Graded on a Curve:
Keiji Haino,
Watashi Dake?

Keiji Haino stands as a towering figure in the history of Japanese experimentalism, a guitarist-vocalist celebrated for his consistently evolving yet quickly identifiable and yes, sometimes difficult personal style, but he wasn’t an overnight sensation. In fact, he’d been honing his art in performance for roughly ten years prior to solo debut Watashi Dake? Originally released in a 1,000-copy edition by Pinakotheca in 1980, it reached a wider listenership via P. S. F. in ’93, and it’s currently inaugurating the reissue program of that iconic label by the Los Angeles-based enterprise Black Editions. It’s out on deluxe gold and silver-sleeved vinyl June 16.

The audience for experimental music is never not small, so my discovery of the news that Black Editions would be reissuing a portion of the P. S. F. catalog was met with considerable happiness. Those initials stand for the title of the label’s first release, namely Psychedelic Speed Freaks by High Rise, a Tokyo band who borrowed their moniker from the J. G. Ballard novel.

Many folks (myself included) got hipped to P. S. F. during the period where Forced Exposure was transitioning from a magazine of discerning u-ground tastes into the mail order company that still thrives today. For the final two issues, they were effectively both, and P. S. F., established in Tokyo by Hideo Ikeezumi in 1984, was an enticing component in Forced Exposure’s early offerings.

A big part of P. S. F.’s glory then and now derives from the noise-psych of High Rise, Mainliner, White Heaven, Marble Sheep, the Tokyo Flashback compilation series, and perhaps the most well-known act on the roster, Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U. F. O. But Ikeezumi also traveled more experimental pathways (with some clear overlap), and the king of these journeys is Keiji Haino.

Most noted for his later solo work, the rock duo-trio Fushitsusha, and for numerous collaborations including countrymen Ruins, Merzbow, Boris, and Yamantaka Eye of Boredoms, Haino’s also teamed with varied international personalities ranging from Jim O’Rourke, This Heat’s Charles Hayward, Faust, Derek Bailey, Stephen O’Malley, John Duncan, and Bill Laswell, plus saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Charles Gayle, Lee Konitz, and of course John Zorn.

Haino was part of the broken floodgate of avant Japanese material documented in part through Zorn’s Avant and Tzadik labels in the early ’90s, but the guy had been active since the ’60s, with his inspiration switching from theater to music after having his ass kicked by The Doors’ “When the Music’s Over.” In 1970, he formed the improvisational rock outfit Lost Aaraaff; their recordings appeared on P. S. F. long after Haino exited the group in 1975.

From ’78 to ’80 he performed solo at Minor, a club run by Takafumi Satō in the Tokyo neighborhood of Kichijoji. The crowds were often small but the experience was indispensable to the development of the experimental scene, and when Satō closed the venue’s doors with the intention of starting a record label, he initiated the process that would set Watashi Dake? (which translates to Only Me?) into motion. According to Haino, Satō was at first under the faulty notion that considerable success was in the cards.

Eventually, he came to his senses. Haino also mentions in the lengthy interview with Takeshi Goda (hosted at Black Editions’ website) that when Japanese listeners encounter Watashi Dake?’s opener “My Refuge” they are shocked. Bluntly, that would very likely be the reaction of unsuspecting ears most anywhere on the globe, even in 2017. For a long time, the terms experimental, avant-garde, and noise have been used so casually that uncut examples of the stuff, which this album very much is, will be jarring.

While most of Watashi Dake? is studio based, “My Refuge” is a live recording consisting almost entirely of anguished vocal eruptions, feedback, and silence. There is also a small outburst of piano, and notably accidental, as Haino bumped into the instrument while delivering the performance. It might be tempting to assess the track as a room clearer, or more specifically as an attempt to immediately weed out the lightweights, but the obvious commitment of the performance essentially negates this theory.

The record does settle down as the focus shifts to guitar. “The Disallowed” is repetitive, indeed rhythmic, with the striking of strings initially triggering thoughts of a solo Thurston Moore fused with the lost nature of early Jandek (Haino’s vocal enhances this), and with the association with Corwood Industries the guitarist’s stated goal of a “contemporary country blues” record gets nicely solidified.

After playing with Haino, Fred Frith requested 15 copies of Watashi Dake? so he could bowl over Zorn, Laswell, Henry Kaiser, Christian Marclay, and others, and the unwavering deliberateness of the guitar pattern in “Rise from the Dead” makes it easy to imagine avant-garde socks getting knocked right the fuck off. Ditto: the woozy bent tone, machine gun Bailey-esque flailing and distressed utterances of “Lay It Open,” and the more emphatic vocalizing and squiggly string ripples of “Bring to an End.”

“I Can’t Do It Properly” is a steady barrage of amp shrapnel peppered with emoting, and it’s here that Haino anticipates the deep underground noise stuff that swelled-up in the US underground from the late ‘90s and into the new century. Contrasting, the molasses haze of “More More More” is abstract rather than aggressively noisy, and even culminates with a fade out.

Courtesy of a gnawing guitar line and emotional voice, “Even if I Break Through” reemphasizes Haino’s country blues conception, but it’s filtered through severity comparable to early no wave, which is where the “contemporary” qualifier comes in. “Falling Apart” delivers more sparse abstraction, and one point of comparison is with NYC guitarist (and eventual Haino collaborator) Loren Mazzacane Connors, who at the time was busy recording a series of highly neglected LPs (later compiled on Ecstatic Yod’s CD set Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations Vol. 1-9 1979-1980).

“Try to Come This Far” is a combination of intermittent vocal surges and a ceaseless prickly-wiggly guitar progression, but “Though I Want to Laugh” reveals Haino at his most songlike; the gradually intensifying piece is aptly described as a dirge, and it’s fascinating in how it differs from the rest of the record. It’s followed by the relatively calm vocal, guitar elasticity and abrupt finale of album closer “I Want to Return.”

Altogether Watashi Dake? is a startling debut from one of modern experimentalism’s most singular artists. It kicks off a reissue slate that includes Fushitsusha’s 2nd Live, High Rise II, the first Tokyo Flashback comp and Che Shizu’s A Journey. I can hardly wait.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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