Thursday, December 29, 2011

Les Rallizes Denudes reconsidered

About four years ago, I was waxing ecstatic on this very blog about a recent discovery (thanks to Jon Teague and Julian Cope): enigmatic Japanese psych rockers Les Rallizes Denudes. Cope's Japrocksampler, published that year, had been an eye-opening portal to a musical world I'd never dreamed existed (even though I'd witnessed a performance, at NYC's La Mama Theater, of the Tokyo Kid Brothers' rock musical Golden Bat back in 1970, when I was 13 and had no context in which to place it).

Cope's narrative starts with Japan's vibrant experimental music scene dating back to the early '50s and winds its way through the surf-influenced eleki style and the Brit Invasion-aping Group Sounds movement to the Japanese rock underground that coalesced around the Tokyo production of the rock musical Hair -- which brought together forward-thinking jazz and rock musos for months of rehearsals and relatively few performances (authorities closed the show after only two months) -- and came to fruition in the masterwork of proto-metalheads like Flower Travellin' Band and Blues Creation, inspired genius-madmen like J.A. Caesar and Magical Power Mako, and the sublimely spaced Taj Mahal Travellers.

True, I was less than impressed when I finally heard some of the discs listed in Cope's valuable Top 50 discography. (Speed, Glue & Shinki? Not so much.) But the good stuff was astonishing, and Les Rallizes Denudes in particular were a Rawk obscurantist's wet dream: a band that based its whole sound around White Light/White Heat Velvets and Vincebus Eruptum Blue Cheer, whose recorded output consisted of hideously rare (and pricey) bootlegs.

Les Rallizes delivered on the promise of the feedback, yelling, and Godzilla-roar glissandos on the MC5's Kick Out the Jams: either a freak's delight, or music as endurance contest. They're probably the only band in the world to make amp hum an integral part of its sound. In Japan, they spawned legions of imitators -- Fushitsusha, High Rise, Mainliner, Acid Mother's Temple -- all of them monochromatic and, ultimately, boring in comparison to Les Rallizes.

While their followers pumped up the intensity and velocity of their jams in a kind of noise arms race, Les Rallizes' music derived its impact from the contrast between Takashi Mizutani's feedback guitar blast and the rhythm section's laconic backing, as they repeated Mizutani's primally simple riffs, one per song, for mind-numbing expanses of time. They favored slow and medium tempos, the whole band's sound awash in oceans of reverb, tremelo, and (when they became available) phase shifters. The perpetually black-clad Mizutani hid his eyes behind dark shades, perhaps to protect them from Les Rallizes' seizure-inducing light show -- a shadowy and mysterious figure crying out from the abyss in a sub-Neil Young yelp.

Ultimately, it got to be too exhausting, not to mention expensive, trying to track down Les Rallizes' catalog, and I drew the line at the relatively inexpensive compilation Yodo-Go-A-Go-Go and the live 2CD Le 12 Mars 1977 a Tachikawa, which the Psychedelic Noise from Japan and NZ website hailed as "the ultimate Rallizes and arguably the ultimate Japanese psychedelic document."

The former ultimately proved unsatisfying, as it contained a 19-minute version of "Smoking Cigarette Blues" that was mastered at a considerably lower volume than the rest of the disc, which either meant that the track sounded like subliminal white noise when you listened without adjusting the volume, or like an indistinct maelstrom of dimly-registered whooshing and thumping noises if you turned it up. Yodo-Go-A-Go-Go did, however, provide my first exposure to Rallizes classics like the mid-period Velvet pastiche "Enter the Mirror" and the ominously lumbering "Flames of Ice," not to mention the highly atypical garage rock pounder "Otherwise My Conviction."

Le 12 Mars 1977 a Tachikawa, on the other hand, lived up to its hype, although it took me several spins and a careful reading of Cope's text to deduce that the second and third tracks on Disc One were, in fact, "Night of the Assassins" (on which Mizutani famously appropriated the bass lines from Little Peggy March's early '60s hit "I Will Follow Him") and "Flames of Ice," since not all the song titles on the CD slick were translated. The ten minutes of what I finally figured out was "Deeper Than Night" that opened Disc Two hit like dub psychedelia, while the 25-minute version of Rallizes' customary set-closer "The Last One" that concluded the disc was an exorcism on a par with Coltrane's Ascension.

Recently, a lot of Cope's Top 50 albums, including a couple of the most desirable Les Rallizes boots, have become affordably available, on CD and sweet, sweet vinyl, via Phoenix Records. Don't snooze on 'em too long, or they'll be gone, as is the way of these things.

Blind Baby Has Its Mother's Eyes collects three performances from the '80s that provide examples of what's best and most infuriating about Les Rallizes. The opening title track proves to be an updated version of "Flames of Ice," and is recorded in unusually high fidelity, with lots of separation between the instruments. Cope wrote that this was the same version of the song that appeared on Yodo-Go-A-Go-Go, but that one had a different bass line and Link Wray "Rumble" chords that are absent here. "An Awful Eternity," split between two vinyl sides, has a sustained drum groove that holds its own against the guitars and bass to create an effect like meditating to deep funk. The version of "The Last One," however, is marred by a shrill overlay of shrieking feedback that can be rendered more listenable by boosting the bass, but isn't conducive to repeated spins.

Heavier Than A Death In the Family, #3 on Cope's Top 50, shares three tracks with Le 12 Mars 1977 a Tachikawa, but Phoenix's twin slabs of manhole-cover-like 180-gram virgin vinyl give their sound a depth and immediacy that it lacks on shiny silver discs. The opening "Strung Out Deeper Than the Night" is the same track as the aforementioned "Deeper Than Night," but the closing "Ice Fire" isn't another version of "Flames of Ice" like you might suspect. Rather, it's a whole 'nother side-long catharsis entahrly. Here the feedback isn't an irritant the way it is on Blind Baby's "Last One." Instead, it's cleansing. There's some boss uptempo stuff here, too: "The Night Collectors" is a space boogie you can imagine Hawkwind blaring to the lysergically addled masses at Glastonbury, while "People Can Choose" is a hypnotically frenetic rave-up from '73, sounding like something the Warhol-era Velvets or early Mothers of Invention might have essayed.

Further consumer guidance is available on the Les Rallizes Denudes Record Reviews blog.


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