– random bursts of Japanoise

By: Mattias Huss

What is Japanese noise music? Mattias Huss went to Japan to find out and wrote a tedious thesis about it. Here, on the other hand, is a quick fix of select impressions from the land of rising noise.

Koji Tano of M.S.B.R. with assistant rustling dry leaves by a microphone during this autumnal show.
Photo by: Martin Ekelin

The ideology of noise
The Sixth Bowels of Noise Festival (December 13-14, 2003), hiding among the love hotels in the heart of Shibuya, Tokyo, would be nigh impossible to find without the guiding roar issuing from the building. Here Japanese and American noise bands clash during two days, and two cultures along with them.
American bands Slogun, Control, Richard Ramirez etc, radiate danger and provocation. Thoroughly pierced and muscular, they cling to the political/sexual/provocative tradition of early industrial and noise movement. Although Japanese noise superstar Merzbow could be blamed for the proliferation of bondage and porn imagery in the noise genre, Japanese artists seem to a great degree uninterested with this ideological burden of noise music. M.S.B.R.'s Koji Tano is another of those benign and quiet noise engineers approaching middle age, who are doing SOUND, period.
– This is beautiful music for me, Koji Tano says, referring to his own mix of pummelling earth quake bass, roaring motors and high pitched squeals. There are no specific messages in it. I just love sounds.

A temple of noise. Koji Tano's own (vegetable?) shop with his office at the back.
Photo by: Mattias Huss

The lure of noise
I loved Japanese noise music before I even heard it. In fact, I probably liked it much more back then, as an idea. This was the intelligent person’s black metal, I reasoned, unendurable to any ”ordinary” person, yet somehow highbrow and mysterious rather than forcedly ”evil” and handily linked with the old school industrial scene, which was my territory anyway. According to the magazines, there was this bookish guy named Akita who didn’t talk much, but who would come out on stage and make, like, the MOST EXTREME MUSIC IN THE WORLD. I don’t know what personal issues I might have had at the time, but that really appealed to me.

The corruption of noise
If you want to be a star, you go to Tokyo. Osaka, on the other hand, serves as the DIY garage of Japan. Nearby Kyoto with its then vibrant university life could probably lay the claim to be the origin of Japanese noise music in the seventies, but noisicians with strong ties to the sprawling, industrial giant that is Osaka are numerous. The arguably most important japanoise label Alchemy Records keeps its shop there, with noise music’s finest screamer Masonna as store clerk. The Bears club, run by former Boredoms member Seiichi Yamamoto, and other strange and tiny venues like Bar Noise saw the early steps of Japanese noise terror.
– In the beginning no one was planning anything, Matt Kaufmann remembers, introducing me to another closet-sized music pub in Osaka’s Amerika-mura, a few blocks of second hand clothing stores, youth street fashion chaos and record shops. It was like people were just crazy. They had no image, no plan. Visits by big indie artists from abroad were rare at the time, so when they came everyone went to see them. There would always be some Japanese artist warming up, and people like Masonna or the Boredoms would just kick the asses of the main performers. Yamantaka Eye (Boredoms) was remarkable; he completely turned the way people thought about music upside down.
Matt Kaufmann has lived in Osaka teaching English for around 15 years and covered the scene in fanzines and magazines. Many agree with his opinion that noise music grew stale toward the end of the nineties, when noise bands started trying to sound like other noise bands, pursuing stardom (to the extent that such is possible in this genre) and generally sacrificing creativity for easy bucks.

The shopping and nightlife district Shinjuku in Tokyo where Tano's ahop is located.
Photo by: Mattias Huss

The noise boom
Japanese record labels do not promote Japanese music abroad, or if they do, they do it badly. The ”Sukiyaki” song by Kyu Sakamoto topped the billboard chart in 1963. Since then, Japan has not made much of an impression in the mainstream, despite meagre attempts at marketing female j-pop stars like Seiko Matsuda and currently Hikaru Utada in the US.
The Japanese underground, on the other hand, tends to find its way out by other channels. Some promotional groundwork for the sudden burst of japanoise upon the world was made by musicians like John Zorn, who fell in love with Japanese avant garde and started releasing their music on his own label, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore who even managed to get a snippet of Masonna played on MTV. All the while, a network of dedicated micro labels around the world made their best trying to package and release the maelstrom of material flowing to them from prolific artists such as Incapacitants, Hijokaidan, Merzbow and Aube.
– There was a kind of noise boom between 1992-1996, Yoshiyuki Hiroshige says. The leader of legendary noise outfit Hijokaidan and owner of Alchemy Records, he saw the sales figures for obscure noise bands suddenly rise, only to abruptly fall again when the curiosity generated mainly in America ran out.

Former Merzbow-member Kiyoshi Mizutani likes using natural found sounds. Or should that be golf?
Photo by: Martin Ekelin

During this time, the imagery of japanoise, similar to that prevalent in the power electronics scene overseas in its depiction of deviant sexuality, war and so on, became established thanks to fanzines, posters and record labels eagerly promoting the extreme nature of noise with fitting motifs. This obscured the fact that a large chunk of the Japanese noise performers took their inspiration mainly from psychedelic music and progressive rock, and cared little for industrial fringe ideology.
– We just loved the live euphoria of bands like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix, Hiroshige remembers, trying to explain how the group found their sound. They would really let go on stage with massive walls of feedback and things like that.
What Hijokaidan did was dispensing with melodies, guitar solos and other boring staples of the rock giants and cutting straight to the feedback and orgasmic release of noise from broken speakers. They may have been playing guitars, but to all appearances, it sounded more like the end of the world as we know it.

Yuko Kitamura, or Yuko Nexus6 with her sound gun is part of the new experimental electronica movement sometimes called onkyo.
Photo by: Martin Ekelin

The sound of noise
Layers upon layers of simultaneous sound create a ”pure”, almost anonymous noise. The sound simply is, without rhythms, temporal shifts or any kind of distinguishable patterns. Yet, even this seemingly stable wall of noise changes irregularly. There seems to be no peace here, only a kind of absolute evolving chaos. Still, noise can be good or bad to the individual listener. A good noise performance will open up with patience, revealing new dimensions and layers of significance where you first could hear nothing but a wall of static.
There is nothing Japanese about it. In its purest form, noise music all around the world can be described like that. With globalisation, a Japanese style can no longer be discerned, if that indeed ever was the case. At its core, what fascinated me most about japanoise was the concept of noise music seemingly without a message or an ideology and the zen-like implications of that. Wasn’t it actually a spiritual thing, or maybe an expression of repressed sexuality, or even a political protest? It took me a B.A. thesis to realize that sometimes, you do that kind of thing just for the hell of it. It’s fun, plain and simple.

These days many of the grand old men of japanoise are softening, moving into ambient territory, switching from analogue to digital equipment. Quiet and introspective experimental electronica, represented by the onkyo scene, is bubbling vitally in Japan and around the world. Oh, and more women are making noise, globally. Japanoise is not dead; it’s just changing, interbreeding with the fertile Japanese electronic underground and producing quite remarkable offspring in very different genres.