According to Stephen O’Malley, the more artsy half of doom metal overlords Sunn O))), it was a 2006 meeting with Japanese avant rock legend Keiji Haino—via mutual collaborator Oren Ambarchi—that sowed the seeds for their eventual teaming up as a “real-time music” power trio in the Netherlands last year. Performing under the name Nazoranai—”Not Traced” in English, says Google Translate—the three repeated their experiment two more times, with their third concert at Paris’s Gaîté Lyrique on 8 November last giving us this self-titled recording now issued on Ideologic Organ, the Editions Mego imprint curated by O’Malley.

“Maybe it shows,” says the grim robed one, “but the idea was a power trio backing up Haino-san, with a lot of amplification.” He’s not wrong. The format is simple: O’Malley on bass and Ambarchi on drums, with Haino up front on guitar, synth and vocals. Maybe it’s to be expected that he casts a big shadow, though as the 74 minutes of music here progress, it’s one that threatens to swallow the others up whole.

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The record (buy it from Amazon) comprises four lengthy tracks, each with an equally lengthy title as contributed by Haino. The first, the 24-minute “Feel the Ultimate Joy Towards the Resolve of Pillar Being Shattered Within You Again and Again and Again,” kicks off with a blast of reverb-heavy sound hanging in deathly silence. The pervading atmosphere recalls Naked City‘s Heretic soundtrack, though less immediately unhinged. Gradually a nightmarish scene unfolds, underscored by subtle feedback tones and subharmonic bass rumbles courtesy of O’Malley, and Haino’s strangled whispers. The drone is interrupted intermittently by the latter’s sudden yelps, screams and tortured cries between bursts of synth notes, before the bare structure of a song begins to form five minutes in, the keyboard sounds coalescing into something approaching a melody. Ambarchi adds the odd bass drum thud and snare whack to the creeping din, but for the most part his contribution is confined to keeping time with a light cymbal tap.

Somewhere along the way Haino switches to guitar—it’s hard to tell exactly when, as the edges of the tones and timbre blend near imperceptibly—and he begins pounding out a single chord, too slowly to be a staccato riff, before the release comes and he launches head-on into a noise-drenched psychedelic freakout. Then the mood shifts again in the last six-minute section, O’Malley and Ambarchi locking into a pregnant groove while Haino lays on some relatively clean soloing until the fadeout.

Track number two, “Not a Joy to Come Closer but So-called a Sacred Insanity Has Finally Appeared,” is an altogether dirtier proposition from the outset, bursting forth with a wall of sheet-metal blackened noise and a muscular 4/4 beat that quickly shrinks in intensity, bass and drums keeping a minimal rhythm for the nine-minute duration. Haino “sings” more on this number than the others—if one can call his twisted vocalisations singing—but mostly lets his guitar do the talking, all slashes and scrapes and wrangled strings.

This far in, it’s becoming apparent that for a supposed improv trio, only one of them seems to be doing the improvising. Don’t expect too much in the way of “free rock” here as, Haino excepted, they don’t break much from the standard form; neither O’Malley nor Ambarchi really transcend their roles as bassist and drummer respectively.

Better is the intro movement of the third track, “Getting a Bit Blurry/Brush Up Your Cartel and Devote It to Something,” the only part where the three sound like they’re playing equal roles in pulling a sound out of the maelstrom – each flailing away at their instruments freely but always with an ear for what the others are doing. But even at that, there’s one side that begins to dominate the others, and guess who that is? O’Malley and Ambarchi again lock into an unshakable, lurching sort of groove while Haino does his thing, his third of this supposed triumvirate adding the vast bulk of the colour to proceedings.

The fourth and final track comes with an even bigger mouthful of a title: “Not to Leave Everything to the Light Outside of You but to Be Aware of the Prayer ‘What Do I Want To Do?’ That Exists Inside You, and Let That Go Out of You as a Light, Or Things Might Get Worse, No?” On this one, Haino’s echoing wordless chants and plaintive guitar float in the open space before he levitates on sheets of six-string noise, anchored by the rhythm section which itself shows greater signs of life here, even if Ambarchi is only vaguely present in the quieter early section.

More than anything, this recording demonstrates that Nazoranai (band and album) is Keiji Haino‘s show. It’s perhaps understandable for O’Malley and Ambarchi to take a step back and let their hero shine, but I can’t help feeling the music would have benefitted from a stronger presence by the pair, who aren’t exactly neophytes at this sort of thing. Fair enough to both of them, they seem content to play the students to the master Haino. But they should have some confidence in their own abilities and performers to play a less servile role. In this case, their intimidation as fans in the presence of their idol is unnecessarily distracting.

Nazoranai is still a rewarding listen, and is at its best as an exercise in hero worship—and particularly as an intro for Sunn O))) fans and other metalheads unfamiliar with Haino’s work—but it fails as a fully realised project reflecting the talents of all involved. The more I listen, the more I want to know what a more equitable partnership might produce.

MacDara Conroy

Here’s some video of a different performance by the trio:

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