|

AVANT-GARDE APEX

Sound in all the right places

by Suzannah Tartan

Quality control is something few recording artists manage gracefully. What back catalog doesn’t contain its share of half-realized (or half-baked) ideas or downright duds?

Avant-garde musicians, with their preference for music’s lawless outer fringes, are often the worst offenders: producing masturbation masquerading as music. Thus the recent releases by two of Japan’s leading experimental guitarists, Seiichi Yamamoto and Kazuhisa Uchihashi, are startling both in their diversity and their sheer quality.

Listening to the new albums from Yamamoto, one is left wondering if there is anything the man cannot do. He is involved in so many projects that reporting on Japan’s musical cutting edge is like stalking him. It’s not just quantity either, though Yamamoto has a superhuman ability to record and perform. His projects are apt to be outstanding in their respective genres — or paradigm shifting unto themselves.

The groups he is currently active in include the noise band The Boredoms, perhaps the most important Japanese group since YMO. His other groups, Rovo (with a record due later this month) and AOA, have successfully melded trance, rock and jamming into ecstatic beat-driven dance music. Most, his punk band with singer Phew, finds the fortysomething musician thrashing with the intensity of a teenager. Then there are voluminous recordings of him as an improvisational collaborator, which could easily lead one to think that this is his specialty.

Thus it was difficult to know what to expect from “Crown of Fuzzy Groove,” Yamamoto’s first real solo album. Given his talents, he could have done literally anything.

In a way, he has. “Crown” contains a touch of all of his past projects strung together by Yamamoto’s breezy, confident musical sensibility.

Like most of his recent projects, “Crown” tends toward the trancy, gentler end of his musical spectrum. The pieces are free form, “tracks” rather than songs. His guitar warbles rather than crashes through textured rhythms, flickering in and out of distinct grooves before melting into an organic, psychedelic wash of sound.

Psychedelia is also the root of Yamamoto’s other new album with yet another of his projects, Rashinban. “Hajimari” begins with fanciful hooks that summon comparisons with tropicalia group Os Mutantes. The folky steel-guitar parts recall New Americana bands or the soundtrack from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” while other parts of “Hajimari” sound like the country rock of the Flying Burrito Brothers, but on acid.

Rashinban is perhaps the most radical band in Yamamoto’s stable for the simple reason that the band actually plays songs (which he sings). It is as if, after all of his sonic experiments, the rigor of fitting his musical ideas into the fixed structures of verse and chorus is Yamamoto’s last musical challenge. On “Hajimari,” Rashinban’s fourth album, he succeeds brilliantly.

If Yamamoto’s eclecticism is impressive, then Kazuhisa Uchihashi’s is even more so since almost all of the music he records is improvised. Uchihashi is probably best known as the leader of the jazz-inflected, improvisation project Altered States and as a member of the celebrated Ground Zero with guitarist/turntable artist Yoshihide Otomo.

His new release with Ruins, one of the towering groups of Japan’s experimental scene, is in the same tradition: a dazzling, galloping cacophony of guitar, bass and drums.

His other album, with New York-based vocalist Shelly Hirsch, is another thing entirely. It leaves the listener gasping — could this really be improvised?

First, there is the sheer range of musical ideas the two artists utilize. Some of the tracks resemble off-kilter versions of Schubert’s art songs. Others have the gothic country vibe of late Nick Cave. Humor is one of Hirsch’s most potent tools. With Hirsch delivering quirky, poetic lyrics in a voice that modulates from a guttural growl to a high-pitched wail and Uchihashi’s guitar jauntily skipping in and out alongside her, they could be a postmodern rakugo duo.

Improvisation when it is successful — as this certainly is — has an electricity derived from the almost psychic connection between the performers. However, while listening intently to each other, Uchihashi and Hirsch are also playing for their audience. It is amazing how well this album, recorded during two live performances, manages to be both entertaining and challenging.

There should be plenty of such electric moments at this year’s Festival Beyond Innocence, the music extravaganza organized by Uchihashi for the past six years. Though criminally ignored by mainstream music magazines in Japan, FBI is considered the premier showcase for new music in Japan by critics abroad.

Like past years, this year’s roster includes a diverse number of musicians working in a variety of traditions. Along with Uchihashi and Yamamoto, a frequent festival performer, the guitarists range from the mystical, noise-psychedelia of Haino Keiji to the drier intellectual approach of Taku Sugimoto.

As a preview, Uchihashi is releasing a four-CD set of past festival performances. “Festival Beyond Innocence: A Brief History in 67 Chapters” might intimidate the neophyte, but for the intrepid musical explorer, it is, like the festival, well worth the trip.