Keiji Haino

Keiji Haino has never been seen in public without gigantic, Miles-Davis-in-1969 sunglasses. He has never been seen in public in clothes that are not rigorously formal, beautifully tailored, and black from head to toe. He has never been seen in public in sneakers. He has never been seen in public with his waist-length hair (once a glossy black, now a shimmering gray-white) in a ponytail. When he enters a room, he brings the darkness with him, and the ambient volume seems to drop by five decibels. He is Keiji Haino, 100%, always.

Although Haino’s been making music in his native Japan since the early 1970s, solo and with the group Lost Aaraaff, he really “emerged” as a key figure in the global avant-rock underground in the early 1990s, when a flood of releases began, mostly on the PSF label with a few titles showing up on other imprints. He immediately gained a reputation as an almost shamanic performer, his vocals alternating between a mournful croon and a harsh, choked-off shriek and his guitar delivering bursts of shearing postpunk noise and floods of distortion that fill the room like storm clouds. I saw him live for the first time at CBGB, performing a solo guitar piece at eyeball-vibrating volume that gradually transformed into a duo with saxophonist John Zorn, neither man giving an inch as they attempted to blast the tiny club’s walls down. 

His work is never pure noise in the Merzbow-ian sense, though. There is always a calm at the center of the storm, and a slowly building, almost ceremonial structure to his performances, whether he’s playing just electric guitar or hurdy-gurdy (a stringed instrument operated by turning a crank) or synthesizer, or switching between them over the course of several hours. He will transition suddenly from extremely loud assaults to passages of almost suspenseful silence, and often works with drones, filling the room with rising swells of sound until it seems like even he can’t take the pressure, and he begins to chant and wail. After the fact, pieces will be given long, poetic titles like “If A Billion Curses Already Exist, You Should Draw Out The Billion And First Prayer” or “(Not At All Wanting To) But Has Become” or “Staring At A Point In Time Memorizing. Vowing Never To Return.” Watching one of his performances, it’s easy to find yourself holding your breath, and even some of his CDs, particularly the most overtly ritualistic ones like the all-percussion Tenshi No Gijinka or the electronic Abandon All Words At A Stroke, So That Prayer Can Come Spilling Out can have that effect, a remarkable demonstration of his work’s almost elemental power.

Haino has always been open to collaborations with a vast range of creative partners, from heavy rock acts like Boris and Musica Transonic, where he riffs in an almost metallic fashion, to European improvisers like Derek Bailey and Peter Brötzmann to Jim O’Rourke, Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), and even the Finnish electronic music crew Pan Sonic. He’s also expanded his instrumental palette over the years, developing an interest in solo percussion rituals (cymbals, gongs, tambourines, etc.), then becoming fascinated by the hurdy-gurdy. He’s recorded and performed on synthesizers, drums (electronic and traditional), harmonica, flute, saxophone, and sometimes his voice alone. He approaches every situation with the same intensity, always living in the moment as an improviser but treating each encounter as a chance to explore the darkness that is his chosen territory.

By far his most famous project is his long-running group Fushitsusha, a psychedelic power trio that’s as heavy as any doom metal band but as free as any improvising unit. The classic lineup, with bassist Yasushi Ozawa and drummer Jun Kosugi, were a remarkably attuned unit, Ozawa often serving as a co-lead instrumental voice as Haino’s guitar created vast fields of scorching noise and Kosugi slammed the drums with militaristic fervor while completely ignoring any conventional sense of time. Their 1991 double live CD, sometimes referred to as Live II but also as a self-titled or untitled release, is one of the key documents not just of his work but of 1990s Japanese psychedelic rock in general. Other live albums, like Gold Blood, I Saw It! That Which Before I Could Only Sense…, and Purple Trap, are less universally lauded but every bit as powerful. Somehow, in 1997, Haino jumped from PSF to the Japanese major label Tokuma, and released four stunning studio discs with Fushitsusha — A Death Never To Be Complete, The Time Is Nigh, A Little Longer Thus, and The Wisdom Prepared, the last of which consisted of a single 76-minute track. (He also put out two solo albums, one featuring guitar and the other hurdy-gurdy, on Tokuma.)

Haino’s discography is vast at this point; the albums reviewed below barely scratch the surface of his body of work. But they give a good idea of its scope, while also revealing the thick black through-lines that unify all of it. And he continues to record and perform, bringing a little bit of darkness with him wherever he goes and somehow making the invitation to join him there impossible to resist.

Fushitsusha (Live 2) cover

The ultimate document of Keiji Haino’s legendary band, this epic double CD (nearly 150 minutes of music), often referred to as Live II, features 13 untitled tracks, covering a variety of moods. Disc 1, Track 2 features a monolithic garage rock riff and a pounding beat, strongly reminiscent of Les Rallizes Dénudés; Disc 2, Track 3 is a hardcore punk sprint, with Haino unleashing piercing daggers of feedback (and a surprisingly shredtastic solo) as bassist Yasushi Ozawa and drummer Jun Kosugi blast along like they’re in Discharge; but the album’s emotional heart is Disc 2, Track 1, a nearly 17-minute ballad on which Ozawa’s bass takes a lead role for much of its running time—it takes nearly nine minutes to peak, but when it does, it sweeps you away like a tidal wave.

My Lord Music... cover

This double LP (full title: My lord Music, I most humbly beg your indulgence in the hope that you will do me the honour of permitting this seed called Keiji Haino to be planted within you), recorded live at the L.A. performance space Zebulon in 2019, documents Haino’s continuing love of the hurdy-gurdy. Its nine untitled pieces, some as short as four minutes and others more than 11, rise and fall like waves, cresting but never crashing. There are many entirely instrumental tracks, making it mostly an exercise in drone, though he has truly become a virtuoso on the instrument in the quarter century he’s been playing it; on “B1” he creates a sound like a violin solo echoing out of the Carpathian mountains. The way he’s able to create multiple sounds at once with just one instrument — the hum and wail of the strings, a low sustained drone and a kind of staticky harmonic cloud, plus occasional percussive outbursts as he taps the strings — makes this performance utterly fascinating. The hour seems to pass like a dream, occasionally almost overwhelming in its emotional intensity.

Black Blues (Violent Version) cover

One of two mirror-image albums Haino released in 2004, the “Violent Version” of Black Blues contains six blues covers, sung — or in this case howled and screamed — in Japanese. Here, he’s playing the highly distorted electric guitar that’s his trademark, and forcing the vocals out like he’s passing a particularly barbed stone. As with the acoustic version, there’s a lot of space in the music, but where the “Soft Version” was desperately melancholy, here the silences are ominous, as the listener waits for the next shriek of pain. The closing version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean,” intimate and despairing in its acoustic version, is like a hellish ritual purgation here.

The Meaning Of Blackness cover

Haino is best known as a guitarist and vocalist, but this stunning 90-minute performance, recorded at the Tomorrow Festival in Shenzhen, China in 2016, truly demonstrates the breadth of his artistry. For the record, the full title translates to “The Meaning of Blackness (More Decorous Than Duty Having Become Faster Than Everything A Smile That Was Never Birthed Into The Light).” Divided into two sections of 40 and 50 minutes purely due to the limitations of CD and LP capacity — Haino views it as a seamless whole, which is fair — it includes bursts of staticky noise, an insanely blown-out-sounding electronic drum solo, an interpolation of the Fushitsusha song “Koko,” his trademark choked-off shrieks, and of course wave upon wave of his storm-cloud guitar.

Aihiyo cover

Keiji Haino, cover band singer? Yes! Around the turn of the millennium, Haino formed Aihiyo, a trio with bassist Masami Kawaguchi and drummer Ikuro Takahashi (also a member of Fushitsusha). This self-titled debut album consisted of versions of Japanese pop songs by Ichiro Araki, Naomi Sagara, Seri Ishikawa and others, alongside equally radical reinterpretations of songs by the Animals and the Zombies. The version of Ishikawa’s “Wet Sand in August,” itself a re-recording of a movie theme from the early ’70s, is almost literally stunning; Haino and crew transform its stately, beautiful melody into a nerve-scraping apocalypse, playing it at one-quartet speed through a wall of sheet-metal distortion. On the Animals song, he trades guitar for harmonica as the bassist and drummer turn a blues riff into a life-and-death struggle with the void. The album ends with a beautiful, if dirgelike version of “Between Night And Morning,” originally recorded in 1969 by an androgynous/gender-bending Japanese singer known as Peter.

To Start With, Let's Remove The Colour cover

This album’s cover is gray instead of the usual black, which gives a slight hint as to its tone. Haino is in a quiet, melancholy mood here, playing detuned but not distorted electric guitar in a fumble-fingered style that’s part jazz, part postpunk, and singing softly, almost as if you’re overhearing him. His voice is frequently pushed through a cloud of reverb that makes him sound like a ghost, and pieces sometimes end earlier than you think they will, as if he’s just given up halfway through, or lost his train of thought (the title track lasts only two minutes). On the other hand, there’s “How Did You Know? Mistaken,” which is a half hour long. This is the closest he’s ever come to making a Jandek album.

Decided ... Already The Motionless Heart Of Tranquility, Tangling The Prayer Called "I" cover

Truly embracing the concept of “free rock,” Haino teams up for this one-off double CD, released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, with bassist Bill Laswell and drummer Rashied Ali. His and Ali’s approaches are ideally matched; the drummer is in Interstellar Space mode, delivering repeated waves of snare and tom strikes that do nothing to imply time or forward movement; instead, they shimmer and rattle in place, a kind of cosmic pulsation. Haino takes a similar attitude toward the role of the guitar, sculpting waves of noise so that it never feels like a given “note” or “chord” has succeeded whatever came before; instead, it’s like a sand dune shifting with the wind, constant and yet ever-changing. Laswell is the most conventional structural element, attempting to glue it all together with thick, liquid bass lines. At more than two hours, this is best heard one disc at a time, but it’s a fascinating encounter for sure.

Animamima cover

Keiji Haino is an extremely open-minded improviser, but one with specific creative goals. He throws himself into unexpected contexts all the time, but always brings his essential qualities — darkness, intensity, ritualistic focus — wherever he goes. This unique double CD documents a one-off performance with Sitaar Tah! (punctuation in original), a group of 20 sitar players. Haino himself plays flute, hurdy-gurdy, and shruti box (a bellows-powered instrument similar to a harmonium). The two long pieces — 46 and 51 minutes, respectively — sound like the early section of the Doors’ “The End,” the part where the helicopters are flying in slow motion as the napalm wipes out the landscape, and then the ceiling fan spins overhead and Coppola gives us a close-up of Martin Sheen’s glazed eyes, but stretched out to 90 minutes. And when Haino takes his flute solo, you could remix it into Miles Davis’s “He Loved Him Madly” without difficulty.

American Dollar Bill - Keep Facing Sideways, You're Too Hideous To Look At Face On cover

Sumac is a project led by former ISIS guitarist/vocalist Aaron Turner, with bassist Brian Cook of Russian Circles and These Arms Are Snakes and drummer Nick Yacyshyn of Baptists. In 2017, they wandered into a Tokyo recording studio for a fully improvised encounter with Keiji Haino, which was eventually released as this CD. It’s one of the heaviest items in his catalog, in large part due to Yacyshyn’s thunderous, tribal and not at all free-sounding drumming. He anchors the music to the floor, allowing Turner, Cook and Haino to dig deep and crank out riff after riff, punching through the air with astonishing force as Haino sputters and growls his lyrics. There are only five pieces here, and only one of those is shorter than ten minutes; the opening title track runs nearly twenty, so strap in and take the ride.

Live At Downtown Music Gallery cover

Downtown Music Gallery is a small record store in Lower Manhattan specializing in avant-garde music ranging from prog to out jazz to everything John Zorn touches. They frequently host in-store performances featuring luminaries from the scene; this disc documents the first encounter between Haino and dark ambient post-blues guitarist Loren MazzaCane, from August 1, 1992. It’s a quiet encounter befitting the very small room in which it was recorded, and brief — a single track, less than 25 minutes long. But it hovers like a shimmering cloud just a foot or two off the ground, each man taking turns providing structure to underpin the other’s explorations, whether it’s a simple blues riff or a knotty but repeated melody, and at points they embark on some truly beautiful improvised duet passages.

Tenshi No Gijinka cover

This album, on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, is one of Keiji Haino’s most fascinating releases. It consists of nine untitled pieces for percussion and voice — Haino bashes cymbals, strikes frame drums, and rings bells of various sizes, while grunting and chanting. But what makes it great, and unique in his catalog, is that it’s not a set of one-take improvisations. Zorn, serving as producer, gets him to overdub a second layer of vocals on several tracks, moaning in an upper-register cry as he expels his poetry. The effect is haunting, disorienting, and astonishingly beautiful. Don’t skip this album because you think it’ll be quiet and boring. It’s riveting.

Drawing Close, Attuning – The Respective Signs Of Order And Chaos cover

This album was recorded in London in November 1996; Haino is in the left speaker/headphone, with Bailey is in the right. This could have been a Bambi-meets-Godzilla encounter, with Bailey’s scrapes and pings stomped into the earth by an 800-decibel Keiji riffsplosion, but in fact he meets the Englishman on equal ground, emitting delicate fingerpicked figures. Indeed, the repetitiveness of his contributions, relative to the older man’s scrabbling and squalling, clearly shows which one of them is “order” and which “chaos.” The music does get louder as the 75-minute disc progresses, and almost every track is longer than the one before, from one minute to two to four to nearly ten to two marathon closers, each running roughly a half hour.

A Philosophy Warping, Little by Little That Way Lies a Quagmire cover

Konstrukt are an avant-garde quartet from Turkey who have collaborated with a wide range of free music luminaries including saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Akira Sakata, Marshall Allen and Joe McPhee; bassist William Parker; guitarist Thurston Moore; and many others, both live and on record. In 2016, they invited Keiji Haino to Istanbul for a recording session and a concert, yielding a studio album and a live album, both bearing the same title. On this, the studio document, they draw him into a surprisingly repetitive, groove-oriented soundworld. The opening track, divided into three sections, has an almost Krautrock feel, with looping percussion, echoplexed voices, sax solos, and Haino alternately crooning or shouting. The second piece, another three-part suite, is less structured and more explosive, with Haino’s face-scraping guitar at the center of the storm.

Black Blues (Soft Version) cover

In 2004, Haino released a pair of albums, both called Black Blues and both containing the same six songs — all blues covers (translated into Japanese), climaxing with two versions of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” This acoustic version is, surprisingly, about six minutes longer than the electric version, but a lot of that is long moments of meditative silence, particularly on the songs that pass the 10-minute mark. His acoustic guitar sounds slightly detuned, almost like an autoharp, and is treated with just a little bit of reverb, while his vocals are sometimes whispered into the microphone with incredible intimacy. This is one of the few Haino albums that really must be experienced on headphones.

Withdrawe, This Sable Disclosure Ere Devot’d cover

In 1997, Keiji Haino took his ultimate power trio to Canada for the Festival de Musique Actuelle in Victoriaville, where this incredible performance was recorded. Longtime drummer Jun Kosugi was replaced by Ikuro Takahashi, formerly of High Rise, Ché-SHIZU, Kousokuya and many other groups. He lights a fire under Haino and bassist Yasushi Ozawa as they play ferociously loud versions of old songs (“Hazama,” “Pathetique”) and new ones, building up to the set’s climax, a 17-minute “Vertigo.” Haino’s doomy riffs and extended solos, filled with long sustained notes and thunderstorm-like waves of distortion, recall Neil Young and Crazy Horse at their most unfettered, but his vocals, whether whispered or shrieked, are suffused with a deep spiritual anguish.

Nothing Changes No One Can Change Anything, I Am Ever-Changing Only You Can Change Yourself cover

This nearly three-hour performance from April 1996 was legendary for years; during a 2000 interview, Haino told me that the recording was sadly unreleasable, but it made its way into James Plotkin’s hands and whatever he did to it, the final product sounds amazing. It has a ritualistic quality, beginning with nearly 13 minutes of slowly pounding drums and small cymbals, and Brötzmann doesn’t even show up until hour two, when he unspools long muezzin-like cries as the bandmembers (or maybe the audience?) shout and wail like tormented souls in hell. Bassist Jun Kosugi and drummer Yasushi Ozawa get a lot of room to stretch out, creating a kind of improvised psychedelic jazz-doom. When Haino’s guitar comes in for the first time, around the 20-minute mark, it’s like the fabric of the universe tearing open. This is not an album you can just throw on, or skip around in; you’ve got to take the whole ride.

Saying I Love You, I Continue To Curse Myself cover

This live release on the Blast First label is unique and worth hearing because it’s one of only a few records documenting Keiji Haino’s interest in Indian music and instruments. It features two untitled tracks, the first of which is a 44-minute endurance test. It’s nominally a solo guitar piece, but it sounds more like a calliope or pipe organ pushed through such a thick layer of distortion that it’s like you’re hearing it coming from the next house over while your own house burns down around you. The second piece is its complete opposite: an 18-minute performance on the rudra veena, an Indian instrument that consists of seven or eight strings running across a cylindrical fretboard, with two globular resonators attached. Haino strums the instrument in a steady, mournful pattern while improvising lyrics in Japanese that have a wailing, almost ritualistic quality. It’s a stark and powerful performance, and after what comes before it feels like being washed in cool water.

Execration That Accept To Acknowledge cover

The first Haino album to appear on a US label, this is a solid 42-minute slab of highly electric guitar and pained vocals (sometimes an unearthly shriek, sometimes a mournful moan). It begins with a few gentle chiming strums across the strings, as though he’s drawing your attention to the fact that something is about to happen, and then… the guitar is a storm of sound, sometimes bursting forth like static from a power cable or like someone cutting through a metal garage door with a pavement saw, and other times roaring like a tornado bearing down on a trailer park. Haino grunts and roars as though each new burst of noise is causing him physical pain, but the kind of pain that leads to transcendence. Play this album loud enough and you, too, may emerge from your physical shell renewed and glowing.

Watashi-Dake? cover

Haino’s first solo album was originally released on the Pinakotheca label in 1981, then reissued on CD by PSF in 1993. It opens with five minutes of unnerving solo voice (with a few desolate notes of piano), followed by a string of tracks featuring just electric guitar and emotionally overwrought vocals. Haino sobs and whimpers, strumming as though comforting himself in a pitch-black room. The sixth track, “Umaku Dekinai” (translation: “I Can’t Do It Properly”), is a change of pace: a burst of raw guitar noise over which he chants the title phrase repeatedly, as if having a breakdown. The reissue includes three live bonus tracks, the last of which is a nearly half-hour tsunami of feedback and distortion. 

Imikuzushi cover

Haino has a long-standing trio featuring Jim O’Rourke on bass and Oren Ambarchi on drums; they’ve released an album just about every year since 2010. This, the third in the series, is one of the more sonically overwhelming entries — the cover art, a photo of three knives stuck in a board, is a good indication of the contents. It contains just four long tracks, the shortest running almost 14 minutes and the longest more than 22, on which Haino unleashes endless face-ripping guitar solos and spits out breathless, improvised lyrics as O’Rourke and Ambarchi lay down steady grooves that are motorik-indebted (during the fast, loud parts) and psychedelically dubby (during the slow, quiet parts). There’s a genuine creative bond here, and at its best this band is right up there with Fushitsusha.

Gold Blood cover

This live album, released on the now defunct Charnel Music imprint in 1998, was recorded live in San Francisco in November 1996 and broadcast on Bay Area college radio station KFJC. It consists of five tracks, most of which are brand-new improvisations bearing titles like “The Halation Born Between You And I Who Were Doomed To Appear In Form” and “If I Had Been Showered In Gold Blood, Wouldn’t My Prayer Have Been Answered?” Haino’s guitar is particularly cloudlike, whooshing and shimmering in endless waves of sculpted noise that rarely sound like anything so vulgar as a riff or a melody. Drummer Jun Kosugi plays in a free jazz-inspired style that emphasizes dancing cymbal patterns. That leaves bassist Yasushi Ozawa to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and he’s more than up to it, cutting a Jaco Pastorius-meets-Bill Laswell path through the storm.

Abandon All Words At A Stroke, So That Prayer Can Come Spilling Out cover

This two-CD set from 2001 consists of two long tracks with typically Keiji-esque titles. The first, on which he plays the hurdy-gurdy, a stringed instrument played by turning a crank, is called “Whereto Can I Cast Away This Fragment Echo Called The End, So That I May Summon An Awakening From The Other Side?” and consists of layers of drone with monklike groaning on top. The second is called “I Have Decided to Tear You to Pieces. Whether You Become Light or Darkness Depends on You. I Wonder, Which Shall You Choose?” and is performed on electronic percussion with rage-filled vocals. It sounds like he’s hitting an upturned plastic bucket at times, while at other times he’s creating a “cymbal” sound like a giant piece of sheet metal vibrating in a windstorm, as he growls and sputters. This is ritual music for a religion that hasn’t yet been codified.