Graded on a Curve:
White Heaven,
Out

For many music fans, 1991 is defined by the arrival of the second album from a certain Pacific-Northwest band, its emergence precipitating a significant convulsion in the decade’s rock mainstream. But for a smaller percentage of listeners, the studio debut by Japan’s White Heaven delivered a far greater impact, specifically due to an approach to heavy psychedelia that embraced a bevy of classic rock archetypes without blatantly replicating those examples’ auras and occasional missteps. Simultaneously, White Heaven brandished intensity and edge (and avant tendencies) that placed them on the timeline securely After Punk. Black Editions’ gorgeous vinyl reissue of Out is available now.

The comparison in the intro above, specifically between Nirvana and White Heaven, may resonate to some like ye olde underground elitism, but it really just underscores that for those plugged into the subterranean scene at the dawn of the 1990s, Nevermind was no great revelation. This was directly due to numerous bands having already reached back before (and more generally, beyond) punk rock for inspiration, and with the expected varying degrees of success.

This is why the analogy to White Heaven is so proper, as the band, who at the point of Out’s recording featured founding singer You Ishihara, guitarist Michio Kurihara, drummer Ken Ishihara, and bassist Naohiro Yoshimoto, basically perfected a strain of hard psych that was neither gonzo a la the Butthole Surfers nor overly reverent either in form, like those populating the trippy end of neo-garage spectrum, or in spirit, which was to be largely the case with the rise of the Jam Band scene.

Instead of just copping a series of moves, White Heaven registered as if they’d truly absorbed the expansive lessons of their inspirations. There were surely points of reference, with an early comparison likening Kurihara’s guitar to that of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina. I’d read of this similarity long prior to hearing Out (which didn’t happen until it was reissued on CD in the mid-’90s, as the vinyl press was an edition of 500), bit after soaking up the disc’s five tracks the observation was right on the money, though White Heaven was striving for different sonic ends.

This is immediately clear in how “Blind Promise,” Out’s stellar first track, connects like a piledriver of caustic distortion placing it firmly in the era of its recording; simply put, nobody sounded like this in the 1960s, although the sheer rawness can suggest Detroit rather than San Francisco. But as detailed in the terrific promo essay by Damon Krukowski (formerly of Galaxie 500 and half of Damon & Naomi, where he collaborated with Kurihara), there were other acknowledged influences. The one that sticks out to me is Richie Blackmore’s playing on Deep Purple’s Made in Japan.

That’s not exactly the sexiest influence, but White Heaven need not worry about cred. And to my ear, Made in Japan remains a pretty underrated record (I just went back and checked), if not a perfect album, which is relevant to the topic at hand, as Out flaunts Kurihara’s extension of Blackmore’s approach while the band avoids Deep Purple’s indulgences on Made in Japan, such as a drum solo and a 30-minute song.

But Out isn’t all hammer-down pedal-stomping explosiveness, as “Dull Hands” scales it back, slows the pace, and exudes a likeness to late ‘70s New York and to Television in particular. Krukowski’s essay relates the impression various eras of NYC rock had on White Heaven, from the Velvet Underground, to Verlaine and Quine, to No New York, though on side one’s closer “Fallin’ Stars End,” they stretch out and travel a bit northward to my ear, as the moodiness of Ishihara’s singing reminds me a little bit of Jon Richman.

Others have compared his voice to Verlaine, and I can hear a little Richard Hell, too. The point is that White Heaven was stylistically spread-out and healthy, but also focused, as side two opens with another mauler in “My Cold Dimension,” combining a crunching riff with effects-laden squeals and bursts that were just more manic and well, further out than others had traveled before.

This sets the table for the record’s centerpiece. At nearly 12 minutes, “Mandrax Town” (titled “Mandrax City” on the band’s only prior release, the 1988 live cassette Electric Cool Acid) is the disc’s longest cut and also the place where the avant bona fides shine the brightest, in large part through Ishihara’s vocals. For those familiar with Keiji Haino who don’t know White Heaven, it’ll become pretty clear why both fell under the label umbrella of P.S.F. Records, the endeavor of record store owner Hideo Ikeezumi.

P.S.F. stood alternately for Poor Strong Factory and Psychedelic Speed Freaks, with the latter appellation highlighting the stylistic cohesiveness of the label’s output (it’s also the title of another killer record on P.S.F. by High Rise). Out is a sterling example of Ikeezumi’s astute taste as the record’s concluding title-track solidifies the connection to psych-rock’s canon. A few passages suggest a night in a late ’60s San Fran ballroom. An unusually heavy night.

To conclude by touching on one last point made by Krukowski, White Heaven’s Out was shaped in Japan in the long-gone pre-internet days by passionate amateurs. Listening to its wild brilliance can raise the question if all this contemporary connectivity is really doing us any favors.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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