Fushitsusha: greatest rock band of the 1990s? I think so, but you might want to speak for fucking Pavement or somebody. I can only say for sure that I’ve been obsessed with the work of their leader, Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino, for almost 20 years. I first saw/heard him (and with Haino—who’s got waist-length hair that used to be black but is now mostly grayish-white, and dresses all in black, and never removes his sunglasses ever—the visual element, at least on first encounter, is as important as the auditory element) on a bill with John Zorn, UFO Or Die and some other bands at CBGB, two days before Christmas 1991. Haino performed a solo guitar set that was like nothing I’d ever heard in my life. He wrenched at the instrument, creating waves of feedback and distortion that filled the room like lava, flailing around and contorting himself like the instrument was fighting back. At one point, he pulled the cord from the guitar and began repeatedly stabbing it in and out of the socket, creating a series of sharp, staticky bursts of sound. He was joined for the second half of his performance by Zorn, on alto saxophone, and then by Brutal Truth vocalist Kevin Sharp; the sum total was one of the loudest things I’ve ever heard.
I started accumulating Haino’s music as fast as I could afford it—and remember, kids, this was 1991-92-93. There was no Internet, there was only Forced Exposure and Japan Overseas (RIP) and actual record stores. The first disc I bought of Haino’s was Execration That Accept to Acknowledge, a 40-minute slab of solo guitar similar to the show I’d seen. It was the only thing of his available on a U.S. label, and consequently the only thing available for less than $30. Later, when I had a little more money, I spent it on CDs like his 1981 solo debut, Watashi-Dake?, and Fushitsusha’s mind-roasting two-CD set, Live II. They were a power trio that made an unholy loud noise, sometimes blasting away at punk-rock tempos and other times eschewing steady rhythm entirely, creating free spaces into which Haino hurled massive, wall-like power chords and jagged solos that sounded like Neil Young having a fatal aneurysm while onstage with Crazy Horse.
I kept buying Haino CDs whenever I could, saw another performance, and actually got to meet and interview the man himself in about 1998. That was a singularly weird day; I had to bring both a translator (who was nice, but somewhat ineffectual, since she had no idea what we were talking about) and a chocolate cake, and my recorder didn’t work properly, so I had to piece our conversation together from memory on the train ride home.
In 1999, Fushitsusha finally played New York. The night was supposed to include a Haino solo set, followed by a Fushitsusha set, but he decided to collapse them into a single three-hour performance. It was a mixture of improvised psychedelic noise rock and long droning passages—he’d recently become fascinated with the hurdy-gurdy, and cranked it until it sounded like someone attempting to play a bagpipe with a jet engine. I stood enraptured the entire time, barely able to believe I was really there, watching this band I thought of as gods tearing holes in the fabric of the universe right in front of me.
When Fushitsusha’s drummer quit, Haino did something totally baffling: he moved to the drums himself, and released a CD of a duo incarnation of the band. It was awful. No guitar, just tedious throbbing and clattering and his uniquely anguished, choked vocals. After that, he disbanded Fushitsusha entirely. And while he’s worked in rock band configurations since, including some all-star ensembles featuring members of other Japanese avant-rock groups like Ruins and High Rise, nothing has really had the power of Fushitsusha in their prime. (The single maybe-exception was his cover band, Aihiyo, which released two CDs in 1998 and 2000, the latter of which contains doom-metal versions of the Ronettes‘ “Be My Baby” and the Rolling Stones‘ “Satisfaction” that make Les Rallizes Denudes sound like Belle and Sebastian; that stuff’ll peel the flesh off your skull at 100 paces.)
Seijaku comes closest. This new trio’s first two CDs, released simultaneously on October 11, are described by the label (and presumably by Haino) as containing “21st Century blues,” and there are some blues chord progressions to be heard on a few tracks, but for the most part the music is No Wave-ish stomp-rock. Haino’s guitar is less slathered in feedback and distortion than it was with Fushitsusha, but the improvisatory, wandering feel is the same, and his vocals are as angry and powerful as they’ve ever been.
Mail from Fushitsusha has 11 tracks, and runs just under an hour. It begins with the weirdly foreboding “It Is Not That First Day,” three and a half minutes of near-silence, as though the band is preparing itself and the tape happens to be rolling. Most of the other tracks are jagged and noisy, some slower and creepier than others. It’s a good record, but no single piece lasts long enough to really make an impression—with Haino, more is always more. You Should Prepare to Survive Through Even Anything Happens is the keeper, and it’s also when the “blues” element really comes to dominate the music. It has only four tracks, and runs 41 minutes; the last one, “Showa Blues,” is more than 15 minutes long all by itself. The opening track, “Want to Head Back,” is a huge, monolithic slab of power-trio throb, like Free fed through amps the size of buildings. It runs nearly 10 minutes, and makes me want to see this band play arenas just to hear it at a suitable volume. The second piece, “Keep On Fighting,” is all bass, drums, vocals…and harmonica. Haino blows like a cross between Bob Dylan circa 1964 and a feral kid who found the thing in the trash and is using it to torture a cat. Behind him, bassist Mitsuru Nasuno is going positively wild, yanking at the strings like the instrument owes him money. It’s like if Cactus had a rehearsal scheduled, but everyone decided to take DMT and jam while waiting for the guitarist to show up. Haino sticks to the harp for the third track, “Look Over Here from the Other Side,” and it’s similarly pissed-off and unsettling. “Showa Blues” is the most Fushitsusha-esque song on the whole disc, though Haino’s guitar is cleaner than it was in the ’90s, sounding more like Andy Gill than the post-Hendrix, post-Blue Cheer destructo-tidal-waves for which he’s best known. Drummer Yoshimitsu Ichiraku goes wild, too, battering the kit in a frenzy. The piece surges and recedes like the ocean; Haino croons sometimes, howls in raw-throated rage other times, and the guitar comes and goes like an elemental force that can’t be contained, only suffered.
If you’re a longtime Keiji Haino fan, these two CDs will rekindle your obsession all over again. If you’re a newcomer…welcome to a bottomless pit of blackness and amp-frying, sense-overloading bliss.