Lounge Ax, May 20

By Monica Kendrick

The first time I saw Fushitsusha, at the Table of the Elements festival at the Empty Bottle last November, I wound up kneeling with my chin on the stage, hallucinating, possibly from the endorphins brought on by the sheer volume. The air smelled faintly of oranges. I felt someone tap my shoulder; I turned around and there was no one there. When I closed my eyes I saw bony, translucent deep-sea fish with phosphorescent glow points and strange head appendages. It occurred to me at the time that I might be seeing the ocean for the cold and chthonic force it really is, a universe away from the gentle lapping waves on the beach that so much allegedly spiritual music seeks to evoke. It reinforced my belief that trance music–the sound track for a soul in dialogue with itself–shouldn’t necessarily be soothing.

That’s a conclusion I found inescapable after the Japanese trio pinned me to the wall for almost two and a half hours more recently at Lounge Ax–with a splendid thoroughness I couldn’t write off to mere sonic sadomasochism. It’s not just that they’re loud, though they certainly are. Nor is it just that their stamina requires an impressive discipline in kind–though I understand three- and four-hour Fushitsusha performances are not unheard of, and their convulsively charismatic leader Keiji Haino cranks out music, both solo and collaborative, at roughly the same rate most of us generate carbon dioxide. It has more to do with their approach, which begins with a minimalist principle, the stripping of a given medium (for Fushitsusha, distorted guitar rock a la Haino’s beloved Blue Cheer) down to its essence (raw power). But that naked core is then paraded, exaggerated, and pushed well beyond its traditional breaking point in a way that can only be called maximalist. Fushitsusha can take a listener to a zone where psychedelia–literally “soul revealing”–doubles back on itself.

For a rock audience used to a simple, rapid, almost programmed series of builds and climaxes, the struggle to follow Haino as he wallops and wails his way through the wall of expectations created by the power chord can be downright painful. It looks like it’s none too comfortable for him, either, but he’s not about to stop, so the listener eventually has to reach equilibrium within–which just might be what Haino’s after. Over the course of a performance Fushitsusha set up, shatter, and rebuild subtle waves of astonishingly quiet sound (enforcing a silence in the crowd that reaches all the way back to the bar), then punctuate and dismantle them with jagged slashes from Haino’s guitar. Occasionally they settle into a comforting, Spacemen 3-style groove, then collapse it in apparent anarchy.

Fushitsusha’s wild swings in and out of a recognizable rock ‘n’ roll order betray a profound familiarity with the medium–one has to know all the rules pretty deep in the bones to break them all so skillfully–but Haino’s operatic voice sounds so anguished and his gestures look so violent that it seems we’re in the presence of a master of control giving it all he’s got to push himself out of control. At least some of the time he succeeds.

Unsurprisingly, not all of this comes through on record; the 1991 live double CD probably comes closest to capturing the range of forms Fushitsusha’s assault can take, from sparse and lovely song to crushing metablues to superheavy-metal power jam, but it’s hard to get a stereo to fill the room the way they do live (and it’s not advisable to try unless you need an excuse to buy new speakers). Perhaps more important, the element of experience is missing. In the liner notes to Haino’s solo CD Beginning and End, Interwoven is the statement: “Keiji Haino experienced singing all songs.” This doesn’t appear from context to be a quirky English translation; Haino obviously wanted to underline the experiential factor.

In fact, the statement veers awfully close to the occultist’s maxim that mysteries cannot be explained, only experienced–hence the necessity of a transformative initiation rite. In all sorts of mystical organizations, from Mexican peyote societies to the Freemasons to the Catholic church, this experience involves symbolic death and rebirth. This, the original spiritual transformation, isn’t about comfort, like real spirituality isn’t about stress management. As Haino commented in an extensive interview with the experimental-music magazine Halana, “There’s all this so-called ‘healing’ music recently–that’s just a joke. What I can’t understand is how the people who make that kind of music believe they can heal people without they themselves experiencing any pain.” They can’t, of course–the notion of painless and convenient illumination, musical or otherwise, is a distinctly lazy-American idea, and understandably Haino, who’s filtering rock ‘n’ roll through a very different culture, not to mention a singular vision, isn’t willing to perpetuate it.

Possibly Haino’s views on pain were forged during his long bout in the early 80s with an illness he’s never identified. After that he began creating a deluge of solo recordings using voice, percussion, hurdy-gurdy, and guitar–and collaborating with Peter Brštzmann, Loren MazzaCane Connors, Barre Phillips, Connie Berg, Alan Licht, Melissa Weaver, Kan Mikami, Motoharu Yoshizawa, as well as Fushitsusha and his other ongoing groups Black Stage, Nijiumu, and Vajra. The vast range of mood and tone and genre on these records suggests an artist devoted to exploring every conceivable aspect of the creative and destructive selves.

At the very least, Fushitsusha’s incessant crescendos push the notion of the “little death,” here the standard climax of rock ‘n’ roll, until it’s beyond huge–which amounts to nothing less than the ritual death and rebirth of rock ‘n’ roll itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Keiji Haino photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.