What Is Music? @ Annandale Hotel, Sydney, 13/02/2004

This is an older review of mine, presented here for archival purposes. The writing is undoubtedly different to the present, and the review style may differ between publications. Enjoy, if that’s the right word. 

Experimental or avant-garde music is occasionally referred to as “difficult listening”. It’s probably a phrase that was coined by someone after they survived a Fushitsusha gig. Don’t get me wrong – there were many moments of crystalline brilliance – but this was a gig that was always going to require a bit of perseverance.

Fushitsusha are, is, essentially, Keiji Haino. He’s a gargantuan figure in the Japanese music world, though he’s probably got more in common with JD Salinger in terms of his willingness to meet the press or press the flesh. This band is basically his excuse to be the loudest man on earth. From behind wraparound sunglasses, dressed head to foot in black and sporting a haircut so severe that it suggests a goth Ramone pixie, Haino would spend most of this evening playing through a wall of amps pushed louder than any I’d ever heard. Like The Who, Fushitsusha aim to win you over by steamrolling you with the volume of the performance. Unlike The Who, Fushitsusha could easily beat you to death with it. The band currently records as a two-piece, but it seemed that tonight the spotlight was the main man’s alone. Perhaps Yasushi Ozawa knew what was coming. The crowd certainly didn’t.

Punters who’d turned up and were expecting the minimalist joy of Haino’s Tenshi No Gijinka album were about to be rudely awakened. Incense burned as the man took to a stage, darkened except for small lights over guitar effects pedals and a table of assorted beat-boxes and mixing equipment. The beatboxes shuddered into life, powering overdriven kick-drum hits into the stomachs of the crowd – eliciting audible responses from many. Like a wraith, Haino yowled into the mic with a tortured, untranslatable scream of pain. Hair flailed everywhere, and the room didn’t know whether to laugh or flee. It was on. And on Black Friday, no less.

A number of What Is Music? performers mingled through the crowd. Merzbow, Tony Buck, Chris Abrahams, Matthew Chaumont and Mattin – amongst others – circulated, testing the waters from different parts of the room. Intriguingly, the sound of the music played did change, depending on one’s vantage point, but there was – in the end – no escape from its gargantuan, moss-encrusted fingers. The music wasn’t especially easily broken up into parts. True, there were junctures where the crowd could applaud what was going on, but for the most part it seems that Fushitsusha is, like a collapsing universe, aware only of its own existence. The fact that an audience was present seemed merely coincidental: there was no reaction between the crowd and the performer, who seemed lost in his own pained reverie. Alternating between guitar and wild, electronic drum soloing – almost always with that unique banshee wail riding roughshod over the top – Haino played extended improve pieces in half-hour (or so) shards. Basic walls-of-feedback playing suddenly became echoing, psych-rock freakouts that sounded like they were occurring backwards. Moments of gentle strumming – actual chord progressions! – segued into cod-blues, spaz-funk and theremin-accompanied epic soundtracks. It’s difficult to describe the flow as it seemed completely driven by the performer’s grim-lipped whim, but it seemed to all fit – the question was largely whether you were going to survive the onslaught.

It was around the halfway mark when the crowd really began to thin out. For the first time in gigging memory at The Annandale, there was a fair bit of space around me. Getting to the front was simple. The trip to the bar wasn’t filled with spilling-hazards. It was rather disturbing. Around the (very reasonably-priced!) merchandise table, punters interested in bolstering their CD collections acted much as I’d imagine London residents during The Blitz did – as if there wasn’t the sound of destruction all around. Except for the fact that in WW2, doodlebug bombs were never miked and fed through a wall of amps cranked to eleven. It was a strange scene, but it seemed that many in the room shared the same feelings of battle-weariness. It’s difficult to describe the masochism that is sometimes required to get into the groove with the avant-garde, but the Annandale was, tonight, sprinkled with troupers willing to stick it out while others fled.

After nearly three hours of uninterrupted playing, the show came to a close. Haino simply tripped lightly off the stage and fled to the back of the Annandale. Heartfelt – though tired – applause resulted, and the crowd shared a number of “we did it!” looks. The exhaustion was palpable – it’s difficult to say how many people stuck around for the post-gig DJ work because I was, within minutes, flowing like molasses towards my home and my bed. (It’s probably worth noting that my ears were still ringing the next day when I awoke. That’s eitherthe most rockin’ thing ever, or the most terrifying musical injury I’ve ever sustained.)

If the Scouts gave out patches for surviving Fushitsusha gigs, they’d be all-black. And those who’d stayed tonight had – by braving some hellacious noise and discovering some moments of tranquil beauty – earned them thrice over.

First published on Fasterlouder in February 2004.

I still love all iterations of Haino Keiji’s work. He’s someone who’s entirely different from any other artists I’d listen to. He’s continually questing, and while there’s some dodgy spots in his back-catalogue, he’s still churning out great releases – including this one – at a rate of knots which’d put fear in someone half his age. From drone to weird folk to blues covers to harsh noise, the guy’s pretty much done it all. While looking like this: 

Picture: The Wire

Haino at work. Such hair!

There’s an unofficial homepage here which will give you a good idea of how much stuff he’s done, as well as how good some of it sounds. There’s also an excellent interview here, in which he gives a hint to his working process:

This is probably a very Japanese way of putting it, but I’m defying the notion that you can’t create something from nothing. I want to start from zero. When Europeans don’t understand something, they still make an effort to understand it by inventing terms and definitions. I want to obliterate those. That would be enough in itself. I listen to a hell of a lot of music; I’ve listened to most kinds of European music from the 4th to the 20th century. It’s because I like music so much that I want to create something completely different. My basic principle is to start from the very first sound, which is why I describe my music as being something that didn’t exist before.

Right on. 

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4 comments

  1. Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly.
    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.
    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same
    outcome.

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