Keiji Haino- Sorcerer
Photographes by Jeff Yarbrough © 1996 (except right picture): Thanks to Mason Jones at Charnal
by Phil FreemanThe club is a well of darkness, a claustrophobic space thick with anticipation. One spotlight falls on the center of the bare stage. Slowly, as a devotee to an altar of his own construction, a man approaches, steps into the white pool of light. He is small, of indeterminate age, but clearly nearing or just past fifty, almost painfully thin. He wears black. All black. A long-sleeved shirt, pants, shoes with long, pointed toes. A few bulky silver rings adorn his fingers; some sort of necklace hangs around his neck. His face is nearly invisible behind long, thick bangs, a curtain of hair which frames his face hanging past his shoulders nearly to his stomach, and huge, opaque wraparound sunglasses. He holds an all-black guitar, cradling it in both arms as though it is almost too much for him to carry.
The wall of amplifiers behind him hiss and puff with that dragon's-breath sound that tells experienced listeners that when the music begins, it will be horrifyingly loud. They screw in earplugs and wait. There is a loud crunch as the frail-looking Japanese man plugs the cord into his guitar. No one speaks. They seem to arch forward as one, waiting. Without looking at the audience, Keiji Haino lifts a hand and strikes the guitar, almost caressing it, and the Apocalypse falls down upon the crowd, the club, the air within the tiny barren space.
Haino's music, whether solo or within a group, is an overwhelming force. It can take unprepared listeners completely off their feet. The sheer volume of his guitar playing, added to the astonishingly raw emotion of his vocals, creates a clear impression that one is witnessing the closest rock equivalent to Primal Scream therapy. In fact, this is partly true; all performances, all recordings, are completely improvised and never repeated.
Haino's performances have many ritualistic aspects about them; he acknowledges the spiritual elements of his music in both his song titles ("(Not at all wanting to) but has become"; "If I had been showered in gold blood, wouldn't my prayer have been answered?") and in his own physical presence and presentation onstage.
He has said in interviews, only half-jokingly, that he dresses in black because if he shaved his head and wore white robes, it would be too close to what he sings about. In many ways he is like a priest, creating gestures and incantations which will bring the spirit to earth, reform the universe, even for only a moment.
One-to-one, by contrast, Haino is not at all the intimidating presence his howling and convulsive performances would imply. He sits crouched over a cup of tea when being interviewed, speaking in a near-whisper. Once involved in a conversation, though, he quickly dispels any impression of being humorless, laughing aloud and making jokes about himself, his fans, and even other artists (doing a perfect impression of Derek Bailey's crabbed, autistic guitar-playing posture, for example).
He claims to enjoy performing for American and European audiences more than for other Japanese. "American audiences are very demonstrative," he says. "If they like something, they let you know; if they don't like something, they boo.
Japanese audiences are very reserved. They applaud politely, but they're also very conservative. If they've heard a CD, that's what they expect. Also in Japan, the audience is almost always mostly critics and other musicians, and hardcore otaku, which is a mixed blessing. The critics treat me very well, they love my work and almost put me on a pedestal, which becomes a problem for me because my fans like that want me to stay their special secret, and I don't really want to remain hidden like that."
Haino's music does seem to reach a few more people each year, though the sheer volume of his discography can often seem intimidating. A new convert who leaves a performance and heads to the record store will be confronted with literally dozens of CD's, some solo, some in collaboration with other artists, and many in group situations.
Haino's solo CD's are often astonishing, excoriating works, sometimes comprising a single extended electric guitar solo which threatens speakers and listener ears alike, while reaching emotional peaks and valleys which can almost bring tears. Among the best of these are Execration That Accept To Acknowledge, released in 1992 through Forced Exposure, Haino's solo debut Watashi-Dake (the title, translated, means "only me") and two releases on Table Of the Elements: I Said, This is the Son of Nihilism and The Book of "Eternity Set Aflame". His duo, or collaborative, performances are often less successful, because the individualism at the heart of his work is muted by the consensus and compromise necessary to successful collaboration. The exceptions are his muted, melancholy duet CD's with Lower East Side guitarist Loren Mazzacane Connors. Each guitarist offers individual notes, at a glacial pace, till the immense sorrow of the music fills the spirit like water dripping from the roof of an impossibly huge and unlit cave.
By far Haino's greatest work, though, has been with Fushitsusha. The first indication of this astonishing avant-rock force was Live II, a double CD on PSF Records. Nearly 150 minutes, the beauty of these thirteen improvised tracks was unprecedented in 1991 (there was an earlier double live album, on vinyl only, which did not reappear on CD until 1997). The record stood alone, Fushitsusha's only full-length disc, until John Zorn produced Allegorical Misunderstanding for his Avant label. That disc, though, was a failure, Haino reining in his guitar till very little of its power remained. Only on AM's final track did the band churn up the kind of soul-drenching wail fans knew they could.
Discs continued to emerge with relative regularity. In 1994, PSF released Pathetique, a full-length studio recording (with English lyrics) which turned the volume back on. And in 1995, Blast First released another double live set, The Wound That Was Given Birth To Must Be Greater Than the Wound That Gave Birth, which was a more traditionally 'rock'-oriented set than Live II or anything else in the band's oeuvre, and was mixed to showcase all three bandmembers (Jun Kosugi on drums, Yasushi Ozawa on bass). Originally released in a limited edition of 500 copies as a special offer with The Wire, it remains one of the band's most powerful statements.
In 1997, an incredible thing happened for Haino, and Fushitsusha. They were signed to Tokuma Japan, one of the country's largest major labels. Haino was given absolute creative freedom, and in two years released eight CD's, all recorded under optimal studio conditions in London. Four Fushitsusha albums resulted from this: A Death Never To Be Complete, The Time Is Nigh, A Little Longer Thus, and The Wisdom Prepared. He also recorded three solo albums and one disc which premiered a new trio, Ayuhio.
Outside Japan, though, he continued to release one album at a time on various labels. In 1998 Charnel Music released Gold Blood, a staggering live CD from a 1996 San Francisco concert. And a few months later, Victo Records of Canada released Withdrawe, this Sable Disclosure Ere Devot'd, a live recording from Fushitsusha's scorching performance at the 1997 Festival de Musique Actuelle, a performance which was originally broadcast live over Radio Canada. Withdrawe,... is one of the trio's most powerful releases, showcasing not only a new depth of near-fury in Haino's delivery, but also one of their most hauntingly beautiful pieces in the 17-minute "Vertigo." The release also introduced new drummer Ikuro Takahashi (Jun Kosugi departed due to family problems, but Haino insists the two remain friends and see one another often).
In 1998, Haino reunited with frequent patron, friend and collaborator John Zorn, releasing one disc on each of Zorn's labels. On Avant, he released an almost jazzy trio recording with Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums, and on Tzadik, he released a double-disc by a new trio, Purple Trap, which featured the unprecedented lineup of Bill Laswell on bass and free-jazz titan Rashied Ali on drums.
The set, Decided...Already the Motionless Heart of Tranquillity, Tangling the Prayer Called "I", displays entirely new aspects of Haino's music. Though his guitar playing is loud and his vocals are forceful, the tone overall is more jagged and angular than Fushitsusha's Neil Young-esque oceans of distortion. Rashied Ali provides a much more active rhythmic impetus than Kosugi or Takahashi, scuttling around Haino's solos with a hail of unceasing and constantly changing suggestions and nudges. Laswell, hardly tested as a bassist since his Last Exit days, comes off as the weakest corner of the triangle, mainly sticking to a fat, dubby tone which often becomes distracting. But the results, particularly on the nearly 31-minute "Continuously Draw a Gentle Spiral...Red Death!", are some of the most intense music Haino has yet produced.
Keiji's sonic quest continues, unabated. This year he will tour the US with Fushitsusha for the first time in nearly three years (rumored shows in 1998 fell through), and a new double live CD by the trio is expected to emerge on the British Paratactile label. Of course, the flood of solo projects and collaborations will continue. And perhaps, one day, the recording of Fushitsusha playing with Peter Brotzmann will see daylight. (Haino acknowledges its existence, but says it's not scheduled for release.) In any case, as long as this enigmatic, black-clad figure feels his soul burning at him from the inside, the music will continue to pour forth, endless waves of howling feedback and wailing voice, till nothing remains unrevealed.
SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY (RECOMMENDED LISTENING)
Watashi-Dake (PSF 1993)
Affection (PSF 1992)
Execration That Accept To Acknowledge (Forced Exposure 1993)
Live (PSF 1997)
Live II (PSF 1993)
The Wound That Was Given Birth To Must Be Greater Than The Wound That Gave Birth (Blast First 1995)
Gold Blood (Charnel Music 1998)
Withdrawe, This Sable Disclosure Ere Devot'd (Victo 1998)
Keiji Haino/Loren Mazzacane Connors (Persona Non Grata 1995)
Keiji Haino/Loren MazzaCane Connors Vol. 2 (Menlo Park 1997)
Decided...Already the Motionless Heart of Tranquillity, Tangling the Prayer Called "I" [as Purple Trap, with Bill Laswell and Rashied Ali] (Tzadik 1999)
Also see our other Keiji Haino article
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