A brief summary of Japanese rock music

by Piero Scaruffi
excerpted from The History of Rock Music

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


Japanese space-rock 1970-73

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Psychedelic-rock had been imported into Japan by countless cover bands and by original bands such as the Jacks, whose Vacant World (1968) was an early classic. Japanese space-rock was born with Hadaka no Rallizes (also known as Les Rallizes Denudes), who drew inspiration from the Velvet Underground's Exploding Plastic Inevitable light and sound shows and from Blue Cheer's heavily amplified sound. Despite the fact that no one would hear it for two decades, Japan remained an invaluable source of space-rock bands.

The Taj Mahal Travellers (11), led by avantgarde composer and violinist Takehisa Kosugi, played lengthy improvised jams for small ensemble (violin, harmonica, bass, tuba, trumpet, synthesizer, mandolin, percussions) that can be summarized in three principles: a Far-Eastern approach to music as a living organism, an intense electronic processing of instruments and voices, a semi-mathematical overlapping of frequencies. Basically: LaMonte Young on acid. Collected on July 15 1972 and August 1974, their music ranged from cosmic hisses to nightmarish distortions, from pow-wow bacchanals to Tibetan-style chanting and droning.

Lost Aaraaff's Lost Aaraaff (1971) was devoted to three improvised jams. Their young guitarist, Keiji Haino (3) penned the eastern mass Ama No Gawa - Milky Way (1973). Then, inspired by free-jazz master Takayanagi Masayuki, Haino formed Fushitsusha (2) to play improvised psychedelic jams. Starting with Live I (1989), 100 minutes of noise that ranked among the masterpieces of the psychedelic jam of all times, a bacchanal that vomited debris of Blue Cheer, MC5, Iron Butterfly, free-jazz, Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, this prolific trio (originally a quartet) released monumental and dissolute works that seemed to know no limits. Fushitsusha (1991) and Hisou - Pathetique (1994) were among the follow-ups, but later releases such as The Wisdom Prepared (1998) and I Saw It (2000) were equally torrential. In the meantime, Haino was also busy with Nijiumu and Vajra. His solo albums included the galactic suites Affection (1992) and Execration (1993), and his boldest experiment, I Said This Is The Son Of Nihilism (1995). As the influences of LaMonte Young and Brian Eno increased, Haino arrived at Abandon All Words At A Stroke So That Prayer Can Come Spilling Out (2001), which contains a hypnotic piece for hurdy-gurdy and treated voice, and an industrial collage of metallic noises, distortions and ghostly vocals.

The music of Maru Sankaku Shikaku, active between 1970 and 1973, was an ethnic, mystical experience, that embraced the hippy spirit of Taj Mahal Travelers and Third Ear Band.

The eclectic style of the Flower Traveling Band (1) peaked with the five-part suite Satori (1971), a confluence of acid-rock, blues-rock, space-rock and hard-rock.

Progressive-rock and New Wave

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The exotic jazz-rock of monster-percussionist Stomu Yamashta (1) achieved its most accomplished fusion on Go (1976), the super-group formed with keyboardist Klaus Schulze, percussionist Michael Shrieve and guitarist Al Di Meola.

In the 1970s, a few singer-songwriters began experimenting with new formats. The trend yielded albums such as Kan Mikami's Bang (1974), heavy on electronics and free-jazz, and Kazuki Tomokawa's Sakura No Kuni No Chiru Naka O (1980), with a 15-minute Wagnerian tour de force.

On the other hand, the melodramatic new-age suites orchestrated by Kitaro (1), such as Oasis (1979) and Silk Road (1980), were emblematic of how electronics and world-music conquered the (pop) world.

The Yellow Magic Orchestra (1), featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto, pioneered synth-pop with albums such as Solid State Survivor (1979).

At about the same time, a very radical form of progressive-rock came out of Japan with After Dinner, possibly the best disciples of the Art Bears world-wide, and YBO2, probably the best disciples of King Crimson.

While commercial success was on the side of diligent imitations of western fads, such as Loudness and Anthem's million-seller imitations of Deep Purple and Van Halen, a new generation of avantgarde rock musician was being raised. This yielded a creative explosion in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

High Rise (2), featuring guitarist Munehiro Narita and bassist Asahito Nanjo, were a brutal, improvisational, punkish power-trio that recorded the relentless and extreme High Rise II (1986), and the ultimate space-rock album, the legendary Live (1994).

High Rise's most faithful disciples were probably Michio Kurihara's White Heaven (1), whose Out (1991) was inspired by the same demigods (Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly, Jimi Hendrix).

After a number of EPs, Tatsuya Yoshida's Ruins (2) found their true voice in the versatile and cartoonish improvisations of Stonehenge (1990), somewhere between Magma's futuristic cabaret and John Zorn's thrash-jazz, while Hyderomastgroningen (1995) blended Red Crayola's dementia and Art Bears' pomp.

Happy Family betrayed the influence of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, Magma and Univers Zero on their second album, Toscco (1997).

Japanese noise-core

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Japan's rock was more than "alternative": it was "anti". A sadistic passion for chaos and noise led to "noise-core", the radical sound of Japan's holy triad. Zeni Geva (1), the creature of Kazuyucki Kishino "Null", indulged in dissonant and gloomy orgies, in the tradition of early Swans and Big Black, on albums such as Total Castration (1992). Merzbow, the brainchild of Masami Akita, one of the most prolific musicians of all times (not a compliment), was a theoretician of surrealism in music but practiced a form of savage violence that was more akin to suicide bombing on non-musical works such as Rainbow Electronics (1990), Music For Bondage Performance (1991), Venereology (1994) and Tauromachine (1998). The Boredoms (2) of guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto and vocalist Yamatsuka Eye were clowns as well as scouts, imitating/exploring Faust's anarchic stream of consciousness on Soul Discharge (1989), Frank Zappa's most childish gags on Pop Tatari (1992), the Residents-like nursery-school bacchanal of Chocolate Synthesizer (1994), and so on; eventually condensing their aesthetic vision into the seven "super" tracks of Super aR (1999) and the nine-movement suite Vision Creation Newsun (2000)

Japanese Kitsch 1990-97

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Japanese bands excelled at this parodistic and futuristic approach to kitsch and muzak.

Shonen Knife (1) made albums such as Pretty Little Baka Guy (1986) that could be the ultimate party music: superbly pointless, but irresistible.

Pizzicato Five (1), who had turned supermarket muzak into a sub-genre of synth-pop on Couples (1987), became one of the leading retro' bands when they enrolled eccentric vocalist Maki Nomiya, the ideal alter ego of electronic keyboardist Yasuharu Konishi. The single Lover's Rock (1990), possibly their masterpiece, and the album This Year's Girl (1991) celebrated their passion for icons of the Sixties (James Bond soundtracks, hare-krishna chanting, novelty numbers, silly dance crazes), whereas later collections such as Bossa Nova (1993) and Happy End Of The World (1997) experimented with a format closer to orchestral disco-music.

Cibo Matto (1), the duo of Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda, specialized in musical satire inspired by junk food and implemented via a casual assembly of jazz, hip-hop, funk and dissonances. Viva La Woman (1996) performed a clownish postmodernist massacre of stereotypes.

Fantastic Plastic Machine (1), the creature of producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, debuted with Fantastic Plastic Machine (1998), a collection of ultra-hip, glamourous cross-cultural tunes composed via a montage of cliches of western pop music.

Buffalo Daughter (1) wed both a retro' and a progressive ideology. Captain Vapour Athletes (1996) and especially New Rock (1998) delivered ebullient, quirky synth-rock for electronic keyboards, turntables and samplers.

Multi-instrumentalist Cornelius (1), born Keigo Oyamada, composed "pop tunes" by overdubbing "found" samples and stereotypical music, achieving on Fantasma (1997) and, partially, Point (2002) a kind of eclectic postmodernist nonsense. The most creative aspect of his compositions was how elements of "musique concrete" (found noises that were sampled, looped and refined) got to be integrated with the rhythmic and melodic infrastructure of the songs without sacrificing the aural appeal of the song.

Ooioo (1), the side-project of Boredoms's drummer Yoshimi P-We and a few of her female friends, packed on Ooioo (1998) one huge insane collage of funny noises and funny parodies, an exercise in hyper-deconstruction of kitsch.

Towa Tei, a Korean-Japanese former member of Deee-Lite in New York, assembled jazz, world-music and all sorts of retro styles on on Future Listening (1995).

Japanese Techno

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Ken Ishii, with Jelly Tones (1995), was one of the quintessential techno musicians of the era.

Susumu Yokota wove the intricate grooves of Cat Mouse And Me (1996) in a continuum of sonic bliss before turning to ambient house with Magic Thread (1998).

DJ Krush, whose jazzy style shone on Strictly Turntablised (1994) and Ki-Oku (1998), featuring trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, was a protagonist of DJ Shadow-style instrumental, sample-based hip-hop.

Bisk, born Naohiro Fujikawa, introduced a very ornate, baroque, manically-crafted style on albums such as Strange Or Funny-haha (1997).

Japanese Metal

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Sigh, with Hail Horror Hail (1997) were among the leading black metal bands that adopted orchestral/electronic arrangements.

Outside the USA, the main stoners and super-doomers were Boris (2), whose terrifying monoliths Absolutego (1996) and Amplifier Worship (1998) indulged in lengthy, dark and extremely dense drones.

Japanese post-noise 1990-95

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Space Streakings (11) were the greatest disciples of the great tradition of Zeni Geva and Boredoms. Hatsu-Koi (1993) concocted an ebullient amalgam of jazz, noise, electronica, hip-hop and hardcore that sounded like a musichall sketch performed on doomsday. And the end of the world came with 7-Toku (1994), the soundtrack of absolute chaos, of Babelic confusion, of decades frantically played back in the last few seconds of civilization. Its cacophonic fantasies were the last rational beings in an ecosystem of grotesque mutations.

Ground Zero, the brainchild of guitarist and turntablist Otomo Yoshihide, transposed Zeni Geva's noise-core to the age of sampling. Null Amd Void (1993) was typical of his symphonies of dissonances and samples. The three-part concerto of Anode (2000) came with instructions that recalled John Cage.

A few bands specialized in fast-paced noise-core that mixed the speed of hardcore and the cacophony of industrial music. Representative albums of this brutal, possessed, loud and frenzied style included: Scratch Or Stitch (1995) by Melt-Banana (1), God Is God (1995) by Ultra Bide (1), and Missile Me (1996) by Guitar Wolf.

Electronic Music

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Tetsu Inoue was one of the most adventurous ambient composers of the 1990s.

Onna-Kodomo offered a languid and spiritual fusion of western classical music and eastern classical music on Syuuka (1997), in a vein similar to Popol Vuh's Hosianna Mantra.

Neina (keyboardist Hosomi Sakana) proved to be a subtle follower of Oval's glitch music with Subconsciousness (2000).

Possibly the most adventurous disciple of musique concrete at the turn of the millenium was Aube, i.e. electronic composer Akifumi Nakajima, a maniac of studio manipulation of field recordings (water, light bulbs, stones, brain waves, steel wires, heartbeats, book pages, etc).


Germany | Japan | Italy | France | Scandinavia | Latin America | Africa | India | Jamaica

TM, ®, Copyright © 2002 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.

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