English horn, flute, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and contrabassoon. 


Shônen no ichiban no tomo

A short monogatari about who the best friend of a child is.  It is delivered in a poignant, naïve, quasi-castrate voice.  The instrumentation is less obtrusive, with additional color from Matsue Yamahata on harp and Yuji Yamada  – viola.  The singer finally reveals who that first friend is – a mother…


Kuraudo 9

The intro serves another morsel of cinematic dramaturgy.  The ever flexible Togawa is supported here by an elusive chorus.  This is an inevitable grande valse, replete with fleeting Straussian quotations.  Ueno’s orchestration and arrangements are over-lubricated, which puts it at some distance from other revival records at that time (e.g. Julverne’s “Emballade”). 


Panorama awa

Back to the high-graded, synthesized sound from Guernica’s first LP.  The song soars with adolescent enthusiasm about inventive visual devices.  An ever optimistic, rotating string section zips through it all with gusto. 



In a complete change of décor, side B begins with this American vaudeville swing orchestra.  Sandwiched between Glenn Miller’s radio days and Ron Pate & Debonairs’ parody days, Guernica surges through the music-hall bacchanalia.  Staccato piano intrusions may slow down like a tired locomotive, but quickly cede to Tommy Dorsey-like zestful horn section.  If this was not sung in Japanese, one could almost forget how satirical this song is.  We learn it all about a cylinder press and how dynamically it revolves – “round and round, round and round”.  The pseudo big band chops adroitly between vocal and orchestral sections, but never loses cohesion. 


Kôtsû sanka

We are back to the formula from the first track – bewitching clash between a strained, castrate voice and ultra-speed string section.  But now Togawa slides boldly into opera, thrusting with her powerful, dramatic soprano (yes, she can sing, but only sometimes she decides to bray instead).  Her voice is blessed with a full tone quality, but her forays are short, though legible enough to make us chuckle at this “Praise for Transportation”. 


Denryoku kumikyoku

This “Electric Power Medley” is a joyless composition in three movements for a ubiquitous horn section.  “Damu no uta”, should, according to the title at least, be a song for shamisen dedicated to a hydropower station.  This is a slow-moving narrative with the now familiar recipe of Togawa switching between vocal styles and registers with the ease of a 1930s cast-iron crankshaft.  The second movement (“Denryoku no tsûkin”) is rich in tympani and orchestral percussion, almost lifted from the tradition of great Russian romantic composers of Moguchaya Kuchka.  Finally, “Denka no kurashi” (“Electrical Life”) is a more melodic fragment with balalaikas and empathetic flute section.  In the final stanzas, Togawa’s vocal style abandons the acerbic and malicious manner and turns coquettish instead.  Trombones close this least aphoristic of all tracks.


Dokuro no enmaikyoku

This distinctly non-circular waltz throws in Orientalist accents painted by strings of desert-prone ‘Lawrence of Arabia’-type nostalgia.  At times, the mood is almost Felliniesque and surrealist, but the reflection is actually Shakesperean; musings on a relationship with a skull. 



The final track tickles our Pacific fantasy.  In a dig to Martin Denny’s Exotica style, Jun Togawa appears with a velvety, hushed voice, singing about “the island at the end of the earth”.  From this oceanic foam, oozes Aphroditean harp and idle maracas.  Somewhere between Japan and Hawaii, waves lap against the pastel shores. 




“Shinseiki e no unga” (“Canal to the New Century”) remains the masterpiece of the Ueno-Togawa-Ohta trio.  Still, similar revivalist intensity was achieved on three other recordings, each of which is highly recommended. 


Keiichi OHTA: “Jingaidaimaikyo” (1980)

GUERNICA: “Kaizô e no yakudô” (1979-1982)

GUERNICA: “Shinseiki e no unga“ (1983)

GUERNICA: “Denrisô kara no mezashi“ (1984)

Published in: on June 14, 2008 at 12:55 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , , ,