Japanese Noise

Though it’s a genre (of sorts) that’s over four decades deep, full of variety, and tirelessly documented, catalogued, indexed and theorised about, Japanese noise still suffers from caricature. Some of this is doubtless to do with a Western Orientalism that often won’t engage with culture from Japan unless it’s refracted through an exoticising lens. Both Japanese noise, and indeed noise as a transnational phenomenon, still seem, somehow, fundamentally misunderstood, read by some as a homogenous block, as extremity for extremity’s sake, as an aesthetic indulgence, or simply as bad art. But Japanese noise, as evidenced by the twenty recordings selected here, and in direct criticism of accusations of homogeneity and extremism, is full of complexity, sensuousness, richness, and vitality. It draws inspiration from multiple, often surprising influences, and it maintains a continuously compelling balancing act between rigorous conception and improvisatory abandon.

While there are several rich histories of Japanese experimentation with music and sound, there are also pretty clear, core starting points for Japanese noise, among them the formation of Jojo Hiroshige’s long-running Hijokaidan (Emergency Staircase), and the beginnings of Masami Akita’s Merzbow project – perhaps the standard bearer for, or at the very least, the most widely visible of Japanese noise acts – both of which started in 1979. Hijokaidan and Merzbow drew from a wide array of influences, key amongst them Krautrock, the heavier end of rock and prog, and free jazz, while Hijokaidan were also informed by what was going on immediately around them, in the Kansai punk / No Wave scene.

Both Hiroshige and Akita have celebrated the moment where rock music reached a level of intensity that transcended ‘song.’ A regularly quoted line from Akita has him wanting to extend the “guitar smashing parts” of rock and prog, while Hiroshige once told writer and academic Alan Cummings that he wanted to form a band that stretched the moments where live rock performance “would pass beyond melodies and phrases into this intense, noisy sound” into an eternity. “I thought that would be the ultimate form of rock.” The result was a magnification of rock’s capacity for maximum sensory overload, focusing in on the split seconds where you’re lost to sound’s ability to psycho-actively erase time.

Through the eighties, Japanese noise gathered steam as key operatives like Merzbow and Hijokaidan self-released their music and tapped into a nascent experimental / industrial music scene worldwide, trading their work – often, and particularly for Merzbow, on cassette, a format which allowed for cheap and small-run reproduction, giving artists the chance to produce and distribute their material quickly, a responsiveness ideal for noise’s creative intensity. Yamatsuka Eye formed his noise outfit, Hanatarash, in 1983 (he would later go on to helm Boredoms for several decades); Kazuyuki Kishino (aka KK Null) made his start in the early eighties; and by the end of that decade, there was a significant number of noise artists in Japan, such as Masonna, Incapacitants, and Violent Onsen Geisha.

The nineties were perhaps the most significant decade for the ‘first wave’ of Japanese noise, though: most of the recordings in this list date from that decade. It’s a significant decade for several reasons, among which is noise’s increased international visibility – Japanese noise was championed by figures such as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and John Zorn. This increase in cultural exchange meant that more was known about Japanese noise and its history, and this access to information, though doubtless riven by misunderstandings, painted a picture of a loosely connected web of artists with unique stories and interests. Incapacitants are bankers and government officials by day, noise artists by night; Merzbow’s Masami Akita was a researcher into fetish and erotic arts, though he is now an animal rights activist; Hijokaidan’s early gigs involved physically demanding performance art; Masonna’s live sets were short, sharp, intensely physical shocks of squealing, hyper-thrilling noise.

As for the releases themselves, well, deep listening reveals an incredible richness of experience and vividness of detail. Japanese noise seems to have an endless capacity for rejuvenation and reformation; some artists work in long-form, with deep explorations of the potential of a single idea or approach, while others favour cut-ups, rapid-fire montage, and mind-wrecking juxtaposition as their modus operandi. The latter work at a velocity that can be genuinely head-spinning, though one thing I’ve noticed, again and again, is the leisurely pace of development of much Japanese noise – there is indeed a kind of calm at the centre of these electrical storms of overloaded equipment. Noise often achieves a state of flow, where it pours out of the performer and their tools. At its best, it can be intensely sensuous, a kind of high-peak amplified ASMR.

Frequency L.S.D. cover

Part of the high-velocity thrill of Masonna is his live performance – there are few noise artists as keyed into the significance of the body as Maso Yamazaki. But at its best, his recorded work still communicates that palpable physicality to the listener, and Frequency L.S.D. is a great example, a series of rapid-fire blasts of contorted vocals and hyperactive FX pedal mangling. In its squirming, plastic tonality, you can, somehow, hear the ghosts of primitive electronics and the deeper, darker end of Kosmische – they’re just flying past you at speed, as though you’re stuck on a bullet train to Armageddon.

Loud Sounds Dopa: Live in U.S.A. cover

Consisting of two 1992 live sets from C.C.C.C.’s US tour – Oakland and Chicago, respectively – Loud Sounds Dopa is one of this quartet’s densest, most overwhelming albums, which is no small feat. At this point, C.C.C.C. were a four-piece, with Mayuko Hino and Fumio Kosakai on electronics, Hiroshi Hasegawa on synth, and Ryuichi Nagakubo on bass. There’s something oddly seductive about C.C.C.C.’s noise – it’s engorged, enfolding, psychedelically eroticised, deeply sensuous even as it smothers you in waves of coruscating sound. The layers created by the quartet seem static, but there’s all kinds of incremental development, slow yet compelling, within their folds.

Missing Volume cover

By the time of Missing Volume, Yutaka Tanaka, aka S·Core, had mastered one particularly compelling thread of international noise – a submerged, claustrophobic sound, not as in-your-face as much Japanese noise of its time, closer perhaps to the immersive worlds of musique concrète and drone music. Missing Volume was one of Tanaka’s final albums, and also the last release on the American label, Zabriskie Point, which released similar music from the likes of G*Park and Hands To. Missing Volume is static and unyielding at first blush, but the combination of percolating, grey-tinged sound masses, and uncertain, unplaceable incidents, is incredibly compelling.

Hepatopolitika cover

A beautifully confounding album, Hepatopolitika was the first major statement by Kusafuka Kimihide’s K2 project, after a batch of self-released tapes (many of which were compiled by the recent Burst After Burst box set). Released on the legendary, mysterious Praxis Dr. Bearmann label, it’s a surprisingly open, spacious collection of material, particularly given the ferocity and density of K2’s later ‘metal junk’ recordings. Here, Kusafuka seems to channel musique concréte’s editorial thumbprint – jarring juxtapositions, disrupted silences, tape cuts – and reframe it within a junk aesthetic, always an admirable thing to do. Other K2 may be ‘definitive’, but Hepatopolitika is extraordinary.

Noisembryo cover

It’s a bit hard to nail down the ‘best’ place to start with Merzbow, partly as he’s released over 400 albums, partly as there are several distinct phases to track through his forty-plus years of dedication to noise. But Noisembryo is as good a Merzbow album as any, indeed better than most; unrelenting and yet hypnotic, somehow flickering with surprising detail, its evocations of crushing steelworks, chemical flammables and drag racing burnouts match velocity with volume. Its textural richness rewards repeated listening, even as its decisive cut-offs and disorienting channel-switching repeatedly jolt your body into unholy contortions. An incredible rush.

Trembling Tongues cover

Solmania was the long-running project of graphic designer Masahiko Ohno, joined in later years by Katsumi Sugahara. Trembling Tongues is the first album to feature Sugahara, and it’s a strong collection of blasted guitar noise sonics – as with Hijokaidan, wrestling with an instrument as tactile and physical as the guitar renders the noise here particularly expressive, and Ohno’s doctored guitars, that often featured extra necks, attached microphones, and other interventions, cut across the five pieces here with plenty of energy, his playing responsive and spirited, sculpting miniature tornados out of feedback and distortion that puncture the thickness of the air.

Selected Noise Works 93-94 cover

While he didn’t release as much music as most of his peers, Shohei Iwasaki of Monde Bruits was deeply involved with Japanese noise: this collection was executive produced by Mayuko Hino of C.C.C.C., ‘conceptualised’ by Merzbow, engineered by Aube, and designed by Solmania. You can hear why he had such patronage, as this is relentless, higher-minded harsh noise, restless in its execution, sprawling over sixty-one incredibly dense minutes of spiralling space-blat. Despite its length – presented as one long track, it’s a marathon – nothing feels extraneous here. Iwasaki goes hard through Selected Noise Works 93-94, and your ears reap the rewards.

The Pornography Of Despair cover

While Akihiro Shimizu (aka Thirdorgan) has made plenty of great noise since releasing his first cassette, The Pornography Of Despair, it stands as his finest ninety minutes of material – it’s no surprise that Dominick Fernow of Hospital Productions recently reissued an expanded version of triple vinyl. Shimizu’s focus on synth noise has The Pornography Of Despair, at times, playing out like a series of mutant tributes to the spiralling blackness of seventies German electronics, but elsewhere, the scratching, furious gusts of feedback situate this one pretty clearly within the Japanese noise lineage. Strangely sensuous, it’s a captivating kind of confusion.

Que Sera, Sera (Things Go From Bad To Worse) cover

Some might swear by the early Violent Onsen Geisha cassettes, and CDs like Excrete Music, but the more playful and ridiculous Masaya Nakahara’s music became, the wilder it truly felt. Que Sera Sera's opening moments jolt from T.Rex samples to a brief blast of clangorous metal-junk noise, to a minute of cheap bossa nova, into a hollow, grim-sounding drone, coupled with sounds of lapping waves. It’s the flip side of the brutish, jolting cut-ups of other noise artists like Merzbow – here, Nakahara has fun with culturally loaded material, rendering noise stranger through smart juxtapositions with the detritus of popular culture.

最終物質 (Saishiyu Bushitsu) cover

An early release for Kazuyuki Kishino aka KK Null, maybe best known as a member of long-running noise-rock group Zeni Geva, Saishiyu Bushitshu must’ve been particularly face-flattening when first self-released in 1985. Two side-long works for guitar, voice, and metal percussion, it’s an unrelenting whirlwind of overheating noise. What’s most impressive is Null’s ability to improvise in the moment; you can hear someone, here, responding in real-time, with lightning-quick moves, to the way these two pieces, “Ultima” and “Materia” are playing out. He’d go on to release a mountain of albums of varying quality; Saishiyu Bushitsu’s ferocity outlasts them all.

Flash-Point cover

The late Akifumi Nakajima, who recorded and performed for twenty-two years as Aube, always seemed like one of Japanese noise’s headiest conceptualists. His albums were often based on thorough examination of one sound source, which allowed for Nakajima’s methodical exploration of the source material’s rich potential. On Flash-Point, one of Aube’s earliest releases, the source material is glow lamps and a voltage controller. The result is a gracefully paced, gorgeously rich forty-five minutes of sinuous drones, with great swarms of buzz and hum ringing out like electricity itself singing in a massed chorus, while the heat of light singes earlobes.

Folk Songs For An Obscure Race cover

A compilation of the earliest music made by Grim, aka Jun Konagaya, Folk Songs For An Obscure Race pulls together Grim’s Folk Music LP and his Amaterasu and Message EPs. They were all recorded and released in the mid-eighties, after Konagaya’s industrial duo White Hospital dissolved; they pick up on some of that group’s interests, but push things further, Konagaya’s songs equal parts martial chant and synth-splatter blow-out. Sometimes the material sits close to classic S.P.K. and other industrial forebears, but as the title suggests, there’s something oddly folksy about Grim’s music too, a deep, devotional melancholy at its heart.

As Loud As Possible cover

For many, Incapacitants are the exemplars of Japanese noise at its most monomaniacally focused –a pure, ear-melting wall of sound. Careful and considered digging into their back catalogue, though, reveals a duo (Toshiji Mikawa and Fumio Kosakai) who are far more exploratory, and nuanced in their approach, than you might expect from first impressions. As Loud As Possible is from their imperial phase, when they really could do no wrong, and it’s a fantastic, excoriating block of noise, swirling with psychedelic density while working towards ecstatic overload, Mikawa and Kosakai weaving notched textures and squalling high-pitched tones across low-end rumble.

Hanatarash 3 cover

Hanatarash are best known both for introducing the world to Yamatsuka Eye and for their incendiary live antics, with driving an excavator through a venue wall the oft-cited peak of their destructive activities. It makes for thoroughly compelling spectacle, though it has tended to overshadow the five albums they recorded, of which 3 is a highlight. The manic, mantric drums on tracks like “9 is 6” re-imagine Klaus Dinger’s ‘Apache beat’, while interjections of fearsome noise, careening cutups and woozy tape edits send everything into a dubbed-out slurry. Riotous, unpredictable live action excerpts seal the deal.

Alphaville cover

Yasutoshi Yoshida, recording as Government Alpha for over twenty-five years, is one of the most eloquent artists in harsh noise; that eloquence, though, builds out of an ability to maintain intensity to the point of exhaustion for the listener. Simply put, a Government Alpha album can feel like a test. Alphaville doesn’t really let up, either, but it has some particularly enticing moments of variation – see the vocal snippets that run through “Clairaudient Isabelle”, which duke it out with a pulsating swoop of sizzling electronics; or the primeval buzz that launches the closing “Enantiodromia”, quickly subsumed under crushing coal-black textures.

While You Were Out cover

On While You Were Out, Kazumoto Endo embraces the potential poetry of cut-up and juxtaposition, while allowing plenty of space for humour. Endo came to wider attention in the mid-nineties, with his Killer Bug project, releasing a handful of cassettes and singles; While You Were Out was his first album under his own name, and it’s a major statement. The real power of While You Were Out is its precision, with Endo aiming for decisive cut-offs, sudden shifts in direction, and surrealist framings: he repeatedly undercuts ‘pure noise’ with samples from pop and dance music, rendering the album uncomfortably odd.

Trashware cover

Trashware is a thrilling early set from Kohei Gomi, aka Pain Jerk. The album was released on Pure, a sub-label of Ron Lessard’s RRR, perhaps the most important label across the ‘80s and ‘90s for bringing Japanese noise to wider attention, though in interviews, Gomi has been at pains to distance himself from ‘Japanese noise’ as genre. On Trashware, Gomi repeatedly pushes his gear to breaking point, as he carves great loops from his base matter of coal-black, heat-mottled tones. Loops, a potent tool in Gomi’s armoury, surface occasionally, only to be beaten down by pugilistic slabs of gritty noise.

Collapseland cover

Koji Tano was a man of many talents – besides making some of the best Japanese noise as MSBR (Molten Salt Breeder Reactor), he also drew manga, and edited his own music magazine, Denshi Zatsuon. There’s a clutch of sublime MSBR – both volumes of Ultimate Ambience; Structured Suicide; Metal Stricken Terror Action – but I find myself returning, often, to Collapseland. It has a hallucinatory ‘thickness’ to much of its sound that Tano never quite achieved elsewhere with such clarity and precision. Plenty of Collapseland passes by at high velocity, but the overarching sense, here, is one of psychedelic depth and intensity.

パンクの鬼 (Tokyo Anal Dynamite) cover

The Gerogerigegege are a conceptual front for artist Juntaro Yamanouchi, with a history and back catalogue that’s pock-marked with bizarre interludes, from the onstage presence of exhibitionist of Gero30, through albums of porn, ambience, and found sound. Tokyo Anal Dynamite is The Gerogerigegege at their maniacal best, a collection of 75 brief noise-punk tracks so frenetic and mind-numbing they meatball into one near-impenetrable wall of noise, broken up by Yamanouchi shouting the titles, and letting loose the classic Ramones ‘one-two-three-four’ calling card. There are covers of Rolling Stones and The Cure in there, too, if your ears squint hard enough.

Modern cover

If there’s a ‘classic’ line-up of Jojo Hiroshige’s long-running noise outfit Hijokaidan, this would be it – Hiroshige on electric guitar, Junko on bass and voice, and Toshiji Mikawa on electronics, which is here named, wonderfully, ‘The Mikawa’, hinting back to similar self-named electronics kit of Simeon of Silver Apples. Indeed, Hijokaidan have always seemed the most rock-reverent and -referent of the Japanese noise groups, something that bleeds through the 74-minute running time of Modern in its hypnotic dynamism, its continuous crests and peaks of sound, and the use of rock-primitive wah and sky-strafing feedback, while Junko’s scream carves up continents.